HC Deb 26 February 1833 vol 15 cc1160-5
Colonel Torrens

presented a Petition from Bolton, in favour of the Ten-hours Limitation Factory Bill, and also praying that no children under the age of nine years be employed in factories. He observed that many persons were apprehensive that limiting the hours of labour could not but have the effect of increasing the expenses of production; but he would offer to such persons, as the best consolation, the assurance, that the repeal of the taxes on bread would more than compensate them for any increased expenses of production.

Colonel Williams

said, that though he was not connected with the town of Bolton, he had been requested to support the prayer of this petition. He considered this practice of overworking children to be attributable to the avarice of the masters, and he hoped that some means would speedily be devised for putting an end to the grievance.

Mr. Fryer

denied, that the avarice of the manufacturers had anything whatever to do with the question. The excessive labour of the children in factories was occasioned by the Corn-laws, and other such impositions on the labour of the people. When those taxes were repealed, he would cordially support any measure for diminishing the hours of labour from sixteen to ten, but, until that was done, any alteration would increase instead of amending the miseries of the labouring classes. The people of England had long called for a repeal of the Corn-laws; and he could tell the House that if they were not shortly repealed within the walls of Parliament, they would be so from without.

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

deprecated the tone in which the hon. Member spoke. When the hon. Member talked of what the people would do out of doors, he ought to have recollected, that the question of the Corn-laws was one which could never be disposed of in such a manner without endangering a very serious change in the constitution of the country. It was a question at least fully equal to the comprehension of the hon. Member, and one which, unless he was much mistaken, would require the consideration of talent fully as great as the hon. Member could boast of. For his own part he did not think the poorer classes would be at all benefited by any change; but that was a point which he would not then discuss. As to the subject which formed the matter of the petitions before the House, he could only say, that he had always given his support to Mr. Sadler's Bill for reducing the number of labour hours to ten, and would continue to support any hon. Member who might take upon himself to introduce a similar measure in the present Parliament. Formerly it was stated, that the children in factories were only obliged to work twelve hours out of the twenty-four, and even that was deemed an excess; but it now appeared, on the confession of the hon. member for Wolverhampton, that sixteen was the number of labour hours—a confession which he thought ought to gain over many supporters to the contemplated measure.

Mr. Hume

considered the question before the House as one of principle, and he wished hon. Members would treat it as such. The taunt that had been thrown out against the hon. member for Wolverhampton was not deserved, for the fell sure that the hon. Gentleman dealt fairly with the subject before the House. For himself, he repeatedly heard the masters of factories accused of wanton cruelty. They were called brutes, as if they took pleasure in inflicting punishment. He heard this accusation of cruelty with regret, and did not think they deserved it. They were also charged with avarice, and that was by some assigned as a cause for their severity. Now, he would ask one question—were the ordinary profits of capital increased by the exercise of severity? If not, avarice could not be the cause of severity. He did not think that home competition obliged master manufacturers to have recourse to harsh treatment; in his opinion, the chief cause lay with the landholders, and with that House, which legislated for them. To prove this, he would just state that a cotton-spinner in France paid only 33s. per quarter for his wheat, whilst the cotton spinner in England paid 55s. The consequence was, that the English cotton-spinner, to make up for the difference of 22s. was obliged to exact twelve or fourteen hours labour from children, instead of ten hours or less which would be only required if the price of corn was lower. This was the plain cause of the distress of master-manufacturers, as it was of their exacting so much labour from those they employed. Let this corn monopoly be reduced, and not only the distress of the manufacturers would be alleviated, but also the hard treatment which factory children undergo would be put an end to. The consequence of doing away with the corn monopoly would not be to reduce the price of corn in this country, but rather to raise its price in other countries, and thus put the English manufacturer on a footing with the foreigner, and enable the former to compete with the latter on equal terms. If hon. Members had not their judgments clouded by a fear of seeing the price of corn lowered, they would have seen to what cause the harsh usage of factory children ought to be attributed. He entirely agreed with the hon. members for Bolton and Wolverhampton, that if food was allowed to be cheap, the distress of manufacturers would be decreased, and the complaints against the severity they exercised over the children they employed, would be no longer made.

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

begged to state in explanation, that in the remarks he made he had not the slightest intention to throw any odium on the masters of factories.

An Hon. Member

said, that he agreed with the hon. member for Middlesex, that the outcry against master-manufacturers was unjust; and he besides considered that it tended to prejudice the public mind against them. While he made this avowal, he begged also to say, that he did not agree with the hon. member for Middlesex in attributing the distress of manufacturers to any foreign competition. The masters of cotton factories had little or no competition with France. The competition lay at home, between the towns of Lancashire and Glasgow, and other neighbouring Scotch towns. Let this competition be checked by an Act of Parliament limiting the hours of labour in factories. This was the only way to put a stop to the severity of masters towards children.

Mr. Thomas Attwood

could assure the House that no one had a greater objection than he had to the Corn-laws. They were founded, he believed, on false principles, and had been and were the source of infinite mischief. He must be allowed however, to remind his hon. friend, the member for Middlesex, that it was easier to discover the mote in another's eye than the beam in a man's own. His hon. friend charged an hon. Member (Mr. Cutlar Fergusson) with having a bias in favour of land. Now, perhaps, the hon. member for Middlesex had a similar bias in favour of money. Certain it was, that as the value of money had increased in this country, the relative value of land had fallen. The remarks of Members on all those subjects should be treated with candour and generosity. As to the question before the House, he did not deny that those poor children who were employed in factories were cruelly overworked, but let not that be charged on the masters. It was necessity—a grievous necessity—which obliged the masters to grind down those they employed. It was a stern necessity, like that which, in the language of the poet, had once existed in a town besieged. Love, strong as death, retains its might no more, And the pale mother quaffs her children's gore. That it was which induced the parents of those poor children to sell them to this worst description of slavery—to that toil which produced not comfort, but misery. If the hours of labour were restricted, it might be that the children now employed in factories would not derive sufficient for their subsistence from their labour, and in that case they would have to go to the parish for relief. Nevertheless he (Mr. Attwood) was friendly to a Bill limiting the hours of labour, for he considered such a Bill was founded on principles of real political economy.

An Hon. Member

observed that very strong imputations were brought against the master-manufacturers, which he believed were stated for the mere purpose of making an impression. Several attempts were made during the course of the last summer to prejudice and stimulate the public to make cause against the manufacturers; and, amongst others, he might instance the public entry into Manchester, of Mr. Sadler, Mr. Oastler, and other gentlemen, preceded by flags and banners, from one of which ropes were dangling, for the purpose, as was expressed, of hanging the masters. Now, this was a most improper method of proceeding, and to add to the effect of these processional placards, a speech was made at the same meeting, wherein it was stated, at the last day the masters would hear these awful words—" Depart from me, ye cursed." Now, he must say, this was very improper, and he seriously objected to the excitement of such prejudgments as he had witnessed, with respect to the question of infant labour.

Mr. Mark Philips

said, that he was apprehensive lest the same strain of invective should be used in that House, in debating the question, that was used out of doors. He hoped the matter would be discussed dispassionately by hon. Members; and he begged to state, that he was personally acquainted with many great manufacturers, who desired nothing more than that the question should be brought before the House. He lamented that any portion of the wealth of the Aristocracy should arise from, or that any part of the National Debt should be laid on, the bodies of unfortunate children.

Mr. Sheppard

said, that he had made it his duty to inquire among the great manufacturers of the West of England, and he had found that no such exaggerated abuses existed as those so repeatedly mentioned of late. It would surprise those manufacturers very much to find themselves brought before that House as if they were criminals. He trusted that when the question was discussed, those clauses of the Bill would be modified that tended to interfere with the fair profits of the manufacturer. He admitted, that factory children were subjected to much hardship, but it was greatly exaggerated.

Mr. Charles Langdale

was surprised to find, that the cause of working children so hard was by some solely attributed to the Aristocracy. He deprecated the attempts at casting odium on that body, for such attempts were most unjust and unfounded. He contended that if the Corn-laws were repealed, many persons would be thrown out of employment, and the manufacturers would lose their very best customers.

Mr. O'Dwyer

agreed with the hon. Members that spoke on each side of the question, for they all confessed, that there was in the matter ample room for Legislation. He did not think that the masters of factories tortured the infants they employed wantonly and gratuitously. They did so, because by so doing they were enabled to put ten or fifteen per cent more into their pockets. The value of such an argument he left to the House.

Petition to lie on the Table.