HC Deb 30 May 1848 vol 99 cc86-100

, in rising to move for the appointment of a Select Committee to take into consideration the petitions of the master and journeymen bakers, presented by him to the House on the 3rd of April last, said, that, in order to explain his argument, he was obliged to lay down a general proposition; it was one which had been generally overlooked, by reason of the all-prevailing selfishness with which human nature was afflicted. If it were not for that failing, society would be carried on in a very different manner from what it now was. That proposition was, that all men, of all nations, were of one blood, and were all members of one great family; and that when one member of that family suffered, every member of that family, either directly or indirectly, suffered too. Now, if that were true of every individual relatively to the whole family of the world, with how much stronger force must it be true when it became a question of the suffering of a large class, relatively to the nation to which they belonged? If, then, he could show that a large number of persons—men engaged in the baking trade—were in a state of suffering, not from any partial or temporary cause, arising from their business, and which was likely soon to pass away, but from circumstances which had become normal as connected with the nature of their employment—he conceived he should have made out a case which the House could not lightly throw on one side. In order that the House might possess an outline of the case, he would refer hon. Members to the petitions which had been presented, and printed with the Votes, and from which he would read a very short extract. The petition stated— That the great number of hours—amounting to between eighteen and twenty hours a day—during which the petitioners were required to labour, prevented them from obtaining any mental or moral improvement, or even domestic enjoyment; and that the system of overtaxed labour, and of the devotion of an unnatural number of hours to business, in a confined, heated, and unwholesome atmosphere, not only destroyed their health, but rendered them old in constitution before they arrived at the prime of life. It appeared that the number of journeymen bakers in London, Middlesex, and Westminster, was about 12,000. These allegations were contained in the petitions both of the masters and the journeymen; and he did not believe that they had been controverted. He had himself attended two public meetings held in the metropolis, where these facts were stated, and a discussion took place, but nobody controverted them. The question was argued before him, in his own house, by four bakers on both sides, and that discussion terminated in converting one individual who came there disposed to argue that the system of night-work was not injurious to the health of the journeymen. He was aware that within the last four or five weeks there had been two meetings of master bakers held on the subject—one in Surrey and the other in London; at which meetings resolutions were passed in contradiction to the statement of the petitioners whose case he advocated. He had proposed that a deputation of four master bakers from the city of London, connected with the trade, should meet four master bakers who entertained contrary opinions on the subject, in order that the question might be again discussed; but this proposition was demurred to by the gentlemen in the City, for reasons best known to themselves. The impression on his mind was, that those gentlemen were exceedingly doubtful as to the result of the discussion. The Motion which he now proposed did not contemplate anything else than that of ascertaining whether the allegations of the petitioners were true—whether they could be substantiated or disproved by evidence that could not be resisted. [The noble Lord read extracts from the evidence given by medical gentlemen before the Sanitary Commission, showing that the occupation of journeymen bakers, especially during the long hours of the night, was the most injurious and un-healthy of all employments carried on in the metropolis.] He had endeavoured to ascertain what was the opinion of those who might be supposed to be best informed on the subject as to the nature of this employment; and in doing so he did not seek his information from among the journeymen, but from the masters, who, one might suppose, would be satisfied that things should remain as they were. Some of them thought that exaggerated statements had been made; but almost every one of them stated that the present system of protracted hours of labour and of night-work was seriously detrimental to the health of the journeymen. It might be said, that if all these facts were so distinctly admitted, both by masters and men, why did they not enter into regulations themselves to remedy the evil, without coming to Parliament? The answer was simply this, that it was impossible. He did everything in his power to urge the parties to do so; but on their producing before him proof that no such arrangement could be effected, he consented to bring their case before the House. In these times of competition, it was impossible to make arrangements among themselves that would be binding on the whole body. He thought he had stated enough to the House to induce them to grant him this Committee: he had shown that the amount of toil endured by the persons engaged in the baking trade was excessive, and this amount of labour was undergone in places generally prejudicial to health: he had demonstrated that the result of these two circumstances was what would naturally be anticipated—an early decay of the vital powers: he had shown that in these days of close competition it was not practicable for them to make any arrangements amongst themselves, for it was impossible to frame regulations which should be binding upon all; and he should now sit down, were it not that he wished before he did so, to advert for a moment to one more topic which he thought not irrelevant to the matter in discussion—he meant the confidence of the working people in that House of Legislature. No one, he was sure, would attempt to deny that every vicissitude of fortune which this country suffered, was felt first, and more strongly, by the labouring classes; no one would be disposed to deny, that whilst property of all descriptions was fenced round with every imaginable protection, labour, which was in many instances the poor man's only property, was totally unprotected. They might, perhaps, say it was impossible to protect it without entailing greater evils upon the operative, than those he sought to avoid; but in that case he would only say that he could not altogether subscribe to their view. Labour had no direct representative in that House; but though they were divided upon this subject, his belief was, that the great majority of the labouring classes were still willing to wait and leave power in the hands of those who were best fitted by leisure and education to master the great questions of State. They still clung to the hope that justice would be done them, and that eventually that principle which they thought had hitherto guided our councils—that, regardless of the condition of the producers, money-getting was to be stamped as the god of a nation's idolatry—would be abandoned, and that the precepts of Christianity would be allowed a share in the basis of our political economy. The Ten Hours Bill had done much to strengthen that opinion: he knew that confidence amongst those classes still existed. They should not, by refusing this Committee, throw away that sentiment towards them, which by granting they might retain and deepen. He was not an Utopian dreamer of the Louis Blanc school, who would assign the same reward to ignorance and intelligence, to assiduity and idleness: the working classes of this country repudiated such ideas. But they did ask, that when a case was made out of a condition of labour entailing suffering, and a remedy suggested, that they would not reject the prayer of their petition without inquiry, merely because some fallible human principle which they supposed to be involved in it, would, if pushed to an extreme, carry them into danger. He trusted this appeal to the House would not so be answered; but that by acceding to his Motion the House would incline the people to look for counsel there, instead of driving them to seek for leaders in more questionable quarters.


seconded the Motion. He know well, whatever might be the opinion of the master bakers as to the ultimate result, that they were all most anxious that there should be an inquiry into the subject, in order to put an end to the agitation that now prevailed respecting it. The noble Lord did not propose any alteration of the law; but showing, as he did, upon the evidence of distinguished medical men, that serious grievances did exist, he proposed that the House should adopt some means of inquiry whether, consistently with the well-being of society, some measure of amelioration might not be carried into effect. He had had some communication with master bakers on the subject, who stated that in their opinion inquiry was necessary.


was sure that no apology was necessary from his noble Friend for the manner in which he had advocated the interests of those poor men whose petition he now desired to refer to a Select Committee; and he was also sure that there was no indisposition on the part of the House to listen to a statement of the grievances of the working classes, or to adopt any practical measure for their benefit, provided the House could see its way clearly to a remedy. In the present case, however, the strongest argument used by his hon. Friend who seconded the Motion was, that no attempt was now made to provide a legislative remedy, and that the petitioners only asked for an inquiry. He was extremely sorry to be compelled to oppose this Motion; but he did so not from any want of sympathy with these parties; but, in the first place, from the conviction which he felt that an inquiry into the allegations of this petition was not necessary; and, next, because he did not believe that the grievances of which the parties complained were within the reach of any legislative remedy. He had said that an inquiry before a Committee of the House was not necessary. He did not mean to dispute the allegations of the petition, though possibly some of them might be in some degree overcharged; but he did not rest his opposition to the Motion on that ground; and, therefore, for the sake of argument, he would admit them to be true. But he must remind his noble Friend that there had been presented to the House a paper to which he had himself referred, and which showed that no inquiry was necessary Two months ago he saw, in the presence of his noble Friend and of the hon. Member for Finsbury, a deputation of journeymen bakers; and in the conference which ensued there was a discussion upon the remedy for the evils and grievances of which they complained. He must say that there appeared at that time to be but little difference of opinion between his noble Friend the hon. Member for Finsbury and himself, as to the difficulty and the almost impossibility of providing any legislative remedy for these grievances. He told them that he did not think it would he possible to secure to the petitioners the benefits they sought by an Act of Parliament. They then asked him whether he would consent to an inquiry into the facts of the case. On that point he reserved his opinion, not being willing to commit himself hastily, either by saying that the Government would consent to an inquiry, or would oppose it. But he did tell them that the evils which the petitioners alleged appeared rather to involve sanitary considerations than considerations peculiar to the trade which they carried on; and he suggested that the inquiry should be intrusted to the parties who were conducting investigations into the health of the metropolis. He was glad to find that this had been done, for the Sanitary Commission now sitting, of which his noble Friend was a member, had actually instituted such inquiries, and had laid before the House that day the evidence taken by Dr. Guy, on the condition of the baking trade. This evidence had been taken in a very satisfactory manner; and the Commission was still sitting and prosecuting its inquiries. He asked, then, whether it would not be better that the Commission, with a view to the removal of the evils complained of by the petitioners, should conduct the inquiry which they had commenced, and prosecute it to a termination, and that afterwards his noble Friend should lay before the House any measure which he thought necessary to remedy the grievances which he had brought under the attention of Parliament? The Committee, if appointed, could only re-examine those witnesses who had already been examined by Dr. Guy, and who had given their evidence in a very satisfactory manner. But what he objected to still further was, in regard to bringing these matters before a Committee, that granting a Committee implied an opinion that some legislative remedy might be provided. Now, looking at the evidence taken by Dr. Guy, he confessed himself unable to perceive any legislative remedy whatever for these grievances. He must say, that with every disposition to listen to these complaints—a disposition in which he was sure the House fully participated—they would raise false expectations if they appointed a Committee avowedly with a view to a legislative remedy, when in the opinion of the Government a legislative remedy could not be applied to this species of grievance. Dr. Guy alluded not only to the bakers, but to the knife-grinders of Sheffield, and the compositors, who when spoken to on the subject were in the habit of saying that "they could only die once." If, then, the House consented to this Motion, could they refuse to grant Committees of Inquiry into the allegations of petitions presented by those other classes of persons? His noble Friend had referred to the Factory Act, and, without wishing to raise any discussion now on the policy of that measure, he certainly must say that he did not regret the course which he had taken in regard to that Act. But it must be recollected that, in carrying out the provisions of that Act, facilities existed which would not be found in the present instance. The mills were easily visited from time to time by inspectors; but where there were two or three bakers' shops in one street, and two or three in another, with an occasional shop here and there, it would be impossible to secure efficient inspection. If an information were laid against a master for employing his journeymen more than twelve hours, the answer to the information would be, that the temperature at that particular time was very low, or that the yeast was indifferent; and this would defeat the information. He believed that there was an infinitely better mode of removing these evils by arrangements which might be entered into between the journeymen and the masters, and upon which; as he understood, they were pretty well agreed already. He should recommend his noble Friend, who, he thought, had acted under the impulse of a mistaken benevolence, to prosecute the inquiry before the Sanitary Commission, and not to hold out hopes of a legislative remedy to these poor people, unless he was prepared to lay on the table of the House a Bill of which he thought he could carry out the provisions.


had heard the speech of the right hon. Baronet with great regret, for although the skill with which he had met the arguments advanced in favour of the Motion might convince the majority of that House, they would not convince the majority of the working classes out of doors that Parliament had any regard for their interests. The petition was to be rejected upon two grounds: first, because the noble Lord did not propose any legislative remedy; and, next, because the petition was in some respects faulty. The animus of the Member who moved for a Committee of Inquiry always formed one of the rea- sons for refusing or granting a Committee; and the animus of his noble Friend appeared to him to present a strong ground for granting it in the present instance. If his noble Friend obtained his Committee, and called these poor men before it, in order to ask them what remedy they themselves would suggest, he would at least have it in his power to say to them that it was not owing to any want of philanthropy that a remedy was not devised, but to the sheer impossibility of carrying out any efficient measure on the subject. The right hon. Baronet said that the remedies proposed were either impossible, or would aggravate the evils of which the petitioners complained. That might be; but let those poor people be shown that a remedy was not within the reach of the House. Because everything could not be done, was no reason why nothing should be done. The right hon. Baronet said that an inquiry was going on before the Sanitary Commission; but he apprehended that this could not extend to the question of hours, which was far beyond their province. [Sir G. GREY: They have gone into that question.] He was aware that this question had been raised in the evidence taken by Dr. Guy; but the right hon. Gentlemen knew very well, that questions and answers were frequently put and made before a Committee which were, so to speak, beyond the order of reference or instruction to that Committee. Dr. Guy stated that, in consequence of the facility of setting up bakers' shops, no capital being required, and the great mortality among bakers, the wages of journeymen were diminished instead of being increased. People came up from the country fresh and fresh, and 15s. or 17s. a week was all they got. He must ask, how long it was likely that these hardworking men would be satisfied with the present state of things, if an inquiry into the allegations of their petition were not granted? The Coalwhippers' Act was an interference by Parliament for the protection of labour; and he would ask whether the recent trial of the loyalty and good feeling of that part of the population had proved that the Act had worked ill? This Committee could not be a long, laborious, or expensive Committee; and the only objection to it was, that it would raise expectations which could not be realised; but the two Members who had brought this subject forward had stated it as their honest opinion that the refusal of this Committee would only tend to strengthen the convictions of the petitioners. As his noble Friend had explicitly declared, in a speech that would be read with interest and gratitude by those whose interests he advocated, that it was not without hope that he moved for this Committee, so he believed that the refusal of it by that House would be felt all the more unkindly by those for whose interests it had been proposed.


said, he had always thought that he best showed his respect for the working classes by refusing to join in any proposal that was calculated to encourage delusive hopes on their part. The question really before the House was, whether they would attempt by law to limit the hours of adult labour—not labour in factories, but labour in workshops, widely scattered; and any step, therefore, proposed to the House which would encourage the hope that such a thing was practicable, he would never fail to deprecate. He believed that it was possible, in the case of factories, to have inspection; but he would ask if it would not be intolerable and impossible in a free country such as this to apply to labour in dwelling-houses and workshops a minute system of inspection and revision, such as was found practicable in our factories. It would be utterly impossible; and, in his opinion, that objection was fatal to any system that included such interference between the employers and the employed. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Stafford) had spoken of the coalwhippers; and he was ready to admit that much good had attended the measure which had been carried with regard to that class of workpeople. But there was no analogy between the case of the coalwhippers and that of the bakers. There was no limitation of the hours of labour among the coalwhippers; but, being an organised body, who laboured in a limited space, they were easily subjected to inspection. The case of the bakers, however, was totally dissimilar, and could not be brought under the same rule. On these grounds he felt it his duty to oppose the Motion of his noble Friend.


could not help thinking that at this moment, when all subjects connected with the relation which labour and capital had to each other, were exciting so lively an interest in the world in general—when questions which they regarded as irrevocably fixed, were, by other persons, whose intellect they had no right to despise, and whose benevolence they had no reason to doubt, regarded at least, as ques- tions for discussion—he repeated, that he thought the House ought to be scrupulous about placing theories of any kind, however apparently reasonable or scientifically certain, in opposition to the desire of any large body of their fellow-subjects. He asserted that while there were Members in that House ready and willing to serve on those Committees, and who regarded such questions with anxious interest, as did also a large body of persons out of the House, those questions possessed a great importance, and he believed that great good would result, if it only consisted in bringing these different classes together. He thought the House would do wisely not to regard the point raised by the right hon. Baronet, that no legislative result would be likely to accrue; for the question was simply—"Is the inquiry itself advisable or not?" He thought that if the manner in which it had been brought forward, the respectable body of men whose interests were at stake, the number of persons in the House who did not think much of the time and trouble an investigation would require, were all looked at, Her Majesty's Government would be placed in an unfortunate position if they opposed it only because they thought their motives might be misunderstood by the country. He saw no objection to the appointment of the Committee; and, without presuming to prejudge the conclusion to which it might arrive, he would heartily support the Motion.


was of opinion that no Committee ought to be appointed on any subject, unless the proposer of it was prepared to state definitively the object in view. If the inquiry was not to lead to some declaredly beneficial result, why should the time of the House be wasted in discussing whether it was advisable to grant it? Neither the noble Lord the Member for Middlesex, nor the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Westminster, had even hinted at the possible remedy which a Select Committee might recommend. The hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Milnes) had not ventured to suggest any remedy which it was likely a Committee would propose. That hon. Gentlemen had been lately visiting Paris, and he feared he had imbibed the principles and had become one of the pupils of Louis Blanc, as he appeared to be of opinion that matters of this sort ought to be discussed in Parliament. Look at, the condition of Paris—to what a condition was it reduced in consequence of wholesale interference with labour! It seemed to him that if this Committee were granted, the House would be doing that in detail which had been attempted on a wholesale scale at Paris. He was acquainted with the wants of the journeymen bakers, and admitted that while their interests were unrepresented in that House they had a right to complain; but they were at liberty to make arrangements with their employers respecting the conditions upon which they were to labour. The noble Lord who introduced the subject must see that if this Committee were granted, he would open the door to interference between master and man in all other trades. Let the bakers meet their masters, and agree to work during the day instead of by night, and surely they could do so. He was an advocate for self-dependence in the labourer. Let him depend upon himself—let him have just laws—let him be free from the burden of taxes which he ought not to pay—let him have equal rights with other men—and let him settle the details of his trade with his master. Holding this opinion, he would give his support to the Government in resisting the Motion.


, though no follower of Louis Blanc, considered that he would be only advocating a just cause when he supported the Motion of his noble Friend the Member for Middlesex. There was a great readiness at the other side of the House to protect capital as against labour. The Government had shown themselves anxious, at the instigation of capital, to interfere with the navigation laws; but they had shown no such readiness to inquire into the grievances of which labour complained. He believed that the time of the House would not be wasted by the appointment of fifteen Gentlemen to inquire into the complaints of those poor persons.


meant to support the Motion of the noble Lord the Member for Middlesex. Some short time since he had presided at a meeting attended by journeymen and masters, and perhaps the House would allow him very briefly to be the exponent of the principles he had heard from both sides. As far as he could learn, there was but one feeling among the journeymen—namely, that they were overworked, and that they thought inquiry ought to be made in order that Parliament might be induced to interfere in their behalf. The right hon. Gentleman had told them that this was a matter which might be advantageously referred to the Sanitary Com- mission; but he was not of that opinion, as he did not believe that any good would result from such reference. Considerable stress had been laid upon the case of the fustian cutters; but he believed that no trade could parallel that of the bakers, who worked twenty out of the four-and-twenty hours. He considered that the proposition of his noble Friend was the best that could have been brought forward. Agitation on this subject had been going on for some time—no one attempted to deny the existence of the grievance; and the only question was, whether Parliament should interfere, having already interfered with other descriptions of labour.


felt himself called upon to make a few remarks, more especially as allusion had been made to an Act which was supposed to form a precedent. He, for one, had taken great interest in the case of the coalwhippers, and was very far from repenting the course he had pursued with respect to that measure. The House would be very much misled were it to suppose that measure constituted a precedent for interference in the present instance. He should state very shortly what were the objects of that measure. A custom had grown up between the masters of coal vessels and the publicans, in that part of the city of London where the coalwhippers exercised their vocation, by which it invariably happened that the men whose services were necessary to discharge the coal ships were hired through the publicans. The publicans had come to be hiring agents. The consequence was the greatest demoralisation—a demoralisation which he should have said was complete, had it not been for the fact that the men were conscious of the servitude to which they had been reduced, and were unfeignedly anxious to escape from it. The Act did nothing to regulate wages or the hours of work; it did nothing towards the inspection of labour. All that the Act did was to establish an office and a public officer to control it; and it was required, under sanction of a penalty, that every one having a coal vessel to discharge should repair to that office for the purpose of hiring men. Even that provision was attended with subsidiary arrangements which were intended to exclude interference. Whatever might be the merits or demerits of that Act, it did not form a precedent. He wished to make this statement, because it was not desirable that the impression should go abroad that this House dealt unequally with different bodies of the people, doing that for one portion which it did not do for another. He should give his vote with great pain against the Motion. But he thought the country should know the principle on which the House decided this question—most interesting to a large and respectable body of the community—that the Motion, if refused, would be so in deference neither to any theory nor to any abstract ideas of their own having no reference to the practical interests of the people. The question was, what good was to be done by entering on this inquiry? To appoint a Parliamentary inquiry invested a subject with a different character from that which it previously possessed in the public mind. One could imagine two objects for which a Committee might be appointed. It might be legitimately appointed first to ascertain the facts; but that object had been attained already. The most pointed and painful facts were already before the House. They were so striking that he could not imagine the investigation of a Committee would add to the sum of those facts. The notice which the subject had attracted from the noble Lord and from Parliament might have an effect upon those who had most power in the matter. The great majority of masters in the baking trade who were disposed to put an end to the present discreditable state of things might find their hands strengthened; and the small minority might be shamed into arrangements such as humanity and justice required. But entertaining that hope, and being prepared to appoint this Committee, were different things. Another important object for which a Committee might be appointed was to suggest a remedy. Had any one suggested a remedy in the present instance? He understood his noble Friend himself had not gone beyond the very modest expression of a hope that the appointment of a Committee might lead to the suggestion of a remedy. But none who followed his noble Friend had even expressed that hope. Inquiry by a Committee of that House was an evil in itself, unless it were likely to lead to a remedy; because it went to raise expectations which Parliament was not justified in raising, if there was no probability that they would be fulfilled. The only remedy which suggested itself to the mind was a law restraining the hours of labour. Could any one seriously conceive that such a law could be passed? It would be so entirely abhorrent to the genius of the constitution and people that it would not be endured; the men, not less than the masters, would be up in arms against it till it should be repealed. Being of opinion that nothing remained to be ascertained by inquiry; not being inclined to think that there was any legislative remedy for the evil; believing, indeed, that they must look for a remedy to the parties engaged in the trade, aided a little, and perhaps rebuked a little, by the expression of opinion in that House—he could not but consider it his duty to give a negative to the Motion.


was willing to give his cordial support to a Motion which he thought the House would do well to agree to. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Montrose (Mr. Hume), who had opposed the Motion so strongly, seemed to think that the object of his noble Friend was to adopt the views which he justly said were most injurious, and which it had been attempted to introduce into France. The hon. Gentleman seemed to think the object was to raise the wages of the operatives. So far from this being the case, all his noble Friend demanded was a Committee to inquire into the social condition of those poor men, with a view to its amelioration. The right hon. Gentleman who had opposed the Motion on the part of the Government (Sir George Grey) appeared to think that Dr. Guy had exhausted the entire evidence that could be adduced on this subject; but he assured the right hon. Gentleman that, if this Committee were granted, other evidence of a most important character could be produced. It could be shown that the adoption of short hours would not tend to raise wages; that, on the contrary, a saving would be effected, because the quantity of flour which was now wasted in the process of manufacturing bread would be greatly diminished. He regretted extremely to hear the determination of the Government to refuse the Committee, for he was certain that the result would be to dissatisfy a large number of well-affected persons.


could state that scarcely any question had attracted so much attention among the working classes in the district with which he was connected as the question now before the House. This was a question of life and death. It appeared that a large body of the industrious classes were frequently working 20 hours out of the 24; and he thought it was not an unreasonable request to ask the Government to grant a Committee to inquire into the grievances of which they complained.


intended to support the Motion of the noble Lord the Member for Middlesex, on the ground that the House ought to be in possession of additional information as to the hardships of which these persons complained.


felt himself in a sort of dilemma on this occasion; but the principle to which he always adhered was that obligations must be kept. In the course of the connexion he had had with the working classes, he had frequently had his opinion asked on subjects similar to that now under the consideration of the House; and his answer had always been—"I should be misleading you very much if I gave you the smallest reason to think that, in my judgment, you would receive any benefit whatever from the measures you contemplate. It is not in this way you are to be helped; but, inasmuch as you have strong opinions and desires on the subject, I will not oppose you. If the results are good, I shall be glad of it; if they are not, I shall regret it; but you must move on alone."

The House divided:—Ayes 43; Noes 55: Majority 12.