HC Deb 16 May 1825 vol 13 cc643-9
Mr. Hobhouse

moved the order of the day for the second reading of this bill.

Mr. Hornby

objected to the bill on account of the interference it went to effect in the apportionment of labour. It was proposed by this bill to reduce the hours of working at present assigned to the children by one-twelfth. At present they laboured in the mills twelve hours on each of the six days of the working week; and this bill went to reduce the twelve to eleven hours. But it was to be observed, that if they reduced the labour of the children, they must reduce that of the adults too; so intimately were their labours connected with, and dependent on, each other. The consequence of this alteration and reduction of the hours of labour would be a diminution in the value of the total annual production of two millions and a half. He thought the House should pause before they took any such step. For his part he protested against the measure, and should move, by way of amendment, "that the bill be read a second time that day three months."

Mr. Hobhouse

contended, that the House had already recognised the principle upon which his bill was founded. They had legislated to protect those who could not protect themselves. A bill of the same tendency had been introduced in 1819, by sir Robert Peel; and on that occasion the right hon. Secretary for the Home Department had properly described it as being perfectly ridiculous to say that the object which it was to effect was an interference with the apportionment of labour by the masters. Now, his desire was, simply, to carry into effect that excellent statute which had long been most shamefully invaded; but he should introduce a clause, on this occasion, to compel the attendance of parties before the magistrates. His hon. friend the member for Preston, had told them, that there would be a diminution, if the bill now before them were to pass, of two millions and a half in the annual production; but, would they allow any consideration of this kind to interfere with a question that involved the health, the comfort, and the happiness of so many children? Those benevolent masters who, with a feeling superior to all considerations of their own peculiar interest, had petitioned parliament in favour of the same object as that contemplated by this bill, had candidly stated, that the increase of machinery furnished increased temptation to the masters of mills to employ children beyond the hours limited by the act. As to the interference complained of, there were already various acts of parliament in which a similar principle was recognized. There were acts, for example, to limit the hours of labour of shipwright's apprentices in Dublin; and yet Irish children, he believed, were quite as strong as those of Manchester. With regard to the medical evidence that had been furnished before a committee, and on which some gentlemen had relied as proving that seventy-two hours' labour during the week, or twelve hours per day, was not too much for a child; what weight could the House attach to the testimony of witnesses, one of whom, a medical gentleman, being asked, whether he thought a child could keep standing, without prejudice to her health, on her legs, for twenty-three hours successively, had answered "That the question was one of great doubt" Another said, that the inhaling of cotton fumes was not injurious to health; and upon being asked why it was not injurious, he answered that the effect was taken away by constant expectoration. Some person then inquired, if constant expectoration was not injurious. "That," replied the medical gentleman, "depends on a variety of facts." It was the dicta of these medical oracles upon which his hon. friend relied for his opposition to the present measure, which was only intended to make the bill of sir Robert Peel effectual, and reduce the hours appointed for labour to the time at which that bill fixed them. That bill had proved inoperative, because there was no cause in it compelling the attendance witnesses, and only two convictions had ever taken place under it. In the best regulated mills the children were at present compelled to work twelve hours and a half a day, and for three or four days in the week were not allowed to go out of the mills to get their meals, which they were obliged to take off the floor of the mill, mingled with the dust and down of the cotton. In other mills they were forced to work fifteen or sixteen hours a day. Now, was it possible for children to live who were daily suffering under an atmosphere, the temperature of which was warmer than our warmest summer days? They scarcely bore any resemblance to their fellow-creatures after being so long subjected to this torture. Their skins were literally the colour of parchment. His hon. friend said, that if the bill passed we should lose two millions and a half of productive revenue. But, ought we to allow a portion of our fellow-subject to be rendered miserable, for such a consideration? No. It would be better to give up the cotton trade altogether, than to draw such a sum out of the blood, and bones, and sinews of these unfortunate children. The legislature was bound to protect them. He had not taken upon himself the task of bringing in the present measure, until he had no hope that any person of more weight than himself, and more closely connected with the manufacturing part of the country, would undertake the measure. His object was only, by adding a clause, to compel the attendance of witnesses, to make sir Robert Peel's bill operative, and reduce the hours of labour to the number originally settled in it.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, he could not support either the original motion or the amendment. He doubted the policy of limiting the number of hours for labouring, as proposed by the hon. member for Westminster. He saw several objections to sending a bill to the Lords altering the number of hours, on the mere statement of the hon. gentleman, however unexceptionable. He concurred thus far; namely, that it was expedient to try the experiment, by rendering what was termed sir R. Peel's bill effectual, and he would give to magistrates a power to summon parties before them, and compel the attendance of witnesses. He would, however, vote for the second reading of the bill.

Mr. W. Smith

observed, that sir Robert Peel's bill, as amended by the Lords, did not allow seventy-two hours in the week, but sixty-nine; the time for Saturday being nine instead of twelve hours. This act had been evaded in the most shameless, barefaced, and inhuman manner. Admitting the whole statement of the adversaries of the bill, there was abundant evidence to warrant the proposed reduction from twelve to eleven hours a day. He was glad that these poor children had found so active and eloquent an advocate, as his hon. friend the member for West, minster.

Mr. Tulk

supported the bill.

Mr. Philips

said, that the whole course of his experience induced him to believe, that this bill would in no degree improve the condition of the labourers. He contended, that those persons who were acquainted with the management of cotton-factories were much better able to judge of what regulations were fit to be adopted, than those who knew nothing about the practical effect of the existing laws. The provisions of sir Robert Peel's act had been evaded in many respects: and it was now in the power of the workmen to ruin many individuals, by enforcing the penalties for children working beyond the hours limited by that act. He was satisfied that the condition of the people working in the factories was much better than that of persons who worked out of them. He had heard only that morning, that the weavers out of doors did not receive more than one-third of the wages paid to the persons in factories; and the latter were besides provided with more convenient and wholesome places to work in. It would be well to limit the hours of children's working, if it were possible; but that was not possible without limiting the labour of adults. The only effect of the measures now attempted would be to deprive the children of work altogether. He was satisfied that no such number of hours as had been asserted were ever used for the employment of children. The evasions of the acts which had already taken place had happened, it was true, in the least respectable mills, where the owners were wholly regardless of public opinion. It was a great mistake to suppose that the labourers of Lancashire were under the domination of their masters, or that they had no will of their own. The effect of this and similar acts of legislation would be to keep up a spirit of hostility between the masters and the men. They had already produced this effect. The hon. gentleman concluded by saying, that he thought this interference extremely unadvisable. The sale and purchase of labour by the workmen and their employers ought to be left wholly unrestricted. The best thing that could be done to effect this object would be to repeal all that had been enacted on this subject.

Sir F. Burdett

said, that he could not but feel the deepest commiseration for the situation of the poor children who were the chief objects of this measure. He agreed with his hon. friend who spoke last, that no legislative interference ought to take place in merely commercial transactions; and that the sale of labour by the workman, and the purchase of it by the master, should be left wholly to their own operation. But, this did not apply to the subject before the House. His hon. friend, and others, who like him were connected with the manufactories, did not like to be interfered with; and yet they could not deny, that before the passing of sir Robert Peel's act, the greatest abuses existed in the manufactories. The result of that act had been to better the condition of all who were employed in them. But, even allowing all that his hon. friend had said in its fullest extent, still there was an end to his principle altogether as applied to children. It could not upon any grounds be contended, that these helpless children should be sacrificed to the avarice and cupidity of their unfeeling parents, and of those by whom their labour was purchased. Those parents, whatever their right might be to receive the profits of their children's labour, had no right to sell them. We heard of slavery abroad; but, good God! had we ever heard of any such instance of overworking, as had been published with respect to the labour of the children in the cotton manufactories? These wretched little beings were, in many instances, employed, day after day, for more than twelve hours at a time. Why, had any man a horse that he could think of putting to such toil? It was shocking to humanity; and it became still more odious, when it was considered that these children, if they chanced to be overpowered by sleep, were beaten by the spinners until they awoke and resumed their labours. If these representations were true—and they remained as uncontradicted—it was impossible to imagine any case which called more loudly for the interference of the legislature. Whatever the House might resolve to do with respect to adult workmen, the situation and the sufferings of the children required to be immediately provided for. He would not, since it was not intended to offer any opposition to the bill in its present stage, detain the House any longer; but he could not resist the first opportunity of expressing the strong feeling he had on this subject, and his earnest desire that children should no longer be treated in this inhuman manner. Such employment of children was scandalous. It was shocking to humanity. He knew not a more crying evil, nor one that called more loudly for the interference of parliament.

Sir P. Musgrave

said, that he would oppose the bill, as far as the four first clauses were concerned; but to the clause which had for its object to render the present law operative he should give his support.

Dr. Lushington

strongly supported the bill, which went to remove a most crying evil. No man, he was sure, who cherished the feelings of humanity, could oppose such a measure, or refuse to rescue the helpless beings, for whose protection it was intended, from the operation of the barbarous system of which they were the innocent victims. The hoe. baronet had said, that he would oppose the four first clauses, but that he would give his support to that which went to render the present law operative. What, however, were those four clauses? The third clause, ran thus—"And be it enacted that from and after the passing of this act, no child under six years of age shall be compelled to work more than eleven hours a day." Now, he put it to any man, who had the least spark of humanity in his bosom, whether he could sincerely oppose such a clause as this. In 1819, a system of things was proved to the House revolting to humanity, and to every principle of British justice. He believed the same still continued. Adults might be permitted to do as they pleased; but he would never consent that children should be devoted to labours which unfitted them for the exercise of the duties of their more mature years, and in many instances brought on premature death.

Mr. J. Smith

agreed, that many of the manufacturers paid the utmost attention to the health and recreation of the children they employed; at the same time, legislation was necessary to prevent malpractices among those who were not restrained by the same feelings of humanity.

Mr. Evans

agreed that, the bill was loudly called for, and, as the proprietor of a large manufactory, admitted that there was much that required remedy. He doubted whether shortening the hours of work would be injurious even to the interests of the manufacturers; as the children would be able, while they were employed, to pursue their occupation with greater vigour and activity. At the same time, there was nothing to warrant a comparison with the condition or the negroes in the West Indies.

The bill was then read a second time.