HC Deb 01 February 1832 vol 9 cc1092-7
Mr. Sadler

said, he had the proud satisfaction of presenting a petition from ten thousand operatives of Leeds, chiefly employed in the factories, praying the House to adopt some means for limiting the duration of the labour of children employed in factories. The petitioners had practical experience of the evils which they sought to avert from the growing youth of this country, and the allegations contained in their petition were, therefore, entitled to considerable attention, upon the grounds of morality, humanity, and the general policy of the country. The petitioners appealed to the justice and mercy of that House, and he felt confident their prayer would not be disregarded, coming as it did from persons who witnessed the sufferings and cruelties practised upon the unhappy and miserable children, who were subjected to the most cursed system that ever disgraced humanity. The petitioners stated, that children were occupied in factories for twelve, fifteen, twenty and sometimes even thirty hours successively, in an overheated and moist atmosphere, and without any relaxation, but a scanty allowance of time for their meals. This was a vicious system in the extreme, and if the victims to it ever survived, it could only be with diminished health, and the utter absence of mental improvement. It was nothing that a few individuals might benefit by this system; for even though the nation benefited by it, that benefit should neither be sought nor continued against the paramount duties of religion and humanity.

Sir Charles Wetherell

supported the prayer of the petitioners. It was, in his mind, altogether imperative on the Legislature, in a moral point of view, to put an end to this system, which, as it now existed, destroyed, not only the bodies, but even the minds, of those children who were subjected to this extorted labour in manufactories. He tendered his best thanks to his hon. friend, for his intention to bring the matter before the House. He was sure it could not be in more able hands, than those of a man, who, like his hon. friend, was actuated by the purest motives of philanthropy, and, had a practical knowledge of the evils which he proposed to remedy.

Lord Morpeth

said, he had been requested by his constituents to support the prayer of the petitioners, which he was happy in having an opportunity of doing. Great anxiety, he would assure the House, existed on the subject before them throughout the population of the great manufacturing districts, and he, therefore, trusted the question would be speedily taken up, and satisfactorily adjusted by the Legislature. To the performance of this great and humane duty they were called, not only by the petitioners, but by their duties as men and Christians.

Mr. Hunt

said, it was unnecessary to make any request to him to support the prayer of this petition, for he had always lamented the practice, the horrible practice, which had so long prevailed in exacting undue and severe labour from the children in the manufacturing districts of this country. He thanked the hon. Member (Mr. Sadler) for having taken up the subject. He knew that in the town of Leeds, the people were devoted to him for his humane efforts in behalf of these poor friendless working children. He should always be most forward to give his best support to measures, which, like that contemplated by the petitioners, promoted the cause of humanity.

Mr. Strickland

said, the Legislature was peremptorily bound to interfere for the protection of the unhappy objects whose case was now before them, and that speedily. The feeling and excitement, prevailing against the injustice and cruelty of the present system, were so very general in the manufacturing districts, that, he trusted, Ministers would support the measure about to be introduced by the hon. member for Aldborough, to abate the evils complained of. The business transacted by children in those factories, was not in itself unwholesome, it was the extraordinary length of time they were employed in this sort of labour that proved so highly injurious to their constitutions. If this were abridged, the improvement, both in the health and morals of the children, would be very considerable; and all considerations of the impolicy of interfering between masters and servants, must give way to the necessity of protecting these helpless objects, who had no other protectors than the Legislature.

Sir Edward Sugden,

felt it was highly necessary that the hours of labour should be limited. He was convinced that nothing would more essentially operate towards the improvement of a good understanding between the labouring classes in these factories and their employers than this manifestation, on the part of the upper class in these districts, of good feeling and kindness towards the lower or labouring order of people. They, as legislators, were certainly bound to provide for the preservation of the health and the prosperity of infants engaged in laborious occupations. They ought to take care that neither the minds nor the bodies of children were too much oppressed.

Mr. Morison

observed, that the cotton manufacturers generally paid the utmost attention to the interests and welfare of the young persons employed by them in the manufactories throughout that part of the United Kingdom with which he was particularly connected. There were, he firmly believed, no children under the age of ten years, employed in these manufactories; and their education and morals were regularly attended to, and the hours of labour abridged. In some large factories, schoolmasters were retained to instruct them. And here he could not, help hazarding a conjecture, that was confirmed by daily experience, that most of the evils experienced in this and other instances, in the manufacturing districts, were indebted for their origin to the effects of the poor-laws of this country. By their operation, a young man frequently bettered his condition by marriage, being then entitled to more relief from the parish. An increase of pauper population was the necessary result, and, to relieve the poor-rates, the young children were dispatched to factories as apprentices, where they were worked like slaves, without compunction or remorse on the part of some of the employers.

Sir Robert Peel

was happy to hear, from so good an authority, that the cotton spinners in Scotland paid so strict an attention to the welfare and health of those confided to their charge, and engaged in their factories. He begged the friends of humanity, in this instance, to beware lest, in their anxiety to accomplish too much for the young persons engaged in this species of manufacture, they should fail altogether, and render the interference of the Legislature altogether ineffective; or, in the alternative, if effective, injuring the poorer classes, by causing them to be thrown out of employment altogether. The hours of labour, as now fixed by law, were eleven hours and a half out of the twenty-four. Whatever might be done by his hon. friend, as to lessening the number of hours, he should be very careful to avoid offering a bonus to such speculators as should perceive it was worth their while to transfer their establishments just over the border, so as to avail themselves of the comparative laxity of the law in one place, while they escaped its provisions in another. He believed that there was no doubt, but that, in proportion as the factories were small, they were the more liable to abuse and unkind severity towards the children employed.

Mr. Croker

hoped the benevolent views of the hon. Member would be extended to Ireland. It was true, she had at present no such large factories as those which claimed the protection of the Legislature in the present case. The day, however, would probably arrive when Ireland might compete in manufactures with the other parts of the empire. It was one of the first duties of good government, to take care of those peaceable and industrious classes who were too severely occupied in earning their daily bread to have leisure to take care of themselves.

Sir Robert Bateson

said, he should support the objects of his hon. friend, and hoped that he would proceed with his measure of relief.

Mr. O'Connell

observed, that the case of these individuals reminded him strongly of that of minors in law, who were the first class of persons confided to that high officer of law and state, the Lord Chancellor. The present was an opportunity wherein sound policy and humanity were legitimately connected, in legislating on behalf of those poor children; and he added his thanks to those already offered to the hon. Member, for having directed attention to such a humane object.

Mr. Sadler

, in moving that the petition be printed, said, that he had petitions from the operatives of Scotland to present to the House, complaining of the system as it existed in that part of the United Kingdom, of employing children in factories. One of the most powerful statements he had seen came from the operatives of Dundee, complaining of the hours of labour imposed on children, particularly in spinning cotton for shirting. The fact was, that Scotland, in that respect, quite as much as any other part of the United Kingdom, required the interposition of the Legislature on behalf of over-tasked and abused infancy, In the Bill which he intended again to bring forward on this subject, he meant to limit the time of labour to ten hours on every day in the week, except Saturday, on which day he would limit it to eight hours. That appeared to him by no means too stringent a limitation; and he had, indeed, been informed by high medical authorities, whom he had consulted on the point, that even such an amount of labour was rather too much for children of the age contemplated by that bill. The hon. Member for Banffshire was of opinion, that the evil was generated by the operation of the Poor-laws, to which he would only at present reply, if there was a superabundant supply of labour in the market, the employment should be equally divided among the entire mass, and not be thrown in an accumulated proportion upon those least able to bear it.

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

admitted that great cause of complaint existed on this head in Scotland, and that it would be absolutely necessary to extend the provisions of the law relating to manufactories in Scotland, to prevent the cupidity of persons taking advantage of the exemption.

Colonel Torrens

was ready to bestow the deserved tribute of praise on the benevolence of the hon. Member for Aldborough; but he feared that it was not sufficiently enlightened by knowledge to effect much good. The causes of distress lay deeper than that hon. Gentleman seemed to suppose; and he must go to the bottom of them, and take measures to remove the pressure which weighed down the labouring poor, before he could do any thing towards their effectual and permanent relief. The poor were distressed, because the tax-gatherer took from them a large proportion of their produce, and because they existed in a country where, on account of the Corn Laws, a great quantity of labour was necessary to get a small quantity of food.

Mr. Sadler

said, that this question involved the interests of suffering humanity, and it was not necessary to recur to the dogmas of political economy to find a just solution of it.

Sir James Macintosh

was anxious to avow himself a political economist; but, at the same time, he differed so far from the hon. Member behind him (Colonel Torrens), that he would not allow even the principles of political economy to be accessary to the infliction of torture, or to set aside the rights of humanity. He was ready to support the proposition of the hon. Member, or the proposition of any other hon. Member who had that object in view.

Colonel Torrens

observed, that he had not said, that he would oppose the measure, which it was the intention of the hon. Member for Aldborough to bring forward on this subject; on the contrary, he should certainly give any such measure his cordial assent. All he had said was, that he thought that the hon. Member did not go to the bottom of the evil, and that unless ulterior measures should be adopted, the distress complained of would not be removed.

Petition to be printed.

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