§ Mr. Hume
rose to move for copies of the correspondence between the master coopers and the Lords of the Admiralty, pursuant to a notice which he had given in consequence of the statements lately made by the right hon. Baronet (Sir James Graham) on the subject of a dispute between the journeymen and the master coopers. In 1824, the House of Commons, acting upon his Motion, sub- 158 mitted the whole question of the Combination-laws to a Committee up-stairs, which recommended that all the laws which had subsisted for 300 years in relation to masters and workmen, should be repealed; the condition of the repeal being, that neither party should resort to threats or coercion against the other. The law which was passed in 1824, and reconsidered in 1825, placed masters and workmen on a footing of equality; labour was the commodity of the men, as capital was that of the masters, and both were to be allowed to obtain the best terms they could. It was thought that the workmen should be allowed to get the best price in their power in the free market of labour, by fair means, and without violence or intimidation. Fully approving of this principle, he viewed all interference between masters and men with disapprobation, and he regretted to hear from the right hon. Baronet, that, in a dispute between the masters and journeymen coopers, he had stepped in and taken part with the masters. He thought it much to the credit of the working coopers, that the engagement entered into with the masters had continued, without material alteration, from 1825 to the present time. The right hon. Baronet's statement, that the men had struck for all increase of wages, was not altogether correct, the fact being, that they struck to prevent a diminution of wages. The work which the men were required to do for the same wages was gradually increased, and they naturally asked for an allowance in proportion to the additional weight of the casks on which they were employed. Nothing could be fairer than their conduct. The question was, whether the workmen were to be at liberty to reconsider their agreement with the masters? He understood that twelve or thirteen masters (the trade was very limited in point of number) had agreed, upon the representation of the men, to act as was required, when Government stepped in, and the Victualling Department offering to provide the necessary casks, the arrangement between the journeymen and their employers was abandoned. As to the average earnings of the workmen, he believed that they, by no means, amounted to such a sum as the right hon. Baronet appeared to suppose,—(from 2l. 4s. to 2l. 10s. a-week), and that, taking in to account slack times, and workmen of different degrees of skill, they would not be found to exceed 20s. a-week. It was unfair to reckon wages by what a man might gain in one week; the average ought to be 159 taken. But, supposing the wages to be as high as had been stated, was not a man at liberty to obtain 3l. a-week instead of 2l., if he could do so by fair means, and without using threats or violence? A law existed to punish every attempt at force or violence, and it was the duty of masters to enforce that law if necessary. He regretted, that the House should have been led away by the right hon. Baronet to believe that the workmen bad acted improperly, but he trusted he had shown that they had not. He frequently heard objections taken to the word "union;" but he could not see the force or justice of the objection. Why should not workmen have clubs as well as any other class of persons? Why were not poor men to have their unions the same as rich men had theirs in St. James's-street? His Majesty's coopers at Deptford were making up casks at 1s. 8d., the usual price of which was 2s. 4d.; being 8d. a cask less than ordinary. He also understood that the hoops used for these casks were marked with the broad arrow, so that persons stealing the casks would be liable to a more severe punishment than in an ordinary case. He was told, that the workmen were able to rebut the allegations made against them, and, assuming that to be the case, he thought the interference of Government unwise and uncalled for. He was most desirous to know why the Admiralty had taken the part they did—upon what grounds they could justify themselves—what plea they could advance in their favour. To ascertain that, he thought the best way would be, to have the correspondence between the Government and the master coopers laid before them. It might afford the clue which he, and he hoped the House, were so anxious to obtain. The interference was a most unwise one on the part of official authorities, and therefore its reasons should be probed to the bottom. Before he sat down, he could not refrain from saying a few words on the constitutions and governing principles of the Unions. Much good had resulted from their formation; and for one that then existed, two were in active operation before 1824. This great and gratifying difference was certainly between them, before and subsequent to that year. All that was done at the present moment was acted in the face of day; the eyes of the world might be on them, and they cared not—they met under the sanction of the law. They knew they were amenable if they transgressed; their proceedings were 160 under its control—they met under its sanction. Before 1824 they were ashamed to show themselves—they assembled in secret, and were almost conspirators. Now they congregated to support the weak, the aged, and those out of work. They put forth regulations which all might read, and they were exposed to the minutest inquiry. One of the regulations, it was true, was to induce an adherence to a system which would tend to prevent a reduction of wages, in order that they might be enabled to live and adequately maintain their families. This had created much clamour out of doors, and they were severely blamed for so doing. He was indifferent to such clamour. He considered they had a right to look for the advice of each other, and if 100,000 assembled together for such purposes, he should be glad to know by what law they could he put down? The men were in a far different position from the masters; they had not the power to contend against the capital which was arrayed against them, and consequently there was an imperative necessity for adopting some regulations. What protection would they have against masters such as those in Derby, sending 15,000 or 16,000 out of employment, without making any provision to relieve the mass of misery which was thus created? How were men, then, to be blamed for seeking to prevent such frightful occurrences? He felt the justice of their case, and he should be ever prepared to defend it. There was not a Trades' Union in the country that did not possess a letter of his; and he would defy a single line to be found in them that did not inculcate obedience to the law, and deprecate any proceedings that were not equitable and just. If they violated the law, they were punished; and if an unsuccessful strike be made, its results would have a most salutary effect. Both masters and men ought to be permitted to go on of themselves, without being set against each other by official interference. They would then proceed harmoniously together, and contentions, bickerings, and an exhibition of hostile demeanour, would not have to be witnessed and deplored. Again, he would say he considered the interference of Government unwarrantable, and that the men ought to have their case inquired into. He (Mr. Hume) would be the last person in that House to encourage them in lawless violence; and would also be found among the first to see that they suffered no unjust or unnecessary hardship. 161 In bringing forward the present Motion, he was only giving the right hon. Baronet an opportunity to explain his reasons for interfering in the case in question. He naturally felt anxious with respect to a matter connected with the repeal of the Combination-laws in 1824, a measure which he approved mid advised. He disapproved of the right hon. Baronet's interference in the present case, on the ground that the law, and not the Government, should step in if any interposition were required. The hon. Member concluded by moving in the terms before mentioned.
§ Sir James Graham
had listened with particular attention to the speech of the hon. member for Middlesex, and could assure him that he courted investigation, and was rejoiced the subject had been brought forward, as he should thereby be enabled to state the reasons that influenced Government in the course they had thought proper to adopt. He admitted the truth of the general principle laid down by the hon. Member, that it was not advisable to interfere in disputes between masters and workmen, but, in the circumstances of this particular case, he considered the conduct of Government justifiable. At the commencement of his observations, he was desirous of saying, that the hon. Member had not disappointed his expectations in stating his peculiar anxiety on the subject, the hon. Member having pressed the repeal of the Combination-laws in 1824—a repeal which at the time he (Sir J. Graham) thought questionable in theory, and, in point of practical prudence, extremely doubtful; but in reference to which, he was satisfied that the hon. Gentleman's motives were perfectly pure. He was convinced, that the hon. Member was the last person who would have any connexion with acts of violence. The hon. Gentleman had laid down the principle which should govern the proceedings of workmen with perfect correctness. It was true, that the workman's labour was his commodity, for which he was entitled to obtain the best price he could, without having recourse to force or intimidation. He was glad to have the hon. Member's authority for this, because, if this salutary rule had been violated in the present instance, it would probably be thought that Government was justifiable in interfering in support of the masters, in opposition to the workmen, who attempted to enforce an act of injustice by means such as the hon. Member would scarcely defend. The 162 hon. Member stated, that workmen would soon learn from the result of unsuccessful strikes that their own interests were concerned in abstaining from such proceedings; consequently, if the present strike failed, through the assistance afforded by Government to the masters, that salutary effect to which the hon. Member referred would be accelerated. The hon. Member had stated, that the number of master coopers was small (not exceeding fifty), but he should recollect, that the number of workmen was also small, consequently combination was easy, and their power over the masters proportionately great. If, as the hon. Gentleman said, the masters had attempted to increase the weight of certain descriptions of work without altering the wages, and had thereby, in effect, endeavoured to lower their men's wages, that would have been a fair ground of complaint; but the reverse of this was the fact. He found, that although, prior to 1825, an alteration in the weight of casks furnished to brewers did take place, no change in any other branch of the business had occurred for a long period, and that since 1825 no alteration was made in brewers' casks. In 1825 a rise of price was agreed to by the masters, it having been demanded by the men on the ground of the alteration in the weight of the article mentioned. He held in his hand statements from five of the principal brewing establishments on this subject, and would read them if the hon. Member chose. [Mr. Hume expressed a wish to have the documents read.] He believed that he disagreed with the hon. Member as to the article increased in weight, and that they had both referred to brewers' casks. [Mr. Hume: Yes.] The principal cooper at Messrs. Barclay and Perkins's stated, that the casks received at that establishment had not increased in heaviness or stoutness during the last ten years; from Messrs. Truman, Hanbury, and Buxton's it was certified that the casks now received were not stouter nor heavier than those used for the last seven years; and the principal foreman at Messrs. Whitbread and Co.'s made a like statement, extending over the last five years. He had similar statements from the houses of Hoare and Co., and Taylor and Co.; but it was needless to read them. With respect to the amount of earnings of the working coopers, he could assure the hon. Member that, so far from viewing the sum with jealousy, no circumstance afforded him such unmingled satis- 163 faction as to see workmen well paid for their labour. He had not referred to the earnings of these individuals from any jealousy of the amount, but as an ingredient in considering the nature of the strike, it being necessary to ascertain whether the men so striking were aggrieved or not, and what were their circumstances. He had before him returns of the average weekly earnings a working coopers in seven yards during the years 1832 and 1833. From these it appeared that the average weekly earnings (taking not the best workmen alone, but the best and middling artisans and boys, and allowing two boys for one man,) amounted to 2l. 6s. 1d. actual money payment on the books. This sum was made up in the following manner:—Wages, 2l. 1s. 7½.; allowance for beer, 3s. 5½d.; clippings, 1s.: total, 2l. 6s. 1d. [Mr. Hume; Were the men employed all the year round at this rate?] These were the earnings of men in full employ, and he understood that they were employed all the year round. The real question was, had the working coopers since 1825 attempted by force or intimidation to prevent the masters from procuring a sufficient number of workmen? He was informed; that since 1825 the Unions had laid down laws which were rigidly enforced, with respect to the supply of labour in the trade. The masters felt a natural anxiety to increase the number of workmen, by training apprentices to the business, with the view to lower the wages of labour. The men had resisted this attempt. They told t ale masters—"We will not work if you employ a larger number of apprentices than we are willing to agree to." The maximum of apprentices allowed by the men was two, or occasionally three, when business was conducted not by an individual but by a firm. This was the rule laid dawn and adhered to, whatever might be the number of men employed in the yard. There was a particular firm, the name of which he could mention if necessary, which did take an additional apprentice. The consequence was, that the men struck, and the house was unable to carry on its trade. The moment for the strike was judiciously chosen, when a pressing demand existed for the article, and the party would have been rained if the orders could not be executed. The terms upon which the workmen is offered to return to their employment were these—the dismissal of the apprentice, payment of the full amount of wages, 30l.) which the men might have earned during 164 the time they, continued out of employment, and the master to beg pardon of the workmen in a body. The party was compelled to submit, and did submit to these conditions. Talk of tyranny! what greater tyranny than this? Here was not only oppression but extortion; it deserved a harder name—a point gained, and money obtained under the influence of threats, and by violence, which might amount to an indictable offence. Since 1825 the trade had been compelled to submit to the law laid down by the workmen, and rigorously enforced with respect to apprentices. A firm having added five men to fifteen, the number which it had previously employed, thought that in equity it was entitled to add to its number of apprentices. But no, the law was rigidly adhered to by the workmen, and the firm was required to dismiss the supernumerary apprentice. The master argued, that upon every principle of justice, the increase in the workmen would bear out an increase in the apprentices. The man admitted the force of the argument, but replied thus—"Our law is framed on general principles, and peremptory in its nature—we cannot relax it in favour of a special case—you must dismiss your apprentice." He did not object to the men taking all fair and just means to obtain a proper price for their labour; but the system that was in operation in this instance, and which pervaded almost all the trades in the country, was indefensible upon all just and equitable principles. The effect of the law which had been introduced by the hon. member for Middlesex was, that it rendered it extremely difficult now to punish an offence which was clearly a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the statute-law, and, as he (Sir J. Graham) thought, a violation of the common law of the land. The House was aware that, under the law of this country, nothing was so difficult to prove as a conspiracy; and yet here was a conspiracy, a manifest conspiracy, for the purpose of controlling and overawing the masters. How did a combination of the kind, while the men committed no violence, but kept within the letter of the law, carry its purposes into effect? In this way: the body deputed certain members to watch the house of a master who had refused to accede to the terms of his workmen, and whose workmen had accordingly left his employment. His house was accordingly surrounded. He could not move a step without having certain parties, connected with the body, fol- 165 lowing him, dogging him wherever he went, and placing him in a situation of difficulty, anxiety, and alarm; thus, in fact, though no menaces should be resorted to, no violence committed, overawing and intimidating him in all his transactions, and effectually preventing him from taking other men into his service. He had been confidently informed, as regarded the secretary of the master coopers, that this plan of intimidation had been adopted with success. Now, if those things which he had stated, were facts, and he was confident that they could be substantiated upon inquiry, he submitted, that they took this case out of the rule laid down by the hon. member for Middlesex, and that they clearly established it to be a violation of the letter as well as of the spirit of the existing law. It was because he thought, that the example would be salutary, and because in this particular case the Government had it in its power to defeat a combination which he considered indefensible, that Government had come to the determination to uphold the masters where they thought they were justified in resisting a combination of the coopers—a combination that was in its objects illegal, and contrary to the law of the land. It was upon these grounds that the Government had interfered. For the present the amount supplied had been only fifty butts, and 200 hogsheads, from the stores at Deptford. It should be borne in mind, that this was a matter of primary importance—especially to the foreign trade of the country, for if, through the success of such au illegal conspiracy as this, articles necessary for our shipping should he unduly enhanced in price, we should have to encounter foreign commercial competition under considerable disadvantages. If, in fact, through such a conspiracy the supply of our shipping should be suddenly stopped, we should have to meet foreign shipping upon unequal grounds, and under the disadvantage of wanting a great many articles indispensible for some portion of the shipping. It was with a view to prevent such consequences that. the Government had interfered in this instance, and doing so was not without precedent on former occasions. A precisely similar line of conduct had been under analogous circumstances adopted by Mr. Huskisson, who, be it recollected, had supported the reasonings and arguments of the hon. member for Middlesex for repealing the former Combination-laws in 1824. In 1825, Mr. 166 Huskisson advised the adoption of exactly such an expedient, to meet a combination of the shipwrights on the Thames, who, just as the Spring trading ships were about to prepare for their departure, refused to work, and struck for an advance of wages. The Government, then, acting upon the advice of Mr. Huskisson, allowed the merchant vessels to be refitted in the King's ship-yards. The remedy was simple, and it was completely successful. The present case was quite analogous to that one; and the facts connected with it proved that it fell within the exceptions to the general rule which had been laid down by the hon. member for Middlesex. He had no hesitation in laying before the House the Correspondence which had taken place between the master coopers and the Board of Admiralty on this subject, and no hesitation in saying, that pending the decision of the House, the Government should not proceed further in the matter. In the interim he trusted that the master coopers and their men might come to a satisfactory agreement. He had stated the facts of the case—he had stated the course which the Government had followed—and he would conclude by repeating the opinion which he had already expressed—an opinion deliberately formed; that under the circumstances of the case that conduct was strictly justifiable upon the principles he had mentioned.
said, that in his opinion the Government had adopted an unjustifiable course of conduct in this instance. He was ready to admit, that this was not the first case where the Government had interfered in favour of the masters. When did they ever interfere in favour of the men? A bad precedent would not justify such conduct. Admitting, for the sake of argument, that the men had been guilty of illegal conduct, the Government should not have interfered in this manner. The province of the Executive was to carry the law into force, and supposing that the men had been guilty of illegal conduct, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and the Law Officers of the Crown, were responsible for having them prosecuted. But there was no prosecution; so that if the acts done were illegal, the Government had neglected its duty. The interference of the Government in this case was a commercial interference. The Executive had no right to take part in such a dispute. But he denied that anything illegal had been done by the men in this case. One of their objects was to prevent the masters 167 from taking more than a certain number of apprentices; and how did they propose to accomplish that object? Not by threatening, the lives of the masters—not by menacing the destruction of their property,—but by declaring, that if they would not agree to their terms, they (the men) would leave off work. They had a perfect right to do that. Every man had a right to say that he would not consent to give his labour except upon particular terms. The master coopers could have canvassed the British dominions, Europe and America, for men to supply their places. If their places had been filled up, and that they had menaced those who had come to work in their stead, then indeed their conduct would have been illegal, and they could be indicted for it. But in this instance, he would repeat, the conduct of the men had been legal, legitimate, and within the law of the land. As long as the men were innocent, why should the Government punish them? [Sir James Graham: No punishment was inflicted.] This was a punishment. It was a punishment to interfere between them and the market fur their labour. The right hon. Baronet said, that in this case the workmen were unreasonable, and that the master coopers were reasonable. That was a question, not for the Government, on the showing of the master coopers, but for the law to decide, the Government taking care that they kept within the limits of the law. The master coopers were perpetual combinators; not, indeed, in public houses, but in their own parlours. As to the Common-law, which the right hon. Baronet said the Bill of the hon. member for Middlesex had repealed, he had merely to observe, that the Common-law was what the Judges said was the Common-law. The average of wages which the right hon. Baronet had quoted, was not for the whole year—it was for only a part of the year, and for the men then employed. He understood that if the average wages of all employed throughout the year were taken, it would amount only to 20s. a-week, instead of 2l. 6s. 1d. as had been stated by the right hon. Baronet. If the wages were really so high in London, there would be an abundant influx of coopers from Ireland in search of employment. As to the certificate from the master brewers, he could state, upon the information which had been given to him, that the men who had signed that certificate had been compelled to do so by the master brewers. The right 168 hon. Baronet had no doubt acted from the purest motives, but he was acting most mistakenly.
§ Mr. Labouchere
said, that having assisted with his colleagues at the Board of Admiralty in making a minute inquiry into the facts of this case, he entirely agreed in the determination at which they had arrived. He was fully ready to admit, that it required a strong case, and very peculiar circumstances, to justify the Administration of the country in interfering in so delicate a matter as a contest between masters and men; but in the present case the state of our foreign trade, and the state of the merchant shipping, made it an imperative duty on the part of the Board of Admiralty to render that assistance which was required to prevent any injury being inflicted on the trade. It appeared to him, on a careful consideration of all the facts, that a stronger case of what was called combination, though steering within the limits of the law, could not be made out. The hon. and learned member for Dublin had asked, "Why did not the master coopers seek for other workmen throughout the country?" They did do so; and what was the consequence? Why, that in a few days, such was the complete system of espionage on foot, the employment of the new men was discovered by the combination, and they were obliged to join the opponents of the masters. It was said, that the Board of Admiralty had decided on an ex-parte case laid before it. The Board did not decide as to the step they should take until they had applied for information to a quarter the purest and the most impartial. They went, as had been already stated by his right hon. friend, to the great brewing houses for information on the subject. He must own, that he was astonished to hear the hon. and learned member for Dublin insinuate, that the signatures of the head coopers to the certificate obtained from the brewers had been procured by compulsion. It was only necessary for him to state the names of the firms against whom such an insinuation was made—the names of Barclay, Perkins, and Co., Truman, Hanbury, and Co., Whitbread, and Co., Hoare, and (70., and Taylor and Co.—to refute at once in the opinion of the House such an insinuation as that the head coopers in those establishments had been forced to sign the document in question. It was the imperative duty of the Government to interfere as it had done in this case, and he was confident when the whole Correspondence was brought forward 169 that the House would arrive at the same conclusion.
§ Mr. George Frederick Young
said, that in such an important matter, he should not, however he aught expose himself to obloquy and popular odium, be deterred from expressing his sentiments. There were certain points laid down by the hon. and learned member for Dublin, which he (Mr. Young), not looking at them as a lawyer, but as a man of plain common-sense, considered open to refutation. It was quite true, that the acts of those men had been so admirably conducted as to be kept within the present law, but the consequences of those acts would be so injurious to the commerce of the country that it was the imperative duty of the Government not to interfere between the masters and the men, but to take measures to prevent the trade and commerce of the country from being suspended or greatly injured. A species of moral intimidation had been resorted to in this case for which the law did not provide a remedy, and for which, therefore, extralegal remedies were required. The hon. and learned Gentleman had said, that every man had a right to dispose of his labour as he thought fit. Nobody disputed that principle, but that very principle was outraged by such a combination as this, which, with the most wanton tyranny, interfered with individual labour, and prevented each individual from using his labour as he wished. No one, surely, would defend the wanton and despotic tyranny exercised by these bodies. He must altogether deny the allegation of the hon. and learned member for Dublin, that the masters were in a perpetual combination. He could state, upon the best information, that there was no combination at all amongst the master coopers, and that there had been no Association of the Masters since 1825 up to the present strike. The hon. member for Middlesex had said, that there had been no disputes between the coopers since the repeal of the Combination-laws. The reason was this—that the masters were placed in such extreme dependence on the men, they dared not encounter them until the circumstances occurred that had given rise to the present dispute. He held in his hand an account of the wages which had been actually received by the coopers in one of the establishments in this metropolis. The account was for the last year, and the average for each individual was 2l. 2s. per week for the whole year round, exclusive of beer 170 which was 1d. in the shilling, and chip-money, which would not be less than 2s. per week, and one-fourth of the men in this establishment averaged sixty years of age. One individual workman there actually received out of the counting-house during the year 139l. 17s. 10d. It was at such prices that the men were standing out, This, however, was not a question of wages. If the men could get 5l. a week by proper means, there ought to be no objection to it; but he was sure that if the House instituted a rigorous investigation into the facts, the statement of the First Lord of the Admiralty would be completely borne out. It would be found that a system had been acted upon, which if continued would be destructive of the interests of commerce, Which, in principle, was a most odious and execrable tyranny over private judgment, and would be final to social order. As regarded commerce, it would render us incapable of competing with foreigners, it would indeed effectually suspend all commercial transactions, for this was an evil for which it was impossible to provide a remedy on the spur of the moment. It was the tyranny of one set of men over their fellow men—an offence which could neither be too severely reprobated, nor too vigorously opposed. It was a fact, that men were not allowed to work except under regulations which were prescribed by these men. The hours of work were fixed—they were not allowed to work for more than twelve hours, nor even for this time unless adequate wages were obtained. What was the effect of these restrictions? In the general market labour existed redundantly, and we had various schemes of emigration to take off the superabundant labour. The Government were not stepping in between the masters and their workmen, but between one class of his Majesty's subjects and another, to relieve them from oppression. He had stated his opinions freely, feeling that he was the best friend of the poor man who boldly and fearlessly told him the truth.
§ Mr. Fryer
said, that he was decidedly opposed to trades' unions though he was a Radical Reformer, and for this reason, that they would do the workmen no good. It was impossible for them to raise the wages beyond what the masters could give them, and the combination of the masters was ten times worse than that of the men. The combination which he wanted was a combination against the right hon. Baronet—a combination against the Corn-laws. Then the 171 men would be satisfied with what the masters gave them, for if the Corn-laws were repealed, the masters could pay them well. He repeated, that those men who combined against the masters should combine against the cursed Corn-laws. He would resist a combination against the masters, because the masters could not give more money. He employed from 200 to 300 men. Within the last eight months they had twice thought they would benefit themselves by working no more with him, and they accordingly stopped. He told them that they might do so if they pleased, for that they could not compel him to give them more money, as he had not the means of doing so; but that, instead of con shining against him, they should join with him in resisting the cruel combination of the landlords, and getting those accursed Corn-laws repealed; that then their masters would be enabled to pay them properly, and to give them three barrels of good American flour instead of two. The remedy for all these complaints was for the masters to join with the men, and the men to unite with the masters, against the cruel Corn-law.
§ Mr. Baines
remembered on a very recent occasion that an application had been made to Government to interfere On behalf of the masters against a most formidable trades' union. To that application the Government had in his judgment given a most judicious answer—namely, that the law gave the applicants sufficient power, that the Government would therefore not interfere, and the matter must be settled by the parties themselves. Such was the reply which had been given to the application of the master cloth-workers in Yorkshire some time since; that reply was most sensible and judicious, and had been hailed as such by all parties. The Government had in that instance done well to abstain from interfering, and especially in avoiding to join with trio strong party against the weak. He was at a loss to conceive any reason why the coopers of London should have been interfered with any more than time cloth-workers of Yorkshire. Though it had been urged that the combination complained of would have had the effect of stopping the course of commerce, and that the ships for the Russian and other trades could not have gone to sea, yet he most unhesitatingly said, that the Government, by the course which had been taken, had placed themselves in a most awkward and disad- 172 vantageous situation. They had arrayed the feelings of the great body of the labouring population against then by their interference in this matter. Anxious as he was that the present Government should on all occasions act in such a way as to conciliate the public confidence, and assured as he felt, that no body of men were better qualified to administer the public affairs of this great nation, he could not but regret extremely that they should in this instance have placed themselves in a situation so much at variance with their own principles, and so totally incompatible with the commercial freedom of the country. As to the argument which had been employed to justify the course pursued by the Government—namely, that the law was defective and insufficient to meet fully the peculiarities of the present case, his answer was, reform the law, but do not bolster it up, and place the relative position of masters and workmen in so critical a situation, by such an interference as had been made in the present case. He entertained a firm conviction that the Government could never act better or with more strict propriety, than by saying to the masters, on a similar application, "This a business of your own, deal with it as you think best; you shall have all the protection we can give you in enforcing the law, but we will not otherwise interfere between the conflicting parties." The adherence to this principle would be productive of satisfaction to all, whilst its violation would be a reproach to the Government of the country.
§ Lord Althorp
said, the subject which had been brought before the House was one of importance, involving as it did a great general principle. He was read to throw aside the question of amount, and to admit, that the labourer was justly entitled to sell his labour at the highest price. He concurred with the hon. member for Leeds that the Government ought not to interfere in questions raised between masters and workmen, unless, he must add, very particular reasons on a particular case were assigned. What, then, was the present case? It stood thus: that the working coopers combined not only for the purpose of obtaining an increase of wages, but also to decrease the supply of workmen from other quarters, and though the combination had not been guilty of, or resorted to, any act which could be strictly called illegal, yet he (Lord Althorp) did think that a combination to prevent employers having free scope in the market of labour, 173 and free power to hire what workmen they pleased, could not meet the approbation of any person who deliberately and dispassionately would consider the subject. But it would be found, that the combination in this instance was not merely against masters but also against men, against workmen who claimed (and justly claimed as had been argued) to sell their labour at the best price. Their fellow-workmen had, however, combined to prevent them carrying this object, and though the combination thus directed had clone nothing that could be strictly termed illegal, yet it must be admitted it was a mode of action severely to be deprecated. The hon. member for Leeds had argued that the proper manner to meet this state of things was for the Government to propose an alteration of the law as at present existing. For himself he did not think any such alteration necessary; for he believed that if the Government did their duty by upholding the masters when contending for their just and legal rights, such a system of combination as that to which he had last alluded would be put down. The peculiarities in the present case were not limited to the two objects he had already stated, but went also to prevent the instruction of apprentices. [Mr. Roebuck: Such was common in every trade in England.] Such might be the case; but he knew enough of the hon. Gentleman's opinions to believe that the hon. Gentleman would think such an interference most improper. The combination in question had produced the effect of putting the master coopers entirely under the control, not only of those whom they were ready to employ, but also under that of a minority of the working classes. It was, then, under these circumstances, that the master coopers took that course which every hon. Member had admitted was justifiable—namely, to bring up workmen from the country, who from not entering into the views of the combination, in a very short time found their situations so disagreeable that they soon expressed a desire to return home. Such was the system of tyranny pursued—tyranny not merely upon the masters, but on the labourers who were willing to take the employment which was open to them. The application was made to his right hon. friend (Sir J. Graham), and the course which had been pursued was in his judgment perfectly justified under all the circumstances. That course had not been followed upon the decision of his right hon. friend alone, for he (Lord 174 Althorp), in conjunction with his colleagues, had agreed that this was a case in which the Government were called upon to act. He did not put the case as one of precedent, but relied upon the case itself; and he repeated that in an instance when the combination operated both against masters and workmen, the Government were justified in giving that assistance which they had afforded. He regretted exceedingly that a system prevailed in this country by combinators of picking, as it was called, or in other words of setting spies upon workmen, who dared not venture to enter a manufactory against which the combination was directed. That system was productive of much greater intimidation to the men than the masters. He (Lord Althorp) had agreed with the hon. member for Middlesex in repealing the Combination-laws, but he must say, that if such a system was persisted in, it was impossible the law could be allowed to remain as it at present stood, or that the price of labour should be allowed thus artificially to be raised.
§ Mr. Roebuck
said, that this was not a question merely of trade; it concerned the whole form of society. The course pursued by Government might rouse a spirit now slumbering in the country, which, in a few months hence, might be in a condition differing very much from that in which it was at present. He denied the peculiarity of this case. Most trades refused to allow more than a limited number to be instructed in the business. He might instance tailors—and attorneys, who were prevented by an Act of Parliament from having more than two articled clerks. In his opinion, labourers were perfectly justified in entering into those combinations, as long as they avoided violence or intimidation. But now the Government came in to the assistance of the more powerful party, which had other means to evade such combinations, besides counter-combinations—namely, their capital. There was a manifest injustice in this; for if the hands of the labourer were to be bound up—if he was not to be allowed to obtain the greatest value in his power for his labour, he would no longer be on an equality with his master. The interference of the Government was, therefore, a breach of that equality which ought to be held between the master and labourer, and was not justifiable by any arguments that could be brought in its support. He had observed from an illegal newspaper which was published, notwithstanding the Stamp-law of 175 the noble Lord opposite, and was called the Trades' Union Newspaper, that the trades had now come to an understanding, deprecating the mode in which all former strikes had been made, and stating them to have been a total failure, and that they had now resolved to try a new method by which to effect their object—namely, that instead of maintaining idle the labourer out of work they should themselves employ him. By these means it would be seen the Trades' Unions would become capitalists, and being so would thus keep up the rate of wages. But there was one thing which he would venture to press upon the noble Lord and on the Government, and that was, that there was a better mode of conveying to the labourers a sense of the truth of that fact, than by direct interference on the part of the Government. It Would be a much better and more effectual mode of making them sensible of their error, to discuss the matter with them in such language as would come home to their understandings; and the best means of doing so was, by rendering accessible the ordinary channels of instruction. If the public Press were accessible to all classes, they should be able to convince the labourer, through its means, of the justice of that perfect equality which ought to exist between the master and the labourer, and with which the Government now so strangely attempted to interfere. If the right hon. Baronet at the head of the Admiralty were to take that mode of putting all parties in the proper position, he would find it a more efficient and more respectable mode than that which he had adopted. He admitted, that violence, threats, and intimidation had been used by the trades' unions; but he contended that those threats, and that violence and intimidation, were in consequence of the influence of the Combination-laws, and that they had decreased since the repeal of those laws. He regretted, that the noble Lord had ever mentioned the possibility of the re-enactment of the Combination-laws. Those laws had been repealed after much clamour and excitement; but, by to-morrow morning, millions would hear that the noble Lord had stated from his place in that House, that circumstances might call for their re-enactment. He (Mr. Roebuck) considered that nothing could be more dangerous to the country at large than the bare suspicion that such a project should be in contemplation. As to that intimidation which had been spoken of as "moral inti- 176 midiation," he did not think it could be called intimidation at all. It was only an exercise of that right which they were undoubtedly entitled to exercise, of using all peaceable means of obtaining a just equivalent for their labour. The hon. Member concluded, by hoping, that the necessity of enlightening the people upon this and other subjects, would be an inducement to the noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for repealing entirely the Stamp-duty on newspapers.
§ Mr. Thomas Attwood
thought it highly imprudent on the part of the right hon. Baronet in thus throwing himself into the breach on the present occasion. These combinations were not confined to any particular trade or any particular locality; the principles extended throughout England and Ireland, as well as Prance and other parts of the Continent. Government were, therefore, premature in making war upon the poor journeymen coopers, and would have acted a more noble part if they had turned their arms against the Emperor of Russia, as they ought to have done. The hon. Member knew, that, since the present Combination-laws, there had been a general fall of prices all owing to the change in the currency. The workman had as good a right to keep up his paper wages as the First Lord of the Admiralty had to take his paper salary or paper rents in gold, or as the fund holders had to their paper dividends being paid in the same metal. He knew, from his own inquiries, that in Birmingham, in 1822, when meat was 3d. a-pound, and bread cheap in proportion, that the wages in paper money were about double what they had been in 1792. Yet the workmen would not consent to receive lower daily wages, and would work sometimes only three days in the week at full prices rather than take employment for the whole week at a reduced daily rate. He knew very well, that masters could not afford to pay these wages, yet he could not blame the workmen for trying to keep them up. were quite justified in combining for the sake of their families, provided they used no improper acts of violence or intimidation. If the masters found themselves aggrieved, let them come hand in hand with their workmen to the noble Lord (Lord Althorp), and demand that free circulation of the currency, and that relief from burthens to which they were fairly entitled, and without which the country could not much longer go on. It was better for the noble Lord at once to seek refuge from the crowd- 177 ing demands of the people in the regions of paper money, and no longer advocate a system that must spread discontent and confusion throughout the country.
§ Mr. Robert Grant
said, that he had been charged to present a petition from a large majority of the master coopers of the Metropolis—a petition which was signed by about nine-tenths of the whole of that body, and he regretted that the forms of the House had prevented him from presenting it before the debate began. With regard to the arguments used by the Gentlemen who spoke on the other side of the question, he considered that they were all based on an obvious fallacy. Hon. Members talked as if the Government had used, or were about to use force, to oblige the workmen to come into the terms proposed by the masters. But was that the case? Had the Attorney-General taken any steps on the part of the Government to punish those labourers who refused the terms offered? or had the Government called out the military to the assistance of the master coopers, to force the workmen to work for such wages as they chose to offer? No such steps had been taken; yet it was on this misconception that the whole of the arguments of the hon. Gentlemen opposite were founded. It had been argued that the labourers had a right to exact the best price they could obtain for their labour. He admitted that; but if labourers had, on the one side, the right to ask a full equivalent for their industry, surely the masters were entitled to a like privilege, and, if aggrieved, were entitled to seek assistance from individuals or from corporate bodies, from the public or from the Government. He did not mean as Government, hut in their capacity as traders; and if they, the masters, could legally ask the assistance of the Government, it was a solecism to say, that what they could legally ask, Government could not legally grant. Yet that was the whole of the argument of his right hon. friend. He was satisfied, that, in the petition which he held from the master coopers, they stated mulling that they could not substantiate; and if, as he found from it, the workmen could, without illegality, form a combination to reduce their hours of labour from sixteen to thirteen hours, and subsequently to twelve hours, mid yet demand the same amount of wages for the shortest period which they hail for the longest, he would say, that the masters had just as much right to form a combination among themselves to bring down wages as the men 178 had to keep them up. The object of both was legal, and each had a right to pursue it in his own way. He (Mr. Grant) was always opposed to the old Combination-laws, and nothing would induce him to support the re-enactment of those laws. But his noble friend did not say, that it was the intention of Government to re-enact them. All his noble friend said, was, that such was the state to which those combinations were bringing the country, that if it continued, the masters might have it in their power, with some colour of reason, to call upon the House to re-enact those laws which had been repealed, and which he should be sorry to see re-enacted. It was a painful duty which devolved upon him to make this statement, as it might have the appearance of opposition to the working classes, but he made it on the ground of justice to all parties. He had such confidence in the good sense and feeling of justice of the operative classes, that he felt sure they were not capable of those excesses, which would make it necessary either for Government or Parliament to express any opinion on the subject of the Combination-laws; and as long as they continued as they at present stood, any interference would be unnecessary.
§ Mr. O'Reilly
said, that under the present system of combination, there was no such thing as free trade for the industrious and hottest artisans of the country. Combination met the free exercise of industry at every turn. He would, by way of illustration, state the case of the master shipbuilders of Dublin. They were forced to employ old and comparatively useless men, because the young men who were brought within the vortex of combination, would not, or dared not, work for them. If a ship required repairs, she could not be repaired in Dublin, but the ship-owner was obliged to send her to England or Scotland, there to be repaired by Irish artisans, perhaps, who could not find employment at home. In his own parish, consisting chiefly of a fishing population, the fishermen could not get their boats mended by giving wages common to carpenters all round the country. There were a few persons there who monopolized the ship-carpenters' business, and they required double wages. There was no one more unwilling than he was to revive the Combination-laws. But if threats and combinations were carried to a successful point by the labourers, then he hoped there was a moral power in the country, or in the Government, to offer a 179 successful resistance, and that no master would be prevented from employing as many labourers or apprentices as he pleased.
§ Motion agreed to.