HC Deb 28 February 1833 vol 15 cc1293-9
Mr. Hardy

presented a Petition from the Borough of Bradford, in Yorkshire, signed by 12,000 inhabitants of that place, praying for the enactment of a law by which the labour at present imposed on children in factories might be diminished and regulated. The petitioners were persons who had every day an opportunity of observing the effects of the existing system; and they were of opinion that commercial prosperity was not to be put in comparison with those effects. He did not wish to cast any stigma on the master manufacturers. He was persuaded that they were ready to afford any convenience or comfort to the children, provided the established number of hours of labour were adhered to. But it was to the great evil of such an adherence that, like other human beings in similar circumstances, they were blinded by their own interests. The question was, if the Legislature of Great Britain were prepared to sanction, for the sake of commercial prosperity, a system which cramped the limbs and destroyed the energies of so large a class of the population of the country. The masters said, that their case had not been heard before the Committee. Even if that were the fact, all that they could gain from its being heard was, to relieve some of them from the imputation of intentional inhumanity. It was impossible to divest the House or the country of the strong impression which had been created by the examination of many of the victims of the system, and by the opinion of medical men, that no human strength was equal to the labour required. He begged leave to press this last consideration upon the attention of the noble Lord who was about to bring forward a measure on the subject; and to assure that noble Lord, that if he added a single quarter of an hour to the time which the medical men had assigned as the limit of healthful exertion, he would not satisfy the expectations of the country; for, let the noble Lord remember, that it was the last feather which broke the elephant's back.

Mr. Strickland

expressed his satisfaction at finding that many master manufacturers had signed the petition—a proof that their interests were not so vitally concerned in the question as to make them heedless of the limbs and health of those employed by them. It was for that House, however, to decide on the question as one of humanity. He could never believe, that this system, which worked poor unfortunate children until their limbs were maimed, and their health was destroyed, could be considered, as advantageous or necessary to this opulent country. The facts brought before the Committee were so strong and unanswerable that although they might go into a long and extensive investigation on the other side, and might prove that some of the master manufacturers were disposed to acts of kindness and humanity, that could never overturn the mass of fearful evidence which had been submitted to the Committee, or the living testimony which the pallid faces and distorted limbs of the wretched victims of the system, who had been brought before them presented.

Mr. Cobbett

thought it was remarkable that nobody had yet attempted to assign the true cause; to show the real necessity for the cruelty of which the petitioners complained. Whenever a Government or whenever a Legislature attempted to interfere in the regulation of labour—to make laws between master and servant, it always failed. They ought to apply themselves to some other cause of the evil which they might hope to remove. They were going to interfere, not between the master manufacturers and the children, but between the master manufacturers and the parents of the children. The children in question were not of age, but were under the care of parents who, it was to be supposed knew best their interests, and were the most feeling judges of the extent to which they should be worked. But they were overworked. The Legislature was going to pass a law, not to compel the master manufacturers to behave less cruelly to the children, but to compel the parents of the children to behave less cruelly to them. It was going to say to the world: "English parents are such cruel beings, that we are obliged to pass a law to prevent them from sacrificing their hapless offspring." It might be said, that the masters had the power of mitigating the evil—it might be said, that with them alone was the fault of working those unhappy beings to a state of extreme misery and disease. They could not, if they would alleviate the evil. Then the crime and the misery rested on the parents! How came it that English parents should be branded with such cruelty? How did it happen, that a people the most humane and the most feeling in Europe, should have such a charge made against them? He hoped that House would never consent to pass any law upon the subject, until a proper inquiry had been first instituted into the causes which compelled English parents to act thus. What, then, was the cause? He would tell them. The cause was to be found in this—that the wretched parents were so ground down by taxation—so loaded and oppressed with taxes, taxes laid on to support the rich, while the rich escaped taxation almost altogether—that they were obliged to stifle the better feelings of human nature, and consent to immolate their children, or suffer them to perish from want. And this was the case, while the rich were permitted to escape almost scot free from taxation. Yes, the parents were so ground down by this disproportionate and most unjust system of taxation, that they must either suffer their children to want, or drive them to the factory to be sacrificed. He would not detain the House any longer than merely to state, that in this matter he pinned his faith on the sleeve of his hon. colleague, Mr. Fielden, a very large manufacturer—perhaps a manufacturer employing more hands than any other in the country. That gentleman knew the subject well; much better than he did, for he knew nothing about it. He did not say he was ignorant of the cause. No, no; he did not say that, but that he knew nothing of a spinning jenny, and of the practical operation of power looms, and such things; but he knew the cause which drove fathers and mothers to be cruel towards their children, and that was, the unequal and severe pressure of a grinding taxation.

Mr. Methuen

said, the only object of the hon. Member who had just sat down, appeared to be to set the poor against the rich, and create animosity between the different orders of society. This sort of language was not then heard for the first time, for the same hon. Member had published it in Political Registers, and vomited it forth in twopenny trash. Very often, for hour after hour, and night after night, the hon. Member had gone on in that strain, as if his sole object was, to make it appear that the rich entirely disregarded the comforts and happiness of the poor. The hon. Gentleman admitted that. What object could he have in such a course of proceeding? He was constantly introducing the subject—never moving his ground, but going round the same space like a certain animal in a pound, and this merely to endeavour to cast obloquy and hatred on one class of society. He begged leave to say, that he and those about him were as much the friends of the poor as the hon. Member professed himself to be—that they had their interests and welfare at heart equally with those who talked so much about them. If the object of the hon. Member was not to sow dissension between rich and poor, its only end, if persevered in would be to involve the whole of England in convulsion.

Mr. O'Connell

hoped the hon. member for Oldham had not merited the rebuke which had been uttered by the last speaker, more especially as his remarks had been founded on statements which had not yet been contradicted. He had demonstrated out of Acts of Parliament, that the taxation on the poor of this country was infinitely greater than on the rich; and this had been done in so clear, plain, and simple a manner that even the noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with his wonted candour had admitted the injustice of the system, and pointed out the Assessed taxes as another instance of a similar inequality. To their credit would it be, to join the hon. member for Oldham in getting these inequalities removed. As to what had fallen from the hon. Gentleman who had last spoken on the subject of certain publications, he believed that his hon. friend the member for Oldham was as much entitled to circulate his own opinions out of that House as any other man, and it redounded highly to his honour that by his own intellectual powers alone—by the aid of a pen, at all times ready, on all occasions powerful—he said, it was creditable in the highest degree to the hon. member for Oldham that, unaided by any one, or any thing, except his own talent, his own industry, and his own perseverance, he had raised himself from the very humble situation in which he originally moved, to the proud station which he at that moment occupied. In no other country, probably, but in England, could such a circumstance have happened [cheers]. He heartily concurred in that cordial cheer, he received it gratefully; it was a just and proper acknowledgment, for he believed, and readily admitted, that there was not any other country in Europe, but this, where a man originally so low, could unfriended and unassisted, exalt himself to the high situation which the hon. member for Oldham at present filled. It was the greatest eulogium that could be passed on the country. Instead of the hon. Member's anger being raised at the two-penny trash, his good-will should be extended to it, for really these cheap publications might contain more wisdom and more wit than large tomes richly bound, splendidly emblazoned, and loaded with engravings. Nay, patronage was bestowed in these days on cheaper publications than the two-penny trash—it was extended even to a penny publication, and instead of meeting with disparagement the greatest man in his profession had actively exerted himself to distribute knowledge in this way. With respect to the factory question, he thought the House ought to interfere for the protection of the children of the poor.

Lord Althorp

rose to make one or two remarks on what had fallen from the hon. members for Dublin and Oldham. The hon. member for Oldham had stated on a former occasion, that the poor paid in taxes forty times as much as the rich, and he had brought forward some resolutions which were founded upon that statement. Those resolutions, however, had been brought before the House, without any previous notice, and the hon. Member himself had so clearly seen the inconvenience of fully discussing them under such circumstances, that he had consented to withdraw them. The hon. and learned member for Dublin, however, had now stated to the House, that he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) had admitted the truth and accuracy of the hon. member for Oldham's statements. Now, it was true, he had admitted, that there was in the case of some particular taxes specified, a considerable disproportion; but he had not assented to the general proposition that this was true of taxation generally. He (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) had further said, that this inequality should be removed, as far as was practicable, but it must be obvious, that it could not be wholly got rid of, even in the taxes enumerated by the hon. Member. For instance, in bills of exchange, if the taxes were increased in proportion to the sum, it would effectually prevent such bills being given; and so in the case of the auction duty, if this tax were augmented in proportion to the sum, it would entirely prevent auctions to any large amount. Such a modification of taxation as that proposed by the hon. Member, therefore, was utterly impracticable. However, he would be ready to discuss the question when it should be regularly brought before the House.

An Hon. Member

said, it was the duty of a Reformed Parliament to heal any differences that might exist, and not to widen the breach between the rich and the poor. A few evenings since, a statement had been made by one of the hon. members for Oldham, that in some part of Yorkshire there were 20,000 persons unable to get bread, and 40,000 earning only 2½d. per day. In consequence of this statement, he had made inquiries, which, as the hon. Member was a friend of humanity, he would communicate to him, knowing full well how much they must delight him. He begged to inform him there was no one earning less than two shillings a day, and very few less than three shillings per day.

Mr. Gisborne

denied, that the evidence taken by the Committee on the factory system had any application to the factories generally. 'They undoubtedly applied to the particular factories spoken of, but were in no degree applicable to other factories. Had that Committee continued its labours, evidence would have been laid before it, that would have absolved the manufacturers generally from the imputations that now unjustly rested upon them. At the same time, he freely admitted, that it was the duty of that House to interpose and protect those who could not protect themselves. He hoped that when the Bills of the noble Lords (Morpeth and Ashley) were introduced, they would neither of them be allowed to pass without a dispassionate consideration of their merits. The public mind had been grossly abused on this subject and exaggerated reports for a long time industriously circulated. In the neighbourhood of Manchester, he was happy to say, that the Operatives never had so large a command of the comforts of life. No man, that was an honest man—no one who was industrious and worthy of employment—need be out of work. He did not speak of a village or a district, but of the entire neighbourhood.

Petition to lie on the Table.

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