HC Deb 11 February 1845 vol 77 cc304-13
Captain Pechell

rose to move for the Return ordered the 25th of July, of all Union Workhouses under the Poor Law Amendment Act, in which the pauper inmates thereof are, or have been, employed in grinding or crushing bones by means of mills, machinery, or otherwise; together with the date of such erection of mills or other machinery, and the names of the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Beard of Guardians of every such Union at the period; also the cost of the said bones, including all expenses of carriage and other incidental expenses, and the amount which the same have produced in their manufactured state, and whether the same have been sold by tender, or fixed price, or otherwise. This Return was ordered on the 25th of July last; but although there was ample time between that period and the prorogation of Parliament to obtain the information and prepare the Return, it had not been laid upon the Table of the House. The Order made by this House would be sent to the Poor Law Commissioners, who were responsible for the production of these Returns, and who were under the direction of the right hon. Secretary of State for the Home Department; but he was in possession of facts which showed that the information required for these Returns was furnished to the Poor Law Commissioners long before the Prorogation of Parliament. They had heard during the discussion this evening, that barristers who were engaged before Select Committees of that House sometimes endeavoured to overmaster those Committees, and he had reason to believe that these Poor Law Commissioners were endeavouring to overmaster that House, as they appeared to have overmastered the right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir J. Graham). The non-production of these Returns had been attended with great inconvenience. The re-appointment of the Committee to investigate the operation of the Act relating to Gilbert Unions had already been moved; and he (Captain Pechell) had hoped that the information derived from these Returns would have afforded some means of comparing the condition of the workhouses under that humane law, as contrasted with the New Poor Law, and the condition of the workhouses under the management of the Poor Law Commissioners. The Commissioners had been enabled, in some measure, to defeat him in this object. The right hon. Baronet had promised, at the end of the last Session, that these Returns should be produced, and he believed the right hon. Gentleman had really intended to act up to his profession. But during the recess, while the right hon. Baronet and other hon. Members of that House were recreating themselves on the moors or on the tanks of the Rhine, he took the opportunity of visiting a Poor Law workhouse—or, as it was called in the country, a Poor Law "bastile." Now, it so happened that a mill for the grinding or crushing of bones for the purposes of manure was erected in that very "bastile," and it was shown to him as one of the features of the place. When he saw the place, he thought it was a depôt for bone of a very different description. When the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Graham) staled last Session that this intolerable nuisance should wholly cease, he relied upon that declaration; and he certainly did not expect that in November or December last he would have witnessed a continuance of this most objectionable system. He hoped, when these Returns were laid before them, that the House would be given to understand whether those practices of crushing or grinding bones by mills, machinery, or otherwise, would any longer be allowed to continue, and whether the workhouses under the management of the Poor Law Commissioners were in those respects similarly situate with those of the Gilbert Unions. At present, indeed, there was no positive authority for asserting that any such practice did exist, save the evidence which had been extracted from witnesses, who were generally unwilling to give it; but when the Returns, for which he had moved, were before the House, it would be ascertained how far the system was prevalent, and it would then be impossible for the Poor Law Commissioners to continue it any longer. He hoped that the right hon. Baronet opposite would support him, and in the present Session exert himself to put an end to practices of which he had last Session expressed his disapprobation; notwithstanding which, those Returns would be able to inform him and the House that mills for grinding and crushing bones, as in the workhouses which he had recently visited, were still in the course of being erected, and in full operation. The hon. Member concluded by moving for the Returns.

Sir J. Graham

begged to assure the hon. and gallant Officer, that he had last Session pressed upon the Poor Law Commissioners' attention the fact, that it was his urgent desire that those Returns should be laid before the House previous to the termination of the last Session, and he believed that every care and diligence was used to comply with the Orders of the House, but, notwithstanding, it was found impossible to complete them until the Session had closed. At the present moment, however, he could assure the hon. and gallant Officer, that the Returns were quite ready, and that in the course of four or five days they should be laid before the House. He had done all in his power to forward their production; and he could assure the hon. and gallant Member that he had not been up the Rhine, although he must admit that he had for a short time been upon the moors. He might take occasion to remark that he had expressed his opinion with respect to the subject matter of the hon. and gallant Member's Motion before; and had declared his conviction that labour of the description referred to, should no longer be continued in the Poor Law workhouses. There were many circumstances which rendered that labour most disagreeable and offensive, such as the very disgusting smell which necessarily arose from the bones in warm weather, which, with other causes, made it a matter of deep regret that that particular species of labour should be had recourse to in workhouses. At the same time he was bound to say, that, notwithstanding all the jealousy of the power of the Commissioners at Somerset House, it would appear that their authority was very limited indeed; for, although the practice of crushing and grinding bones was not prescribed for the paupers by any law, nor appointed in the Poor Law Act, much less by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, who had expressed his disapprobation of it, and still less by the Poor Law Commissioners, who also disapproved of it, yet it was nevertheless persevered in by the local authorities. Now, if the Commissioners had had the power, they would have put an end to it instantly. But they had not; and the consequence was, that the practice was continued, and became an illustration of what local management was, when unchecked by any proper superintending authority. As the law stood at present, the Parliament might express its disapprobation of such a practice—the Secretary of State might advise its discontinuance, and state his opinion that it was not an expedient mode of employing pauper labour, as he had done on the present occasion, and yet the local authorities had the supreme power, and might disregard any such interference. Certainly, however, they might regret such an exercise of local authority, the example proved that the Poor Law Commissioners had not the power to stop it.

Viscount Ebrington

said, that as one who was connected with an Union workhouse where bones were ground and crushed by machinery, he wished to make a few remarks on the present occasion. If those bones were to be crushed at all, by whom was it to be done? By free and independent labourers only, and not by paupers? Certainly it was a new doctrine for him to hear, that work which was too offensive for paupers should be performed by free labourers; for, performed under proper regulations in the open air, or in well-ventilated sheds, it was not unwholesome. Being convinced, that as one of the Guardians in this case, he had not been a party to ordering any unjust, unfair, or unwholesome employment for the paupers of the South Molton Union, he trusted that they and those of other Unions which had adopted the same system, would persevere in it as long as the law allowed them to do so. [Sir C. Lemon: Hear, hear.]

Captain Pechell

said, that although the noble Lord, echoed by the hon. Member for Cornwall (Sir C. Lemon), had so lauded the practice, he, nevertheless, hoped that it would soon be checked. He could not but call to the recollection of the House a petition which had been presented to them from a pauper who had been brought to death's door by his treatment in a certain workhouse, where it was made a matter of punishment that be should be sent to the bone-mill. He did not think that the noble Lord, who was fighting so nobly for his absent colleagues, could maintain his position; and he hoped that the right hon. Baronet would continue his opposition to the practice, and insist upon the Poor Law Commissioners issuing peremptory orders upon the subject. That was the more necessary, as in the poor-house which he (Captain Pechell) had in his mind, the Guardians actually thought that they were carrying into effect the opinions of the Commissioners with regard to the employment of paupers, by continuing that practice, and imagined that they had, by so doing, made it the model of a Bastile. He had only to hope that the noble Lord would repeat to his colleagues at South Molton what he had heard of the opinions of the hon. Baronet and of the Commissioners, and that he would tell them that the Secretary of Stale had given up their heartless and cruel system, which was both offensive to the ideas, and repugnant to the tastes of all but themselves.

Mr. Wakley

Finding that this practice actually has got advocates, and that, too, in the noble Lord, and in the hon. Baronet, the Member for Cornwall,—finding that it has actually advocates too in this House, I must say, that I fear the local interests are much stronger than I was at first inclined to believe. I thought that it was by some accident that the atrocious practice had fallen under the notice of the hon. and gallant Member; but that the noble Lord should rise in his place in this House, and ask, "How is this labour to be performed, if it is not done by the paupers?" does, I confess, confound me. Well, the Poor Law Commissioners certainly have more to do than I thought they had. I must say that; and, moreover, I am bound to acknowledge, that they have been the protectors of members of my profession against the parsimony of the local Boards of Guardians. Why, under the circumstances which have been stated, I should be inclined to give them more authority. I certainly am of opinion that the Secretary of State should not delay asking for more authority to be given to those Commissioners within forty-eight hours. What, Sir, the paupers to be employed in crushing and grinding bones in a state of rottenness and decomposition! Such a poisonous, odious, filthy, abominable occupation; and that, too, to be defended by a noble Lord, in his place in this House! The noble Lord surely can't have spent any time in a workhouse. It is really most distressing to hear such statements made in Parliament; and, I fear, if the noble Lord has sanctioned such practices in his own workhouse, that the practice in question is but too general throughout the country, and that it will be found necessary to give the Poor Law Commissioners power to check and prohibit them. I have already stated that the Commissioners have protected the members of my profession against the avarice of the Guardians. Of one case, I may now tell the House. In a Union, of which I will not now mention the name, but may do so hereafter, a medical officer was dismissed "because," it was said, "he had been too liberal in giving food to the paupers." Without one case being alleged, or one proof specifically brought against him, of the truth of this charge, he was sent away on that general ground; and I am informed that the Poor Law Commissioners had no power whatever to protect that individual from such treatment, though at the same time I was told that, if they had possessed any such power, they certainly would have exerted it in his behalf. Under the circumstances which have been stated by the right hon. Baronet, I do not hesitate to ask him to apply to this House for power to give the Commissioners authority to put down such abominable practices.

Mr. Roebuck

was not about to address the House upon the immediate subject of debate, but he could not but make a few remarks with reference to the speech of the hon. Member for Finsbury. It appeared that because the Poor Law Commissioners seemed to the hon. Member for Finsbury, not what he had on particular occasions in that House declared them to be, or as he had considered them formerly, he now called upon the right hon. Baronet not to allow forty-eight hours to pass before he had applied to the House for an increase of their power. Let the hon. Member then look back to the long course of invective which had been used with respect to those Commissioners, and let others regard the expressions which had been applied to them. Let them recollect how those gentlemen had been attacked as the "three tyrants of Somerset House." Or as an hon. Member reminded him—as "pinch paupers," and that every other term of reproach had been applied to them; and then let them reflect upon the speech they had just heard. He would ask the hon. Member for Finsbury, before he again hastily expressed his opinions on such subjects, to place more faith in those who had more accurately and carefully considered those matters. He had been one of those against whom the finger of scorn had been pointed by hon. Members, because they had ventured to support the Poor Law. He now fixed his finger of scorn against those hon. Gentlemen. There were persons who were so careless, that they did not mind what expressions of opinion they gave utterance to, so as it suited the matter in hand. When it suited one of those persons, he could talk of "the three tyrants of Somerset House." But again he could come round and talk, if it suited him, of increasing the power of those tyrants within forty-eight hours. Sucha course might be taken by one who sought alone for popular influence and applause, but it could not be adopted by him who entered public life with a sense of the deep responsibility resting upon his shoulders, which he thereby incurred, and who was ready to encounter the opposition of his opponents, as well as willing to meet the hostility of his friends, in the execution of what he conceived to be his duty. All he had risen for on the present occasion was to impress upon the hon. Members the magnitude of the duty which always devolved upon them, not hastily to come to any conclusion upon questions which might be brought before them, and above all, not to rely upon the arts of popularity seekers and demagogues, anxious only to obtain applause for themselves. He had seen one singular instance in the hon. Member's speech of an acknowledgment of error in his past conduct, and he hoped that it would induce modesty of conduct in those who might hereafter be called upon to express their opinion on great public questions.

Sir C. Lemon

said, that as far as expressions of disapprobation went, there certainly did appear to be a condemnation of the practice of bone crushing in poor-houses, and he would not have risen but he believed that it was a particular description of labour not remarkably offensive to those engaged in it, nor in any way unwholesome. He had seen a good deal of the labour, and could speak of it, and he was sure that it was neither more unhealthy, offensive, nor injurious than breaking stones, or any other employment of that nature. He put it to the right hon. Baronet that, if he cut off that source of employment from the paupers, he should at least suggest some other means of using their time and labour. The hon. and gallant Member had told them that the first time he had ever been within the walls of a workhouse was recently, although he had heard him frequently speak upon their mismanagement, and he hoped that the hon. Member would take more frequent opportunities of enlarging his knowledge respecting them.

Mr. Wakley

said, that he did not know whether it was Parliamentary or not, that improper motives should be attributed to a Member of the House. It was said by the hon. Member for Bath that he had made statements in that House for the purpose of acquiring popularity; but he was as incapable of doing so as the hon. Member himself, or any other Member of that House. He utterly denied that he had ever acted in the manner, or with the views imputed to him; and he could declare that he had never used any language with respect to the Poor Law Commissioners, or any one else, which he was not now prepared to adopt, and to repeat. What he had said was, that if the practice to which the present notice referred were actually in operation—a practice which he had always opposed—and that the Poor Law Commissioners could not put a stop to it, he was prepared to give them sufficient power to do so immediately.

Mr. Henley

declared, that he could not but feel surprised that the hon. Member who had just sat down should have thought fit to praise the Poor Law Commissioners, who were the persons who taught the Boards of Guardians to go upon the contract system at the beginning of the organization of the New Poor Law, and that a man of his quick perceptions should have fallen into the trap which had been laid for him by the right hon. Baronet the Secretary for the Home Department. Public opinion, which was the best corrector of abuses, had been expressed unequivocally on the subject before the House; and here the Poor Law Commissioners when pressed upon to interfere and do away with the system which they have hitherto gone upon, were unable to act—a natural consequence of that one-sidedness of the law which left them power to do mischief, but deprived them of the means of doing good. But with regard to this practice of bone-crushing, what was the fact? If the Poor Law Commissioners had not the honour of originating it, the credit certainly was to be given to the Assistant Poor Law Commissioners, who went about the country, saying, "What a capital mode of labour this is;" or talking to the various boards, and suggesting it—"Oh, let the people try bone-crushing, and you will be sure of keeping them out of the house." Who was the person who had the honour of having made the original suggestion he did not know, but he knew that it had originated in his county, as he had mentioned. He could not but express his surprise at the short memory of the hon. Member for Finsbury, who had now praised the Commissioners for their treatment of medical men, but who had formerly said very different things of the Board.

Mr. Crawford

said, that when he heard an increase of power to the Poor Law Commissioners proposed, he felt it to be his duty to protest against any such measure. He did not deny that there had been abuses with respect to the grinding and crushing of bones; but there were other means of remedying such abuses, without increasing the power of the Poor Law Commissioners. Those, and other evils, arose from the system of making the entrance into the Poor Law workhouses the sole condition of relief. He was afraid evils were necessary, but he was desirous of limiting them as much as possible; and he wished to see some better method of employing the poor adopted, whilst he was unwilling to attempt to remedy the present abuses by giving increased power to the Poor Law Commissioners.