HC Deb 19 March 1835 vol 26 cc1235-9
Mr. William Gladstone

moved for leave to bring in a Bill to repeal the Act of 9 Geo. IV., chap. 21, for regulating the carriage of passengers in merchant vessels to the Continent and islands of North America, and to make further provision for regulating the same. The Bill he proposed to introduce asserted no new principle, and merely modified the provisions of the one to be repealed by it. He, therefore, hoped that there would be no opposition to it, especially as humanity and good feeling required some legislative enactment on the subject of emigration. The question involved was one of no small importance to the community. In 1831, the number of emigrants from this country to the Canadas and the Islands was 51,000. He needed not, therefore, impress upon the House that anything which affected the comforts of such a yearly average number was worthy of its attention, especially when it was borne in mind that they were of the poorest condition in the community. In 1828, when the Emigration Bill was before the House, it was notorious that the hon. Member for Middlesex, along with other hon. Members, had opposed it; he trusted, however, that the beneficial results which had arisen from the measure would have the effect of disarming all opposition to the Amendment proposed which was the purpose of his (Mr. Gladstone's) Bill. The provisions of his Bill were comparatively few, and he would give a brief outline of them to the House. In the first instance, it was found that, under the present system the emigrants, during the voyage, and on their arrival, were subjected to a variety of restrictions and expenses, which, as they generally possessed but small means, were, in most cases, destructive to their future prospects. This was one of the abuses which his Bill proposed to remedy. The next provision of the Bill would make it compulsory in owners and masters of vessels to retain emigrants at their option forty-eight hours on board after their arrival. The reason of this provision was to be found in the expense and inconvenience which these poor people experienced on being thrust out like the beasts of the field into a strange place without lodging or shelter. It was therefore most desirable that they should have the privilege of remaining on board the vessel for a period after their arrival, and this period he thought should in no case be less than forty-eight hours. The third provision of the Bill proposed to alter the rates of passengers, permitted in proportion to the tonnage of a vessel. By the existent Act for every five tons register a vessel was permitted to carry four passengers; and for every four tons three. The Bill he proposed to introduce would give only three passengers for every five tons, a number the result of a medium struck between the extreme terms of opposite statements. A ship registered 300 tons was, by the law as it now stood, empowered to carry 225 passengers; the Bill proposed to limit the number to 208, that being the mean between the numbers suggested by Mr. Bonham, our Consul in America, and the London Shipowners' Society. The Bill next proposed to increase the quantity of provisions. Vessels were compelled to carry from fifty pounds of bread per man to seventy pounds. It also proposed to prohibit the use of all wines and spirits, except for medicinal purposes, to the sailors on board these vessels. He then proposed that every ship carrying over one hundred passengers should be provided with a surgeon, and that every craft carrying under that number should be provided with a medicine chest. Next, that the master should be responsible for the contracts entered into with emigrants by the accredited agents of owners, for the reason that much misery had recently resulted from a non-fulfilment of these contracts by agents in some of the outports. It was but justice to these poor people that the owners should be responsible for the acts of their agents; and the master would be the individual most accessible in a foreign country, or even at home. It finally proposed to make the penalties inflicted by the Bill recoverable by summary process before two Magistrates in the country, or in any of his Majesty's colonies. These were the main features of the Bill, and he hoped the House would permit him to bring it in. There were a great number of details connected with the subject, into which he should not enter; but there were two questions in connexion with them which were of some im- portance. The first was, whether the provisions of the Bill should not be extended to vessels trading between these countries and the United States of America, as he had been informed that some of the grossest cases had occurred in them; and, secondly, whether some mode of surveying vessels as to their sea-worthiness could not be adopted by the revenue officers? He should not refer to any documents, of which he possessed an abundance, to prove the necessity of the measure, as he should assume it would meet with no opposition; but he should merely allude to the returns of the total amount of emigration in each year since the passing of the Act (1828) to be repealed, for the purpose of disproving the arguments then generally adduced against all legislative interference with the subject:—

1828 .. .. 12,000
1829 .. .. 16,000
1830 .. .. 28,000
1831 .. .. 50,000
1832 .. .. 51,000
In 1833 and 1834, there was rather a diminution, but that was entirely attributable to the improved state of the country. These numbers proved that the passing of the Act had not decreased, as it was asserted it would, emigration from this country; but, on the contrary, materially increased it. He should also beg to refer the House, in support of the necessity of the measure he proposed to introduce to its notice, the Report of the Emigrants' Friend Society for the present year. The hon. Member concluded by making his Motion.

Mr. Hume

said, that it was true he had opposed the Bill of 1828, because he believed that all minute legislative interference on such subjects was vicious as well as unnecessary. He thought that there were three duties which it was imperative upon the Government to perform. The first was to see that the vessels carrying emigrants were trustworthy, and not what was commonly called coffin ships; the second was to see that the emigrants were protected from imposition by fair contracts with those who conveyed them; and the third was to take care that the vessels had on board provisions adequate to the length of the voyage and to the number of passengers.

Mr. Baring

thought, that interference in such matters was not desirable except where, from peculiar circumstances, it became indispensable. The enforcement of contracts between the emigrants and those who conveyed them from England was not so feasible as the hon. Member for Middlesex supposed, and in point of fact in very few cases did any contract at all exist. The principle of the grievances to be remedied by legislation was the disproportion between the number of passengers and the space of accommodation. Last year seventeen vessels had been wrecked, and seven hundred lives of emigrants chiefly Irish, had been sacrificed, and the accidents had almost all arisen from improvidence and mismanagement. He thought it the duty of the House to interfere in behalf of those who were so helpless. He knew that it was the habit of the captains of these ships to keep a gin shop on board, so that if the ship was not lost by accident arising from intoxication the little property of the emigrants was sure to be exhausted before they arrived at the place of destination. The right hon. Member concluded by saying that the better way would be to bring in the Bill, and to let the House consider its provisions.

Mr. Ruthven

protested against the description which the right hon. President of the Board of Trade had given of the condition of the Irish emigrants.

Lord Sandon

knew that the description given by the right hon. Gentleman was a very correct description of the wretched condition of Irish emigrants. He held in his hand a hundred cases of poor Irish emigrants, all of which fully corroborated the statement of the right hon. Gentleman. He believed that emigrants suffered very much from the too crowded state of the vessels, and from a deficiency of provisions; and he thought that by legislation these evils might be mitigated or altogether removed. It was time that the Government should interfere, and it was only following a just principle of legislation when Parliament interposed for the protection of the weak and ignorant.

Sir Robert Bateson

on the part of the poor of Ireland returned his thanks to the hon. Member for introducing the Bill.

Mr. Patrick Stewart

thought that the Bill would be useful in all its branches. He thought that the sea-worthiness of the ships ought to be ascertained by Government officers on their responsibility. He trusted that all the hon. Member's mea- sures would be as useful as this promised to be.

Leave given to bring in the Bill.

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