HC Deb 06 July 1855 vol 139 cc544-51

Order for Committee read.

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

COLONEL DUNNE rose to move an Address for Copies of all correspondence between the Secretary of State for the Home Department and certain magistrates of Oldham, on the subject of a prosecution before the said magistrates of a manufacturer for having on his premises unfenced machinery, from which neglect the death of an idividual resulted. When the manufacturer was brought before the magistrates of Oldham, they refused to convict; it was clear, in the opinion of the Inspectors of Factories, that a conviction ought to have taken place, and the correspondence for which he moved had ensued with the noble Lord (Viscount Palmerston) who was then Home Secretary. What he wished to draw attention to more particularly was, that in the case to which this correspondence referred, and in which the manufacturer had been acquitted, three out of five of the magistrates on the Bench were themselves manufacturers, and were interested in not convicting, and they could allege no reason for dismissing the case. He understood the noble Lord, then the Secretary of State for the Home Department, was of opinion that conviction ought to have taken place. Upon the matter being brought to his (Colonel Dunne's) notice, he applied to the Government, and was informed by the Under-Secretary that the correspondence was not finished, and therefore it would be improper to produce any portion at that time. The correspondence was now complete, but the present Home Secretary refused to produce it, and therefore it became necessary for him (Colonel Dunne) to call the attention of the House to the subject. The first point which struck him was that magistrates who were manufacturers, and probably themselves daily committing a breach of the law, were not fit persons to sit in judgment upon such complaints. He found that two of the magistrates who refused to convict were themselves guilty of having unfenced machinery in their factories; and he would assert that in no other part of the kingdom were magistrates allowed to decide upon complaints to which they were themselves obnoxious. He was not very anxious for the papers for which he moved, but wished to elicit from the noble Lord at the head of the Government an expression of opinion that such magistrates ought not to decide upon such cases. He perceived from the public papers that a meeting of manufacturers had lately been held in Manchester for the purpose of raising a fund to meet prosecutions of this nature, and to his surprise one of the chief arguments used on that occasion was that the proportions of deaths from machinery was only one in 10,000 a week, while the Government were killing men in the Crimea at the rate of 1,000 a week out of 40,000; and, therefore, they had no right to interfere with machinery. As he had said, he was very much surprised at such an argument, until he found that the chairman of that meeting, Mr. R. Hyde Gregg was a member of that very ferocious association the Peace Society. Now, how stood the facts? He had some time ago moved for Returns on the subject, and from those he found that since the year 1845 up to the end of last year no fewer than 38,000 and odd persons had suffered death, or amputation, or fracture, or some serious injury, by accidents from machinery; and if they added the proper proportion for the subsquent period, that would raise the number who had suffered fatal or serious injury from machinery in the last ten years to 42,900. Such a number as that in so short a period, he thought, showed how much the question deserved their serious attention, especially when they found the whole amount of fines levied on those negligent manufacturers in the same period was only 7001., of which, too, a large portion had been remitted. The law required that machinery should be boxed or fenced in to the height of seven feet from the floor. It was not for him to say how that defence shoud be provided, but it was for the Legislature to insist that in some way or another there should be such a defence. He was satisfied that the noble Lord at the head of the Government, and indeed, every Member of that House, must feel the intensest horror in contemplating the accidents which took place so frequently in mills, and that they would be but too glad to interfere in order to prevent mischievous results arising from the operations of the association to which he had referred. Only within the last few days he had received information of two horrible accidents having occurred in mills at Oldham, and which were attributed to the fact that the victims were engaged in oiling the machinery whilst it was in motion. One was the case of a young man twenty-two years of age, the other that of a mere child; and he contended that Parliament was bound in humanity to provide for the enforcement of the law, with the view of securing the safety of the poor people who were employed in these mills, if the manufacturers and mill-owners failed to make such provision themselves. It was said by some persons that unless scope was given to trade foreign competition might prove dangerous, but surely the fear of foreign competition should not be compared with a question involving the loss of human life. Children and young persons were placed in the midst of machinery in which the fluttering of their dresses alone might entangle them, and if it did then they were destroyed. He thought that the Government were bound in common humanity to provide against such a state of things by law, and rigidly to enforce that law. They might see by the reports of the Inspectors that there was no possible species of evasion of the law that was not resorted to at this moment in different mills. The names of the mills and the parties who infringed the law were mentioned in the reports; and if the law was not clear upon the subject of fencing the machinery, and also as to the hours of labour in factories, Parliament ought at once to interfere, amend that law, and make it so stringent that it would be impossible to evade it. He might be asked, why he, a person who was altogether unconnected with the manufacturing districts, should have taken up the question? His only answer to that was, that having, some years ago, been quartered with his regiment there, he had been witness to the operation of the factory system, and that he was actuated simply by motives of humanity, in doing so. The hon. and gallant Member moved for the production of the papers to which he referred, and intimated that on a future occasion he should move a Resolution with regard to the conduct of the magistrates, who, having themselves been convicted of offences against the Factory Act, had, nevertheless, sat and adjudicated upon cases of unfenced machinery and the employment of hands at illegal hours.

Amendment proposed, to leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words— An humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that She will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House, Copies of all Correspondence between the Secretary of State for the Home Department and certain Magistrates of Oldham, on the subject of a prosecution before the said Magistrates of a manufacturer, for having on his premises unfenced machinery, from which neglect the death of an individual resulted.


said, that as far as he was concerned, he had no objection to the production of the papers. The case was this. An accident had occurred, as the hon. and gallant Member had stated. The case was brought before some magistrates, and they dismissed it. He (Viscount Palmerston) was not satisfied with the grounds upon which the magistrates had so dismissed that case, and he had expressed his opinion in writing to them accordingly. Thereupon ensued a correspondence; and after he quitted the Home Office he had an interview with some of those magistrates, of whom he was bound to say, in the first place, that they were men of the highest respectability, and that he did not at all concur with the hon. and gallant officer in thinking that the circumstance of their being millowners or the employers of workmen had at all influenced them in performing their duty as magistrates. In that particular case he thought they had taken a partial view of the matter; but upon representation made verbally, and by official communications addressed to his right hon. Friend who was now at the Home Office, he believed they had satisfied his right hon. Friend that he (Viscount Palmerston) had been mistaken in his view of the law of the case, that they were borne out strictly by the law in dismissing the case as it was brought before them, and that, therefore, no imputation of any kind could possibly rest upon them in consequence of their having dismissed that particular case. With regard to the Motion of the hon. and gallant Member, though as far as he was concerned he might not, after a time, have any objection to the production of the papers—for he believed their production would be rather to the credit of the magistrates than calculated to throw any imputation upon them—yet, considering the manner in which the Motion came before the House, and that the granting of it would supersede the Committee of Supply, he felt it to be his duty to oppose the Motion, and meet this particular request with a negative.


denied that the magistrates to whom the hon. and gallant Member referred had acted with injustice or had violated the law. The hon. and gallant Member said that some of them had been convicted themselves; but why? Simply for the purpose of making out a case upon which to get the decision of a superior court of law. It was impossible to guard people under all circumstances against the consequences of their own folly or ignorance in obtruding themselves where they had no business; and in this case it happened that the man whose life was unfortunately lost had no occasion whatever to meddle with the strap by which he was caught. It was not his duty. He had not been requested by any one to do it; it was in charge of another man; and the millowners were no more responsible for the accident which ensued than were the shareholders of a railway for the death of a man who had the folly to jump off a platform at the moment a train was passing at full speed along the line. On these grounds it was that the magistrates dismissed the case. In their decision they were perfectly unanimous; and the allegation of interest could not be urged with much reason against two, nor with any reason against the other, of them; for if reference were made to the Reports of the Inspectors, it would be seen that these very men had in many instances dealt severely with offences that had been committed by their own class. He had only further to observe on behalf of the magistrates, that they had not objected, and did not now object, to the production of the correspondence; they had only demurred to its production at a moment when it was incomplete.


said, that on account of the rapid movements of machinery in factories, there must sometimes be accidents; but in many cases they were attributable to the extreme foolhardiness of the sufferers themselves. In the present day, there was much too great a disposition evinced to interfere with the occupations of the people; and as to those magistrates, he believed they were as honest a set of men in adjudicating the cases that came before them as any squires or other body of men in the country. Whenever cases in which they were personally interested came before them, they at once absented themselves from the bench. He believed, too, that their decisions were correct, and in one instance he knew that it had been confirmed by the Judges of the laud. With regard to the association to which the hon. and gallant Member had alluded, he (Mr. Heywood) believed that it was called for by the circumstances of the times; that the owners of mills were perfectly right in forming it, and that they had conducted its operations with great judgment and discretion. He should hardly have deemed them worthy of the character of Englishmen if they had tamely submitted to be interfered with and tyrannised over by the central authority when satisfied that they were in the right; and he had no doubt that the association would be maintained until wise legislation was adopted in respect of the manufacturing interest.


said, that the objection formerly urged against the production of the papers could not now be raised; but at the same time he thought that their production; would only tend to revive questions which were now set at rest. At the same time, if the magistrates asked for them for their own justification, he should have no objection to produce them, together with the legal opinion which had been taken. With regard to the proper protection of machinery, he thought that there was no great difficulty in the matter. It all depended upon the construction put upon the word "fencing." If it were supposed that the Act required a solid casing round the shafts, extending sometimes to a mile in length, if the whole measurement were taken, it would subject the millowners to a ruinous expense; and by a recent decision of Mr. Justice Creswell it had been held that the Act was sufficiently complied with where it was proved that proper precautions, such as a reasonable man ought to take against accidents, had been adopted.


gave full credit to the hon. and gallant Member for the motives which actuated him in bringing forward this question. His object was not to criminate these magistrates; but he (Mr. Maguire) defied any gentleman to take up and read one of the reports of the Inspectors without feeling extreme horror at the contents, and admitting that there were most powerful reasons for the executive Government putting forth all its strength for the protection of the workpeople from accidents which must be ever occurring as long as the law was not enforced. Mr. Hollings, one of the Inspectors of Factories, plainly stated that "no caution or foresight on the part of the workman would save him from the perils of an unfenced shaft;" and he believed that these magistrates were not above suspicion, for it appeared from the Inspectors' statement that three of them had mills with the machinery unfenced.


begged to bear testimony to the fact that a very large proportion of these accidents were occasioned by the recklessness and foolhardiness of the persons employed, but still he thought that the law should compel the millowners to do their duty by providing sufficient protection. There were some persona who were very careless of the lives of their workmen. For instance, he recollected once going over a mill, and pointing out that the machinery was very dangerous, when, the owner said, in a most unfeeling manner—"Oh! there are plenty of other people to be got." It was necessary that some stringent regulations should be adopted on this subject, and he hoped that the task would be undertaken by the Government.


believed it would be found that the magistrates had conducted themselves on the occasion referred to with justice and propriety. Exaggerated statements had been made as to the number of accidents resulting from unfenced machinery. No class of employers, in his opinion, conducted their business with greater regard to the interests of those they employed; but it was a moot question whether the fencing of shafts above a certain height would have the effect of preventing accidents, and the evidence given before the magistrates tended rather to prove that it would, in some cases, only increase the danger.


thought that the production of the correspondence would vindicate the conduct of the magistrates.


said, if the present law were bad it ought to be repealed, but it ought not to be violated; and if the statement of the Inspector were true, that two men in the prime of life had lost their lives, within six weeks, in one district through the neglect of the owners to obey a clear law, some alteration was required.


had not the slightest objection to produce the papers, but he hoped the hon. and gallant Gentleman would not press the Motion to a division, so as to prevent the House going into Committee of Supply.

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

Main Question again proposed.