HC Deb 04 July 1837 vol 38 cc1790-7
Mr. J. Maxwell

rose, to perform what he felt to be a duty to the poorer classes of his countrymen, who were not directly represented in that House. He did not doubt that the Government were wiling to listen to his representations, and to adopt some measure for mitigating the distress which prevailed, but they were so occupied with changes as to forget to perform an act of justice and mercy to these suffering men. Petitions had been presented to the House from all classes of the community, and a Committee of that House had recommended the same course as those petitions pointed out for alleviating the sufferings of their operative countrymen,—namely, the introduction of a measure for the regulation of the rate of wages. Those distressed individuals were themselves convinced that such a measure alone could remove the pressure of want under which they at present suffered, and numerous petitions had been presented in its favour. But their representations had been coldly treated, and the House had refused to listen to their solicitations. Now those individuals might be wrong, but in such a case he considered the House bound in the most solemn manner, when large bodies came forward and asked for the adoption of a measure which they believed would mitigate their sufferings, to listen to their solicitations and to grant their prayer. Could the House doubt that those indivi- duals knew what measure was best calculated to remove the distress under which they and their wives and children were suffering and could it be supposed that they would ask for that which would prove injurious to themselves and those with whom they were connected? Such a supposition was absurd. Was it not monstrous, then, for that House to turn round upon those persons and say, "We know better than you do, and are convinced that what you ask would prove injurious to yourselves, and therefore we will not allow a Bill to be introduced for regulating the rate of wages." Then, it was said, that the publication of the rate of wages and the prices of goods would be attended with a bad effect, but such was not the opinion of those whose interests he advocated, and he considered that the House ought to prove, by granting the measure, that the ideas which those individuals entertained were wrong. The experiment might be limited to one year, but at all events, it ought to be made in order to ascertain whether it were wise or not, and in order to satisfy those who were convinced that such a measure would prove a remedy for their distress. What course, then, was open for their adoption now that all former plans had failed? To issue a commission of inquiry was, in his opinion, the most advisable course to adopt; and he was sure that a Commission, when its object was to relieve the unrepresented, the distressed, and the miserable, would not be objected to by those who were most hostile to the creation of such bodies. If intelligent and impartial men were appointed by the Government to visit those districts where distress prevailed, and to inquire into the causes of that distress, he was certain they would make out a case of the strongest character in favour of some such legislative measure as he had alluded to, and would at all events be enabled to point out to the House what could be done to mitigate the sufferings of a large body of their countrymen, and to prevent the recurrence of such evils for the future. But the measure which he had recommended was not the only means that might be adopted for alleviating the distress of the handloom weavers. It had been the practice to take out indentures, by which the young placed themselves under the control of experienced weavers to learn the trade, and those young persons lived with their masters as members of the family for a certain number of years, till they had acquired a perfect knowledge of their busi- ness; such a system had been attended with the best results, not only as regarded the morals of the people, but in respect also to the quality of the articles manufactured. But such a system could not now be pursued, as the weavers were in so distressed a condition as to be unable to take young men into their houses as pupils. The stamp-duty on those indentures was at present 25s., and if it was reduced to 5s., it would prove a great means of filling again the weaving shops with moral industrious and able workmen. Another way to alleviate in some degree the distress which prevailed, would be by allowing a drawback on cotton twist used in Great Britain, or by a reduction of the duty on raw cotton. Or the duty on raw cotton might be placed on the cotton twist exported, which would give the British weaver a fairer chance of successful competition with the foreign artisan. He was also assured that a revision of our commercial treaties would prove highly beneficial to the operatives of this country; and he had been informed that were the commercial treaties with France alone placed upon a fairer footing, masters would be able, on some classes of weaving, to allow an increase of wages of from fifteen to twenty per cent. An alteration also in the present corn laws would prove highly beneficial, for at present the trade in corn was in the hands of a few large speculators, and although he was persuaded that much grain was introduced, notwithstanding the regulations which existed, yet it was introduced in such a way as to be productive of no benefit to the consumer. Upon the whole, it was his firm conviction that if the Government did not take some steps to show that they were willing to exert themselves to alleviate the distress which prevailed, the affections of the people would be alienated, and the worst consequences follow. If they sent impartial and intelligent men to inquire into the causes of the distress which was so prevalent, and if such measures as they might recommend were adopted, the Government would then have the satisfaction of knowing that they had done their duty by pursuing the wisest course for the prevention of that confusion and disturbance which there was too much cause to fear would ensue, should the extreme distress which at present existed continue for any length of time. He would conclude by moving, that an humble address be presented to her Majesty praying her to issue a commission of inquiry into the condition of the unemployed handloom weavers, with instruction to Report whether any and what measures could be devised for their relief.

Lord D. Stuart

did not know whether the session was not too far advanced to adopt any effectual measure for the relief of the distress which prevailed, but he would never be present in that House when the case of the handloom weavers was brought forward without doing all in his power in support of their claims. Feeling it to be the duty of the Government to adopt some measures for the relief of the suffering operatives, and feeling that those persons would have a just right to complain should the House adopt no measure for removing the pressure of distress from the working classes, he would with much pleasure second the motion of his hon. Friend for a commission of inquiry.

Mr. Clay

said, that he would not yield to any man in or out of the House in strong desire and anxiety to promote the best interests of the labouring classes of this country, but he was decidedly of opinion that the greatest injury which could be inflicted upon those classes would be by the attempt to regulate by legislative interference the rate of wages. Under such circumstances he could not concur in the motion of the hon. Member for Lanark.

Mr. Brotherton

coming from a manufacturing district, hoped he might say a few words on this question. He commiserated in common with every member of this House the deplorable condition of the handloom weavers. He was well aware of the sufferings and distresses under which they laboured, and should be most happy if anything could be done to relieve them. At the same time he had considerable doubts as to the propriety of regulating the rate of wages by a board to be constituted as had on a former occasion been suggested for that purpose. He thought, however, much benefit would accrue to the suffering classes of the community by the regular publication of the rates of wages in different parts of the country in the same way as the prices of corn were published. So far he was willing to go, but he doubted whether any good effects would arise from the establishment of such a board as that to which he had alluded.

Dr. Bowring

would venture to say, that any interference by legislative enactment between the weavers and their masters would be most pernicious, and by it they would, in the long run, be sufferers. He could not see the object the hon. Member had in view, and he should vote against the motion.

Mr. Wakley

said, the motion was for a Commission to inquire into the state and condition of that suffering class of men, with a view to devise a remedy for their distress. No proposition could be more simple and plain. It was admitted on all hands that they were suffering the greatest privations, and all they asked was, not legislation, but an inquiry; and could it be possible that the House could refuse it? He thought that they could never benefit the working classes by regulating the price of wages; but he trusted the House would agree to the motion without a division, by which they would show to the working classes that even if they had not the power of alleviating their distresses, they were anxious to do so.

Mr. Gillon

said, that the distress which at present existed was, perhaps, such as at no former period had been presented to the attention of the House. Committees had sat in the years 1833, 1834, and 1835, and it had been proved that the hand-loom weaver had to exist upon 2½d. a-day. He could now state that one third of their number were at present in a state of actual starvation. The Report of those Committees had recommended legislative interference, and yet nothing had as yet been done. Every thing had been yielded to grasping manufacturers, who made gain their God, and sacrificed these people to their Moloch. Even the slight boon of the publication of the rates of wages, limited as that proposition was, had been refused; and though two years ago the sympathies of the House had been excited on behalf of the Irish clergy to the extent of a considerable grant of the public money, nothing had been done for the hand-loom weavers. This might be accounted for, because the clergy were for the most part connected with the aristocracy, but the poor weavers were not, and he was sorry to add, that they were but very partially represented in that House. Should it be said that 1,000,000 of British subjects were in a state bordering on starvation, and that no inquiry should be made? It was asserted that a repeal of the Corn-laws would be a relief, but he ventured to say that if the duty was reduced to one-tenth of its present rate, it would afford no relief to the suffering classes in question. He would cordially support the motion.

Mr. Poulett Thomson

did not know whether the object of the hon. Gentleman, who had just sat down was to produce an effect elsewhere; if so, he (Mr. Thomson) must say he had failed in his object. The language he had applied to the manufacturers of the country was calculated to meet the disapprobation of the very classes whose cause he wished to advocate. With regard to the motion he would at once say, that he could not consent to it. He admitted that the terms of the motion were definite; but the hon. Member should have been prepared to show that some good would result from the inquiry he proposed. It had been said by the hon. Member for Finsbury, that if this inquiry was granted it would be satisfactory to the parties, and would show that the House sympathised with their misfortunes. Now, as far as he (Mr. Thomson) could learn, the parties did not desire the inquiry proposed; and he felt that it would have this disadvantage—that it would excite false expectations and false hopes. That was to him a sufficient reason for refusing it. The only object of a Commission could be to obtain an inquiry into the subject. But a Committee of the House had sat for two successive years already, and had investigated the subject most fully. The result of their labours had been laid before the House in two large volumes of evidence which they had collected. Nothing more in the shape of information could be obtained by a Commission. If any hon. Gentleman supposed he could bring forward a remedy for the distresses of the poor persons in question, let him bring it forward, and let it be discussed. He was aware his hon. Friend would reply that he had brought forward a remedy. But then the House had held a different opinion on the adequacy of that remedy, and declared that they did not consider him to be the doctor who could prescribe for the case with success. He was sorry that his hon. Friend had complained that there was a want of sympathy in the Government, or in that House, for these distressed persons. It did not follow, because they disagreed with the hon. Gentleman as to the remedy, that they had no sympathy for the case of the unemployed weavers. In his opinion a change for the better depended very much on themselves. With these views he should feel bound to oppose the motion of the hon. Gentleman.

Sir R. Bateson

, had always conscientiously supported the opinions expressed by the hon. Member for Lanark, and as he was almost the only Irish Member present, be would take the liberty of calling the at- tention of the House to the state of the north of Ireland, where the people who followed the unfortunate trade in question were in a state of the greatest distress, and many were actually starving. In Belfast, with which place he was most intimately acquainted, many thousands of persons who had been remarkable for their industry, sobriety, and orderly demeanour, were now reduced to want and wretchedness. For the last ten years things had been gradually growing worse and worse with them. Heremembered the time when they earned from 25s. to 30s. per week, but now a man with the united exertions of his family could scarcely get more than 3s. 6d. a-week, so that a vast number were sunk into absolute beggary. Such a state of things ought not to be allowed to continue. Hunger and misery must have their bounds, and he dreaded to contemplate the consequences that might arise out of the unpitied miseries of the industrious poor. The committee to which the hon. Gentleman opposite had referred was appointed for a particular purpose, and did not embrace the object of the hon. Member for Lanark. He wished to ask the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he had received any information respecting the extent of distress in the north of Ireland? Did he know that in Belfast there were from 6,000 to 10,000 persons out of work? Had he learned what was the state of things in Down, in Armagh, in Londonderry, in Tyrone, and in Donegal? Had he been told that the linen-weavers were at a complete stand still? He would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether in such a state of things he did not think it was his duty to advise her Majesty's Government to adopt some measure of relief for that suffering portion of her subjects? He called on her Majesty's Government to take into immediate consideration the case of the starving operatives engaged in the linen trade He should support the motion of his hon. friend opposite.

Mr. Fielden

was understood to say, that if her Majesty's Ministers could not find any means of relieving the distresses of industrious people, they were unfit for their post, and it was high time some other mode of Government should be adopted. If large portions of the people were allowed to starve in a land of wealth and plenty, it was quite clear that the true purposes of Government were not answered. It was their duty not only to ascertain the cause of the distress, but having ascertained that such distress existed, to take measures for the application of a proper remedy without delay. He thought a commission of inquiry might lead to some good result; at least it could not possibly do any harm. It was stated in a circular, of which he had received a copy, that in the township of Mars-den near Colne, Lancashire, 230 families comprising 1,400 individuals, had no more than 13½d. per head for their weekly support, including all the parish relief which can be afforded them, and a great many more families are in circumstances very little superior, not having more than 18d. or 20d. each. Such a state of things was dangerous as well as afflicting, for it was impossible to suppose but that endurance must come to an end.

Mr. Hindley

lamented the present deplorable condition of that laborious and deserving class of men, the hand-loom weavers. It was owing no doubt, in some degree to the extensive introduction of machinery, but with that the House could not interfere. The emigration of Irish labourers had also tended greatly to aggravate the evils of their condition. The next cause to which he attributed their distress was the high price of corn, with respect to which the most substantial relief could be afforded, on every principle of justice, by a repeal of the Corn-laws. He hoped a Commission would be granted; it could do no harm, it might do good, if it tended only to show that a feeling of sympathy towards that suffering class was entertained in that House.

The House divided:—Ayes 53; Noes 45: Majority 8.

List of the AYES.
Acheson, Viscount Murray, J. A.
Adam, Sir C. O'Connell, M. J.
Barclay, C. Palmerston, Viscount
Barnard, E. G. Parker, John
Blake, M. J. Parnell, Sir H.
Bowring, Dr. Patten, J. W.
Brodie, W. B. Pease, J.
Byng, G. S. Pinney, W.
Cavendish, hon. C. Price, Sir Robert
Chalmers, P. Rice, right hon. T. S.
Dennistoun, John Russell, Lord John
Dillwyn, L. W. Sanford, E. A.
Divett, E. Smith, R. V.
Donkin, Sir R. S. Stanley, E. J.
Fergus, John Stanley, Lord
Fergusson, R. C. Thomson, C. P.
Gordon, R. Tracy, C. H.
Hastie, A. Warburton, H.
Hay, Sir And. Leith Wilbraham, G.
Howard, Philip Henry Wood, Charles
Howick, Viscount Wynn, rt. hon. C. W.
Inglis, Sir R. TELLERS.
Lennox, Lord G. Seymour, Lord
Morpeth, Viscount Grey, Sir G.
List of the NOES.
Alsager, Captain Hamilton, Lord
Archdall, M. Hindley, C.
Baillie, H. D. Jervis, John
Baring, T. Lawson, Andrew
Bateson, Sir R. Lowther, Col. H. C.
Beckett, Sir J. Lowther, J. H.
Bish, T. Lygon, hon. General
Blackstone, W. S. Mackenzie, T.
Borthwick, Peter Mahon, Viscount
Brotherton, J. Manners, Lord C.
Brownrigg, S. Meynell, Captain
Chandos, Marquess of Pattison, James
Chaplin, Colonel Plumptre, J. P.
Codrington, Sir E. Richards, R.
Crewe, Sir G., bart. Robinson, G. R.
Darlington, Earl of Rushbrooke, Colonel
Dugdale, W. S, Shaw, right hon. F.
Duncombe, hon. A. Sinclair, Sir George
Eaton, Richard J. Vere, Sir C. B.
Elley, Sir J. Vigors, N. A.
Euston, Earl of Wallace, Robert
Fielden, J. Wood, Alderman
Freshfield, James W. Wyndham, Wadham
Gaskell, James Milnes Yorke, E. T.
Gillon, W. D. Young, G. F.
Goring, Harry Dent TELLERS.
Grimston, hon. E. H. Maxwell, John
Hale, Robert B. Wakley, T.
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