HC Deb 29 March 1848 vol 97 cc1103-13

, pursuant to notice, moved for— The appointment of a Select Committee to take into consideration the Report and Evidence laid before Parliament in 1844 by Her Majesty's Commissioner for inquiry into the condition of the Framework Knitters, and to make such further inquiries as may appear necessary, in order to ascertain whether any, and, if any, what legislative measures can be devised for the relief of their long-continued distress. The hon. Member observed, that the present distressed state of the framework knitters was not to be imputed to any temporary or transitory causes; and he hoped that the House would at once see the justice and expediency of acceding to his Motion. On this subject the Commissioner entered into a full inquiry, and his report had been laid on the table of the House. The report fully bore out the allegations of the petitioners in 1843 as to the extent of their distress, and the grievances and depression under which they laboured. An Act had been passed to carry out a portion of the views of the petitioners; but that Act had been frustrated in consequence of the technical construction put upon it; but where it had been fairly brought into operation a beneficial result had been the consequence. Last year he had proposed a Bill on this subject; and the Motion he had now to make to the House was to take into consideration the report and evidence laid before Parliament in 1844, and to make such further inquiries as might appear necessary to ascertain whether any legislative measures could be devised for the relief of the long-continued distress of the framework knitters. He did not know whether any objection would be made to this proposal; but let it not be said that it would be mischievous because it would create exaggerated hopes, for the Commission had already raised and justified hopes, and all he desired was to see the legitimate consequences of that Commission carried out. The House, surely, would not sanction such a mockery as that of entering into an inquiry into the distress of a particular class, and then letting a large blue book be the only result. When the Commission was applied for, an official answer was given, cautioning the parties against entertaining too sanguine hopes; but that answer at the same time set forth the conditions on which the petitioners might be allowed to entertain hopes; for the Government admitted that alleged grievances and oppressions formed a fit subject for public investigation, and that when they were proved to exist, it was the imperative duty of the Legislature to afford every just and practicable remedy. Now, he maintained that grievances and oppressions in respect to the condition of the framework knitters had been proved to exist. It might be said that the Commissioner recommended no specific remedy; but he was justified in saying that that arose from the circumstance of the Commissioner thinking that such recommendation was not within his province. Admitting, for the sake of argument, that grievances and oppressions were not made out by the report, further inquiry was nevertheless necessary to satisfy the minds of this miserable and wretched body of persons. Some might object to Parliament taking any steps in this matter, on the abstract ground that noninterference in matters of trade was the proper course; but he protested against an abstract principle of that sort being so far allowed to prevail as to exclude all consideration of the specific circumstances of particular cases. It was argued that the condition of workmen must always be governed by the relation of the supply of labour to the demand; but in the particular trade to which his observations had reference the excess of the supply of labour, he contended, was influenced by the vicious system carried on. Such was the conclusion at which the Commissioner had arrived, for he observed that this excess of supply was very powerfully influenced and encouraged by the system of frame-rents, and the long-recognised custom of heavy deductions, on one pretext or another, from the wages of the workpeople; which made it the interest of employers to spread any given amount of work among a larger number of workmen than was necessary to its performance; a practice that was' further greatly facilitated by the superabundant amount of machinery which had been created and brought into the trade by others than the legitimate employers in it, as profitable investments of capital, induced by the customary exorbitant rent of the frames. This practice, he believed, admitted of correction. He did not know that it was necessary for him to go further into the subject; and he trusted that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade would not object to the Motion.


said, that nothing was more unpleasant to him than to offer any opposition to a measure which was represented as one for the improvement of the working classes. If there was anything to which he had more particularly directed his attention, it was to the removal of every kind of oppression from the working man, and to the establishment of perfect liberty for masters and men to make their own bargains. The hon. Member had introduced a Bill on this subject, and failed in carrying it; and the circumstances of the population rendered it impossible for that House, by any inquiry or by any means at its disposal, to give the relief sought for. He put it to the House whether the hon. Member was not seeking to introduce a principle of extreme danger? In a neighbouring country they might see the effects of such a principle. There the workmen had come forward and applied to the Government, and the Government had been foolish enough to promise wages not only to the industrious, but to all that were idle. The hon. Member's proposition was one of the same sort; and he knew of no proceeding more dangerous than that of the Government giving power to the mass of the community to dictate to the masters who employed them as to the way in which they should carry on their work. Before another year was over they would discover the effects of this interference on the part of the Provisional Government of France in respect to wages. The masters were quitting their occupations, and, if the system continued, there would not be in France at the end of five years any manufacturers except for articles of domestic consumption. Already a deputation of manufacturers had applied to the Provisional Government for protection in favour of their produce, on the ground that they would be no longer able, on account of the limitation of day labour to 10 hours, to compete with England and other countries. He mentioned this circumstance to show the absurdity of all such interference. There had already been attempts made to relieve the unfortunate body of persons to whom the present Motion referred. There had been "truck" Bills, and regulation Bills, but what had been the result? They had failed. Whilst masters and men were at liberty to make their own bargains, every interference with them was mischievous. There had been three inquiries respecting the handloom weavers, and, after all, every attempt at legislation on the subject was obliged to be given up. He concurred with the Commissioner that it would be utterly impossible to relieve the framework knitters by any legislative measure. No permanent improvement could be looked for except in the diminution of their numbers, or in such an extension of the manufacture as would affect the amount of employment. Now, every interference by law in the shape of dictation to the masters was likely to prevent the extension of the manufacture. If no inquiry had as yet taken place on the subject, he should have been the first to desire the fullest information; but as that information had been already obtained, he was of opinion that the proposed inquiry could effect no good, whilst the principles advocated by the hon. Member, if acted upon, would bring ruin on the trade. He therefore appealed to the Government not to give any countenance, by acceding to the Motion, to such principles.


advocated the proposed inquiry. If there was danger in legislation on this subject, there was also danger in refusing legislation. In the Midland Counties there were about 36,000 frames, each of which sustained from three to four individuals, so that there the population employed in and dependent on framework knitting amounted to about 120,000 or 130,000 souls. No man would deny that for a long period these poor people had been in a state of great destitution, and he was persuaded that the master manufacturers themselves would join in the inquiry. He considered that the House was deeply indebted to the hon. Baronet for bringing this subject under their consideration, and he had no doubt they would agree to the appointment of a Committee. He hoped the Government would assent to the Motion, for he believed that such an inquiry as would he instituted by the Committee would be satisfactory both to the manufacturers and to the workmen.


observed, that as he had lived in the immediate neighbourhood of a large district where framework knitting was very extensively carried on, he possessed some knowledge of the situation of the persons engaged in that employment, and he must express his hope that the House would agree to the appointment of a Committee. He had been surprised at the observations of the hon. Member for Montrose, who had referred to recent events in France. Did the hon. Gentleman wish to see the scenes which had recently occurred in France repeated in this country? He (Mr. Newdegate) contended that it would be unjust, upon the abstract principles advanced by the hon. Member for Montrose, to refuse inquiry into a subject which the House had repeatedly acknowledged was one that deserved investigation. The hon. Member for Montrose had contended that the Ten Hours Act which had been adopted by the Legislature involved an improper interference with labour. He thought that measure had produced most beneficial results. He considered that every Englishman had reason to be proud of the conduct of the working classes in the manufacturing districts; and he put it to the House whether, when the Ten Hours Act had produced so much satisfaction and contentment, they were now prepared to adopt a precisely opposite course of legislation.


said, the hon. Member for Leicester had spoken of the danger of refusing inquiry into this subject; but he thought there was a far greater danger which the House ought to avoid—that of deluding the people into the belief that the Legislature could provide a remedy for all the grievances of which they complained. Experience had proved that legislative interference between masters and workmen could never be completely successful. With regard to the Ten Hours Act, he might state from his own knowledge that many of the working classes—even of those who had been most clamorous for the measure—were now convinced of its impolicy; and he had no doubt that the manufacturing operatives would petition that House for the alteration of a law which had brought severe calamities upon them. He believed that great mischief might be done by exciting expectations among the working classes that it was possible, by legislative interference, to prevent the depreciation of their wages under any and all circumstances. A comparison had been made between the conduct of France and England, and it had been said that the noninterference of the French Government on this subject had caused great distress and discontent among the working classes. But he begged to remind the House that the experiment of interference between masters and men had been tried at Lyons, and the result of that interference was a disastrous and fatal struggle between the two classes. He hoped, therefore, that the House would not assent to the Motion of the hon. Member for Leicester.


thought that if they granted the Committee, they should at the same time state distinctly that they did not at all intend to give any countenance to the opinion that by legislation it was possible to improve the condition of the working classes by obtaining higher wages for them. But if the inquiry were to be directed to the frauds committed on the working classes, then he apprehended that, with respect to that matter, which was widely different from the other, it might be possible to prevent fraud, and thereby improve their condition. Payment by truck, which was one subject of complaint, was a great and enormous evil, against which the working classes had at present no means of defending themselves; for he knew, by inquiry in many parts of England, that the laws against truck were not effectively enforced. If the result of an inquiry should be to prevent frauds in this respect, it would go far to convince the humbler classes that the House was determined to throw over them the shield of its protection in every case of real grievance which they could reach. Even if it should turn out that no great practical benefit would result from the Committee, would it not be of great advantage to have satisfied those people, and to show them that they were willing to remedy their grievances where they could? One of the great evils persons engaged in manufacturing employments had to complain of, was the fluctuation that took place in the demand for labour. With reference to this, it was most important to give the humble classes an opportunity of ensuring themselves, from their savings in a period of high wages, against the recurrence of periods of low wages. An Act had been passed some years since giving increased facilities for this purpose, in pursuance of recommendations made by a Committee appointed upon his Motion. Many societies had been formed under its provisions which had been found most useful; and if it were possible to remove the defects that had been found to exist in the Act, and give greater extension to its provisions, he thought a very important object would be gained. He hoped Ministers would assent to the appointment of the Committee.


said, it was not without real concern that he felt it his duty to oppose the Motion. He gave full credit to the statements which had been made as to the distress that existed among the class of persons to whom the Motion referred; and he readily acknowledged that they had a claim upon the consideration of the Government and of the Legislature by their general good conduct, often under the pressure of very severe privation and distress. If he could make up his mind that the appointment of this Committee would really be beneficial to that large class of persons, so far from opposing it, no man would be more ready to give his cordial support to the Motion; and if no previous inquiry had been instituted on the subject, he would have run the risk—whatever it might be—of exciting hopes and expectations which might not ultimately be fulfilled, by assenting to some such inquiry as that which was proposed. But so recently as three years ago a Commission was appointed, which instituted a very full inquiry into the whole question. That inquiry was conducted by Mr. Muggeridge, who was appointed by the Board of Trade, and who had presented to Parliament a very full and able report, accompanied by ample information in the shape of evidence; and he believed that it was impossible for the House to obtain more ample, correct, and minute information than had been afforded by Mr. Muggeridge. Now if, under these circumstances, the House agreed to the appointment of a Committee to ascertain what legislative measures could be devised to relieve the distress existing among the framework knitters, he feared they would give currency to an opinion which he believed would be entirely unfounded—namely, that it was in the power of the House, by legislative measures, to strike at the root of those causes which had hitherto produced so much distress among this class of operatives. Mr. Muggeridge referred, in his report, to the causes which had produced the distress existing among the framework knitters; and he stated that this particular class of labour was open to almost every unskilled labourer; for as no proficiency or experience was requisite to enable a person to perform the work properly, the result was that the moment there was a glut of labour in any branch of the industry of the country, the unemployed labourers were able to resort to this trade of framework knitting, without any previous education or training. Nay, more, the Commissioner stated that this was a species of industry that could be carried on, to a very great extent at least, by women and children in their own houses. Could we, then, be surprised that this particular description of labour should at all times be liable to periods of great depression and distress? Could we suppose, if that statement were true, as he believed it was, that any legislative measures would remove a cause of distress of that nature? The Commissioner stated that there were but two modes in which, in his opinion, this distress could be permanently remedied; one was the reduction of the numbers employed in this manufacture; the other an extension of the manufacture itself; and then he added— An extension of the manufacture is most likely to be attained by the improvement of which it appears susceptible in the manner of conducting it; by a more judicious appropriation and division of labour, whereby the cost of production would be diminished; and by an increased application of taste and skill in the designs and patterns of the articles manufactured, especially in the fancy branches of the trade;"— not at all adverting to these subjects as matters to which legislation could apply, but as to be attained by internal arrangements in the trade itself, and by experience and a good understanding between employers and labourers. The hon. Baronet (Sir H. Halford) proposed a Bill upon the subject last year; but those who recollected it would agree that it afforded no very favourable specimen of the power to remedy by direct legislation the evils the hon. Baronet complained of. Almost every Gentleman who expressed his opinion on the second reading, acknowledged that however much he might desire to attain the end the hon. Baronet had in view, it would be quite impossible to do so by the measure proposed. The hon. Baronet's measure interfered in the most violent manner between the employer and the working people, and imposed heavy penalties on the employment of middlemen in this trade—a class of persons most useful in this and in other trades, against whom a most unfounded prejudice existed in some quarters, but whom he believed to be quite necessary to the right conduct of business of this description. The hon. Baronet absolutely proposed by direct enactment to prevent their being employed, and also to prevent the letting out of frames for handloom labour to the operatives. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Slaney) had said, that though he did not anticipate good from any large and general measure of this description, yet there were some minor and incidental points on which Parliament might legislate with advantage for the distressed operatives; and he adverted to some amendment in the system of savings-banks, and to some alleged frauds in regard to the contracts between masters and workmen in this branch of manufacture. But it would be most unwise to appoint a Committee of Inquiry with such large powers as now proposed, with a view to attain such very narrow and limited objects. If any hon. Member, not proposing a Committee of Inquiry, but making use of the full and ample materials before the House, should offer a measure to remedy any frauds said to exist in this trade, or any defect in the system of savings-banks, such a measure, when brought forward in the shape of a Bill, would receive the most attentive consideration of the Government; it was to a general proposal of a Committee of Inquiry upon a subject so recently investigated by a Commission that he (Mr. Labouchere) objected. That would only be holding out hopes and expectations of legislative remedies which Parliament could never supply. Under these circumstances, however painful it might be to refuse an appeal made on behalf of a class of his fellow-subjects, of whose good conduct he was well aware, whose distress he admit- ted, and whose condition he would gladly ameliorate as far as lay in his power, he felt it in his duty to vote against the proposition.


thanked the hon. Member for Shrewsbury for putting the subject in its right light. It was not a mere question of raising wages, nor had it anything to do with the short-time question; but here were 100,000 persons employed in a particular manufacture, who were suffering under the grossest tyranny and oppression, and unable really to get the true and proper amount of their wages fairly into their hands. If the Committee were granted, legislation would result. The only error made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury was in supposing that there were times when these men were in high wages. Why, the wages of men, many of them with families, ranged from 5s. to 6s. a week.


considered that as both masters and men wished for an inquiry, it was too bad to refuse it. Although it might be very desirable not to induce the working classes to suppose that legislation could do everything for them, there was also a danger in this age of the application of abstract principles of science without due allowance for circumstances.


thought the division would show who were the real friends of this unfortunate class, and who were their pretended friends—Gentlemen who talked about the danger of creating a sort of war between master and operatives, but had never been afraid to raise their voices in the Anti-Corn-Law League to create a difference between landlord and tenant. These Gentlemen were afraid of a Committee to examine into the frauds committed by masters upon their workmen; could they show any such fraud on the part of landlords towards their tenants, or tenants towards their labourers?


deeply regretted the course taken by the Government. He had been met with the abstract theory of "supply and demand;" but according to that theory there should have been a process of self-adjustment after a time, whereas here a whole generation had passed away, and the excess of supply was as great as ever. Allusion had also been made to French affairs, as if there was any danger of our imitating French legislation in regard to workmen! The greatest danger lay in refusing all inquiry, where fraud and oppression existed.

The House divided:—Ayes 51; Noes 85: Majority 34.

List of the AYES.
Anstey, T. C. Grosvenor, Earl
Barrington, Visct. Harris, hon. Capt.
Bernard, Visct. Henley, J. W.
Brackley, Visct. Hornby, J.
Broadley, H. Law, hon. C. E.
Brotherton, J. Lindsay, hon. Col.
Bruce, C. L. C. Mackenzie, W. F.
Cayley, E. S. March, Earl of
Christy, S. Newdegate, C. N.
Colvile, C. R. Newport, Visct.
Courtenay, Lord Peto, S. M.
Cowan, C. Richards, R.
Crawford, W. S. Rufford, F.
Dod, J. W. Sibthorp, Col.
Dodd, G. Slaney, R. A.
Duncuft, J. Smollett, A.
Dundas, G. Sotheron, T. H. S.
Edwards, H. Spooner, R.
Egerton, W. T. Sturt, H. G.
Fagan, W. Sullivan, M.
Farrer, J. Thompson, Col.
Floyer, J. Walmsley, Sir J.
Forbes, W. Williams, J.
Frewen, C. H. Yorke, H. G. R.
Gardner, R. TELLERS.
Goring, C. Halford, Sir H.
Granby, Marq. of Packe, C. W.
List of the NOES.
Abdy, T. N. Hastie, A.
Acland, Sir T. D. Hawes, B.
Adair, H. E. Hayter, W. G.
Adair, R. A. S. Heywood, J.
Armstrong, Sir A. Hobhouse, T. B.
Arundel and Surrey, Earl of Howard, hon. E. G. G.
Hume, J.
Bellew, R. M. Jackson, W.
Bowring, Dr. Jervis, Sir J.
Busfeild, W. Keppel, hon. G. T.
Callaghan, D. Labouchere, rt. hon. H.
Campbell, hon. W. F. Langston, J. H.
Cavendish, hon. G. H. Lewis, rt. hon. Sir T. F.
Clay, J. Lewis, G. C.
Clerk, rt. hon. Sir G. Locke, J.
Cochrane, A. D. R. W. B. Macnamara, Maj.
Colebrooke, Sir T. E. M'Neill, D.
Cowper, hon. W. F. Manon, The O'Gorman
Craig, W. G. Mangles, R. D.
Davie, Sir H. R. F. Melgund, Visct.
Drummond, H. H. Mitchell, T. A.
Duckworth, Sir J. T. B. Morpeth, Visct.
Duncan, G. Morris, D.
Dundas, Adm. Nugent, Sir P.
Ebrington, Visct. O'Connell, M. J.
Elliott, hon. J. E. Ogle, S. C. H.
Evans, W. Patten. J. W.
Fellowes, E. Peehell, Capt.
FitzPatrick, rt. hn. J. W. Philips, Sir G. R.
Fordyce, A. D. Pilkington, J.
Forster, M. Price, Sir R.
Fox, W. J. Raphael, A.
Gladstone, rt. hn. W. E. Rawdon, Col.
Graham, rt. hon. Sir J. Rice, E. R.
Grenfell, C. P. Rich, H.
Grey, rt. hon. Sir G. Rutherfurd, A.
Grey, R. W. Sadleir, J.
Hall, Sir B. Sheil, rt. hon. R. L.
Hastie, A. Somerville, rt. hn. Sir W.
Tenison, E. K. Wood, rt. hon. Sir C.
Thicknesse, R. A. Wood, W. P.
Thornely, T.
Tynte, Col. C. J. K. TELLERS.
Ward, H. G. Tufnell, H.
Watkins, Col. Hill, Lord M.