HC Deb 13 December 1847 vol 95 cc990-1003

The CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER moved that the Report on the Railways Bill he received.


said, it was not his intention to offer any opposition to this Bill; but before proceeding to the reception of the report—before proceeding to discuss the question of the adjudication on the claims of those who had been more or less injured by past railway legislation—before taking into consideration the claims of those who, forming of themselves a majority of the representatives in that House, were likely to assert those claims and to receive that attention which they merited, and perhaps rather more than they merited—it would not be amiss in them to consider the claims of those who had been most shamefully, he feared dangerously, neglected by the whole course of their railway legislation, and whom they were now about to dismiss at this period of the year without any consideration; and he was afraid, but for his advocacy, without a single word. When those who came after them looked at the gigantic schemes they had undertaken, and the gigantic works they had performed, they would naturally ask what, in an age professing popular feeling, and espousing, in theory at least, and loudly declaring the interests of the labouring classes—what had been their conduct in reference to them?—how they, having won from the labours of these parties their mighty wealth, had attended to their welfare?—how they had judged it expedient to promote their temporal and eternal welfare? They would naturally ask whether, in reference to medical cure, to their residences, to the instruction for the young, and the religious ministration for all, they had, in legislating for railways, borne the character which they had assumed to themselves of philanthrophic legislators and Christian men? In considering the hundreds and thousands of labourers whose interests were affected by railways—in considering the millions of money which had been embarked in these speculations, he had only been able to discover, among all the Acts of Parliament which had been passed on the subject, one solitary Act in reference to the labourer. He would read the preamble of that Act, to let the House see how far they had gone towards promoting the welfare and comfort of these men. The 1st and 2nd Victoria, to which he referred, recited— That whereas great mischiefs have arisen by the outrageous and unlawful behaviour of labourers and others employed on railroads, canals, and other public works, by reason whereof the appointment of special constables is often necessary for keeping the peace, and for the protection of the inhabitants, and the security of the property in the neighbourhood of such public works, whereby great expenses have been cast upon the public rates of counties and the districts chargeable with such expenses, directors and shareholders shall bear the expense," &c. Of all the Acts which had been passed on the subject of railways, this was the only one relating to labourers themselves. In proceeding to show the House, as he felt it his duty to do, what had been the result of the negligence on the part of the Legislature—the evils which had been suffered, the crimes which had been permitted, and the risks which the labourer had run in consequence of their negligence—he must remind the House, that the case for which he was about to claim their attention was not the case of the old and decrepid, the sick and the infirm; but the case of those who were strong and healthy, and who were likely very soon to avenge upon society the injuries they had received at their hands. The House must be aware that, in dealing with this large body of labourers, they were dealing with a new nation—a nation because of their numbers and their power—and a new nation, because whatever difficulties the House might have in interfering with vested interests, there were no difficulties of that kind when they were at the commencement of a new system, and giving laws to a new state of society; so that, whether as regarded the question of residences, or the question of comfort, or the question of health, or the question of morals, he maintained that their responsibility in reference to those things was far greater than it would have been if they had to deal with existing usages and established rights. He would now take the liberty of quoting a few extracts in support of what he had to advance, from the important evidence given before the Committee appointed on the Motion of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie), so early as July, 1846. He would not detain the House at any length, because he felt convinced that those who had the interest of that class at heart were fully aware of the danger impending over society by the course of conduct the Legislature had pursued and were pursuing towards them, and required only to have their attention directed to that report, and because he should consider it his duty to embody the suggestions of that report in a series of resolutions, and submit them to the consideration of the House soon after the recess. On the question of residences, the Rev. J. R. Thompson was asked:— 'Are the huts at all equal to the class of houses which are generally occupied by the labouring population?' He answered, 'I never saw anything to be compared to them.' 'Will you describe them to the Committee?' he was asked. He said, 'I can only describe them as being built against a hedge or bank, the rafters sloping from this bank, and the sides and ends of turf. In some cases, I believe, they are just boarded inside, in some cases they are not; in some cases there is no partition; man, woman, and child all sleep exposed to one another. Sometimes a sort of temporary curtain may be thrown across, which divides the sleeping apartment from what they call the kitchen, where the fireplace is.' Mr. Rawlinson was asked— 'What is the effect upon the habits and characters of the men, where there is a want of accommodation? Can you tell us from your experience?' He replied, 'I should say where the men are crowded together, as they were in that district, the work being carried on night and day, the beds in all the cottages were let double, and as soon as one set of men came out of them, after they had had their meals, another set were to take their place. The rooms were overcrowded, there could be no separation of the sexes; and demoralisation existed to a large extent among the native population. The women were corrupted many of them, and went away with the men, and lived amongst them in habits that civilised language will scarcely allow a description of. With reference to drawbacks, the Rev. R. Wilson was asked— 'Do you think generally men would be disposed to work for lower wages if they were sure of being paid weekly and in money?' He said, 'I think, undoubtedly, they would—no doubt they ought. There is another thing deducted from their wages, which is beer, whether they like it or not; by the rules on certain parts of the railroad, the labourers are compelled to take a certain quantity of beer.' Mr. Rawlinson said— These men were getting upon that work from 3s. 6d. to 4s. a-day, yet such was the excitement and lawless habits of the men in the district that it was no more to them than 2s. 6d. a-day, if they could have been comfortable and quiet, and could have lived rationally—the high wages were a curse rather than a blessing to them. If the House only heard the statements of the carelessness and indifference of many of the undertakers of those works regarding the health and the lives of the men in their employment, he thought the House and those who read those discussions outside the House, notwithstanding their congratulations respecting the network of railways which was spread over the country, would feel very much pained by the description of what was suffered by their poorer fellow-subjects:— Mr. Pomfret, surgeon, Sheffield and Manchester Railway, was asked—'Did you ever think it your duty to suggest anything to the authorities of the company respecting these accidents?" He said—'I scarcely thought myself able to do that. I once mentioned the propriety of having copper instead of iron for stemming these holes, thinking the latter very dangerous; for instance, one man had drilled a hole vertically in the rock, and in putting the powder into this hole he used an iron stemmer, and this ignited the powder, and the stemmer was driven through a fellow-workman's head, and killed him on the spot.' 'Who provided the stemmer?' 'The contractors.' 'Was your suggestion attended to?' 'No; I was told that I was neither a contractor nor an engineer, and that it was not my province.' Who could wonder, in such a state of things, that fever and disease should prevail? Mr. Rawlinson said, that— Fever and the smallpox broke out amongst them; and I have seen the men walking about with the smallpox upon them as thick as possible, and no hospital to go to. This was in the Summit Level Tunnel, where there were no hospitals; but he would call attention to how the railways acted where there was an hospital. In his own county of Northampton the infirmary received from the Birmingham line 852 cases, which were calculated to have cost 5971, and the hospital only received from the company 130l. 11s., of which the workmen contributed a considerable sum. With reference to provisions, the Rev. J. R. Thompson said— 'I take it upon the average that a navigator or workman working on our line pays from 20 to 30 per cent for all his provisions more than I do.' Mr. Chadwick said—'I have been informed of one piece of work undertaken by a few contractors of a condition not much above the labourers they engage, who will lose by the work itself, but who will make upwards of 7,000l. by the truck of beer and inferior provisions to the workmen.' With regard to religious instruction, the Rev. J. Thompson was asked— 'Am I to understand, from the experience you have had, you despair of improving the labourers in a religious and moral point of view?' He replied, 'Not if a regular spiritual instruction be adopted. Perhaps an individual is under my care for a month, and then he is off elsewhere; if there was a regular system kept up, so that he could go from spiritual instruction to spiritual instruction. I think it very likely the man might be reformed.' Mr. Pomfret was asked— 'Was there any religious attendance on the part of any minister upon those men who were so injured?' He said, 'I have never heard of their being visited.' He feared that the case he was about to read could not be considered as a solitary instance. Mr. Chadwick said, that— A fine powerful workman had the spine fractured in such a manner as to preclude all hope of recovery. Although this man pleaded again and again to have the Scriptures read to him with religious counsel, the request was in vain; for, after remaining many days in a sinking condition, he was suffered to expire without having received the least attention of the nature he so earnestly craved. They found, therefore, that in the accumulation of these works, in the outlay of so many millions of money, in passing so many Acts of Parliament, and in dealing with not fewer than 400,000 fellow-subjects, they had taken no single precaution during the whole of these works, supposing they regarded these men as an army, to establish and enforce discipline among them, to provide them with medical attendance, or even to set up a commissariat department; or, supposing they looked upon them as sons of peace and children of industry, they had not treated them as children of a civilised community, but had, year after year, suffered them to go from work to work uncared for and unwatched. It appeared that a system of false names had been adopted; that men who committed crimes in one district fled to another, where, in consequence of their strength and their general aptitude for working in tunnels and other laborious work, they were received without character, and that their large wages were spent in the most lavish manner, nothing being left behind but demoralised and improvident habits, and a waste of human strength, insomuch that the average age of these men had been ascertained not to exceed forty. They—the Legislature—had taken these men from their parish ministrations—from their home charities and local ties, which, however some hon. Members might be disposed to sneer at then, did tend to the morality and peaceful deportment of the lower orders; and they had asked nothing of them but brute strength, which the men gave, and for which they were paid; and when all this stimulus of commercial enterprise was about to be checked—when a loophole was about to be given to those who chose to use it to stop the works which they had contracted for—he had looked in vain for any mention in the Bill of the railway labourers. He asked the House how they intended to deal with them—whether they thought they could safely continue to neglect them when they remembered their numbers, their power, their strength, and their demoralisation? It was for these reasons that he determined not to permit the report to be received, nor to suffer the Bill to make further progress without at least raising his voice of protest as regarded the past, and his voice of warning in reference to the future. If he thought the Railway Bills were all over there would be room only for unavailing regret; but as this Bill showed that railway projects were still numerous, and that these evils were still to continue, he should feel it his duty to submit to the House, after the recess, in a substantive form, not his own suggestions, which would be of little value, but the suggestions which had been originated in and embodied in the report of as fair and impartial a Committee as ever set. We were behind France, behind Prussia, and even, as he believed, behind America upon this subject. The evidence given in reference to the Paris and Rouen Railway, the statement of Mr. Chadwick in reference to the Prussian railways, the evidence as to the drainage works in Tuscany and Lombardy, showed that those States had taken a more humane, and, it might be added, a more politic view of their duties than we had done. There were, in every one of those countries, minute arrangements as to the lodging and provisions for the men, and the numbers to be employed, from which we might well have learned better things. It was to be hoped that we should now learn better things, if only taught by the perils threatening us during the coming winter, in the dead of which it was proposed to permit these railway companies to turn so many men aloof without warning, without arrangement for their return to their former homes, and without the slightest evidence that they had saved money, the whole evidence going to show that the savings' banks even in the neighbourhood were a mere nullity, in consequence of the truck system, the ticket system, and the place where the men were paid, and that all their wages were spent improvidently, in dissipation and debauchery. It would have been far better for us, even taking the lowest and most selfish ground—more safe for the community at large—more satisfactory to the districts in which these labourers had been for some time congregated, and where they were to be turned off—if we had made some arrangements—compulsory arrangements he would say—in reference to the method and place of payment, and whereby habits of frugality and order would have been encouraged in them, and some means furnished to them for returning to their respective homes. We were now saying to them in effect, "It was by your labour and the strength of your hands that those works were constructed, but while we employed you, we never looked after either your bodies or your souls; like beasts of burden we used you, like beasts of burden we dismiss you, with no more concern than if you were the iron or the stone upon which you wrought." The hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. Peto), whose evidence redounded so greatly to his credit, and some other gentlemen, had mitigated and relieved the evil in some quarters; but while works so conducted had paid as well as, and probably upon the whole better than those where such cruel treatment had been practised, it only showed how in-noxiously we might have stepped in and rendered obligatory upon all what their own right feeling had led a small number of contractors and proprietors here and there to do of their own accord. Let us not say that it was the free spirit of our legislation in commercial matters to leave all these things to find their own level; it was the part of a paternal Government to remember that if we wished our poor to love the institutions of their country, and to love those who were above them, we must make them feel that we sympathised with them, and desired their temporal and eternal welfare.


felt that this subject was very important; but as the hon. Member had given notice of his intention to lay resolutions before the House, embodying his views of the matters which legislation should embrace with reference to the moral and physical care of the masses of men congregated upon the great undertakings to which allusion had been made, he should defer until then any observations that he might have to make. He would, however, just remark that he feared the hon. Member rather overrated the power of Parliament to effect the object in view, although, to a certain extent, perhaps, regulations might be made by authority of Parliament in conformity with the resolutions of the Committee which had collected so much valuable evidence. The hon. Member had cast rather too sweeping a censure upon railway companies, and made too general a charge of neglect. Lately, partly owing to the labours of that Committee, and partly owing to other causes, attention had been called to the moral and physical condition of these men; and through the interference of persons of property in the part of the country through which the lines were to run, seconded by directors of companies, and by contractors, who afforded the most valuable aid of all, means had been provided in many instances for obviating the evils pointed out in the report. The hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. Peto) stated in his evidence that he had about 9,000 men in his employ, and that he provided a regular staff of religious instructors, one for a certain number of miles of railway, and that regulations were made with regard to the truck system and other points, and which in his hands were completely successful in preventing the evils existing in other cases, and in procuring a better class of labourers, securing the performance of a greater amount of labour. The same system had been followed on the Chester and Holyhead line; and, indeed, there were several cases in which the directors had provided means for this purpose liberally, gentlemen and clergymen in the district through which the line was to pass giving their assistance and co-operation. He had far greater reliance upon these voluntary exertions, the result of public attention being called to this subject, than upon any legislative enactment, because he believed it hardly practicable by any law to secure the choice of proper men, which was secured where gentlemen like the hon. Member for Norwich, having those persons in their employ, really laid themselves out for this object. At the same time, when the hon. Member (Mr. A. Stafford) should move his resolutions, he should come to the consideration of them with an earnest desire to co-operate with him in promoting the end he had in view.


I cannot quite allow my hon. Friend's general charges against railways to pass without some observations. I really think the devil is not quite so black as my hon. Friend has painted him. He says that railway labourers are treated like beasts of burden, and that no care is taken either of their bodies or souls. Now, it is only justice to the railways to say that it appears from the same report he has quoted, that the railway labourers, on an average, receive wages to the amount of 22s. 6d. per week. When they receive such wages as these it can hardly be said that they are treated like beasts of burden. I speak from memory; but I think I saw a statement, a short time back, to the effect that the railway companies in Great Britain and Ireland were at one time contributing at the rate of 400,000l. a year to the poor-rates; that is, one-sixteenth part of the entire poor-rate paid in England. And what is this upon? Why, upon 50,000 acres of land; for there are only about 5,000 miles of railway executed; and I believe it is calculated that a railway occupies ten acres to a mile. I think, therefore, it is hardly fair to say when railways employ at the rate of five-and-twenty men to a mile permanently, besides employing upwards of one hundred per mile in the construction—and when they contribute 400,000l. to the relief of the poor—I think it is hardly fair to say that railway labourers are turned adrift when their work is done; that they are treated like beasts, or like so much iron or stone, without any remorse or compassion whatever. My hon. Friend has quoted from the evidence of the hon. Member for Norwich. I think from the evidence Mr. Peto gave before that Committee, it appears that the railway labourers he employed in Cambridgeshire were a pattern of good conduct to all the labourers in the county. I could not quite let the strictures upon railways made by the hon. Gentleman pass without saying a word in their defence.

Report agreed to.


, in bringing forward certain clauses of which he had given notice, said that the first had reference to the extension of time for taking land. Hitherto it had been usual for companies requiring an extension of time to obtain it by means of an additional Act of Parliament; and in no one of those Acts so obtained had there been any clause inserted giving compensation to landowners on account of such extension of time. He had, however, considered that, as the Bill before the House was a general Bill for the extension of time, power of compensation should be given to the landowners who might really suffer loss from the extension of time. The manner of obtaining this compensation when the Bill was last before the House was to be by arbitration; that was, that where a contract for land had been made, and afterwards an extension of time for the construction of works had been obtained, the damage from such extension should be settled by arbitration. Some hon. Gentlemen seemed to think that it was desirable that compensation should be afforded by another award being made for damage. To this he had a great objection, because he believed that such a second assessment of damage would be rendered inoperative, as the railway companies would refuse, being deterred by the prospect of this expense, to take advantage of this Bill, and they would either not apply at all for an extension of time, or they would go to Parliament for a separate Bill, as they formerly did. It was therefore desirable that there should be no additional assessment of damage in consequence of the extension of time. With the view of meeting this case, he proposed to alter the 5th Clause of the Bill. He also now proposed to exempt those persons from the operation of the Bill, who had entered into contracts for the sale of land for the construction of works. The operation of the Bill would not affect them, and they would have the same remedy in law or in equity as they now had, notwithstanding the passing of this Act. Wherever agreements for the purchase of land had been entered into, those agreements would re- main unaltered in effect by this Bill; and also in all cases where railway companies shall have given notice of taking land under the Lands Clauses Consolidation Act, the companies shall be bound to proceed, and take that land exactly in the same manner as though this Act had not passed. There was another case which required some provision to meet it, and that was where a contract having been entered into between a landowner and a railway company for the sale of land, in consequence of some special circumstances the landowner might be aggrieved by the extension of time. In that case, he proposed that power should be given to the Railway Commissioners to consider such cases, and to refuse or grant the required extension of time to the railway company, as they should think fit, after examining the cases of this sort that might be submitted to them. He proposed also to give the Commissioners the power of granting the required extension of time upon certain terms and conditions. The hon. Member for Oxfordshire, who had on a former occasion called his attention to these points, had also thought that there was not sufficient notice, under this Bill, given to the landowner. Under the present system, the law required that personal notices should be served on all landowners; but he thought that every person would be anxious that the great expense and trouble of personal service should be avoided, especially as this was a public general Act. Originally it was intended that there should be one notice in the Gazette, and one for three consecutive weeks in a newspaper published in the county through which the proposed line was to pass. In addition to those notices, he proposed to add notices on the church doors in the parishes affected by the line for which an extension of time was sought. By this means he thought that the fullest notice would be given to all parties concerned. He would not go into that part of the Bill which gave shareholders the power of suspending progress. The right hon. Gentleman brought up clauses to carry out these views.


was quite satisfied with the proposed amendments, but would be glad to have a perfect assurance from the right hon. Gentleman that the Railway Board would have full jurisdiction in the manner proposed.


said, there was no doubt whatever of it. The Bill would provide that if the Railway Commissioners should think fit, they might refuse the extension of time sought by railway companies, or they might grant it upon certain terms and conditions.


had hoped that some power would be given to companies to dissolve. There were many of the lines of 1846 not yet commenced, and the parties were most anxious for the companies to be broken up. He had himself prepared a clause to meet this case.


said, that a clause was already under the consideration of the House. The hon. Member was therefore out of order in proposing another before the former one was disposed of.


said, that this was a subject of great importance, and one which the Committee of last Session had gone into. He thought it was highly important that the power of dissolution should be given.


said, that since the railway Members had meddled with this Bill, they had done nothing but spoil it. With regard to the question of arbitration, no person could be more ready than he should be to entrust that duty to the Board; but he doubted very much that they would have time to arbitrate, and he also doubted that they would in all cases have jurisdiction. There was another point to which he wished to call attention. When land was allowed to lie altogether waste without any owner, for, suppose, a period of four years, as it would, perhaps, in those cases, it might prove very dangerous to the farmers in the neighbourhood. If the thistles were not mown, and if the weeds were neglected on that piece of ground, the land for miles around might be completely destroyed by the seed. Although the right hon. Gentleman and the Attorney General might think that they could not legislate for thistles, he would say that they ought to put in some compensation for such a case as that. There ought to be some compulsion on those people who occupy land without using it to prevent its being a nuisance to their neighbours.


said, that when any person required an extension of time, he might come before the Railway Commissioners, and apply for such extension; and in granting that application they might impose it as a condition that the party should undertake to attend to the mowing of the this- tles in proper time, and before seeding time.

Clauses agreed to.

Bill to be read a third time.