HC Deb 09 May 1823 vol 9 cc143-50
Mr. T. Wilson

presented a petition from the Silk-manufacturers of London and Westminster against the statutes of the 13th, 32nd, and 51st of the late king, usually styled the Spitalfields' Acts, which empower the magistrates to fix the wages of journeymen silk-manufacturers, and impose other restrictions highly injurious to the trade. In proof of the evil tendency of these acts, as they affected the workmen, the hon. member stated, that the population employed in this manufacture had of late years decreased. In no part of this manufacture were these laws of any use; and there were many in which they were highly detrimental. The fabric was so fettered and regulated by the statute, that fancy silk goods, in imitation of the French, could not be made in London. As a proof, however, that the trade, which had decreased in London, where alone those laws were in operation, had flourished in other parts of the country, it might be I mentioned, that the value of raw silk annually imported, which, 50 years ago had not exceeded 120,000l. was now upwards of 2,000,000l.

The following is a copy of the.petition:—

"To the honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in parliament assembled.

"The humble petition of the undersigned silk-manufacturers, residing within the city of London, the county of Middlesex, the city and liberty of Westminster, and the liberty of the Tower of London:

"Sheweth—That your petitioners are extensively engaged in the manufacture of silk, within the city of London, the county of Middlesex, the city and liberty of Westminster, and the liberty of the Tower of London, and which manufacture is, in the opinion and judgment of your petitioners, at present so circumstanced, as to require the attention of your honourable House:

"That the silk manufacture of this kingdom, from an inconsiderable beginning, has gradually attained to great importance in a national point of view, supplying to the state a large revenue—supporting a numerous and industrious population—and affording the means of an extensive and beneficial investment of Capital. In the earlier periods of this trade, it had to contend, under the greatest disadvantages, with the rival and favourite manufacture of France. The proximity of the latter country to Italy, her domestic growth of the raw material, and the possession of machinery far surpassing, in its application to silk, any hitherto employed in this country, gave to France, for a long series of years, such predo- minant advantages, as entirely to confine the sale of English manufactured silks within the British dominions. Of late years, however, Bengal silk has been so greatly improved in quality, and so prodigiously increased in quantity, as no longer to leave the trade in its former state of nearly total dependence on Italy. From documents of unquestionable authority it appears that, in the year 1770, the annual supply from Bengal and China was about 100,000 lbs. weight only; that in 1780 it amounted to but 200,000 lbs.; that in 1800 it was 292,585 lbs.; and that in 1820 it had increased to upwards of one million of pounds: which, added to the amount of raw and thrown silk drawn from Italy, will give a total of silk imported into Great Britain, in the year 1820, of 2,547,212 lbs. weight: exhibiting a two-fold increase during the space of twenty years, and greatly exceeding the Consumption of the French manufactories.

"That, important as this manufacture is acknowledged to be, and much as it has recently been extended, it is still depressed below its natural level, and prevented, by existing laws, from advancing to a far higher degree of prosperity than it has hitherto attained; and which, under more favourable circumstances, it would, without difficulty, realize. Possessing, as this country does, access to an unlimited supply of silk from its eastern possessions, an indefinite command over capital and machinery, and artisans whose skill and industry cannot be surpassed, your petitioners hesitate not to express their conviction, that, by judicious arrangements, the silk manufacture of Great Britain may yet be placed in a situation ultimately to triumph over foreign competition; and that silk, like cotton, may be rendered one of; the staple commodities of the country.

"That, in addition to the pressure of heavy duties, imposed on the raw material of this manufacture, the London branch of the trade is further depressed by injudicious and vexatious restrictions on the wages of labour, by which the operations of your petitioners are so fettered and embarrassed, as to compel them to seek relief from your honourable House. By the 13th George 3rd cap. 68, intituled an act to empower the magistrates, to settle and regulate the wages of persons employed the silk manufacture within their respective jurisdictions," and commonly known by the name of the Spitalfields act, the lord mayor, recorder, and aldermen of London, and the magistrates of Middlesex. Westminster, and the liberty of the Tower, are severally empowered to regulate the wages, which are to be paid to the journeymen silk weavers by masters residing within those districts; and that if masters, so residing, employ weavers in other districts, they are liable to ruinous penalties.

"That, by an act of the 32nd George 3rd cap. 44, the provisions and penalties of this statute are extended to manufactures of silk mixed with other materials; and by an act of the 51st George 3rd cap. 7. the provisions for regulating the wages and prices of work of the journeymen weavers, mentioned in those acts, are extended to journey women also.

"That, since the passing of these acts, a great variety of orders from time to time have been issued by the magistrates, interfering in a vexatious manner with the minutest details of the manufacture; such as limiting the number of threads, to an inch; restricting the widths of many sorts of works; and determining the quantity of labour not to be exceeded without extra wages. That from the total omission in these acts of all limitation in point of time, within which informations may be brought, as well as from the impossibility, proved by experience, of bringing under specific regulation the infinite variety of articles to which silk is now applied, penalties may be incurred to an enormous amount, for the breach of some order of which the manufacturer may be totally unconscious.

"That, by the operation of this law the rate of wages, instead of being left to the recognised principles of regulation, has been arbitrarily fixed by the award of persons, whose ignorance of the details of this very intricate and complicated manufacture, necessarily renders them in competent to give a just decision; and the result of this mode of regulation has been to fix the labour of many sorts of goods so extravagantly high, as to drive the manufacture of them altogether from the districts within the operation of the act, to other parts of the country, which are free from magisterial interference. That these acts, by not permitting the masters to reward such of their workmen as exhibit superior skill or ingenuity, but compelling them to pay an equal price for all work, whether well or ill performed, have materially retarded the progress of improvement, and repressed industry and emulation.

"That these acts totally prevent the use of improved machinery; it having been ordered by the magistrates, that works, in the weaving of which machinery is employed, shall be paid precisely at the same rate as if done by hand; thus, while every other branch of our national manufactures, has enjoyed the full advantage of this powerful auxiliary, and while improved machinery: has been kept in full operation, by our foreign rivals, the London silk loom, with a trifling exception, remains in the same state as at its original introduction into this country by the French refugees. Your petitioners beg to state that they are in possession of improved machinery ready to be applied to several important works, but which they cannot use with success or profit, while under the restrictive operation of these acts.

"That the fixed rate of wages which, under all circumstances, the manufacturer is bound to pay, has had the effect of compelling him, whenever a stagnation in the demand takes place, immediately to stop his looms; and the distress consequent on such a suspension of work has been manifested by the appeals repeatedly made by the districts concerned in this manufacture to the charity of the public, and to the aid of parliament.

"That the inevitable tendency of the provisions of these acts is, to banish the trade altogether from the vicinity of the metropolis, strong symptoms of which are manifesting themselves every day. Many works of the first consequence, which would have afforded employment to thousands of hands, have already been transferred to Norwich, Manchester, Macclesfield, Taunton, Reading, and other towns, where they are performed at from one half to two thirds of the price for which under these acts they can be made an London, Westminster, or Middlesex.

"That the removal of the entire manufacture from the metropolis, which your petitioners deem inevitable if these acts be allowed to continue much longer in force, cannot but be considered as a great and extensive calamity, involving the destruction of large capitals, long invested, and hitherto productively employed; and consigning to distress a numerous population, which it would be impossible to remove, and which for a long period has depended upon the London silk manufacture for the means of subsistence. That even if the removal of the trade could be effected without entailing upon thousands the ruin and misery hero anticipated, yet your petitioners respectfully submit to your honourable House, that such an events would still be most undesirable; the neighbourhood of London being, from its proximity to the largest market and to the seat of fashion, the most eligible and. appropriate spot on which this manufacture could be conducted.

"That several of your petitioners were examined on the subject of these acts before the select committee of the House of lords, appointed to inquire into the means of extending the foreign trade of the country in 1821, when, after a full and complete investigation, their lordships are understood to have reported 'that unless some modification takes place in this law, it must be, in the end, ruinous to the silk manufacture of Spitalfields, and as injurious to the workmen, as it will be to the employers; which report your petitioners are informed, was; afterwards laid upon the table of your honourable House, and to which report, and the evidence on which it was founded, your petitioners respectfully beg to refer, in proof of the foregoing allegations.

"That, in the experience of your petitioners, these acts have frequently given rise to most vexatious regulations, the unconscious breach of which has subjected manufacturers to ruinous penalties; that these provisions have prevented the introduction and improvement of all machinery by which labour might have been facilitated and cheapened, and prevent your petitioners from affording relief to their workmen in times of stagnation of trade, by compelling your petitioners instantly to stop their looms; and that the operation of these acts is rapidly banishing what yet remains of the trade in Spitalfields, to places which are free from such restrictions.

"That, notwithstanding these and other grievances to which your petitioners are subjected by the operation of these acts, still it is not so much their desire to seek relief from their operation in the particulars lastly stated, as to be exempted from the arbitrary, injurious, and impelitic enactment which prevents them, while they continue to reside within certain districts, from employing any portion of their capital in such other parts of the kingdom as may be deemed most beneficial; thereby depriving them not only of the fair exercise of their privileges as free subjects, and totally preventing all the public benefit which would arise from a competition between the London and the country manufacturers, but depriving them also of all hope of ever participating in the foreign trade of the Empire.

Your petitioners, therefore, most humbly pray your honourable House, that for the reasons and under the circumstances hereinbefore set forth and referred to, the several acts of the 13th George 3rd cap. 68, the 32nd George 3rd cap. 44, and the 51st George 3rd cap. 7, in so far as they relate to the manufacture of silk, or of silk mixed with other materials, may be repealed: or that your petitioners may have such further or other relief in the premises, as to the wisdom of your honourable House may seem just and proper, and their case may require—

And your petitioners shall ever pray, &c.

Mr. Ricardo

could not help expressing his astonishment that, in the year 1823, those acts should be existing and in force. They were not merely an interference with the freedom of trade, but they cramped the freedom of labour itself. Such was their operation, that a man who was disposed to embark in the trade could not employ his capital in it in London; and, as it might be inconvenient, in many instances to carry that capital out of London, the trade was necessarily cramped and fettered.

Mr. Wallace

perfectly agreed in thinking the acts unjust to the merchant, unjust to the manufacturer, and, above all, unjust to the workmen. He thought them a disgrace to the Statute-book.

Mr. Huskisson

fully agreed in the propriety of repealing the acts. He could only account for the existence of such statutes by their having been passed at a time when the silk-trade was almost confined to Spitalfields. Since the manufacture, however, had been carried into other parts of the country, the provisions of those acts must be got rid of; or Spitalfields would be deserted. His attention had been drawn to the subject almost immediately upon his coming into office; but he had abstained from bringing forward any specific measure, because he wished to convince the manufacturers first of the necessity of an alteration. Some prejudice, and indeed, a good deal, still existed among the workmen; but the House really ought to act for them without reference to those prejudiced. It was his intention, on the earliest possible, day, to submit a motion to the House for the repeal of the acts in question.

Lord Milton

rejoiced in any prospect of getting rid of the obnoxious statutes, and observed upon the absurdity of raising a duty upon raw silk imported. Under the present system, a duty was levied upon raw silk imported, and, on the other hand, a bounty was given upon the exportation of manufactured silks. Now, great difficulty was found in apportioning the bounty, particularly upon goads composed of silk mixed with other material. Would it not be wise, and generally convenient, to get rid of the duty on one hand, and the bounty on the other?

Mr. F. Buxton

gave the petition his decided support, from a conviction that a compliance with its prayer would tend to better the condition of all connected with the trade, and of none more than the workmen.

Alderman Thompson

bore testimony to the pernicious operation of the law, which he hoped to see repealed, and trusted that the trade would be relieved from the duties on raw silk.

Mr. W. Williams

said, that the restraints of the existing law had driven one considerable branch of the silk-trade from Spitalfields to Norwich.

Mr. Ellice

hoped that the parties who supposed themselves interested in the existing restraints would be afforded time to petition.

Mr. Huskisson

said, he would propose his resolutions on Monday, and move for leave to bring in a bill for an alteration of the law, in the different stages of which the parties alluded to would have sufficient opportunity to present their petitions.

Ordered to lie on the table.