HC Deb 04 March 1845 vol 78 cc308-20
Mr. Cowper

rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to promote the letting of field-gardens to the labouring poor. Their condition had occupied much attention out of doors; and he trusted he was not wasting the time of the House in drawing its attention to this method of improving the material and moral well-being of the working classes. Though limited in comparison with other schemes, it had the advantage of being easy of attainment, not opposed to private interests, and proved by experience to be certain of success. Some, whose opinions he respected, despaired of seeing the object of which they admitted the importance satisfactorily dealt with by legislative enactment; and some despaired relieving in any way, by direct interference, the privations and sufferings of the poorer classes. That opinion might possibly turn out to be well founded; but he hoped those who were disposed to entertain it would not hastily enunciate it. Of the hundreds and thousands of the labouring classes who were dissatisfied with their condition, many were looking to that House for relief, not so much from any expectations that had been held out to them, but because there was no other greater to look to; and he should be sorry if they were obliged to say to these expectants, "All the wisdom collected within these walls—all the experience—all the sympathy is unavailing to devise any measure to alleviate your distresses or to better your condition." Inferences might be drawn in disparagement of the earnestness and capacity of its Members to legislate for the wants of the industrial classes. He would confine himself to one point—the connexion of the working classes with the land. Such connexion formed an important ingredient in the condition of the working classes. It appeared from history that, before the land of England was brought fully into cultivation, almost all cottagers had land for tillage. All those above the condition of serfs had land in their own occupation; and, in addition to that, had common right over the waste tracts. He did not know exactly when that time was of which they had often heard—that time ere England's griefs began, When every rood of ground maintained its man; but he believed that previous to the 16th century all the peasantry drew portions of their maintenance from the soil. Small holdings then began to be thrown together into sheep-walks. The Papers on the Table showed that since 1800 no fewer than 2,000 Enclosure Acts had been passed. The amount of acreage thus enclosed was not set forth; but it must form no inconsiderable portion of the land of the country. The consolidation of small farms, so extensively adopted during the war with France, had contributed to deprive the labouring man of his opportunities of holding land. The giving up the tenure on leases for lives also had the same tendency. The result of these combined causes was, that until the allotment system was revived, the English labourer was severed from all connexion with the land. From the Report of a Committee appointed to investsgate this subject, it appeared that the fourth of an acre was the average portion which might be allotted to the labourer with safety. What he (Mr. Cowper) particularly valued in the system of allotments, was the moral effect on the holder. The management of a garden was an important ingredient in his happiness. It was just the amusement which suited the labourer, and for which he was suited. Books required some intellectual training before they became much of a pleasure Barbarous sports had been suppressed. Dancing, which had been customary in early times, was ill suited to the English peasant of the present day. It required more holidays, lighter work, and a lighter heart, less thoughtful care, less anxiety mind. The feet that followed the plough from morning to night were not nimble enough to encircle the maypole. There was an amusement much advocated by a noble Lord opposite (Lord J. Manners); but he believed the noble Lord would admit that that amusement — cricket—required more skill and agility than are within the reach of all. Toil was the duty and pride of the labourer; and in toil, when varied in its application and exercised on his own account, in such self-imposed and stimulating toil he found his recreation. This amusement was elevating in its tendencies; and many idle, careless, lawless individuals would be converted into steady, sober, industrious men, simply by having the means of harmless, rational, and profitable employment. The desire amongst the labouring classes to possess gardens was almost universal. The wealthy were not more anxious to become landed proprietors than the poor were to become occupiers of small tracts; and not only in country places, but in towns and manufacturing districts. The town of Leeds afforded a gratifying example of the applicability of the allotment system to factory arrangements. Belonging to the mill of Mr. Marshall and Mr. Gott might be seen gardens cultivated with skill and taste. The factory hands took up the spade during the dinner hour, or after the hours of labour; the cultivation was a source of gratification, and improved their health by affording them fresh air and bracing exercise. He remembered, also, hearing of a striking instance in a part of Lancashire, where a friend of his, walking by night by the side of some allotment fields, was astonished to see a man at work at half-past ten o'clock. He asked him the reason; and the man's answer was, that he was a weaver, that he was engaged the whole day at his work, and that it was only by moonlight he could till his ground; that he had planted his potatoes by moonlight, and hoped to dig them by moonlight. In Northampton and many towns in the midland counties, there was a large population desirous of obtaining allotment gardens. He knew that wherever landowners took pains to help the poor, they provided allotments for the labourers in their neighbourhoods; but the districts in which there were as many allotments as were required, formed still a very small portion of the whole country. Many of those proprietors who had established allotments near their residences, had none on the distant part of the property. There were also a great number of non-resident proprietors, who did not take the trouble to establish allotments. Notwithstanding all that had been done, he believed that a generation might be expected to pass away before there would be a general allotment of garden grounds for labourers. It was of course the interest of the landed proprietor, as well as of everybody who had the prosperity of his locality and the country at heart, that such gardens should be in the possession of the poor; but many circumstances contributed to prevent their being obtained. The House was aware that the competition for land was great, and of course the poor man was not very likely to be the winner in a contested struggle for the tenancy of land. In many counties, when a farm fell in, there were a dozen or more applications for the vacant farm; and the poor labourer would not be successful in his application for a small piece of ground for his own use. Besides, there were some difficulties in the way of making the desired allotments, which, although far from being insurmountable, were nevertheless quite sufficient to prevent many from making them. To make them, the owner of the land must, in some degree, make a fresh disposition of his land. He must sever a field from the farm, and a farmer always found reasons against taking any field. Landed proprietors were often guided in matters of that kind by their bailiffs, and these were indisposed to incur the trouble of numerous tenancies. They and the farmers had often a prejudice against the system of allotments. He (Mr. Cowper), however, was happy to think that this prejudice was wearing away, and he had lately heard of an instance on Lord Dartmouth's estate near Huddersfield, in which farmers had themselves come forward, and expressed their readiness to give up a portion of their land for this purpose. Whatever reasons might exist, the fact was so notwithstanding, that owners of land, although generally kindly disposed towards the poor, did not provide allotments generally for the inhabitants of the towns and villages in the nighbourhood of their properties. Gentlemen felt, too, that they were running some risk in becoming responsible for the money which such allotments would require, and proprietors were not quite clear as to the means they had of ejecting. In rural parishes the curate was generally willing to take some trouble in this matter; but it could not be expected that a curate, with his limited means, could become responsible for the rent of the allotment. He had heard of many instances in which curates, so situated, were unable to introduce the system into their parishes, because they had been unable to find any one ready to stand between the owner and the tenants of the land. It was with a view to meet all the difficulties of the case that the Bill which he sought leave to introduce, had been prepared. He did not propose that his Bill should enact anything compulsory. There was in it no attempt to enforce upon any one the obligation to grant allotments. The objects of the Bill were all of an auxiliary character. It was intended solely to enable those who were anxious to extend this system amongst, and to secure its many and solid advantages to, the labourers to do so; and his Bill would give them the power of so doing with safety to themselves, with benefit to the labouring classes, and, if not with positive good, at all events with no detriment to the landlords. The main provision of his Bill was, that it adopted the plan of a parochial organization. The Bill provided, in the first place, for a meeting of the inhabitants of the parish, in vestry, to consider the propriety of adopting or not adopting the system in their parish. If they should decide upon adopting it, they should then proceed to the election of officers, who should be unpaid, should exercise the functions alloted to them, and have certain legal and corporate powers to enable them fully to carry out the system of allotments among the labouring classes of the parish. All after that which would be required was, security for the owner of the land, and security that a tenant under the system, should not be left in possession of the land, either when he was unwilling or unable to pay his rent. He sometimes heard objections started to permitting parishes to interfere in such matters. When the proposed Act of Settlement of the right hon. Baronet the Home Secretary shall have passed into a law, as he supposed it would so pass, the parish, as a parish, would have nothing whatever to do with the relief of the poor. That would become a union, and not a parish concern, when the Act he referred to became the law of the land. But as there was an organization in each parish, why should not that organization be taken advantage of in other modes for the benefit of the poor? Parochial organization might prevent pauperism as well as relieve it, and might be used to assist the independent labourer in obtaining his own livelihood; and he thought there was an advantage in keeping up the mutual interest and dependence which arose from parochial connexion. He did not think it necessary to say anything in general praise of the system of allotments. He felt that experience had placed the matter beyond a doubt. He had never heard an objection to the system drawn from practical experience. He had never heard any one who had tried the allotment system speak in its disparagement. Some might have tried, it is true, and might perhaps have seen no great benefit result from it; but none who had tried it, found mischief or positive injury to be its consequence. There were many who urged theoretical objections against the system, and who objected to allotments because they prevented the adoption of other and greater schemes of amelioration for the poorer classes. It was said by these, that the system interfered with sound political economy, inasmuch as it would interfere with the division of labour; and it was objected that a man should not work for two masters. It was feared that, in reserving his energies for himself, he would deprive his employer of the amount of labour to which he was entitled. He had made inquiries and never found any one to state that had been the case; and it seemed to him a great advantage that idle or misemployed moments should be turned to profitable account. Unfortunately, the wages which the labouring man was now in receipt of in almost all our agricultural districts, were not sufficient to enable a man to live with any degree of comfort upon them. In the present state of things, in order that he may enjoy the advantages of which his situation renders him capable, the labouring man must have his garden to work in, and must work in it when he has obtained it. It was only turning to profitable account that time which would otherwise be wasted. It was also employing land in the most profitable way in which it could be employed. Experience had proved that spade husbandry exercised on a man's own account, gave a very much larger amount of produce than any other mode of tillage. If the labouring man chose to employ his leisure hours in this mode of employment, it was surely to his advantage, and to the utmost advantage of the country at large, that what was his amusement should also be the means of producing a large amount of food for the use of the people, and contributing to his own comforts and the comforts of others. He was not aware that it ever happened that a man became more lazy and indolent in the work he did for his master, because he had a garden of his own to till during his leisure hours. He did not know that a man so situated had ever been found idle during his working hours in order to reserve his strength and be enabled to work to more purpose for himself. On the contrary, he was sure it would be found that the allotment labourers were the most industrious, laborious, and trust worthy amongst the labourers on a farm. They were also found to be, in a moral point of view, superior to other labourers, differently intentioned, besides being harder-working men. There was another objection sometimes made to the allotment system, and that was, that it was found to impede the free circulation of labour. The objection was this: If they made the labourer more comfortable, he would have less inducement to wander in search of work. But a field-garden was not sufficient to provide a livelihood for a man and his family. If there was no employment for a man in his parish owing to excess of population, a field-garden would not keep him from migrating; because it would not maintain him. But if there were a temporary lack of work, it might save him from the necessity of breaking up his home and going into the workhouse. But such an objection could not be confined to this particular case. It applied to everything that tended to improve the condition of the labouring man. It applied to every act of kindness, to everything which rendered his situation more endurable. And surely, if the objection were made, in consistency it should go to this — that the owners of land should endeavour to make the pressure of poverty and suffering so hard upon the labouring man that he should be driven from his parish to escape it, and to seek an asylum in another, because in his own parish his situation was unendurable. The desire that the unemployed labourers should leave their homes, and go elsewhere and seek employment, was a different thing from taking steps to force them to do so. For though it would be a desirable thing that men should go elsewhere to better their condition, we had no right to take any step to force them unwillingly to encounter the risks and terror of wandering without daily food. If the situation of the labouring man was such that it would benefit him to go, it was the duty of those who took an interest in him to show him that he would be benefited by such a step; but they are not to attempt to drive him away by refusing him those advantages which might render his lot more endurable than before. It was not so much a matter of surprise that the labouring men of this country should be so unwilling as they are to leave their parishes or to emigrate. First of all, the Law of Settlement generally rendered it a matter of the utmost risk for a man in that class of society to leave his parish. There was a chance of his being driven back to it, or of falling in with careless or inattentive Unions or Guardians, who might refuse him relief until the time had elapsed when starvation had done its work. It was all very well and very pleasant, sometimes, for the man of capital to travel through the world—very well for those who had some means at their command to go elsewhere in search of a happier fate than was accorded to them at home. But let them conceive the position of a labouring man, with a family to provide for, and entirely dependent upon his daily wages for their daily bread. He was in no very favourable position either for travelling or emigrating. He might go into a county where he was not certain of finding work, and where, not having capital to fall back upon, and thus wait until he got work, he must necessarily starve in the meantime. He must say, that even if it were a desirable thing that labourers should not be confined to particular localities, but that they should move about, and circulate throughout the country — it was a very great cruelty in any person to refuse them allotments, in order to induce them to leave their parishes. He would only further remark, that this matter of giving a tenancy of land to the poor was not the only matter with regard to the poor which they had been obliged to treat by legislation, and by the establishment of societies for carrying out certain purposes. It might have been supposed that when poor men wanted to borrow money, they might be left to manage for themselves as the rich were; but the Legislature had intervened and had passed measures for the establishment of savings' banks, providing him with the advantage of a place of safe deposit for his money. As they had established loan and other societies for his advantage, it was equally necessary that Acts of Parliament should be passed to assist him in obtaining land, and to give him the necessary security in such a transaction; and he trusted, the House would by its legislation take care of that, as it had done of other matters. He should be sorry, indeed, if, by their legislation, they interfered with the voluntary exertions of individual proprietors. The relations subsisting between them and their allotment tenants was a relation which, so far from wishing to interfere with, he was only anxious to see enlarged. His Bill would not interfere with them. It would only come into operation in places where it was required, and there he believed it would be found to confer many and great benefits upon the poor man, by increasing his comforts and his means of living. The best effects had been observed to flow from it in many districts where the experiment had been tried, and many places had been unpau-perised by the adoption of the proposed system. Men had been kept off the parish, had been raised in moral worth and self-estimation, and had been made contented, happy, useful members of society. The subject was an humble one; but not, he trusted, unworthy of the attention of the House, and he would conclude by moving for leave to bring in the Bill.

Mr. Hume

did not rise to trouble the House with many observations on the Bill. He thought, however, that it held out expectations which could not be realised. It was a doubt with him whether, if the allotment system were adopted in England, there would not be a state of things in this country, which, since he had had the honour of sitting in Parliament, had been considered as the cause of all the evils of Ireland—a multiplying of small allotments—bringing in poverty in their train, and increasing the evils under which the country was already suffering. Therefore it was that he expressed his fears that the temptation held out could not be realised. His opinion was, that where gentlemen were anxious to give allotments to their labourers, they could do it more effectually without an Act of Parliament than with it. He had a dread also of putting in the hands of parish authorities the right of raising money for the purpose of granting allotments.

Mr. B. Escott

said, that the hon. Gentleman who moved for leave to bring in the Bill had told the House that there was nothing compulsory in it. At the present moment he was not aware how the Bill would interfere with advantage on behalf of allotments, unless there was something of a compulsory character in the Bill, because at the present moment every landowner had the free power to grant allotments to whomsoever he chose. He did not see how that was to be altered with advantage to the labourer, without the introduction of something in the nature of compulsion into the Bill. So far as the allotment system had hitherto been beneficial—and he could not say that it had been universally beneficial—but so far as it had been beneficial, it had been so without the interference of an Act of Parliament. In his opinion, the way to serve the working population was, to extend the means of giving them employment.

Lord John Manners

perfectly agreed with the hon. Member that if they would give to the poor man a cottage and garden, it would be doing better for him than that which was proposed by the present Bill. The case, however, in which this Bill would apply was where there was not a resident landlord: for instance, he might refer to the frame-work knitters in the midland parts of England; these could not get gardens under the present circumstances, whereas if the House passed this Bill, he had not the slightest doubt, from his knowledge of the class to whom he referred, that they would be greatly benefited by it. He could not avoid saying that the feelings and opinions of the people themselves ought to be respected on this question. Now, the feelings of the people, he was aware, had been strongly excited with regard to it. They were perfectly unanimous on the subject; and it was to be hoped that the House would pass a measure which would facilitate the poor obtaining land—that was, by the means proposed by his hon. Friend. Where the benefits were so great as they were expected to be from such a measure, he called upon the House to do its duty in passing it; and this he would say, that he was sure the overworked and underpaid artisans and mechanics of this country would ever feel grateful to them for such a proof of their sympathy.

Mr. Sharman Crawford

remarked, in answer to an observation made by the hon. Member for Montrose, that there was a great mistake as to the poverty of Ireland being connected with small holdings. The system in Ireland of letting land by "con-acre" was mixed up with the severe distress of the people. Under that system the poor were obliged to take small patches of land—half an acre, or less—for the purpose of planting their potatoes, and for which they had to pay at the rate of eight guineas the acre. That was not the universal rule, however, with respect to small holdings in Ireland. Where these were taken under proper regulations—where they were held under the head landlord, and under a reasonable rent—there was no part of Ireland in which the people lived in greater comfort. He would instance one estate as illustrative of this: it was that of such a landlord as the Marquess of Londonderry. There the small holders, under such ahead landlord, lived in every comfort, and received every attention and kindness from him. There was no class of the community in greater comfort. He must observe that half an acre would be no benefit, but an evil, unless the holder of it had employment elsewhere. They ought to recollec-that the poor agriculturist of England never had the means of raising himself above the position of a poor labourer. The labourer who began with a small holding had the means afforded to him of bettering his condition, and at length of enjoying every comfort that the peasant could require.

Mr. Roebuck

remarked that the Bill proposed a change in the whole system of the condition of the labouring classes, and it therefore demanded the attention, and the serious attention, of the Government. He culled upon the right hon. Gentleman opposite to look to the machinery that was to be introduced, and to consider that it was proposed to make applicable a certain portion of the poor-rates for the purpose of carrying the Bill into effect. He hoped that they would not go into a Committee on the Bill without having a distinct declaration from Her Majesty's Government as to whether the Bill met with their approbation, and how far it would square with their other legislation affecting the condition of a large portion of the population of this country.

Sir J. Graham

observed, that when a Bill similar to this had been before the House he had then stated his opinion respecting it. As to the measure before them, he agreed with the opinions indicated by the hon. Members for Montrose and Bath, that one provision of it was very objectionable, namely, that which would make the poor-rates a security for the rent. He held that to be objectionable. He understood the hon. Member to state that it was to be only a permissive measure—amounting, as the hon. Member had termed it, to the hiring of land. He quite agreed with his noble Friend in thinking that if it were permissive for the landlord to give land with cottages, it would be preferable, subject, however, to the observation that he had made. He must say that he was anxious to see the Bill before them, for as far as he could then learn of its provisions, it appeared to him to be a decided improvement upon the Bill of last year. Last year it was proposed that an acre, of land should be given—now half an acre was proposed. He thought the smaller was preferable to the larger quantity. It was he considered, a matter of infinite honour to the hon. Gentleman, that he had bestowed so much attention on the subject; and it would, in his opinion, be highly indecorous in that House to offer any opposition to the proposal to introduce such a measure. Any measure likely to benefit the poor of this country was worthy of the attention of the House. The distress and poverty of the agricultural peasantry could not safely be overlooked by that House. Any measure, then, which held out a reasonable expectation of advancing their comforts and promoting their enjoyments must be regarded with respectful attention, and with a favourable anticipation of its success. In introducing this Bill, he then said he looked to it with favour, and with hope that a successful issue might be the result of the hon. Gentleman's labours.

Mr. Mangles

observed that the hon. Member for Winchester had spoken in a deprecating tone of this measure, and had suggested whether the landlords could not do better for the poor, by supplying them with employment. He lived in a poor agricultural district, and could say that, except in the heat of the hay and corn harvest, the poor were out of employment often for many weeks together. How, then, were they to be benefited? During the recess he had paid a great deal of attention to the subject of allotments, and there were two important points connected with it, on which he had arrived at a positive conclusion. He had consulted a great many Gentlemen—and ladies too—amongst the rest Mrs. Davies Gilbert, and he could say, that there was no subject of equal magnitude on which he had found testimony so unanimous in its favour. He had never found one person who had tried it, find fault with it. Mrs. Davies Gilbert assured him it had never failed in a single instance under her management. He thought he was right in saying that that lady had informed him, that in 400 allotments, and for eleven years, not one holder had failed in paying his rent. That, then, was one important point as to the success of the measure. Another important point was this—that he never knew an intelligent labourer who was not favourable to it. In West Surrey, where there was a large number of gentlemen talking in the bank on this subject, and where he was defending the system almost alone against many others, there was a poor man standing by, changing a note. This poor man restrained himself as long as he could from joining in the conversation of his superiors: he could, however, hold out no longer, and he thus addressed them—"Gentlemen, you may say what you like, but I know that it is a good plan, and that it has made a man of me." He went afterwards and saw that man on his allotment. The man had then three pigs in his sty; he had, too, a field under potatoes, and there was a chaise cart at his door. Four or five years before that man was a common labourer, earning but 10s. a week. He found that the chaise cart belonged to two men, who wished to buy this person's potatoes, and he was able, from his independent position, to refuse the price they offered him. The same man brought him to another field, which he had been able to take. For that field the man paid 3l. an acre, and said he was able to make a large profit on it. He differed with the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State as to the quantity of land allowable to be taken under this system. The quantity should depend on the amount of labour the occupant was able to give to it. If a man got employment from other sources, half, or quarter, of an acre might be sufficient. He should give his most cordial support to the Bill.

Motion agreed to. Bill brought in—read a first time.