HC Deb 03 May 1842 vol 63 cc13-25
Mr. T. Duncombe

said, in submitting the motion of which I have given notice, I should not do justice to my own feelings, and should ill discharge my duty both to the House, and to those whose cause I am here to advocate, did I not, in the first place, express on their behalf their sense of the kind and respectful manner in which this House was pleased to receive the petition, that I had the honour of presenting from them yesterday. But I must now call upon the House to increase that obligation by lending me their patient hearing, while I, to the best of my ability, advocate the interests that are at stake, and state to the House the causes of that great distress under which the labouring classes of this country are at at present suffering. The individuals in whose behalf I now appear—at least the persons who signed the petition I presented yesterday, amount to very nearly 3,500,000. That was the number of signatures affixed to the petition; they were not, however, wholly the signatures of the male adult labouring population of the country. There were the signatures of a considerable portion of the wives of the industrious classes, and the petition contained also the signatures of several hundreds of the youth belonging to the same classes. But though this is so, yet I am prepared to prove, if required, that there are above one million of families of the industrious classes subscribers to that petition. We have lately seen two petitions presented by Gentlemen on the opposite side of the House in favour of what is called the financial scheme of her Majesty's Ministers. One of those petitions came from Manchester, and was signed by 24,000 of the mercantile and operative classes of that town. It was presented by the noble Lord, the Member for South Lancashire (Lord Francis Egerton.) The other petition was presented by the right hon. Member for Dorchester (Sir James Graham), and it proceeded from 3.000 operatives of the town of Carlisle. Both these petitions were in favour of her Majesty's Ministers. I do not wish to detract in the slightest degree from the importance due to those petitions; but if they are entitled to any consideration or any regard on the part of this House, surely a petition proceeding from 3,500,000 of the industrious classes, brought as it was yesterday to this House by many thousands of those classes, in a most respectful, orderly, and peaceful manner—certainly, such a petition is well entitled to the attention of the House. To that petition it is that I now call your attention; and I hope you will concede it, not on my own account, but on account of the petitioners whose cause 1 have to plead. It is not difficult to predict the sort of arguments that will be used against any motion made in this House by the sort of private conversation that passes among Members within these walls. I find from the conversation 1 have held with hon. Members, one great objection—I do not say it is the only one—is put in this way—" Is there any precedent for hearing these parties at the Bar in support of the allegations contained in their petition?" I wish that the only objection I had to meet was one as to the question of precedent. On the part of the petitioners I could sincerely desire that this was all it was necessary for me to prove, in order to obtain a hearing for them at your Bar. Were it so, I might in the first place call the attention of the House to what occurred in 1785, when a petition was presented, proceeding from the clergy, landowners, merchants, manufacturers, and others connected with Lancashire, against the duties on cotton stuffs, as calculated to involve those classes in ruin— and to diminish the public revenue, while it operated as a tax upon labour. They prayed to be heard at the Bar of the House; and this was a tax, observe, not then under consideration, but actually in existence. It was ordered, 'that the said petition be referred to the consideration of a committee of the whole House, and that the petitioners be heard by themselves before the said committee, if they think fit.' The House did resolve itself into a committee of the whole House, and the petitioners were heard at the Bar of the House. In 1789, Mr. Wilberforce presented a petition from all classes in this country who took a very strong interest in the question of the slave-trade. Those petitioners were heard at the bar of the House, but that being found an inconvenient mode of proceeding, the petition in the following Session was referred to a select committee. In April, 1812, petitions were sent up from every part of Lancashire against the orders in council, and Lord Stanley moved that the petitioners should be heard at the Bar of the House. The motion was agreed to. Mr. Rose took part in the debate, and on that occasion said, That it was due, he thought, to the wishes of the petitioners, that their prayers should be taken into consideration, and therefore he should not oppose the motion of the noble Lord.

Mr. Baring,

(now Lord Ashburton) said— That he was glad to see, that now petitions had arrived from almost every district in the country, that now the voice of the nation spoke aloud, Government had so far yielded as to consent to inquiry.

Lord Castlereagh,

on the same occasion, observed — That the vote he should give was not an admission upon the merits of the question, but merely a concession to the wishes of the country, to go into inquiry on the subject.

The question was then put and agreed to, and it was ordered that the committee on the orders in council should sit tomorrow, and be continued" de die in diem." Witnesses from Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, &c, were summoned to attend on the motion of Mr. Brougham. Now, the petition I presented yesterday, proceeding as it does from every part of the empire, is equally deserving the attention of the House. I desire you not to decide upon the merits of that petition, but I request you to listen to the grievances which the petitioners are prepared to state at the Bar of your House. They will not only prove to you that a state of great distress exists in this country, but they will also prove, if not to the satisfaction of every man in this House, at least to the conviction of every unprejudiced mind, that those grievances arise from the neglect and misrepresentation of their interests within these walls. They will also stale to you what they believe to be the remedy for the evils of which they complain. It will not be for you to decide tonight upon the merits of the remedy they may suggest; that will be for your consideration after having heard their statements. After you shall have heard their arguments, then it will be my duty to propose what I conceive would remedy and correct the abuses and mismanagement under which this country is now labouring. It is not merely as a matter of curiosity, but it is, in my opinion, necessary that I should briefly trace the history of the question of constitutional reform during the last fifty or sixty years. Though many call the Chartists of the present day wild and visionary persons, as if the points upon which they lay so much stress were first devised by them, yet I shall soon prove to you that many eminent men, both of this House and of the other House of Parliament, have long since advocated the same principles. The first time that this country seriously took up what was then called radical reform was in 1777. You will be pleased to observe, that this very subject has undergone all sorts of names, but they all resolve themselves into the same thing. When Major Cart Wright advocated reform, you called him a Radical. At that time, the people almost repudiated the name of Radical as a stigma. Up to 1798, this feeling existed; but at that period, the Whigs took up the cause of reform, and then you called them Reformers. This designation was continued up to the period when the Reform Bill was passed; and now, those who were originally called Radicals, and afterwards Reformers, are called Chartists; but if you will examine the points upon which they stand, and the principles they advocate, these Chartists, in fact, are only the Radicals of former days. In 1777, Major Cartwright made the first move in favour of what is now called, in point of fact, the Charter. In 1780, a very numerous meeting was held in this metropolis, in favour of radical reform. By that meeting, a committee was appointed, called the Westminster Reform Association. And what did they do? What were the resolutions they passed? Why, they resolved upon what are now termed the six points of the Charter — annual Parliaments, universal suffrage—and so on. After this, a society was formed for promoting what was called constitutional information. At the head of this society, there was the Duke of Richmond, who was the president, supported by the Duke of Bedford, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Effingham, the Earl of Selkirk, Lord Mountnorris, and about 166 highly respectable individuals. This association made a report, which they circulated throughout the country, advancing as sound constitutional principles the six points of the Charter. In 1783, great enthusiasm existed in favour of radical reform. But what happened then? A coalition, then, unhappily for all true Reformers, took place between Lord North and Mr. Fox. and from that moment all confidence in public men was lost. The public did not know whom to look to. They had relied upon Mr. Fox, and the Whigs, and they found, that by that coalition, the Whigs, with their leader, had deserted them. All activity on the part of the Reformers then, for sometime, ceased. However, in 1792, the question was again taken up, and what was called the "Corresponding Society" was established, and Mr. Grey, now Earl Grey, was at the head of it. The Government found the Corresponding Society a very inconvenient society to exist, and means were taken to suppress it and put it down. In 1793, this society sent two delegates to Scotland. Those delegates were arrested by the King's Government, though they were doing, in fact, no more than what was being done by their principals in England. They were arrested, tried, convicted, and transported for fourteen years. The Government finding, that they had considerable success in Scotland, immediately instituted prosecutions against certain members of the Corresponding Society in London. Eleven members were arrested, and four of them were tried, but, fortunately London juries were not so pliant as the juries which the Government had succeeded in obtaining in Scotland. The four members were acquitted, and the remainder of the prosecutions were dropped. The association went on with additional zeal and enthusiasm in the cause; but, in 1798, a corrupt Government, and a still more corrupt House of Commons, found it necessary to suppress it by suspending the Habeas Corpus Act. Lord Grey was then in Parliament, and he declared, that although he did not go the full length of those individuals who advocated Radical principles, yet rather than that there should be no reform in this House, he would vote for universal suffrage. Any man is perfectly justified in saying the same thing now; and I maintain, that looking at the conduct of this House towards the industrious classes, it is quite consistent with the soundest constitutional principles to advocate universal suffrage. The Habeas Corpus Act was suspended, and for a considerable time— I believe, for nearly nineteen years—the people were, to a certain extent, quiet upon the question; but, in 1817, the same feeling came into existence again, and a great cry was raised for Parliamentary reform. What happened in 1817? Why, the Habeas Corpus Act was again suspended, and that once more put down the cause. In 1819, the Manchester massacre took place, and the country was almost in a state of rebellion. This went on up to 1829, when the right hon. Baronet conceded to the claims of the Irish people; the grievances of the Catholics were redressed, and Catholic emancipation was granted. That, it is true, was done at the expense of the 40s. freeholders. What was the next step taken, which assumed anything like the character of reform—I call it reform, because it altered the constitution of this House? From 1829 to 1830, I need not remind the House of the state the country was in, when the Tory Government of that day were obliged to abandon the helm of Government. I need not remind you, that in consequence of the declaration of the Duke of Wellington against all reform, the Sovereign was not able to partake of the hospitality which the citizens of London offered, because his Ministers were so unpopular. I need not remind you of the disturbances, the scenes of riot, and the acts of incendiarism which took place in Kent at that period. The Government was changed, and the Whigs came into office. The first step they took in the following year was to introduce the Reform Bill. I believe, that those individuals who framed the Reform Bill and introduced it into Parliament were perfectly honest and sincere. The intention was greatly to improve the representative system of the country, and the people believed, that great advantage would result from it. They have been grievously —I will not say deceived, but disappointed—disappointed to the utmost extent of their hopes. All who now hear me must recollect the enthusiasm which prevailed—they must recollect the black flag of Glasgow and the fires of Bristol. But at the general election in 1834, the people found that great difficulties were thrown in their way with regard to registration. They were prevented from registering their votes, and the same system has been continued to the present hour, while the Conservative party have not failed to adopt the advice of the right hon. Baronet, and have taken care to perfect every vote they could possibly make available. What has been the consequence? That there now exists a general dissatisfaction and discontent with the Reform Act. Nobody thanks you for it: on the contrary, everybody believes, though everybody may not say, that this House is more corrupt, more dishonest, and more disposed to what is called class-legislation, than even the notoriously and avowedly venal House of Commons as it existed before the passing of the Reform Act. And for my own part, when I watch your proceedings, when I mark the reports of your committees, and when I remember all that took place at the last general election, 1 must say, that the people have, as stated, come to a just conclusion in this petition, that "the corruption, the bribery, and the intimidation, which were then practised are best known, and known to their fullest extent, by Members of this House." Then, here we are in the year 1842, not merely in as bad, but even in a worse condition than in 1830. I do not believe, that the House and the Government are fully aware of the state of the public mind or of the state of the country at this moment. It will be my duty, my painful duty, to inform the right hon. Baronet upon these points—as to the state of the public mind on the question of reform, and as to the distress under which the industrious classes are labouring in all parts of the kingdom. It has been said, that the accounts of distress are exaggerated, but I do not believe, that the House is yet in possession of anything like a just account of the real amount of suffering, or is by any means fully informed as to the strong feeling of the people against the political bondage in which they find themselves. The House is perhaps not aware that the petition I had the honour to present has been, to use a common term, in a course of signature for the last three or four months. The persons who have interested themselves about it have formed themselves throughout the country into what are called national associations, in order to procure for the working classes those rights which they maintain the ancient constitution of this kingdom gave them, intended them to retain, and of which they have been deprived. There are about 600 of these Chartist associations in England and Scotland, and nearly 100,000 adults of the industrious portion of the community lay aside one penny per week of their wages for the purpose of carrying on and keeping up agitation in favour of their claim to the elective franchise. Between 50,000 and 60,000 of these have taken what are called cards, and thereby pledge themselves that as long as they receive one shilling of wages they will set apart a penny per week, and will never rest until their voice is heard within these walls by representatives of their own free choice. If you think the signatures to the petition are fictitious—if you think the working classes are not earnest in their claims— you grossly deceive yourselves. Never were the people so determined as at the present moment by every constitutional means to obtain the franchise. So determined are they, and so organized, that I do not believe you will be long able to prevent their voice from being heard in this place. The distress under which they are so severely suffering swells the cry, and renders it more audible and piercing. It is natural—it is proper that it should. When they see their interests disregarded and their feelings insulted, and when they have no hope of better times or better treatment, unless they work out their own redress— when you offer them mere words, and endeavour to stop their cravings by the delusive promises of a Queen's speech —when you tell them that "you feel extremely for the distresses of the manufacturing districts, which they have borne with exemplary patience and fortitude," but offer them no remedy beyond your compassion —what can you expect but that they should make their way to this House, and, as you will do nothing for them, endeavour to do something for themselves? I will now show the House, as briefly as I can, the progress which distress has made in the manufacturing districts. Individuals have been sitting here in convention in order to see the petition I presented yesterday fairly landed in this House; and in answer to my inquiries, they made statements which at first appeared to me almost incredible, but which I found fully confirmed on the most unquestionable testimony. I have had, I dare say, five hundred communications on the subject, and out of them I have selected a few, to which I earnestly request the House to listen with patience and commiseration. The first is from Sheffield, and is in the following terms:—

"Sheffield, May 1, 1842. The total number of signatures sent from Sheffield will number 27,200. Sheffield is in a deplorable state. The number of inmates in Sheffield poor-house alone up to the 23rd of April; numbered 574. The relief to the regular ticket poor in money and bread for the week ending April 23, amounted to 92l. 10s. For the last five weeks the number of new applicants for relief have averaged 200 weekly. The weekly payments to the casual poor in the first five weeks ending yesterday week were as follows:—March 24, 201l: April 1, 229l.; April 8, 248l.; April 15, 274l.; and April 22, 298l. One month increased, 97l., although the season is improving. The foregoing will give you some idea of the state of this once prosperous town; it is said that the trades societies are about to break up, unable longer to keep up their funds: if this should be the case, hundreds, perhaps thousands, will be added to the ranks of the pauperised and destitute. Sheffield is tranquil at present; that it will remain so for any length of time, with starvation and misery increasing daily, is very doubtful.

My next evidence is from Wolverhampton, and it is this:—

"Wolverhampton, April 29, 1842. The colliers, nailers, mechanics, and labourers, are in a state of poverty and degradation, disgraceful to a civilized country. The supply of all kinds of labour being greater than the demand, the operatives have no power to prevent their wages being continually reduced. The miners and nailers are now out of work, in consequence of their masters having attempted to make a great reduction in their already too scanty wages. The general impression of the working men in these parts is, that their cause of complaint can never be effectually removed unless they possess the power of choosing their own representatives. The whole of this district is in an alarming state of agitation. Chartism is rapidly progressing. Towns and villages, where even the name of Chartism a short time ago was unknown, now have their Chartist association; and, unless some effective measures are speedily adopted for the removal of the present alarming distresses of the toiling sons of industry, the consequences are likely to be most serious.

The following is from another part of the country: — Burnley, April 18, 1842. My dear Sir;—In answer to yours of the 15th instant, I can only say that it would be useless to attempt to send you a statement of wages, &c, as you desire, for if I did so, before it reached your hands it is likely that there would be a material reduction. I, therefore deem it sufficient to state to you, in a genera way, the state of the town and neighbourhood; and after you have read the statements, you may, if you have an opportunity, read it to Sir Robert Peel and the Government. The working classes are in an awful state of destitution; there are hundreds out of employment, and those that are employed, or partially so, cannot by their earnings procure a sufficiency of food. I can assure you, Sir, that all are in a feverish state of excitement. I never, in the course of my life, saw this part of Lancashire in such a state; and I am one of those who have watched well the motions of the people. 'Coming events cast their shadows before,' Meetings—large meetings— consisting of thousands, are being held almost daily, to take into consideration what shall be done to prevent the multitude from starving to death: and, after mature and deliberate consideration, they come to the conclusion that they have but one alternative, namely—to take it rather than starve. Sunday week there was a numerous meeting on Whitmoor, on the confines of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Thousands assembled from places within twelve or fourteen miles distant. Yesterday, on Marsden-height, there was another, of at least 7,000. To-day 10,000 have met at Colne, and at each of these meetings there is but one opinion, and that is, that the Charter must become the law of this land before any permanent good can be effected for the working-classes. A portion of the mills in Burnley are shut up, and the remainder are running short time. There will be meetings held every Sunday during the sitting of the Convention; next Sunday on Enfield, the Sunday following on Derply, and so on throughout the district. I can assure you, Sir, that when news arrives in Burnley of a bad market in Manchester, it is received with joy, and a good market the contrary. The cry is—it is hastening the crisis. This is a fearful state of things. A people must be bordering on despair when what was formerly considered as disasters are hailed with general joy. It would be well for the Government to look to these things, ere it is too late. The people cannot suffer starvation much longer—hope is fled; and God only knows where this state of things will end. The hand-loom weavers—poor fellows— they are compelled, against their very nature, to turn out into the streets and beg. On Saturday last they were begging from door to door, driven to it from sheer want. The police made an attempt to take them into custody, but the brave but starved fellows resisted, and the police made a virtue of necessity and left Them alone. To-day a case has been brought before the magistrates of a young man from Padiham who, driven to desperation by starvation, broke two panes of glass, in a shopkeeper's window, in order to get sent to prison, so that he could get something to eat. His mother is a widow, with six children, he the eldest, and all of them out of work. They had 4s. weekly allowed them by the board of guardians to maintain six children and the mother (who was sick); the young man took the children before the guardians, and solicited further allowance; it was refused, and he stated before the magistrate to-day, that when he asked the overseer what he was to do, he told him he must go and Steal; but the young man preferred breaking windows to stealing, and the humane magistrate committed him to Preston house of cor- rection for one month, the young man thanking him kindly for the boon. That heart, indeed, must be steeled against the feelings of humanity, that can contemplate such a state of things as this without endeavouring to remedy it. The above, Sir, I will vouch to be correct. I have not in the least exaggerated; indeed, Sir, I fear it is far short of the real picture.

"Yours, &c."

I have similar accounts from some of the midland districts, from Leicester, Loughborough, Mountsorrell, Sheepshead, and Hinckley, respecting the stocking and other trades carried on in that part of the kingdom; but with these, perhaps, it is unnecessary for me to trouble the House. Distress of the severest kind also prevails in the metropolitan counties; all trades are in a most depressed condition, and let me tell the right hon. Baronet, that his tariff will only make that condition worse. But I will now go to Scotland, and will read to the House most heart-breaking accounts from the vale of Leven. It appears that wages there vary from 7d. to 0d. per day, and scores of families have never tasted animal food for various periods— some, I think, not for twenty-eight weeks, oatmeal boiled in water and sweetened with a little sugar being the principal diet of the unfortunate operatives. The subsequent is one of the communications I have received from thence:— At your request I present you with an account of the situation of the people I represent in the Convention. The spot from which I was sent is known by the name of ' The Vale of Leven,' one of the most beautiful spots in Scotland; on the banks of the silvery stream that runs through it are a great many print-works. Its population in 1841 was as follows, comprising three villages:—Bonhill,2,115 persons; Alexandria, 3,060, Kenton, 2,326; making a total of 7,501. The following estimate, the result of a careful investigation, will give you some idea of the extent of destitution; it iucludes only Bonhill and Alexandria, and takes up a period of twenty-eight weeks:—There were, on an average during that time, four persons at 7¾d. per day; 2 at 7d.; 6 at 6¾d.; 11 at 6½d.; 5 at 6d.; 21 at 5½d.; 11 at 5¼d.; 13 at 5d.; 14 at 4¾d.; 10 at 4½d.; 11 at A¼d.; 31 at 4d.; 28 at 3|¾d.; 96 at 3½d.; 10 at 3¼d.; 89 at 3d.; 31 at 2¾d.; 151 at 2½d..; 65 at 2¼d.; 135 at 2d.; 126 at lid.; 128 at l½d.; 15 at l¼d.; 55 at 1d.; 31 at id.; 28 at ½d.; 9 at ¼d. per day; and 65 in that period with nothing at all. This statement numbers in all 1,211 persons. I know scores of families who had never tasted animal food in that time; oatmeal boiled in water, sweetened with a little sugar, is their principal diet. Notices of ejectment are being served by landlords to their tenants, and proprietors of houses are refusing to let their houses unless the applicant can find a surety for the payment of rent—a task, being unemployed, they find it difficult to accomplish. Dumbarton is suffering a vast amount of destitution; the carpenters are nearly out of work. Kirkintilloch contains many weavers, and, after toiling twelve or fourteen hours daily, can go home with about 5s. weekly. Campsie, in Stirlingshire, with a population of 5,000, is suffering much from destitution; many of the men are out of work, and plenty more are only on half time. The great body of the people look to universal suffrage as the only hope left them, believing that no House of Commons, but one representing the whole people, will permanently remedy the abuses of which the working classes complain. These are a few facts connected with my district; you are at liberty to use them as you think proper in the House when presenting the petition. Hoping that you may long live to enjoy the confidence and esteem of that people of whose liberties you have stood the uncompromising advocate. I remain, dear Sir,

Yours in the cause of public justice,


Member of Convention.

I do not know whether I am balloted for to speak at the Bar of your House if your motion is acceded to; I should be most happy, if called upon, to answer any questions it is in my power to reply to, calculated to show the condition of the people.

What I am now about to read is from Edinburgh, and it shows that in all quarters, there exists the strongest determination, by constitutional means, to change the composition of this House:—