HC Deb 23 May 1850 vol 111 cc268-79

Order for Committee read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."


said, that on bringing forward the subject which he had now again the honour to move, he last year had pointed out that there were three courses open to the Chancellor of the Exchequer: to repeal the customs duty on colonial coffee altogether—to enforce the existing law—or to impose an excise duty on vegetable substitutes for coffee. The right hon. Baronet had stated that he did not think it expedient to propose any change of the existing law; the inference, therefore, was, that he would not longer interpose between the laws and their enforcement. The public health was affected by these adulterations of coffee, perpetrated by fraudulent dealers, under the direct sanction of the Treasury minute, to an extent which the witnesses described as perfectly awful. It was a singular fact, that whilst the consumption of all other articles had increased since the reduction of the customs duties in 1846, that of coffee alone had decreased. The reason of this was that coffee was adulterated to an enormous extent, and because the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government stood in the way of the operation of the law which would prevent that adulteration from taking place. The Act of the 43rd Geo. III. prohibited the adulteration of coffee and cocoa under a penalty of 100l. and a forfeiture of the article. But the Act was to be put into operation by means of the Commissioners of Excise. Now, it was singular that whilst the Commissioners prosecuted for adulterations of tea and pepper, they had not prosecuted for adulteration of coffee. On the 4th of August, 1840, on complaints being made to the excise by coffee dealers in Liverpool that that article was adulterated to a great extent by mixing chicory with it, the Lords of the Treasury issued a minute prohibiting any prosecution, and stating that no fraud had been committed as long as the duty on the chicory had been paid. This was the minute the rescinding of which he wished to obtain, through the instrumentality of that House. It was not unfair or uncharitable to suppose that some secret reasons, some powerful influence, must have operated on the mind of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Lords of the Treasury, which induced them thus to interfere with the execution of the law of the land, and to give an advantage to the fraudulent dealer over the fair dealer. But let the House observe how it affected the revenue. In 1830 the revenue derived from the duty on coffee amounted to 579,363l. In 1847, after the duty had been reduced, there were 37,472,153 lbs. of coffee delivered for consumption in this country; in 1848 it was reduced to 37,107,279 lbs.; in 1849 it was still further reduced to 34,431,074 lbs.; and in the three first months of the present year there were introduced into five principal ports of the kingdom, 5,888,761 lbs. against 7,623,464 lbs. for the corresponding period of last year; so that in throe mouths the revenue had decreased to the amount of about 36,000l., and it was calculated, at a moderate estimate, that the falling-off for the present year, as compared with the last, would be 162,000l., or, if compared with 1847, 250,000l. The merchants at home, the colonists, and the retail traders, all, with one exception, had presented memorials to the Government complaining of the system of adulteration, and alleging that as long as it was suffered to continue, the revenue would decrease. The one exception to the general voice was Mr. Younger, who avowed himself to be the fortunate individual who discovered the art of adulterating coffee with chicory, and who asked the Government to give him an opportunity of trying another method of adulteration by the use of another vegetable. That gentleman complained that other persons were in the practice of adulterating chicory itself, and he alleged that 10,000 tons of chicory and 10,000 tons of another vegetable, which was used as a substitute for chicory, were annually sold in this country for coffee. Assuming the half of these figures to be the truth, it would show that 22,400,000 lbs. of stuff was sold in our markets under the name and at the price of coffee, while, according to the returns, the amount of coffee entered for consumption during last year was 34,431,074 lb. How great must be the loss of revenue under a system which permitted a spurious article to be substituted for coffee to an amount almost equal to the quantity of coffee itself that was imported into this country? How could the right hon. Gentleman ask for new taxes, when he thus voluntarily abandoned a revenue of 250,000l. sterling per annum? The memorialists, among whom were the members of the Chamber of Commerce at Ceylon, and no less than 91 respectable houses in London, at the head of which was Baring Brothers, asked no protection; all they required was that the operation of the law might not be impeded. He knew many persons supposed that the mixture was more wholesome than the genuine coffee. Whether that were so or not, it was a fraud to sell chicory for coffee. But the vegetable used in the adulteration of coffee was not the genuine vegetable, because persons now undertook to adulterate the substitute itself, with essence of acorns, peas, and beans, and other substances. The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer had exhibited some of the essence of acorns, and if he had tasted it he was sure the illness which had kept the right hon. Gentleman from his place in Parliament, and which the House had so much regretted, must be attributed to that fact. Mr. Younger said that the farmers adulterated the chicory root to an extent of from 25 to 50 per cent, by mixing up with it parsnips, beetroot, &c. This forced what Mr. Younger calls the respectable houses to do the same, and they adulterated again to the extent of from 25 to 50, and sometimes 75 per cent. When it got to the grocer it was again adulterated, so that its identity was completely lost. He would read for the House a list of articles with which it was adulterated. First, there was common ruddle; then there was a kind of earth called Spanish brown, inferior to Venetian red. A very common mode of adulteration was by mouldy ship biscuits. These were obtained at Liverpool, Bristol, and Hull in large quantities. His informant stated that on a complaint being made to a Quaker gentleman, that the stuff which he sold for coffee to the grocers was not of the proper colour, he made this answer, "We can put a little more soot in it to work up the colour." Burnt sugar and a modicum of isinglass, and even Russian glue, were used in adulteration. Another gentleman complained that rope yarn and even vegetable offal from the dunghill were used, and all under the direct sanction of the right hon. Chancellor of the Exchequer. Yes, for those who looked to him for instructions were the persons whose duty it was to enforce the law and suppress the abominations, but they were not allowed to prosecute. The right hon. Gentleman showed as little regard for the public health as he did for the public revenue: and the result of the system was discouragement to the fair trader, and encouragement to the unfair one. Several traders were obliged to adopt the system of adulteration in self-defence; but he had letters in his possession to show that they were ready to avow submission to the law if the law were applied to all fairly, which would not be permitted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. By the trade and navigation reports, it appeared that the total quantity of coffee imported in the months of March and April, 1849, was 1,615,615 lbs., whilst in the corresponding months of the present year the importation reached 2,170,493 lbs., thus showing a great increase. The quantity entered for consumption in the months of March and April, 1849, was 2,823,920 lbs., whilst in the corresponding month of the present year it was only 2,454,540 lbs., thus showing a considerable decrease. In the quarter ending 5th April of the present year, the increase of importation as compared with the corresponding quarter of the previous year, was 4,236,999 lbs., whilst the decrease in consumption was 3,650,526 lbs. He might go on and show that the case was similar throughout, always an increase in the importation, and a decrease in the consumption; and the petition to the Treasury asserted that whilst the consumption of the genuine coffee was falling off, that of the adulterated article was increasing. The only article which exhibited similar anomalies was that of cocoa, which was allowed to be adulterated in the same way as coffee. The papers he held in his hand showed that the revenue on tobacco, which had been increasing for years back, still continued to increase; and he wished to state that what the Chancellor of the Exchequer refused to do in the case of coffee, he did in the case of tobacco; because he found in the return moved for by the hon. Member for Newcastle that in 1844 several prosecutions had been successfully carried out against parties for adulterating tobacco by means of chicory, sugar, and other articles. In 1847 he found that the present Chancellor of the Exchequer instituted two prosecutions for the adulteration of tobacco by means of chicory, in one case to the extent of 5 per cent, and in the other 3 per cent; and that on conviction the latter was lot off, and the former fined 50l. In 1844 he found that the prosecutions for the adulteration of tobacco by means of chicory, saccharine, and other matters, amounted to 78; in 1845 to 102; in 1846, to 15; in 1847, to 9; in 1848, to 15; and in 1849, to 12; thus showing that the prosecutions had done their work, and since then the revenue was on the increase. The previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for the University of Cambridge, in taking office in 1841, found the revenue on tobacco declining, as was the case at present with the revenue in coffee; and, on inquiry, he found it was owing to the system of adulteration that prevailed. He accordingly prepared a Bill regulating the sale of tobacco, and defining the substances that might he used in its adulteration; and he had the authority of that right hon. Gentleman for saying that not only did the revenue increase, but it continued steadily to increase. Now, he did not ask the present Chancellor of the Exchequer to bring in a Bill, he only asked him not to stand in the way of the execution of the law by revoking the Treasury order, and to listen to the representations made by the merchants and those interested in the growth of coffee. He did not want to see any heavy duty imposed upon the growth of chicory, as had been desired by some of the memorialists of the Treasury, but was anxious that the Government should permit the Commissioners of Excise to give effect to the 43rd Geo. III. and 3rd George IV., prohibiting the adulteration of coffee with chicory, or other deleterious articles.

Amendment proposed— To leave out from the word 'That' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words 'for the sake of the public health, the improvement of the revenue, and the encouragement of the fair trader, it is expedient that the Commissioners of Excise he directed to prosecute all persons offending against the laws which regulate the sale of roasted vegetable substitutes for coffee, or whereby the fraudulent adulteration of coffee is made punishable,'

instead thereof.


did not propose to deny the facts stated by the hon. and learned Gentleman. There was no doubt about the fact that the consumption of coffee had fallen off, as well as the revenue derived from it, and that chicory, and perhaps other articles, were mixed with coffee. But there was still a further question—whether the falling-off in the consumption of coffee was owing to its mixture with chicory. Of that he had very great doubts. Several other articles had fallen off in consumption as well as coffee. There was another remarkable circumstance. The price of ordinary tea consumed by the great body of the population had been reduced in price to the amount of 1s. a pound. A preference was given to tea over coffee; for a much larger quantity of tea was imported last year than during the preceding year, and there was, of course, an increased revenue from that source. The hon. and learned Gentleman proposed that the Act 3rd George IV. should be enforced against those who adulterated coffee. His first reason for that proposal was founded on the ground of the public health. He could only now repeat what he had said on a former occasion, that he did not believe the use of chicory by itself with coffee was in the slightest degree prejudicial to the health of the people. The hon. and learned Gentleman might not like chicory: he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) did not like it; but that was not the question. Though there had been many memorials from dealers in coffee against the use of chicory, it was worthy of remark that not one had emanated from the consumers. It was notorious that chicory was mixed with coffee—he had never heard any one deny it, nor that such mixture was injurious to the health of the party who used it. Nor was there anything unwholesome in the greater part of the other vegetable mixtures. He was surprised to hear the hon. and learned Gentleman say that peas and beans and carrots were deleterious, and had never heard any one else say so. The second ground which would justify the Government in interfering, was the loss of revenue; that ground occasioned their interference in the case of tobacco. It was not for the sake of the health of the parties smoking tobacco that the Government interfered to prevent adulteration, or whether tobacco was made more or less healthy by the addition of water or other ingredients, for he disclaimed the idea of taking the slightest care of the health of the tobacco smoker—but purely upon the consideration of revenue. Then, as regarded tea, the Government interfered upon another ground. It was notorious that sloe leaves, dried upon copper, were mixed with tea—that was a most deleterious mixture, and the Government interfered in the case of teas on grounds of public health; in that of tobacco on considerations of revenue. If the hon. and learned Gentleman made inquiries, he would find that all the milk he drank did not come from the cow, nor was all the bread he ate composed of wheat flour; but he would hardly ask the Government to watch the doings of the bakers and dairymen. Regard must be had to the old maxim, Caveat emptor. If the mixed coffee was unpleasant to the taste or injurious in its effects, why, the public would teach the seller not to continue its sale by keeping away from his shop; and the vendor of the genuine articles would have the more custom. The original sanction for the use of chicory was issued when Lord Althorp was Chancellor of the Exchequer; that sanction was confirmed by his right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, and by his immediate predecessor. He only followed in the same course as the four or five Chancellors who had preceded him. Now, as to the effect upon the revenue, he had not the slightest doubt but that the sale of chicory promoted, rather than injured, the sale of coffee. A deputation from Manchester had waited upon him, having the same object as the hon. and learned Gentleman; but the facts stated by them proved that the use of chicory increased the sale of coffee. The cheapest ground coffee was 1s, a pound, whilst the whole coffee cost at the lowest price 1s. 4d. Thus, by the mixture of chicory, parties were able to sell the mixture at less than the price of coffee unground. The mass of the people consumed the cheaper article, and by consuming the mixture in much larger quantities (in consequence of its cheapness) than they otherwise would, the actual consumption of coffee was in the game proportion increased. Therefore he thought it extremely probable that the consumption of coffee was increased, and not diminished, by admixture with chicory. He would again assert that, as far as he could learn, the use of chicory was anything but injurious. The hon. and learned Gentleman had referred to a memorial from the planters of Ceylon, who complained of the use of chicory; but the hon. and learned Gentleman would see by reference to the papers on the table of the House that the decrease in the importation of coffee was not in colonial but in foreign coffee, for whilst there was a falling off in the imports of the former to the extent of 6,000l. sterling in the foreign article, the decrease of revenue amounted to 60,000l., or sixfold. But the material question, after all, was, what was the remedy which could be proposed, admitting that the evil existed? There were three courses: that of reducing the duty upon foreign and colonial coffee, so as to render the adulteration less profitable; or imposing an excise unpon chicory; or prosecuting those who mixed chicory, or any other substitute, with coffee. The first was the most reasonable. It could not now be adopted; but he would reserve to himself full liberty to consider the question at some future period. The second, whether an excise duty should be put upon chicory, would be objected to most strenuously by the growers of chicory in this country. The subject had been most carefully considered, and, looking at the great opposition that would be raised against such a measure, and the dislike of the nation to the imposition of any new tax, he did not think it would be expedient to propose it. Lastly came the question whether they would put in force the 43rd Geo. III. against those who mixed chicory with coffee. Now, the intention of the enactment was to prevent adulteration only in certain cases, where the adulteration was clearly deleterious to health, or where it affected the revenue. It had always been so construed as not to admit of the interference of informers; the Legislature shrank from allowing them to interfere. The only parties then who could interfere were the officers of excise, and they could not do so without the authority of their superiors. The question was not merely whether he was to revoke a Treasury minute, but whether he was to undertake a crusade against all the coffee dealers in the kingdom, send the excise officers into the house of every seller of coffee to endeavour to ascertain whether the coffee was adulterated; and, if so, to institute a prosecution. Now, that was rather a serious step. He had a strong suspicion that, if he were to take such a course, and oblige the excise officers to make domiciliary visits, petitions would pour into that House from every part of the country, and raise such a flame as the hon. and learned Gentleman would be very unwilling to enkindle. There was another consideration. It would be exceedingly difficult to prove the adulteration, and it was exceedingly desirable that no prosecution should be instituted upon insufficient evidence. Sufficient evidence could only be obtained by suborning shopmen and other persons in the coffee dealer's employ; they alone could satisfactorily prove the admixture. [Mr. ANSTEY: Chicory could be easily distinguished from the whole coffee.] Yes; but the excise officers would be obliged to look at what was ground as well as what was whole. He had desired the Commissioners of Inland Revenue to learn if there were any ready, certain, and available test of the adulteration; and the answer he received was, that neither by chemical nor by any other mode could it be ascertained with any degree of certainty whether a mixture contained chicory or not. The efforts of excise officers, if this course were adopted, would probably prove vexatious in the first instance, and ineffectual in the second. He must again say that he was not prepared to enter upon a crusade against coffee dealers, for he was perfectly convinced that such a proceeding would be harassing and futile.


said, without asking the Government to adopt the course proposed by the hon. and learned Member for Youghal, there could be no doubt that the present state of the coffee trade might very properly form the subject of discussion in that House. Seeing that the consumption had decreased since 1848 from nearly 10,000,000 lbs. to 7,5000,000 lbs., it was not surprising that the coffee trade should feel anxious to represent their case to the right hon. Chancellor of the Exchequer. The right hon. Gentleman had observed that no memorials had been presented from the consumers, and that caveat emptor was the principle to be applied to this case. That implied, that if purchasers were on the alert the evil would not exist. If therefore the evil did exist, it was clear that the purchasers were not alive to it, or they would either have purchased their coffee in the bean, or applied to the right hon. Gentleman. What they complained of was, that chicory and other substances should be consumed as coffee—that the dealers traded upon the ignorance of the poor, and sold them another article instead of the one they asked for. He had been informed by a gentleman who was well acquainted with the subject, that the scale of adulteration usually adopted was, that coffee sold at 1s. per lb. contained three parts chicory and one part coffee; that sold at 1s. 4d. contained five parts chicory and three parts coffee in eight parts; and coffee at 1s. 8d. per lb. contained equal parts of each. He thought that was a very undesirable state of things, and three remedies were suggested. One was the placing an excise duty upon chicory; that was considered objectionable. The next was one that the right hon. Gentleman had very properly alluded to with caution, the giving a stimulus to the consumption of coffee by reducing the duty. That he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would shortly have it in his power to adopt, although he would not give any pledge on the subject. The course suggested by the debate was, whether the right hon. Gentleman was disposed to give to the Act of Parliament an interpretation which he was right in saying it did not originally bear; these powers were, he believed, given not to protect the public, but the revenue; but the fair trader said, "I am in the same interest as the revenue, and I call upon you to exercise its powers in my behalf." The right hon. Gentleman had very properly said that the sending an excise officer into every coffee dealer's establishment would be attended with very great difficulty and objection. Favouritism would come into play, and it would be found that one fraudulent trader was overlooked, while another was prosecuted. The views he took of the question were entertained by the Chamber of Commerce, Liverpool, whose sympathies were altogether with the coffee dealers; but they did not think it expedient to petition Parliament for the adoption of the remedy now under consideration—they thought, with the right hon. Gentleman, that it would be exceedingly difficult to give the proposition practical effect, and that its result would ultimately be to drive the trade into the hands of the systematically-fraudulent traders. In the justice of these opinions he was entirely disposed to concur, and he was not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should withhold his concurrence from the proposition. He hoped, however, the subject would receive the consideration of the right hon. Gentleman, and that he would be able to devise some means of redressing a grievance which was now very generally complained of.


said, there was one class of persons interested whose present position had not been taken into account, namely, the colonial producers. The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer said, the colonial producer was protected as against the foreign producer by a differential duty of 2½d. per lb. That statement would have been true five years ago; but now that a large quantity of coffee was exported year by year to the Continent, there was practically no protection against the new rival in the competition. The hon. Gentleman had appeared to think that the consumption of coffee was not much diminished by the introduction of chicory. But on that point he must have been undeceived by the statements put forward by the hon. Member for Liverpool, showing that there had been a falling-off of 25 per cent. The course proposed by the hon. and learned Member for Youghal was open to great objection. There were about 100,000 vendors of coffee in the united kingdom; and of these he believed 95,000 coffee dealers sold their coffee mixed with chicory. He quite agreed with the right hon. Gentleman that it was not desirable that he should enter upon a crusade against all these dealers in the article of coffee.


said: The town I represent, grinds coffee for half the West Riding of Yorkshire. I have no doubt we put chicory into it; I hope we do not put brickdust. But there was always one resource. Any man who had an idiosyncrasy for unmixed coffee, might buy it in the berry. On another point too, he should be happy to abate the anxiety of the hon. and learned Mover. He might depend on it, that if coffee at 6d. per lb. was mixed with equal quantities of chicory at 2d. per lb., the schoolboy's answer, founded on the rules of Alligation, medial and partial, would be right in saying coffee so mixed would in the long run be sold at 4d. per lb.


would not press his Motion to a division, being satisfied with the discussion which had taken place.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question," put, and agreed to.