HC Deb 19 May 1854 vol 133 cc650-6

Order for Second Reading read.


in moving the second reading of this Bill, said, the object of it was to rescue a helpless portion of the community from a state of misery and degradation to which they were still subjected notwithstanding the passing a a former measure on the same subject. The Act to which he alluded had been practically evaded in this way. It prohibited the sending up flues children of a certain age, but in order to prevent evidence being given on this point, the master was frequently in the habit of locking the door, so as to render conviction impossible. In London the Act had been almost entirely effective, and the system of cleansing chimneys by machinery was nearly universally adopted, and in Huddersfield and Whitby a climbing boy was almost unknown. Nothing but the gross ignorance and idleness of the master sweeps, and their want of inclination or ability to provide machines, had prevented the Act from being equally effective throughout the kingdom. To show that the evil was no imaginary one, he would refer to a few cases which had been given in evidence. One witness was asked how many deaths had occurred in Manchester in consequence of the continuance of the practice of which he complained within two years. The reply was, several. One boy, who was put into a flue when it was hot, was almost dead when he was got out, and died very soon afterwards. Another boy, ten years of age, was so badly burned that he was rendered a cripple for life. Another boy came tumbling down and died from the effects of the burning. In another case, a boy who was driven up a flue by his master did not come out again alive. There were two cases in which children had been literally roasted to death. The boys in these cases were not more than five or six years old. In June, 1851, a boy named George Wilson, ten years of age, who bad swept nine chimneys, was suffocated in the tenth, up which he had been forced by his master; and a witness said that the place was so hot that he could not have kept his hand on it for five minutes. But, besides this ground of complaint, there was another circumstance which ought not to be overlooked. These children were regularly sold. It was proved that one boy, who was terribly burnt, had been sold for a guinea, and another child, eight years of age, who had been sold five times over, was taken before a magistrate at Hull, who exclaimed very justly, "They may talk of slavery, but there is no slavery worse than this." Now, there was no difficulty in preventing these evils, and he believed the Bill now before the House would provide an effectual remedy. By the former Act, in order to insure a conviction, it was necessary to show that a boy had been seen going into a flue or coming out of it, but such evidence could not be obtained in consequence of the master locking the boy up in the room. Now, the first clause in the Bill provided that every master sweep who allowed any person under sixteen years of age to engage or assist in this trade should be liable to be punished; and the second clause provided that the onus of proving the age should rest on the person accused. Besides the deaths which had been occasioned by forcing children up flues, according to the evidence of Mr. Guthrie and other eminent men, persons thus employed were subjected to a cancerous disease which made their lives loathsome. He, therefore, called upon the House to prevent these helpless children from becoming the helots and pariahs of society. It was the duty of the Legislature to reduce the amount of suffering to the smallest possible extent, and he trusted it would no longer suffer these unfortunate children to be exposed to degradation.


in seconding the Motion, said, that the trade in these children was nothing but a petty species of slave trade, and that he would support the Motion for the second reading on the ground of humanity, and for the sake of rescuing those children from a state which demoralised them.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."


said, if he believed that the proposition of his hon. and learned Friend would effect the object he had in view he should not have objected to it, but in his opinion it would utterly fail to do so. If the House looked to the provisions of the 3 & 4 Vict. cap. 85, he thought it would be convinced that further legislation in the path laid down in that Act would not meet the evil complained of. By the 2nd and 3rd section of that Act it was provided that no person could be employed, or allowed to ascend or descend a chimney, or enter a flue, under a penalty of not more than 10l., nor less than 5l., and that it should not be lawful to apprentice any person to the trade under the age of sixteen years, His hon. and learned Friend proposed that any person assisting in the trade should be liable to a penalty, and the consequence would be, if the Bill became law, that a man walking in the street with a boy fifteen years old, carrying a soot-bag, would be liable to a penalty of 10l. Then, again, his hon. and learned Friend was about to introduce an anomaly into the law, by calling upon the person accused to prove a negative. That was a new feature in the law, and he did not believe the House would sanction such a principle. On these objections he took his stand, and trusted the House would not sanction the second reading of the Bill, unless his hon. and learned Friend could show that his propositions would meet the evil of which he complained. The straightforward way to meet the evil would be to enact that every chimney should be of a peculiar construction. He believed that the measure now before the House would, if carried into effect, introduce an odious system of informations, and lay the foundation for an immense amount of litigation, without remedying the evil complained of, he should, therefore, move as an Amendment that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.


seconded the Amendment. He considered that the hon. and learned Member who had moved the second reading of the Bill had shown no grounds for legislation, much less for legislation of such an exceptional and objectionable character as the present Bill. He contended that the present law on this subject went much further than did the proposed Bill in providing a remedy for the evils complained of, while the second clause of this Bill violated a great principle of the English law by throwing the onus probandi on the party charged with the offence.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."


said, the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary of State for the Home Department had not denied the existence of evils of the most serious character, which this Bill was designed to remove. He regretted extremely the course taken by the Government, and should give his vote most cordially for the second reading.


said, he thought that the Bill had failed to find the real remedy for the cases of fearful cruelty which had been cited. The hon. and learned Member (Mr. Phillimore) had stated that the difficulty of proving these cases resulted from the master sweep closing the doors of the rooms in which the boys were engaged. Why could they not, then, as in the Gaming-houses Bill, enact that the doors should be left open? He should support the second reading of the Bill, but he trusted that in Committee a more practical remedy than the Bill at present contained would be provided.


said, he thought no good reason had been shown for bringing in a Bill which would be extremely detrimental in its effect, and he believed would not meet the evil. By the law as it stood, no young person under the age of twenty-one, was allowed to climb any chimney. There was the same penalty applied to the offence now as that in the Bill before them, and the only reasons for extending the provisions of the present law must be that they were going to give a better remedy. But it was expressly laid down by the third clause that the same remedies were to be pursued which were now available. The effect of another clause would be to prevent any person from assisting a chimney sweeper in any way, and it would be illegal for the man even to employ Ids son of fifteen years of age in driving his donkey. If, however, it were intended only to prevent cases of aggravated cruelty, in which boys were sent up crooked and unsafe flues, and brought down in a state of corporeal suffering, he maintained that the law was already sufficient for that purpose. He opposed the Bill because it would interfere with legitimate trade, so as to prevent even a lad of fifteen from being employed in a way that would not be detrimental to his health in any respects.


said, the Upper House had had a Committee, and had taken evidence upon this subject, which evidence the House of Commons had not got. The House, therefore, was going to decide upon a case the evidence upon which they had not heard or read a single word of, except that portion which had been given by the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Phillimore). Would the House, under these circumstances, take the re- sponsibility of saying that the subject should not receive further consideration, and reject a Bill which had been carefully drawn up in the other House, and which, however unsatisfactory the wording of a particular clause might be, ought, he thought, to be read a second time.


said, the objection taken to the Bill was, not that a case of great cruelty had not been made out, but that, with the best possible intentions, this Bill utterly failed to provide a remedy for the evil which existed. It purported to facilitate the process of proof, and so to enable you to convict for offences committed under the former Statute; but, instead of doing this, the Bill created an entirely new class of offences, and turned those things into offences which the House certainly never wished to regard as such.


said, he would have been quite content not to say a word upon this subject, if those hon. Gentlemen who disapproved the Bill would vote against it. There seemed, however, to be a disposition on the part of the House which he did not think was very favourable to good legislation. Because, it was argued, there were evils in the law with respect to chimney sweepers, therefore this Bill must be read a second time, whatever its provisions might be. He did not think this was a reasonable mode of proceeding. The hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Phillimore) had stated several very dreadful cases in which the law had been violated, and young children had been made to do that which had not only affected their health, but very often was fatal to their lives. Well, then, if there was to be a Bill upon this subject, let the House see, in the first place, that it would punish those who were guilty of these offences, and, in the next place, that it did not punish those who were innocent. With regard to the punishment of the guilty, he did not see that there was any mode described by this Bill by which the practices it was sought to repress might not still be carried on. He did not think that a boy merely walking by the side of a chimney sweeper would be sufficient proof of any offence; but suppose the chimney sweeper took the lad with him into a house for the purpose of getting him to ascend a chimney—as soon as they entered there was an end to the proof that the boy was improperly employed unless the doors were opened, and no conviction could be obtained. But, then, if another chimney sweeper did not employ a boy in climbing chimneys, but in riding his donkey or in carrying a sack, that man might be convicted of an offence. No mode, therefore, of convicting the guilty was supplied; but there was a mode by which the innocent might be convicted. He could not think that such a Bill was one which ought to be read a second time. But then it was said that, although the Bill did not contain a single provision which the House was likely to adopt, some provisions might be suggested, and clauses introduced in Committee. Now, he had not heard during this discussion any such clauses suggested. The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Ewart) had, indeed, suggested that when the chimney sweepers entered a house the doors of that house might be ordered to be left open. But were they to have a general provision of this kind? Was every householder, at four or five o'clock in the morning, when his chimneys were being swept, to be made to leave the street door open for burglars or pickpockets to walk in? He could not think that the passing of this Bill would be at all efficacious in preventing the evil; and he was afraid, with this law, as with respect to many others, we should not have the means of putting it in operation until we had a public prosecutor. Until we had persons charged with seeing that the laws were enforced, he did not think that a Bill of this kind would have any effect.


said, he should oppose the Bill, as likely to prove quite ineffective. He thought the law, as it stood, was sufficiently ample, and that it was not worth while wasting the time of the House in considering this measure.


said, he did not doubt the importance of this subject, but he was opposed to the second reading on the ground that there were measures before the House in which the public took a deeper interest, and which this Bill had the effect of deferring.


said, he did not think the time of the House was misspent in considering a question of this description, when it was admitted on all sides of the House that the evils which the Bill sought to remedy really existed. According to the present state of the law, the age of sixteen was the earliest at which a boy could be apprenticed to the business of a chimney sweeper; but that enactment was evaded by chimney sweepers employing boys under sixteen, but who were not ap- prentices, in going up flues and chimneys, by which the evil the Bill had in view was produced, and not now denied. He thought it rather too much to say that the Bill should not be read a second time, and that the House was not to consider in Committee the best way of meeting the evil complained of.


in reply, said he had never heard more frivolous arguments than had been urged against this Bill. He admitted the existing law was efficient, provided it could be thoroughly carried into effect; but experience had shown that that was next to impossible; and if some such Bill as the present was not passed into a law, the only hope of its promoters, as the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) had said, was blank despair, and those miserable children would continue to be the victims of a heartless tyranny.


I did not say any such thing.

Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 39; Noes 112: Majority 73.

Words added:— Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Second Reading put off for six months.