HC Deb 27 June 1832 vol 13 cc1054-7
Lord Morpeth

presented a Petition from the county of York, in favour of the Factories Bill, now before the House. It was of such an extent, and signed by so many thousands, that he could not say, in the ordinary language used in the presentation of petitions, that he now held a petition in his hand to which he requested the attention of the House. [The Petition was of an immense size, and lay on the floor, the noble Lord holding the top part of it only in his hand.] The petition was signed by 138,652 names, and he knew, by laborious experience, that it measured 2,322 feet in length. The petitioners complained against the system of overworking children, and prayed for an immediate measure of relief. He had been convinced, from what had already occurred before the Committee, that humanity demanded a speedy corrective to the evils to which the petition referred.

Sir John Johnstone

said, that many of the signatures to the petition had been affixed by parties not acquainted with the working of the factory system, and therefore, were not qualified to form a judgment upon the subject. However amiable, therefore, might be their intentions, as the factory system was very complicated, their recommendations ought not to be implicitly relied on.

Mr. Strickland

felt it as a reproach to this country, that its children were not treated with kindness. The evidence given before the Committee was of a nature to excite the deepest horror, and the evils of the system, it had been proved, notwithstanding exertions to the contrary, had extended to Scotland.

Mr. Sadler

expressed his astonishment at the hon. member for Yorkshire (Sir J. Johnstone). He had thought proper to doubt the capacity of a large class of his constituents, to form a judgment upon this subject. But the hon. Member ought to have known, that besides the agriculturists, the signatures to the petition included the names of nearly 100,000 of the manufacturers of Yorkshire. The present system was shown to have had the most demoralising and degrading effect upon many of the manufacturers, and was in its operation far more severe than any system that had ever been pursued towards slaves. In the British colonies there were regulations to limit the hours of labour for the slaves, and more particularly children, who had not to work more than six hours a day; and with such facts before their eyes, he asked, how it could be tolerated that English children should be allowed to waste their health and lives by intolerable labour in factories? The House might depend upon it, that the hostility to the existing system was founded on feelings that were perpetual, and could not be eradicated from the human breast. These feelings found sympathy in every humane heart, and so little likely were the petitioners to recede from their present opinions, that such opinions were extending every day, and the children were exciting the compassion of the people, not only of the north of England, but throughout the whole of the country. It was, therefore, clear that the measure which he suggested, or, at least one similar to it, must be passed; and as no reason had been assigned for delay, the sooner it was passed the better. Whoever attended to this subject must at once see, that the anxiety of the petitioners was not founded upon local or contracted views, but was based upon humanity, and resulted from the natural and commendable desire to see the working classes healthy, educated, industrious, and contented. He should like to see the Government of the country take up the subject, or, at least, lend a helping hand to this measure of justice and policy.

Sir John Johnstone

wished to explain. He had never doubted the capacity of the agriculturists, but the distance at which many of the petitioners resided from factories, and the little intercourse which they had with the working classes in factories, rendered them unfit to express an opinion upon a point with which they were so little acquainted.

Petition laid on the Table.

Lord Morpeth

said, that acting on the principle, Audi alterem partem, he should then present a Petition of an opposite tendency. It came from the workmen employed in the factory of Messrs. Greenwood and Whittaker, of Burley, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and was signed by upwards of 300 persons, who worked only ten hours in the day. The petitioners expressed themselves perfectly satisfied with the regulations already established, and stated, that they were in the enjoyment of good health. They expressed their apprehension lest the proposed alterations should prevent many workmen from earning sufficient support for large families. He, however, was of opinion, that some regulations were necessary to protect children from being worked too severely.

Mr. John T. Hope

was requested to support the prayer of the petition, and he would add, that ill health and wretchedness were by no means the consequences of labour in factories.

Mr. Sadler

said, that in reference to the petition, he did not by any means wish to depreciate it because it came from workmen, but he wished to remind the House, that it only referred to the case of adults, and to one factory, which, he freely admitted, was well worked. It was also a question how far persons standing in the situation of the petitioners had the means of express- ing their opinions independently. He knew instances in which witnesses were deterred from giving evidence before the Committee of the House, so that great difficulties were thrown in the way of persons who wished to give information on the subject. He was equally certain that difficulties had been thrown in the way of persons wishing to sign petitions in favour of the Bill. Whatever value might be attached to this petition, it certainly could not be put in competition with that which had been previously presented, and which was signed by 130,000 persons.

Lord Althorp

said, the hon. Member had alluded to the owners of mills who had prevented their workmen from signing these petitions. He had the happiness of being well acquainted with several of those gentlemen, and could, from personal observation, bear ample testimony to their character for respectability and humanity.

Mr. Briscoe

maintained, that the comfort enjoyed by the workmen of one factory, was no reason for not passing a law for the protection of children, and even working people generally. Similar regulations to those proposed, had been enforced in favour of slaves. He did not depreciate the value of the petition, but he could not forget that it had only 300 signatures, whilst a petition of an opposite tendency was signed by 130,000.

Petition to be printed.