HC Deb 10 February 1832 vol 10 cc190-5
Mr. Strickland

presented Petitions from persons employed in the woollen manufactures, and from 5,000 of the inhabitants of Halifax, in favour of the proposed Bill for limiting the labour of children employed in mills and factories. The petitioners stated, that the present system of labour by children was carried to such an extent as to be totally destructive to their health, happiness, and morals. He would not attempt to harrow up the feelings of the House by detailing the sorrows and distresses to which these children had been long subject. These would be fully explained, when they were called upon to discuss the Bill to which this petition referred; and he would content himself on the present occasion by asking whether any man of common sense and humanity could endure to hear it stated, without feeling himself called on to remedy it, that unhappy children were closely confined at work thirteen or fourteen hours consecutively, without obtaining time to take that food and rest which nature required. He was, however, happy to think that this evil could be remedied without the limitation of the hours of labour being injurious to the manufacturer. The Bill that his hon. friend was to bring forward, would tend to revive that kindly feeling between the master and operative which was in danger of being totally destroyed, if some measure was not introduced to protect the children of the latter, combinations would be formed among the workmen for their own protection, and the most serious consequences would ensue to the peace and welfare of the manufacturing districts.

Mr. John Wood

said, he perfectly concurred in the necessity and policy of the House interfering to protect those who were unable to protect themselves; but, at the same time, he wished that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee where all parties could be heard, and the House could legislate on its report without having their feelings wrought on by the detail of sufferings, which might be brought forward by those hon. Members who advocated the Bill.

Mr. Hunt

said, the petitioners felt the evils which other people only talked about, and their prayer was, that the House would pass the Bill forthwith without any further reference to the proceedings of a Select Committee.

Mr. O'Connell

feared, from what he had heard, that those persons expected hereafter to receive their present full wages, for the comparatively few hours during which it was intended they should henceforth work. This no doubt was an erroneous supposition, which ought not to remain uncontradicted, for it was evident the masters could only pay for the work actually done, and he had, therefore, felt it proper to make this observation with a view to remove such an impression. He hoped, consequently, that hon. Members would do all in their power to prevent the extension of an opinion which was so much at variance with all equity or fairness.

Mr. Benett

observed, if they were to realize the expectations of these persons, the consequence would be a pecuniary loss to the manufacturers in some respects; but it would be a great gain to them in others; and he agreed with the hon. mem- ber for Preston, (Mr. Hunt) that it was not right that the delay of a Select Committee should be interposed, while the severity of the work of these children was continued with all its attendant cruelty. He, really, could not suppose that any pecuniary loss of the manufacturers was to be put in competition with the sacrifice of the health and morals of these children.

Mr. Strickland

begged to state, in answer to the observations of the hon. and learned member for Kerry, that he had had various communications with the operatives upon the subject, and had informed them that they must not expect to receive the same wages as they now did, if their hours of working were reduced. He was bound to add, that these persons had done themselves very great credit by the manner in which they had received this intimation; their only feeling had been this: "We submit to what may be proposed, only protect our children." As to the propriety of this subject being again sent to a Select Committee, if the hon. member for Preston (Mr. Wood) thought that any important or essential benefit could be derived from, perhaps, the two years' labour of a Committee, he was then bound to show that there were good reasons for adopting such a course. But he was quite persuaded, that if hon. Members would take the trouble of referring to the mass of evidence which had already been obtained, they would be convinced that any alterations which it might be necessary to make in the Bill, could be done as readily by a Committee of the whole House, as by a Select Committee up-stairs.

Mr. Sadler

begged to remark, as the hon. and learned Gentleman had adverted to a misapprehension under which he apprehended these persons labour, that there existed nothing of the kind. There was one thing which they hoped would never occur, namely, a lower rate of wages than what they now received. It was possible that in future this rate of wages might be lower; but he knew they would prefer that reduced compensation, and readily submit to that loss, rather than their children should be over-worked and destroyed as at present; but he had yet to learn when the system of over-working children was given up, that the employer's profits were to be necessarily diminished. He was rather disposed to think that there might, be a doubt, whether, by following up a humane enactment to restrict the hours of work, it might not add to the profits of the most extensive manufacturers. But, he would not enter into the subject further than to observe, that he had been before numerous meetings, some of them attended by 20,000 individuals, when the question had been broadly put to them—namely, "will you consent to a diminution of wages?" The unanimous reply was, that they would abide by the provisions of any legislative enactment which should remove the present evils. They declared, at the same time, that they would overlook all pecuniary considerations, rather than sacrifice (as had been sacrificed in but too many instances) the existence of their children. There was no doubt that these persons had thought and reflected a great deal on this subject, and that they were justified in demanding an improvement in the law.

Mr. Hume

said, the hon. Member spoke as if no other person but himself had any regard to the interests of humanity. He appeared to dread the suggestion of the hon. member for Preston, who said, "Do not decide too hastily, in a matter in which the whole of the manufacturing interest of the country is concerned, but refer it to a Select Committee upstairs." It was to be recollected that the proposed Bill was not of the same character with former ones, for it included in its operation, all manufactories; and would any man say, that all manufactures were equally unhealthy? Or that all mills ought to be placed under the same regulations with respect to the hours of work? When the hon. Member talked about wages, and asked whether they were to be lowered, he forgot that this question involved the consideration whether these people could obtain any wages at all. He had received letters from various persons upon this subject, which proved that the most extensive inquiry ought to be instituted. These opinions were held by persons as much disposed to attend to the calls of humanity as any other individuals whatever. He saw many serious objections to the limitation of the ages of persons engaged in certain employments about mills, and he must therefore entreat the attention of Government to this subject. The House must be, however, aware of the intense anxiety which pervaded the country upon the subject. If they attempted to legislate hastily, the conse- quence would be, applications out of number would be made, and an immense deal of time would be taken up in fruitless discussions. The best way to consult the interests of humanity was to send this Bill into a Committee, where the question could be properly discussed. He would yield to no man in the desire to see the morals and health of children properly attended to, but they were not justified in hearing only one side of the question; the suggestion of the hon. member for Preston deserved therefore the attention of the House.

Mr. Benett

denied, that the manufacturing interest of this country was likely to be destroyed by interference in this case. These helpless children possessed a title to reckon upon their especial care; and it must be also remembered that adults would not work so many hours a day as these poor children were compelled to do. The hardship of young children standing at work for eight hours together without any intermission was intolerable. It was in vain to talk of the parents of these children being content to allow of such a system,—they had no power in the case. Was it to be conceived that any parents could tolerate their children being worked for unlimited hours, and employed in a manner wholly destructive of their health if they could prevent it? He was quite certain, too, that the masters who employed these children did not wish to be instrumental in the destruction of a portion of the younger part of the human race. There was, however, an excessive competition, with a fatal necessity for them to procure as much work for as little money as possible, which the proposed measure might do away. If, indeed, the manufactures of the kingdom could only be supported by means which were opposed to every principle of humanity, then they had better be done away with altogether. He had no objection to the matter being referred to a Select Committee, if any fair ground could be shewn for such a proceeding.

Mr. O'Connell

presumed that the delusion to which he had before adverted existed, for the hon. Member had thrown out a sort of opinion that wages should not be lowered; and he seemed to infer that though the hours of labour were to be diminished, the same wages ought to be given. But it was clearly absurd to expect that the same wages would be given for eight hours work, as was given for sixteen. He was decidedly in favour of the principle of the Bill; but he wished it to be perfectly understood, that the wages for a diminished term of labour could only be paid for at the same rate, by the hour or piece, as was now given.

Mr. Robinson

remarked, when it was asserted that parents had no power to protect their children, it only showed they were suffering from those overwhelming difficulties under which the whole commonalty were suffering, and he feared that no legislative provision to limit the hours of labour would reach the extremity of the evil, but the proposed Bill was a measure of humanity, and it should therefore have his support.

Mr. Dixon

said, there was a clause in the Bill, which enacted, that no person under twenty-one years of age should be allowed to work during certain hours of the night; that would have the effect of preventing competition, and the consequences would be to throw many young men out of employment at that particular time of life when they were best able to labour. They would probably then acquire bad habits, which would continue the remainder of their lives. He thought it was evident this provision required alteration, and he trusted, therefore, the Bill would be referred to a Select Committee.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

agreed with the hon. Member, that such a provision in the Bill must be modified; he was favourable to the intention of limiting the hours of working children, but to them only the operation of the Bill ought to be confined.

Mr. Hunt

allowed, that lads of eighteen were competent to take care of themselves, and that no enactment was required in their behalf, but the case was different with children. No wholesomeness of employment could make up for the cruelty of compelling children under ten years of age, to work twelve or thirteen hours without intermission.

Petition to be printed.

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