HC Deb 27 February 1843 vol 66 cc1343-7

The question for reading the Order of the Day for going into Committee of Supply having been again put,

Lord Ashley

begged to take that opportunity of calling the attention of the right hon. Secretary of State for the Home Department to a subject of considerable importance. He had just received a letter from a very respectable gentleman, signed Thomas Barber, auditor of the Halifax Union, which was in these words:—

Halifax, Feb. 25. My Lord—Permit me most respectfully to direct your Lordships special attention to the last page of the Halifax Guardian of this day, where you will find a statement of facts relative to the cruel treatment a boy has undergone, or endured, at the hands of his inhuman master, a collier, residing at Black- ley, four miles from this place. It is not in the power of language to describe, or of imagination to conceive, the spectacle presented to my view when I examined his back on Wednesday last at the union workhouse. With a firm determination of transmitting an account to you, I wrote down his statement, but afterwards deemed it expedient to request the editor and publisher of the Guardian to report it in the paper; he yesterday accompanied me to the workhouse, and has given the substance of the boy's narrative. I have just returned from the magistrates office, where the master has appeared under a summons from the overseers for the purpose of freeing the lad from the parish indenture. The lad gave a clear and succinct statement of the treatment and sufferings he had endured for some weeks back, with an artlessness that carried an irresistible conviction of its truthfulness to the mind of every individual present. The master was not able to disprove or controvert one iota of the statement, though defended by a professional gentleman, and the justices discharged the lad from his apprenticeship, according to the 20th of Geo. 2nd, c.19. To Lord Ashley, London. Along with that letter he had received a copy of the Halifax Guardian, and he thought he was justified in calling the attention of the House to the case, because he had last year proposed by his bill the total and immediate cancelling of apprenticeships for undergoing operations, and if that clause had not been reversed elsewhere, such a case as the present never could have happened. The Halifax Guardian thus reported the case:— It is this week our painful duty to record one of the most revolting cases of barbarous treatment that it ever fell to our lot to notice. The case affords another illustration of the cruelties practised upon children doomed to slave labour in a coal mine, and we beg distinctly to observe, that we have understated rather than overstated the treatment of the wretch whose name we shall shortly introduce. James Whiteley, a poor orphan boy, about seventeen years of age, was apprenticed to Joseph Whiteley, collier, residing at Blackley, near Elland, about seven years ago, as a hurrier. He was then only about nine years of age. From the first day of his apprenticeship to his cruel master he has been the subject of the most severe and harsh treatment. The labour to which he was put in his mere infancy was the veriest drudgery, and when his limbs failed to do their duty a huge strap, or not unfrequently a thick piece of wood, was most inhumanly applied to his person. Six o'clock in the morning was the usual hour at which this poor boy was sent into the pit, and at the same hour in the evening—but not unfrequently eight o'clock or nine o'clock—he was again submerged, his only subsistence being a muffin, or some other such eatable, and the water in the pit. The cruelties practised upon him have been greatly increased since his inhuman master was married (about two years since), the woman it appears having taken a dislike to the poor orphan lad. As a sample of the barbarities which this collier boy has had to undergo, let the punishment he has experienced during the last fortnight suffice. It appears that the severe flogging which Whiteley received caused him once or twice to run away from his master. A short time ago he was so beat with a hurrier's strap, and a heavy piece of wood (a piece of an old cradle) that he again resolved upon running away. He did so, but on Tuesday week he was brought before the Halifax magistrates by his master, charged with disobedience. Through the threats and menaces of the cruel tyrant who had treated him so barbarously, he was prevented stating the whole facts of the case to the bench. The lad had intended showing the various wounds inflicted upon his person: enough, however, was said to induce the magistrates to reprimand the master, and the boy was ordered to go back again, and the master warned not to ill treat him in future. This warning, however, was neglected. The same day he administered a most brutal castigation to his victim, which he repeated every day while the lad remained with him. Our readers may imagine that the harrowing details which are to follow are tinged with an air of fiction. They are facts. The poor lad when down in the pit was beat with a stick, and between each stroke the instrument was dipped in water. The lad's back became one mass of sores, and it was impossible for him to lie in bed. While subject to this inhuman treatment, he was allowed three meals per day of thin water-por-ridge only, and in consequence of his brutal treatment boils broke out in all parts of his body. Frequently was he sent into the pit without breakfast, and obliged to perform the whole of his drudgery. What made this the more painful was, the fact of his labouring under the effects of a severe wound inflicted upon his right knee some time since. On that occasion, while beating him with a hurrier's strap, the master took hold of the end opposite the buckle (which is generally a tolerably large one), thus causing a more severe punishment; in one of the strokes the buckle caught the poor lad on the right knee, and tore away a large piece of flesh. The lad, however, was still forced to work. On Thursday night week this monster master ducked the lad's head three or four times in a bowl of water, wetting his shirt all over, and then forced him into the cellar, where he was locked up all night, without bed, chair, table, or even a morsel of straw! The same treatment was about to be practised on Friday night, but he begged so pitifully for mercy that he was allowed to go to bed. On Saturday night, however, he was again forced into the cellar, where he remained all night. On Sun- day morning he was brought out; no breakfast was given him; but, as a further punishment, his master suspended a heavy bag of iron round his neck, and forced him to walk up and down the room, under the terror of another flogging. Some cold porridge (which had been left the previous day) was warmed up and offered him, but he could not eat. His master then left the house, saying he would look out for a good thick stick. The woman shortly after left the house for the purpose of fetching some water from a neighbouring well, and the lad, being thus for a few moments left alone, resolved upon trying once more to escape from a worse than African slavery. With great exertion he managed to unloose the bag of iron from his neck, and made his escape into Grimscar Wood. Thence he stealthily proceeded to the old Copperas Works, where he remained till nightfall. During his concealment in the old Coperas Works, he heard his master seeking him. The lad, when referring to this circumstance, shudders involuntarily, saying, I did tremble then.' Fortunately, however, he was not discovered. At night he proceeded to Elland, where a charitable woman took him into her house and gave him some coffee, and provided him with a bed. On the Monday he went to the constable's who took him to Mr. Joshua Dodgson, one of the overseers, who was so struck at the shocking spectacle which the lad presented that he resolved upon rescuing him from his inhuman master. He was brought before the magistrate on Tuesday by the constable, accompanied also by Mr. Dodgson. His back was exhibited and presented from the nape of the neck downwards one continued series of bruises, evidently effected by some solid but thin weapon. His right hand was also dreadfully swollen in attempting to parry off the blows. One part of his body presented rather the appearance of raw, diseased meat, than of human flesh and skin! It was at first intended to take out a warrant for assault, but on conferring with the magistrates it was thought better to take a summons for ill treatment, with a view to cancel the indentures and release the lad from the liability to such cruel treatment. The lad was subsequently removed to the workhouse, where he was put under propre medical treatment, and the most assiduous attention has since been paid to him both by Mr. and Mrs. Dyer. We understand that Joseph Whiteley, the lad's master, will be brought up before the magistrates this day.

Sir J. Graham

could assure his noble Friend, that although this case was entirely unknown to him till his noble Friend commenced his address to the House, he most warmly sympathized with him in the feeling of disgust which such a statement must create in the breast of every Gentleman who heard it; at the same time, all would agree with him in hoping that there was some exaggeration in the facts as stated. He would most readily institute an inquiry into all the circumstances by sending down a person worthy of confidence into the district, and if the facts as alleged were substantiated, it would be his duty to direct that prosecutions should be commenced against the parties implicated. He was glad to take this opportunity of stating to the House, that notwithstanding anything which had occurred elsewhere with respect to the act of last Session, no one was more anxious than he was to give effect both to the letter and spirit of that act, and adhere most strictly to all its provisions.