HC Deb 09 May 1848 vol 98 cc809-16

LORD G. BENTINCK said, that in pursuance of the notice he had given, he proposed to put to the noble Lord the First Minister of the Crown a protectionist or free-trade question of the deepest importance and interest at the present moment. He needed not to remind the House that an announcement had gone forth of a desire, which, inasmuch as it was beyond the law, was also above the law, and would be found more powerfully binding than any law which that House could enact—he meant the desire expressed by Her Majesty that the ladies of England, such as intended to be present at drawing-rooms or Court assemblies, should be pleased, during the present depression of commerce and trade, to appear in no attire except such as was the produce of native industry. The question he had to put to the noble Lord at the head of the Government was, whether this desire had been expressed because Her Majesty, weeping and heartbreaking at the distress which she had seen around her—at the distress which overwhelmed the weavers of Spitalfields, the ribandmakers of Coventry, the lace-makers and hose-manufacturers of Nottingham, could no longer bear that hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of goods, the manufacture of France and other foreign countries, should come weekly into the port of London, driving out of employment the home manufactures? He asked whether, it having come to Her Majesty's knowledge, that in the first three months of this year there had been imported into the port of London alone, silk goods of foreign manufacture exceeding in value 400,000l. sterling, and equal to the employment of 31,000 weavers; and that, also, into the same port of London, there had been imported lace to the value of 20,000l. more, and needlework likewise to the amount of 20,000l., each sufficient to throw out of employment 4,000 needlework women and sempstresses; likewise 7,000 dozens of boot and shoe fronts, sufficient to employ 1,200 cordwainers in this country;—was it, he asked, that Her Majesty, who had always reigned in the hearts of her people, and never more so than now, when she was flying to their rescue from the measures of that party which the noble Lord had so well described as a party of philosophers in this country—was it, he asked, that Her Majesty having heard of these things, had of her own will, and from the emanation of her own heart, given to the ladies of this kingdom this order, which he presumed, by a usual interpretation clause, would be construed to include gentlemen as well as ladies, and which, then, the Speaker of that House — the first Gentleman of this country by virtue of Ids office as well as by nature and accomplishments—would think himself as much bound in gallantry as well as in loyalty and duty to obey? He asked whether this important announcement was the emanation of Her Majesty's own disposition, or whether it was what the noble Lord at the head of the Government had advised her to the effect that those free-trade measures which had been carried were already past endurance and must be now put aside, it being no longer becoming any good Englishwoman or Englishman to pursue the policy of purchasing in the cheapest market? He asked whether this announcement might not be taken as not only indicative, as they were all sure it was, of Her Majesty's will, who now stood forward as the first protectionist in this country, but as also indicative of a change of opinion on the part of Her Majesty's Ministry? and whether it were not an intimation that they were now going to retrace that course which had gone so far to bring the country into its present state of distress? He asked whether the announcement might not be taken as indicative of the disposition of the Ministry as well as of Her Majesty not to behold with cold indifference our own colonists and our own traders reduced to beggary and ruin?

LORD J. RUSSELL said, that as the noble Lord had certainly made a speech in putting his question, it was very difficult for him to evolve the question from the statements and arguments with which the noble Lord had surrounded it. But, as far as he understood the noble Lord's question, which appeared better shaped as printed in the Paper of the House than as put by the noble Lord, it was to the effect —whether, in the first place, Her Majesty had given commands to ladies attending at Court to appear attired in dresses exclusively the products of native industry? It certainly was true that Her Majesty had issued commands that the ladies should appear at Court on Court occasions in dresses of British manufacture. He believed that there was nothing new in the issue of such an order. Similar orders were constantly given in the times of former Sovereigns; and it was, as the noble Lord supposed, from Her Majesty's kindness, and from a wish to be of service to persons in this country engaged in the manufactures likely to be required, that such an order was given. The noble Lord went on to ask whether that announcement was to be taken as a symptom that the advisers of the Crown had changed their opinion with respect to the admission of foreign manufactures; and whether it was to be looked on as the first practical proof of that change? With respect to that question he should say, that he considered the point immediately in question within the department of the Lord Chamberlain; and he should never consider that such advice given as to the dress in which ladies should appear at Court, could be taken as involving the opinion of the Government on the policy of free trade. With regard to the measures passed on that subject, he should say, in reference in the first instance to the quantity of silk manufactures introduced into this country, that there was formerly a very great quantity introduced, which was certainly not entered at the Custom-house, and never paid duty, but which, owing to the very high duties imposed, was smuggled into the country, 10 or 12 per cent being paid for the cost of so doing. In the next place, he thought that the introduction of French and other foreign manufactures contributed to improve the manufactures of this country, and very often great improvements in point of design, colour, and taste, were thereby effected in British manufactures. In the third place, he believed that, though there might be particular classes of persons who might find distress and inconvenience arise from the introduction of a great quantity of foreign goods, yet their introduction proved a stimulus to the production of other English goods for exportation, in return for those foreign manufactures. Considering, therefore, these three circumstances, in connexion with the change of duties made of late years, he should be the last person to advise Her Majesty to make an alteration of the policy pursued, and he very much doubted whether any such advice would be so acceptable to Her Majesty as the noble Lord seemed to intimate.

MR. BRIGHT said, that when the noble Lord (Lord G. Bentinck) put the question, he doubted whether the name of the Queen ought to have been introduced, for the Lord Chamberlain was a political officer, and whatever was done by him was done under the responsibility of Her Majesty's advisers. He did not attach undue importance to the recommendation in question; but he thought it necessary that the Government and all persons in authority should be cautious about doing anything calculated to spread an erroneous opinion among the working classes, to the effect that their interest would be consulted by hostility towards other countries. They had recently seen, in France, the ill effects of such a feeling in the expulsion of the English workmen. Nothing could be more erroneous and unfortunate than that—nothing less calculated to benefit even the working classes of France themselves—and nothing more calculated to create an ill-feeling between the bulk of the population in France and the bulk of the population in this country. He saw no difference between the working classes of France driving out the English workmen, and the Queen of England and her Ministers advising that the industry of France, in the shape of French silks, should be excluded from this country. [Lord JOHN RUSSELL: There is no order of prohibition.] The noble Lord said that there was no order to that effect. He granted it; but the object of the announcement in question was, that French silks should not be consumed in certain cases, but that English silks should be substituted. Let it be borne in mind that, owing to the late convulsion in France, French silks were very much depressed, and very large quantities had been brought to this country in consequence of their lowness of price. In London there were commercial houses which now had large stocks of these goods, and the announcement which had been referred to might entail loss on men of large capital and of small capital, who had stocks more or less great of French goods in their shops. It was not justice to pretend to do a kindness to the weavers of Spitalfields by a course which must involve others in loss and injury. He was for the fullest freedom to enable all these persons to better themselves by any kind of traffic they chose. On the other hand, he had no ob- jection to a number of noble, titled, but not very wise women, forming an association among themselves against French silks; but he protested against the Government doing anything calculated to create an between this country and other nations, and to foster feelings among the working classes, which must end in disappointment. If from their own honest industry in the public market, the latter could not find custom and employment, they were not likely to obtain it from the patronage of Courts or Ministers.

MR. BANKE S expressed his dissent from the opinion of the hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Bright), when he stated that Her Majesty's order, which had been referred to, was to be, and would be, construed as an act of retaliation on France for the conduct pursued towards the English workpeople. He was perfectly certain that no such intention existed in the Royal mind, or in the mind of any one who might be responsible for that order, and that neither in this country nor in France would such an impression be created by it. He regretted that it was not issued earlier, for, if it had, he thought it would have had the beneficial effect anticipated by the Royal mind; but he feared that the order had been issued too late for the purpose. Still, if any Member should move an address of thanks to Her Majesty for issuing the order, he should be most happy to second the motion.

MR. HUME thought such a proceeding would be most mischievous; for, if anything was to be deprecated more than another, it was the taking any course calculated to raise between this country and foreign nations.

MR. NEWDEGATE said, that as he represented a constituency which would very materially benefit by Her Majesty's benevolence, he must, in justice to his own feelings, and on their behalf, express his deep sense of gratitude to Her Majesty for the step she had been pleased to take. He could assure the House that the greatest distress had prevailed in the district he represented; and if hon. Gentlemen could have seen, as he had, numbers of men, women, and children sinking under poverty and famine, they would not wonder that he should should rise to express his sense of the gratitude entertained towards Her Majesty by those poor people, who had for months been struggling for a bare subsistence. He certainly thought that of all those acts which graced the reign of Her Majesty, none deserved higher commenda tion than the compassion which Her Majesty had thus innocently, kindly, and opportunely exhibited for the sufferings of Her distressed people.

COLONEL THOMPSON considered that there were other parties interested in this matter besides those who had been referred to. His constituents at Bradford were great makers of waistcoat and pantaloon pieces for foreign consumption; and they said, and seriously believed, that those waistcoats and pantaloons were virtually trucked against the ladies' petticoats from France. If that were the case, he would ask whether there was any charity, any humanity, any justice, any policy, any common sense, in representing hostility to one portion of the manufacturing classes of the country to come from a quarter of which he was sure no one in that House wished to speak otherwise than with feelings of the utmost affection and reverence. Surely this must have been the doing of some Court Polonius; some man of the black rod, or of the white stick, of rare ingenuity. He could not think it had been the doing of any lady. He had no great confidence in Lords, but he did believe the ladies would have been wiser than to take such a step. Why, there was not a man in England who wore a pair of French gloves who did not know that the produce of English industry had, in some way or other, gone to purchase them. He was told that there was poverty among the masses in Bradford, which it was fearful to behold; and he had seen enough to induce him fully to believe that statement. But was there no poverty in other manufacturing towns? Was there no poverty and suffering in Birmingham? He had the other day asked the two hon. Members for that town whether they had ever heard of anything being manufactured there for foreign consumption, and they said, "Often." They said they believed that many of the manufactures of town were of the very sort which it was intended—in pure innocence of heart, he was sure—to put down by means of an attempt to procure the consumption of English manufactures of another description. He must say he hoped they would in future hear less of the assumption that the way to improve the condition of the people was to put down one half of the industrious classes of the country on the pretence of raising the condition of the other half.

MR. CHRISTOPHER observed, that it had not been his intention to take part in the discussion which had just occupied the attention of the House, but for the remarks which had fallen from the hon. and gallant Member for Bradford (Colonel Thompson). He was afraid the hon. Gentleman had not paid due attention to passing events, or he would have arrived at a very different conclusion from that to which he had come—namely, that free trade in woollens was likely to benefit those whom he represented. He wished to mention a fact of which the hon. and gallant Member might not be aware. Within the last three months woollens to the value of 70,447l. had been imported, free of duty, into the port of London alone, and woollen manufactures, upon which a duty of ten percent was imposed, had been imported during the same period to the value of 15,758l. Had it not been, therefore, for the measure which had a short time since received the sanction of Parliament, employment might have been afforded to upwards of 9,000 of the hon. and gallant Member's constituents. He (Mr. Christopher) must express his gratification at the command which had just been issued by the Sovereign, and be hoped it would be duly responded to by the country. Whatever effect that command might have, he was sure there was no intention to create any bad feeling between this country and any other. He hoped the example which had been set would be followed not only by persons in high station, but generally throughout the country, and that in this period of commercial distress every effort would be made in the first instance to afford employment to our starving operatives.

LORD J. RUSSELL might be permitted to explain, after what had been said on this subject, that he did not regard the order which had been referred to as of such very great or imperial importance as had been attributed to it by the noble Lord (Lord G. Bentinck), or the hon. and gallant Member for Bradford. It certainly was not adopted with a view to injure any other class of men, and still less did this measure bear any similarity to the driving of English workmen from France. It appeared to him more like a case which might very probably happen, where a lady in the country, who usually had her dresses made in London or Paris, finding that the milliners or tradesmen in a neighbouring village were distressed, directed them to furnish the goods, not with any view of injuring either Paris or London, but as an act of kindness to the persons in the immediate neighbourhood of her residence. That, he believed, was the view of the case which had been taken by the Lord Chamberlain.

SIR W. MOLESWORTH considered, that in spite of the explanation of the noble Lord, this was a silly and foolish order; and he was informed, on the best authority, that there was not the slightest chance of its being obeyed.

The MARQUESS of GRANBY wished to express his gratitude to Her Majesty for endeavouring, by the gracious and benevolent order she had just issued, to mitigate the evils which recent legislation had inflicted upon the country. He understood that in the town of Coventry, within seven weeks, 40,000 loaves of bread had been distributed to the starving people. He believed that the order issued by Her Majesty would elicit an almost universal feeling of gratitude throughout the country.

Subject at an end.