HC Deb 05 July 1842 vol 64 cc999-1009

Lord Ashley moved the Order of the Day for the further proceedings on the third reading of the Mines and Collieries Bill.

Mr. Ainsworth

said, he had been requested, in the absence of the hon. Member for Bradford, to present fifteen or sixteen petitions from the working classes in the neighbourhood of Bradford against the bill of the noble Lord. It was not his intention to trespass long upon the House, having been advised by several persons who were deeply interested in this question not to oppose the measure in its present stage, but to let it go up to another place with all its faults and failings. He would, however, state some of the reasons why he disapproved of it. To the exclusion of women from collieries he had not the slightest objection; but he thought that just now their exclusion would increase the distress which already prevailed amongst the poor and labouring population of the country. The noble Lord was also determined to remove boys of nine years of age, and to prevent those of ten, eleven, and twelve years old from working more than three days in the week. If the bill passed in that shape, hundreds of children would be thrown out of employment, and hundreds of families would be driven into workhouses. By the clause which he had submitted, children would have been allowed to work five days in the week, limiting the hours of labour for the whole week to forty-five. The plan of the noble Lord was not practicable, and in that view he was supported by the opinions of practical men, who had informed him that in Bolton, the coal being of what is called a tender description, the working on alternate days only would not answer, it being necessary that the workmen should be in attendance every day. With respect to the mines of Staffordshire, the employment of boys on alternate days was wholly impracticable. An individual who had come up from Lancashire only a day or two ago had told him, that it was utterly impossible for him to have relays of boys in the neighbour- hood where he resided; and that out of 120 boys employed by him, sixty were uuder thirteen years of age, and thirty-two under nine years, and these would be entirely deprived of the means of subsistence, or they must go into the mines, and thus the noble Lord's bill would become a dead letter. In Scotland there were at least forty widows and their families who were entirely dependent on the labour of their children, and they would be compelled to go to the kirk for relief. A gentleman in his own neighbourhood had declared to him that the coal-masters cared not much about the bill; as long as they got their mines worked, they were indifferent as to the sufferings of their workmen; it was, in fact, a labourer's question. The effect of the bill would be to deprive many boys of work, and to reduce the wages of the rest 50 per cent. Mr. Buddel had explained how it was that the noble Lord had obtained the support of some of the proprietors of mines; his supporters were those who worked thick mines; but those who had to work thin mines could not but object to the practice of the boys labouring only three days a week. By the clause which he had submitted, children under ten years old would not have been permitted to enter a mine; they would not have to labour until they were able. The question really was, whether this labour was prejudicial to the health of the children? He would call attention to the reports of the commissioners. Many cases which had appeared in their reports were highly coloured. There was a case related of a little girl who had been taken before nobody knew whom, and great doubts were entertained of the accuracy of the story about her. The gentleman who owned the mine in which the girl was said to have been had made inquiries amongst his workmen, and could obtain no information as to any commissioner having taken the girl—who had died since—before a magistrate, or of any commissioner having examined into her case. If commissioners were sent to collect information, they ought to go at once to the fountain-head. But what was the condition of the boys? Those in the West Riding of Yorkshire were reported to have good food and clothing; they had bread and milk and porridge for their breakfast, large lumps of bread and cheese for their luncheon, and a hot meal on their return home. He wished all the poor children in Lancashire were as well fed; but by this bill they would all be re- duced to the same state of privation and suffering. The commissioners said, that when the parents were well conducted the children were generally well fed, and had a change of clothing every Sunday. What was the report of medical men in various parts respecting these children? He held in his hand statements from various professional gentlemen. In Durham and Northumberland their health was remarkably good, as was frequently shown by their speedy recovery from wounds. Comparing them with the children of agricultural and other labourers in North Wales, they had better wages, lived in better houses, which were better furnished, their clothing was as good if not superior, and they did not work more hours in the day. In South Wales the children enjoyed a greater share of good health than those of other workmen. Another medical man said— I cannot discover that the health of children of seven or eight years of age was affected by their daily subhumation for eight or ten hours. The colliers live like fighting cocks, and presented a realization of the sturdy and swarthy colliers. The state of these children was much better than that of the factory children; but the effect of the noble Lord's bill would be to deteriorate their condition, and to aggravate the distress which already existed amongst the working classes. In the borough with which he was connected there was what was called a relief fund, from which, during the last year, the following persons derived assistance:—373 cotton-spinners; 370 weavers; 134 outworkers or working labourers; but only nine of the colliery population. The noble Lord had already interfered with the cotton-spinners, and gone such great lengths as to cause great privation amongst them, and the result of this measure would be the same with regard to the mining population. This question had been very properly termed the poor man's question—it was one which did not affect the rich, or one in which they took little interest. But he must say, as a county magistrate, that he would not be responsible for the public peace if the bill were carried into effect in its present shape, and another county magistrate had expressed himself to the same effect. He had witnessed the distress, want, and misery of the population in his own neighbourhood, and had been influenced only by one motive—that of benevolence, in the course he had taken with regard to this measure. The colliers had invariably withstood the overtures of Whigs, Tories, and Radicals, to get them to join in any political movement. They had said, "As long as we can by hard work gain a livelihood, we have no wish to enter into any political squabble." Would it not be better (as one of his correspondents inquired) for the noble Lord to be content with removing the women this year? Let him be satisfied with that for the present, and not be too hasty. Such a bill, if passed into an act of Parliament, would very likely introduce discontent and political agitation where they were unknown before, and the consequence might be serious. The colliers would repeal an act of Parliament much sooner than the House of Commons. With respect to that clause for prohibiting the entrance of children into the mines, he would ask, how could they prevent a man from taking his own children into a pit? They must have a policeman at every spot, and disturbances and affrays would continually take place. He assured the noble Lord, that he could not carry his bill into operation in its present state. That being his opinion, he wished to see that clause modified. There was another serious objection to the bill. No provision was made for the accidents which were of so frequent occurrence. He wanted to know how were these poor people to obtain their livelihood, if their hours of labour were to be so restricted? It was utterly impossible that such a bill could become the law of the land. He fervently rejoiced that there was another House. (Cheers.) Yes, he again said he was glad that the bill of the noble Lord was to be considered in another House. Hon. Members opposite might cheer, but he maintained that he had always supported the privileges of the Upper House. He thought that the other House of Parliament was necessary to correct harsh or false legislation. He perfectly concurred in all that the noble Lord said on the importance of education. He had always been an advocate for the education of the people. He must say of the children employed in his own mines, that great attention was paid to their moral and religious habits. He required all the children whom he employed, not only to attend a place of worship regularly, but also the Sunday-school. The hon. Member concluded by stating that it was not his intention to persist in his opposition to the bill.

Mr. Benett

thought that the bill before the House did honour to the noble Lord with whom it had originated. He differed from what had fallen from the hon. Member who had last addressed the House. He considered that the House was justified in interfering in all cases where the poor were oppressed. He was not influenced by interested motives. He had nothing to do with collieries and mines. As the House had interfered on previous occasions in questions of this kind—he referred to the bills relating to the factory children and the sweeps—he thought that it was the duty of Parliament to throw its protection round those to whom the measure of the noble Lord specially referred. The bill did honour to the noble Lord—honour to the Legislature, if it passed such a measure. It was disgraceful to think that children employed under ground in the mines should be exposed to such treatment.

On the question that the bill do pass,

Mr. C. P. Villiers

vindicated the conduct of those Members of the House who, upon a former evening, had insisted upon an adjournment of the debate. He repudiated the foul and false calumnies which had been heaped upon them in consequence of the course they had pursued. Their object had not been to defeat the bill, or to defend the abuses which it was the object of the bill to correct; but simply to give an opportunity for a further and fuller discussion of a measure which, with the intention of effecting much good, was still calculated in some respects to work no inconsiderable degree of mischief. The objects and intentions of those who had opposed themselves to the rapid progress of the bill had been grossly misrepresented. They had never defended the employment of women and children in the manner described in the reports. Every one who had spoken had expressed an earnest wish to correct such evils as were really found to exist. But there was reason to believe that the reports of the commissioners were, in many respects, somewhat partial and inaccurate. This was a reason for delay and for further discussion, in order that the truth might be accurately ascertained before any legislation was adopted upon the subject. He entirely agreed with the object of the noble Lord in preventing the employment of very young boys in mines and collieries; but, at the same time, he was at a loss to know how those boys, who hitherto had been employed six days a week, were hereafter to obtain the means of living when their employment was limited to three days a week. He admitted that no time should be lost in legislating to prevent the continuance of those abuses which the coal-owners of the north had permitted, to their disgrace, to exist in their collieries; but he could not help feeling that this measure had not yet been discussed with a view to the real interests of those persons who would be immediately affected by it. He thought that it required further consideration, and that the House, before it proceeded to legislate upon the matter, should possess itself of further and more accurate information. Under these circumstances he was glad that the measure had yet to undergo a discussion in another place, where he hoped the good parts of it would be retained, and the injudicious and bad expunged.

Mr. Attwood

said, that in offering observations on the details of the noble Lord's bill, he desired to say that he entirely concurred in its general principle and objects. He had supported every measure the noble Lord had brought forward for the protection of the labouring classes, as he supported all the measures having this object of the late lamented Mr. Sadler, the noble Lord's predecessor in a task which reflects on him so much honour. But, at the same time, he believed that if more deliberation had been used in maturing the details of the present measure, the bill would have been rendered equally effectual for protecting the oppressed portion of the classes comprehended in the bill, without inflicting injury, as he feared would now be the case, on other portions of those classes, and without unnecessary interference with the interests of their employers. In Staffordshire and in Shropshire many collieries employed from 200 to 300 each of boys, from ten to thirteen years of age. They were essential to the working of the mines; he believed they were not overworked or oppressed, and he feared that a bill, preventing such boys being employed for two consecutive days, would render their labour useless, throw many of the boys themselves out of employment, and inflict hardships on the class intended to be benefitted. Of the manner in which boys were employed in the collieries in that part of England which he had the honour to be connected with by representation, he would speak with perfect confidence. He would show the House a short statement of facts that would enable them to judge how little benefit, and what probable injury, might be effected by this provision. In the great collieries belonging to the Earl of Lonsdale, at Whitehaven, were employed under ground more than 600 able colliers. These men had mostly been trained from their youth in these pits. It was that training which gave their labour value. He held in his hand a statement showing that of fifty-five of those men, taken without selection as they came from the pits, fourteen only had been employed there for a less period than twenty-five years. Some had been employed thirty-five years, some forty-five, some fifty, some sixty-two. Now, when men have been employed such periods as these in one task, they must have been young when they entered on the labour. In these collieries were ninety-three boys, between ten and thirteen. They entered as trappers; their work was to open and shut the air-doors, a task similar to opening and shutting a wicket-gate. They were promoted to be drivers of horses. In these extensive mines were not less than 140 horses constantly employed under ground. The boys led the horses; as they ceased to be boys they were taken to other branches. They became colliers, engineers, or filled other tasks suited to full-grown labourers. He would say that it would render those boys utterly useless to prevent their occupation being carried on any two successive days; but every one must see that a measure which effected this, greatly endangered the interest of the boys themselves. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton had complained of the reports of the commissioners. There was reason for that complaint. The gentleman who had reported on the Whitehaven collieries had made a report, which he was not warranted in making. The commissioner was a Mr. Symons. He, not knowing who he was, would not speak of him but with respect, and the more so because he was not present. When he inspected those collieries, he stated to the gentlemen who accompanied him that the regulations were unexceptionable; that if all collieries were conducted similarly, there would be no occasion for legislative interference; but having said this at Whitehaven, he had stated in his report that he found instances of hardship, and that he believed he should have found more, but that evidence was not given freely, on account of the presence of what he described as great men. Now, this was an insinuation, if not an assertion, that information was kept back by the influence he referred to; and he took on him to say, that whether this were insinuated or affirmed, it was in either case utterly unfounded. The very respectable gentleman, Mr. Peile, known to many Members of that House, who was the manager of the extensive collieries of Lord Lonsdale, was in all probability the gentleman referred to amongst the great men in this insinuation. Mr. Peile was as incapable of this conduct as he was without a motive for it; and he was assured that neither Mr. Peile nor any other of the managers of these collieries, could have any desire but to give the most explicit information. He should say no more but to express his regret that before the bill had gone through the committee in that House, the parties whose interests were affected had not, by earlier information, been enabled to propose amendments, which he believed would have improved the bill.

Mr. Stansfield

quite agreed with the last speaker in thinking that the bill had not been maturely considered, and expressed his fear that too many had formed their opinions on the subject merely on the exaggerated reports which had gone forth to the public. He must say that he had strong objections to the cuts which the commissioners thought it right to publish with their report. It was an indecent mode of attracting attention, and one which was likely to lead to great exaggeration. What would have ' been said if some of the poorhouse hardships had been thus illustrated—if the cases narrated the other night as having occurred in the Keighley Union had thus been pictured forth to attract public attention? He was of opinion, too, that the measure, great as was its design, would be very limited in its operation. The clause, for instance, regarding the apprenticeship of boys would only affect some fifteen or sixteen in the extensive coal district of South Staffordshire. If they were to go on in this way, every class would soon have its enactment. Milliners and pinmakers would be protected, as it was called, and little children employed in hemming and stitching, or in putting heads on pins, would only be allowed to work alternate days. Really they should consider what these children were to do on the days they made them idle by act of Parliament. They did not provide education for them, and yet they refused to let them earn an honest livelihood. He said it was very dangerous to interfere in such a manner, and he earnestly hoped they would be careful of the grounds they acted on. To show the exaggerated nature of the statements in the report, he would take the liberty to state one instance which had come under the observation of a friend of his. In the report of one of the commissioners, Mr. Kennedy, it was stated that a boy in the Lancashire district had stated that he had seen his master strike another boy, a pauper, apprenticed by the St. Helen's workhouse, on the shins and legs with a pickaxe, and that he had also seen him throw a hundred weight at him, which "swelled up his eye and made it blue." This case was quoted by the noble Lord opposite as an instance of great oppression. Now, thinking it rather strange that the hundred weight so thrown should only have had the effect of "swelling up this boy's eye and making it blue," his friend had referred to the evidence accompanying the reports, and had there found that the boy had been struck, not with a pickaxe, but with a pickarm, or handle, and that, instead of a cwt., a cut had been thrown at him, the said cut being a notched stick of no great thickness, which served as an index for the miners. He noticed this as a specimen of the exaggerations which had, through inadvertence or neglect, been made even by the commissioners themselves, and he did really hope that they would be careful how they acted on testimony too often so perverted: He could only add that he considered more time should have been given to digest the bill, and to bring it into operation. In the chimneysweepers' case, as well as in the case of the factory children, they allowed several years to elapse before they brought the bill into operation, but in this case all this machinery was to be put in motion in some five or six months from the present time. Would it not be better to give further time to consider these clauses, and to confine the present operation of the law to its first province—that, namely, prohibiting female labour?

Mr. Brotherton

could really see nothing in this bill that was at all unreasonable. Was it unreasonable to prevent children and boys from being employed from fourteen to sixteen hours a-day? In answer to those who would ask how these persons were to be employed, he would say that it would be better to divide the labour, though that he admitted would be in itself an evil, than to continue a practice which was opposed to every principle of humanity. He had on a former occasion presented a petition from 1,062 colliers of Oldham, in which it was stated that the labour to which the women were subjected in the mines was not the worst of the evils, but that the indiscriminate mixture of the sexes and the conversation they were compelled to hear were still worse. It was always necessary, where strong self-interest operated to the continuation of abuse, that such abuse should be checked by legislative interference. He had therefore no hesitation in giving his support to the bill, and he thought the noble Lord by whom it was introduced deserved the thanks of his country.

Mr. Hawkes

considered that the owners of the coal-mines in Staffordshire had a right to complain that time had not been afforded to them with respect to this measure. It would be very difficult without due consideration to prepare a bill which would operate satisfactorily in the various counties.

Lord Ashley

read an extract of a letter, being only one of many such that he had received, in which the writer stated his full persuasion that the mine-owners had nothing to fear from the bill, whilst it held out every prospect of greatly improving both the moral and physical condition of the rising generation employed in the coal mines. It stated that this was an opinion in which all practical men, and most of the workmen, concurred, and concluded by expressing a hope that the bill would pass and become the law of the land.

Viscount Palmerston

said, that in the course of the debate doubts had been expressed as to the fate of the bill in another place. He, however, sincerely hoped that it would be passed into law without any alteration of its essential principle, and there was no doubt that it would become so if it had the sincere support of Government elsewhere. A Minister of the Crown had promised the noble Lord by whom the bill had been introduced that it should have the support of the Government—not the mere ordinary support, but cordial, warm, and friendly assistance. He could scarcely think that that expression merely applied to the progress of the bill in that House. It would be nothing more than mockery if the promised support were not to be given elsewhere, and the conduct which Government intended to pursue with respect to the measure was watched with great anxiety by those whose good opinion Ministers would be very sorry to lose.

Bill passed.

House adjourned.