HC Deb 02 April 1846 vol 85 cc470-9

then rose to call the attention of the House to two petitions he had presented some time ago from William Scott, chairman of a public meeting of the inhabitants of Dundee, and from six factory girls in that town, complaining of the illegal treatment and imprisonment of those girls. The persons on whose behalf he (Mr. T. Duncombe) addressed the House, were six unfortunate and unprotected factory girls of Dundee, between 14 and 20 years; one being 20, one 18, two 19, one 17, and the youngest between 14 and 15; and the parties of whom they complained were Messrs. Baxters, who were wealthy and influential bankers, merchants, flax-spinners and shipowners in that town. He might be told that those gentlemen were liberal men — that they were free traders, and that a short time ago they subscribed 600l. to the Anti-Corn-Law League; but he asked them and the House to do justice to these unfortunate girls. Those young persons stated in their petition that they had been for a considerable time—since they were nine years of age—in the employment of Messrs. Baxters; and it could not be alleged that they had ever committed any offence, or given any ground of complaint, during their period of service. These girls worked in Messrs. Baxters' flax-spinning mill, where they were engaged by the week. A short time since some of the operatives employed in the mill obtained an advance of wages; and the girls, forty in number, employed in the same "flat" with the petitioners, applied for a similar advance, but their request was refused. The advance for which they asked was only 3d. a week—from 5s. 6d. to 5s. 9d. They made the demand for an advance before breakfast on the 27th October last, and after the refusal of their request they left their work at dinner time, and did not return to their work that day, though they ought to have worked from two o'clock to seven o'clock. They were therefore absent five hours. They returned to work on the following morning at five o'clock, when they were apprehended by four men who conveyed them to a private office. The fact of their returning to work showed that they had no intention to desert the service of their employers; but they stated in their petition that they took the afternoon of the 27th for recreation, as other persons employed in the mill had been in the habit of doing. The penalty for so absenting themselves from work was, according to the rules of the mill, a deduction of wages for "a time and a half;" or, in their case, as they had been absent five hours, of the wages they would have received for seven hours and a half labour. The petitioners were kept at the private office to which they were taken, in the presence of four men, till twelve o'clock in the day, when they were marched through the town, not to the town-hall, but to another private office, where they found the magistrate, with one of the Messrs. Baxter, and the overseer and manager of the mill, in the same room. While in charge of the four men, the girls were induced to sign a paper, which they were told would be satisfactory to their employers, but which amounted, in fact, to a confession. Mr. Baxter whispered with the magistrate before the latter gave his decision; and what did the House suppose was the punishment to which the girls were condemned? Ten days' imprisonment with hard labour! Messrs. Baxters, in a petition they had presented, in answer to this charge, alleged that before this occurrence combinations and strikes to a considerable extent had taken place in several of the flax-spinning manufacteries in Dundee. But because such strikes or combinations had taken place elsewhere, were Messrs. Baxter justified in thus treating these girls? One of the rules of the mill provided that any person intending to leave work should give a week's previous notice to his overseers, but not one word was there said about imprisonment. Messrs. Baxter had, however, carefully omitted mentioning another of their regulations, which provided that any person absent after the hours appointed for commencing work should have a time and a half's pay deducted from his or her wages. The operatives, therefore, supposed that this was the only penalty they incurred by their absence. These petitioners also complained that no one was allowed to approach these girls during this trial. The brother of one of the girls did not know that his sister had been tried and imprisoned until she was actually in prison; and the sisters of another of the girls, hearing that she was in trouble, went to the door of the justice-room, and asked permission to see their sister, but were repulsed, and told that they had no business to come there, and that if they did not go away they would be tried and imprisoned too. Could that be called a fair trial where the doors were not open for the admission of all persons? No similar case had occurred in Dundee, he was informed, since Dundee was Dundee. He believed that no cotton-spinner in England could point to the occurrence of a similar case in this country. They durst not act in that way in Manchester, where the parties leaving their work would be merely fined. It was a monstrous, shameful, and cruel sentence on these helpless girls, whose families had been distressed by their incarceration, and the mother of one of whom, being dependent on her for subsistence, had suffered great misery in consequence. Complaints were made with respect to this false trial and imprisonment to the Lord Advocate, who instituted an inquiry; and he (Mr. Duncombe) should be glad to have the result of his precognition, as it was termed, but that was refused, on the ground that it was unprecedented to communicate the details of a precognition instituted by the Crown. If that was unprecedented, the case also was unprecedented; and, as the Messrs. Baxter asked for investigation, he did hope that the House of Commons would institute an inquiry into the case, when he would undertake to prove the allegations made in the petition of the inhabitants of Dundee. The hon. Member concluded by moving— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the Allegation of the Petition of the Chairman of the Meeting of the Inhabitants of Dundee, complaining of the illegal Trial and Imprisonment of Jane Bennett and other Factory Girls in Octobor last.


seconded the Motion. He said that nothing would satisfy the working classes of Dundee but a thorough and complete investigation into the whole case. When that investigation was gone into, the House would find that the Messrs. Baxter, instead of being oppressive to their working people, were careful, none more so, of their health and comfort. He was a justice, and had acted in many instances with the gentleman who tried this case, and a more upright and able justice (not being a legal man) did not exist. He was also acquainted with the Messrs. Baxter, had gone through all their works, and could testify to the care they took of the comfort of their working people, and to the excellent motives which influenced all their acts. The hon. Member for Finsbury had alluded to the petition of the inhabitants of Dundee; and he had felt it to be his duty to call the attention of the provost of that town to the petition; and the answer he received from that gentleman was to the effect that that meeting was held without any notice from the authorities of the town; that he thought it best to let the labouring classes meet and discuss their grievances, or alleged grievances, for any attempt to prevent that would only increase their discontent; but that, in such a case as the present, where judicial matters were involved, the circumstances of which could be ascertained from the records of the court, he did not think much weight was due to the expression of opinion on the part of such a meeting, and that he had no hesitation in declaring, as his opinion, that in the case in question ample justice was done, and that the justices of the peace in the town and neighbourhood were all men of such respectability that he was convinced that they were incapable of using their power for the oppression of any one. Under these circumstances, he could not regard that petition as the petition of the inhabitants generally of Dundee. He had mentioned to the Lord Advocate that certain friends of these girls had gone to the court and had been refused admission; and the Lord Advocate explained to him, that though such was the case, the refusal did not emanate from the court, or from Messrs. Baxter, but was owing to the ignorance of the doorkeeper of the office, in which he had often sat as justice (the town-hall at the time being employed for a criminal trial before the sheriff); and the Lord Advocate added that he had taken care that no such obstacle should again take place. It had been said that these five girls, whose petition was before the House, were minors; but from an excerpt from the books of Messrs. Baxter, kept under the Factory Act, it appeared that none of them was under twenty years and a half old; that one of them had been nearly ten years in the employment of Messrs. Baxter, and none less than seven years. It could not be said, therefore, that the Messrs. Baxter had taken advantage of persons ignorant of the nature of their engagement. It appeared that the girls, on being refused an advance of wages, went away without stating that they were not coming back; and that he (Mr. Duncan) held to be a breach of engagement. One of the rules was, that any persons leaving their work must give a week's previous notice; and another was, that any person whose services were no longer required would receive a similar notice or a week's pay. This was an equitable arrangement—that if this agreement was binding on the master, it should be binding on both parties. Something had been said about the misery of the families of these five girls; but he could state that the whole of them had been retained in employment during the depressed years of 1841, 1842, and 1843, when many other establishments were closed; and that larger wages, he believed, were given to them than to almost any others of the same class. Messrs. Baxter themselves courted investigation, and the affair was important, because it concerned the maintenance of a good feeling between masters and workpeople. Mr. Stuart, Factory Inspector for Scotland, had stated, after perusing the petitions, that Messrs. Baxter's regulation that no one should leave without notice, was very general in Scotch factories; that Messrs. Baxter had a reputation for conducting their factory on the most enterprising and respectable footing; that though they were very averse to factory legislation, he had never found them violating or attempting to violate any of the provisions of the law; and that he had had many occasions to admire their attention to their workpeople, in protecting them from unnecessary exposure to cold, and contributing most liberally to provide education for them.


said, that Messrs. Baxter showed the anxiety natural to honourable and high minded men for an investigation into their conduct to their workpeople after such a complaint as this. He had known them long, and could bear testimony to their high character and position, and their great integrity. He joined in the wish for an investigation: whenever the working classes came to the House and said they had been wronged, the House was bound to lend a willing ear.


said, that on the 8th of last November he received a statement, which led him to infer that the persons in question had been seized possibly without a warrant, and brought before a person possibly not a magistrate; and he had considered it his duty to examine whether an offence had been committed which would call for a criminal prosecution at his instance. He waited upon the sheriff of the county, and requested him to investigate the matter. Investigations by the public prosecutor before trial were entirely ex parte; and for the purpose of informing his own mind, and detecting crime, each witness was separately examined; and if any of them were confronted, their evidence could be objected to at the trial; nor ought the public prosecutor to disclose the examinations so taken, and the tendency of the judgments of the courts was, that he would be guilty of a dereliction of duty if he did. It was said that these six persons now contemplated a demand for compensation: clearly he ought to make no statement which would prejudice their claim, or the defence to it. However, they were examined separately, and in the result it appeared to him that the petition presented by Messrs. Baxter against those women for a violation of the statute was a competent petition to be presented; that it had been followed out in a manner which did not warrant his interference as for the perpetration of any offence; that he considered to be the question for him, and not so much whether there had been any imperfection in the proceedings. It was observed, that the trial did not take place in the Court room, where criminal trials were usually held; but the fact was, that a trial was then proceeding in that room, which was likely to last all day, and the apartment, used on this occasion was one frequently employed for holding courts. It also appeared that the officer in attendance at the door refused admittance to a sister of one of the parties; it turned out that she did not inform him of her relationship; and the officer stated that he excluded her because she was making a noise, and he thought she would create a disturbance in the court; still, thinking that unless she was evidently unruly, it was not the doorkeeper's province to determine whether she should be admitted or not, he had called the justices' attention to this, that they might take steps to prevent its recurrence, or remove this person if they thought fit. As to the principal fact in the case, if the statute did not apply, or if there was any irregularity, it was perfectly competent to those parties to institute proceedings in a court of law; and indeed it appeared, from the petition of the girls, that they did contemplate a demand for reparation—compensation for loss of time and false imprisonment. Though he would not say whether, in his opinion, these parties had a civil action, or express one word for or against such a proceeding, yet there could be no doubt that such was the object they had in view; and as little doubt that such a course was perfectly open to them. They might raise an action either against the Messrs. Baxter, or against the magistrate before whom they had been taken; but he begged to direct the attention of the House to the question, whether this was a fitting matter for their interference, whether it would not be an interfering with and prejudging the claim, either of the one party or the other, if a Committee should be appointed to make an investigation—to have a sort of fishing examination of that which was to become the subject of legal inquiry? He had not the slightest interest in this matter. He had no acquaintance with the Messrs. Baxter, and he had never heard of the magistrate before this case came under his notice; but, from all he had heard, both parties were persons of the highest respectability. He hoped that in coming to a decision on this matter, the House would consider the injurious effect which such an application for Parliamentary inquiry was calculated to produce.


, happening to be a magistrate in the district, and acquainted with many of the parties, hoped he might be permitted to say a word or two on the subject. He regretted to hear what had fallen from the learned Lord, as he was most anxious that every circumstance connected with the matter should be most minutely investigated, being certain that it would have been found there was much less foundation for these petitions than the hon. Member for Finsbury seemed to imagine. He had received a letter from the Messrs. Baxter, stating how much they felt hurt at the charges which had been preferred against them, and narrating a variety of facts to show the great attention which they were accustomed to pay to the education and general comfort of their work people. The noble Lord read the letter. He was instructed to give the most complete contradiction to the allegation that the Messrs. Baxter, or any of their servants, attempted to interfere with the course of justice in this case, and that, instead of showing any harsh feeling towards the girls, they had done everything in their power to soften the rigours of their position, both before and after trial. He must say, judging from the terms in which the petitions were drawn up, that they appeared to him to have been written by some party who had a personal animosity to the Messrs. Baxter. He trusted his hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury would inquire into the character of those gentlemen, and if, after doing so, he found that they were capable of acting as he had represented, he should be both surprised and astonished.


said, if the Messrs. Baxter were respectable, that was no reason for refusing an inquiry. It was highly creditable to those gentlemen to come forward and pray for an investigation, and he did not know why it thould be opposed. There was one remark made by the learned Lord, which he could not concur with. The learned Lord said that the courts of law were open, and that the parties in this case intended to proceed for damages. Now, that he denied. The girls only asked for compensation for their loss of time and false imprisonment. In the way in which that allegation was put in the petition, an objection might have been raised to its reception by the House; but there was nothing in the petition to show that these girls were able or willing to go to law. They asked only for compensation, and the House ought to give them such compensation as an inquiry into their conduct, and the vindication of their character, would afford. The parts of the petition which, in his judgment, would justify inquiry, were not the parts which would justify compensation. There were facts alleged in this petition of which no court of law would take cognizance. The girls stated in their petition that they were taken into custody by four officers, and kept in confinement till twelve o'clock, and that they were then imprisoned for ten days. They might, perhaps, according to Scotch law, be entitled to some damages for not being immediately taken before a magistrate after their apprehension; but according to the English law, at any rate, it would be necessary to prove corrupt motives before any claim to damages could be established. Whether the magistrates acted rightly or wrongly in the matter, he would not pretend to say; but the allegations made were quite sufficient to justify the granting of the Committee. The girls alleged that they were asked by the officers to give such answers as would please their masters; and they stated that they consequently did so, and, as they feared, to their ruin. The learned Lord did not state in his address to the House how far that allegation was correct. In the English courts, when prisoners were brought up for examination before magistrates, they were cautioned that what they said might be used against them, and they were consequently warned not to say any thing without due deliberation. Again, the petitioners stated that their master stood by the side of the magistrates, and whispered to them before the passing of the sentence. Now, that allegation was not denied. Messrs. Baxter said that they did not unduly interfere or influence the course of justice; but there was no denial on their part that they were near to, and were talking with, the magistrates. The impression produced in the public mind, when a prosecutor was seen talking to the magistrates, was always one unfavourable to the administration of justice. He had come, therefore, to the conclusion that the House ought under all the circumstances to grant the Committee.


had felt considerable difficulty upon this question, and that difficulty had been much increased by the course which the hon. Member for Finsbury had taken. The hon. Member had substituted for the Motion of which he had given notice, the Motion that a Committee of Inquiry be appointed. He (Sir J. Graham) did not think that upon that Motion the House need discuss what was the character of the Messrs. Baxter, or the character of the girls. The question had been settled; but the question which they had now to discuss was, whether justice had been administered in this case. Now, while he distinctly admitted the right of any persons who felt themselves aggrieved to come before the House of Commons, he considered that petitioners ought not to come before a legislative body, except in the last resort. He laid this down as a general rule. Then the question came to the point as put by the hon. and learned Member for Cockermouth. Was there a short and satisfactory remedy elsewhere? The law in Scotland was upon this subject different from that which prevailed in other parts of the United Kingdom. Year by year the Faculty of Advocates appointed a standing committee of the most distinguished members of that body, to consider the cases of parties coming forward to sue in forma pauperis. Now, the girls in this case stated that their masters held secret communications with the magistrates before sentence was passed, and that injustice was consequently done. Let them go to the Court of Session. As a matter of course their statement would be referred to the standing committee which he had mentioned. If this committee reported that there was what was called, he believed, probabilis causa litigandi, a good ground of action, the court would instantly assign them counsel and agents; and these girls, humble though their means might be, would be enabled to proceed either criminally or civilly against the parties. If the fact which they alleged to be true could be proved, he had no doubt that the girls would obtain ample damages for any injustice which had been done. As his hon. and learned Friend had stated, a previous inquiry before this House, especially if publicity were given to the evidence, would greatly prejudice the case against the magistrates. These girls had ready means of redress; and, therefore, he thought that the appointment of a Committee would, with a reference to ends of justice, be a superfluous, and consequently not a desirable appointment. He had stated frankly his views upon this case, which he had been obliged to form upon very short deliberation, because he had come down prepared to discuss a very different question. Unless, therefore, he heard some argument to show that the views which he took were erroneous, he should not be disposed to agree to the appointment of a Committee.


said, that as far as regarded these girls, the case was very simple. They allowed themselves that they had violated their engagements; and the question, therefore, was, whether justice had been done to them in the trial which had taken place. He confessed that he had read their petition with very great pain. It appeared to him that there had been some hole and corner work in the matter, and that justice had not been done to them. The Lord Advocate had stated very fairly that, in the prosecution of his duty, he had made an inquiry into the matter. That inquiry, however, was secret; and it was important that Judges should be above suspicion. It was because these girls were poor, and without friends, that the House should be careful to institute an inquiry. The Lord Advocate was satisfied; but would the people, would justice be satisfied without a public investigation? He submitted, therefore, that there ought to be an inquiry before a Committee of the House. If the question came to a vote, he should divide with those who called for an inquiry in public.


replied. What had occurred in Dundee would never be allowed in an English manufacturing town. Were the Committee granted, he should be in a condition to prove the most, if not all, the allegations of the petitioners.

The House divided:—Ayes 38; Noes 63: Majority 25.

List of the AYES.
Aglionby, H. A. Bentinck, Lord G.
Baine, W. Borthwick, P.
Bouverie, hon. E. P. Kelly, J.
Bowring, Dr. M'Carthy, A.
Bridgeman, H. M'Donnell, J. M.
Brotherton, J. Maher, N.
Browne, R. D. Morris, D.
Browne, hon. W. O'Brien, J.
Butler, P. S. O'Brien, W. S.
Clay, Sir W. O'Brien, T.
Collett, J. O'Connell, D.
Dawson, hon. T. V. O'Connell, J.
Duncan, Visct. Pechell, Capt.
Escott, B. Powell, C.
Fitzgerald, R. A. Power, J.
Fitzmaurice, hon. W. Waddington, H. S.
Fitzroy, Lord C. Wawn, J. T.
Grattan, H.
Hall, Sir B. TELLERS.
Hindley, C. Duncombe, T.
Hume, J. Duncan, G.
List of the NOES.
Antrobus, E. Hamilton, Lord C.
Baring, rt. hon. W. B. Harris, hon. Capt.
Blackburne, J. I. Hayes, Sir E.
Boldero, H. G. Henley, J. W.
Botfield, B. Herbert, rt. hon. S.
Bowles, Adm. Hope, G. W.
Brisco, M. Jermyn, Earl
Broadley, H. Lockhart, W.
Bruce, Lord E. Lygon, hon. Gen.
Cardwell, E. M'Neill, D.
Carnegie, Capt. Mahon, Visct.
Chelsea, Visct. Masterman, J.
Clerk, rt. hon. Sir G. Morgan, O.
Clive, hon. R. H. Patten, J. W.
Cockburn, rt. hn. Sir G. Peel, rt. hon. Sir R.
Compton, H. C. Peel, J.
Copeland, Ald. Plumptre, J. P.
Corry, rt. hon. H. Round, C. G.
Dickinson, F. H. Seymer, H. K.
Douglas, Sir C. E. Smyth, Sir H.
Duke, Sir J. Somerset, Lord G.
Filmer, Sir E. Stanton, W. H.
Fitzroy, hon. H. Stewart, J.
Flower, Sir J. Sutton, hon. H. M.
Floyer, J. Thesiger, Sir F.
Forster, M. Tollemache, J.
Frewen, C. H. Trelawny, J. S.
Gore, W. O. Trotter, J.
Goulburn, rt. hon. H. Wellesley, Lord C.
Graham, rt. hon. Sir J. Wortley, hon. J. S.
Greene, T. TELLERS.
Grogan, E. Young, J.
Guest, Sir J. Cripps, T.