§ Sir Eardley Wilmot
presented a Petition from Bedworth, and other places, complaining of the distressed state of persons employed in the riband trade. He lived very near these parishes, and could speak from his own observation of the distress which existed. He had visited hundreds, nay, thousands, of these weavers, and might venture to say, there was no part of his Majesty's dominions where so much abject misery prevailed. It was not for him to say what measures his Majesty's Government should adopt to remove the evil. The petitioners attributed their distress to the free-trade system. In the abstract, he was a friend to free trade, for when all manufactures were put on an equal footing in all countries, free trade must be beneficial; but that system of reciprocity had not been followed up. He had taken the trouble to extract the amount of the manufactured articles imported from France since the removal of the prohibition, and an increase had taken place every year. The amount in francs, for plain goods, in 1825, was 4,884,000; in 1831, 12,992,200:—figured silks, 1825, 71,500 francs; 1831, 511,940:—crapes, 1825, 43,560 francs; 1831, 227,656 francs:—ribands, 1825, 437,400 francs; 1831, 1,949,760 francs. In 1831, therefore, the quantity imported was four times as great as in any previous year. Although these towns were ruined, and 30,000 or 40,000 persons were starving, yet, throughout the country generally, trade was flourishing, and great benefit had resulted from the free-trade system. The country ought, then, to relieve those who had been sacrificed to the prosperity of others. It must be recollected that, in the manufacture of English goods, the labour was of greater value than the material, while, in France, the value of labour, as well as of the material, was much less; owing, therefore, to the pres- 1274 sure from taxation, and other circumstances, it was impossible for the English manufacturer to compete with his foreign rival. He hoped the Government would take it into their most serious consideration, and do something to relieve a class of people who were most anxious to support themselves by honest industry, and who had never been guilty of the least riot or intemperance in the midst of great distresses.
§ Mr. Henry Lytton Bulwer
could also speak from his own knowledge as to the distress which prevailed in that district. The petitioners, as well as those to whom the hon. Baronet had referred, were anxious that Government should return to the prohibitory system. He was, however, sensible of the improvement which had resulted from free trade; but the system the hon. Baronet had mentioned, and that of free trade, were two very different things, and he concurred with the petitioners in thinking their interests had been sacrificed without attaining the benefits of a proper system of commerce. He wished to call the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the French tariff, for—although two gentlemen had been sent over to France to negociate with the Government of that country, and had been very industrious in collecting information—what was the state of things at the present moment? With respect to English iron and English cutlery, heavier duties were paid upon them than upon the products of other countries; and it was not for the sake of the riband manufacturers, or for the sake of the iron and coal mines, more than for the interest and success of the reciprocity system itself, that our Government should adopt some measures to induce the French government to come fairly into the system. At present, they said,—"We have every thing we want; our silks are admitted at a trifling duty; our ribands are admitted at so low a duty as to drive the English manufacturer from the market; and why should we alter our system?" "But," the right hon. Gentleman said, "it does not signify whether the French come into the system or not—we are equally benefited by it." If that were so, he should very much object to pay for the evidence which had been laid upon the Table of that House by Dr. Bowring and his colleague; for if the country derived the same advantages from the system, whether the French adopted it or not, it was rather hard that 1275 the country should have to pay for teaching the French what was best for their interests. But, however that theory might be worked out upon paper, it was contradicted in practice. What the Petitioners contended for was, that the trade having existed for a long period, large capitals having been invested in it, and a large number of persons being wholly dependent upon it for support, the Government were bound to give these persons some means of subsistence, and to see that the capital embarked in the trade was not wholly lost. The great difficulty which our riband manufacturers laboured under, was not so much from competition in the price or quality of the article, as because the French set the fashions in articles of millinery and dress; so that you might have a better riband made in England, and of a prettier design and colour, but the influence of fashion induced people to prefer an inferior article of French manufacture. The consequence was, that whatever might be the skill or industry of our workmen, it was impossible to obtain a market for their goods in France; and when French ribands come over here, our manufacturers were unable to compete with them for the same reason. He would only add, that these petitions were numerously and respectably signed, and deserved the attention of the right hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Dugdale
concurred with the petitioners in attributing their distress to the free-trade system. From the time that the system came into operation, the riband trade had been becoming gradually worse and worse; and it was now almost annihilated, particularly with regard to the higher class of ribands. The fact was, that the large houses, which used to consume 7,000l. or 8,000l. worth of these ribands per annum, now only consumed 300l. or 400l., which was, of itself, sufficient to show, that the trade was annihilated. The importation of French ribands also was increasing very much, for he understood from good authority, that, during the first three months of this year, the importation of French ribands had been double the quantity which was imported in the first four months of the last year. Smuggling was also carried on to a large extent. Duties would do these petitioners no good; what they asked was, an entire prohibition of the importation of French ribands. He hoped the House would take the case of these persons into its serious 1276 consideration, and endeavour to afford them some relief.
§ Petition laid on the Table.