HC Deb 08 March 1855 vol 137 cc250-61

said, he rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to restrain stoppages of wages in the hosiery manufacture. He had in the course of the evening presented six petitions against that grievance from the counties of Derby, Leicester, and Nottingham. A Bill upon the same subject was introduced last Session; it was read a second time, and referred to a Select Committee, with the consent of the noble Lord now the Head of the Government, who did not commit himself to the principle of the Bill, but who thought, as great numbers of people were under the impression that they suffered a grievance and an injustice, they were entitled to an inquiry. The inquiry was protracted dvring the Session, but the hosiery manufacture was not even approached by that Committee. He presumed, if he obtained leave to introduce the Bill, that the subject would be referred to a Select Committee, and all he desired was a Committee of unprejudiced men who would take the matter at once under their consideration. The inquiry need not consume any great length of time, for ample materials were before the House in the Report of the Commission appointed ten years ago to inquire into the subject. The petitions that had been presented were signed by between 37,000 and 38,000 persons, a great majority of whom supported the Bill which he now desired to introduce, which was literally the same Bill as the one of last Session. The people complained of their low earnings and extremely depressed condition, occasioned by the extravagant stoppages made from their wages by their employers, and by the middlemen between their employers and themselves. They stated that these stoppages were arbitrary, uncertain, and excessive—that they were governed by no rule, that they differed in amount at different times and in different places; and that they were entirely irrespective of the material delivered, since the full stoppage, for rent of the frame, sometimes had to be paid when materials were delivered, perhaps, for half work, or for a small proportion only; that the powers of stopping wages were unlimited, and were used as means of competition among the masters, having the effect of depressing wages throughout the trade, the least scrupulous of the employers underselling others, and compelling a general reduction of wages. They stated that the amount of these reductions was from 40 to 100 per cent on the value of the frames upon which they were levied; and that, by opening a source of gain not proportioned to the work required, but to the number of frames employed, it became the interest of the employers to collect the greatest possible number of workmen without reference to what they wanted; that the employers thus took advantage of the distress of parents and of the helplessness of young persons, to collect numbers together, not in well-regulated factories under proper control and superintendence, but in the shops of the middlemen, with no discipline and no care of morals or health. In some parts of the manufacture, this opportunity of making unfair profits prevented the most economical mode of working in large establishments under due superintendence from being adopted, whilst in other branches of the manufacture, which were suited to the domestic condition, it substituted the middlemen's shops for the wholesome mode of working in the house. They stated the good effects that would result from the Bill of last year, in relieving the framework knitters from the dependant condition in which they were, and in placing the instruments of their trade within their reach, wherever they could be obtained by hire or purchase, at the fair market price. These representations were not made only by the workmen, but last Session some petitions were presented, setting forth the same view, from some of the principal masters. The case had been pleaded at the provincial Courts on different occasions, and, at the suggestion of the Commissioners, they made an appeal to the Court of Queen's Bench, to decide whether this practice, being in fact a payment of wages otherwise than in money, did not come within the prohibitions of the Truck Act. The case was argued before Lord Denman, whose judgment, unfortunately, was not favourable to the workmen. It appeared that the facts were very imperfectly laid before his Lordship, so that he was under a mistake as to the nature of the practice. The simple object of this Bill was to bring these stoppages of wages within the provisions of the Truck Act, and he was at a loss to understand the objections which could be made to it. He was aware that there were those who advocated non-interference between workmen and masters, but he hoped the House would not countenance this doctrine of laissez faire, laissez aller, in the present instance. He maintained that this was a proper case for legislation, and he trusted the House would allow the full inquiry he wished for, in order that, after the long period of misery to which those workmen had been subjected, they might, at least, have the satisfaction of knowing that their grievances were attended to, and would, if practicable, be redressed. He begged, therefore, to move for leave to bring in a Bill to restrain stoppages from wages in the hosiery manufacture,


said, that having opposed the Bill of last Session, he felt bound to offer his opposition to the present Motion. The object of the hon. Baronet appeared to be to obtain an inquiry into this subject, in order to ascertain whether any legislation upon it was necessary; and, if necessary, what that legislation should be. Now, he (Sir George Grey) thought the House were not in possession of sufficient information upon the matter to enable them to accede to the Motion of the hon. Baronet, and it would, therefore, be better to institute an inquiry first. At the same time, he doubted whether the principle involved in the question was one which the House ought to affirm or not. He gave the hon. Baronet credit for the most benevolent intentions in the course which he had pursued, but he must repeat what he had stated upon a former occasion, that he believed it would be altogether impracticable to attain the object attempted to be carried out by this Bill. The remedy proposed by the hon. Baronet for the grievance of which he complained was a remedy for a grievance which was altogether illusory, and the House ought not to encourage what they knew to be a delusion. He (Sir George Grey) under- stood that the Bill now sought to be introduced was similar to that which was dealt with by the House last year, and that the hon. Baronet now proposed to regulate, by Act of Parliament, the rents to be paid for certain frames. He (Sir George Grey) thought it impossible to establish such a regulation by Act of Parliament; but if the House thought that a further inquiry was necessary into the condition of the people interested in this question, and who complained of a great grievance pressing upon them, he had no objection to the institution of such an inquiry, though he could not himself see any necessity for it. He had, however, no objection to an inquiry, because the House last year, he would not say, affirmed the principle of the Bill, but read it a second time, with the avowed object of sending it to a Committee to take evidence and inquire into the facts of the case. The Committee who sat upon this subject, and also upon the Truck Bill last Session, made, at the end of the Session, as he had anticipated, no Report, but recommended that they should be reappointed this Session, in order that they might be enabled to proceed further with the inquiry. If the House thought fit to reappoint the Committee he would not object to their reappointment, because he certainly thought that that course ought to be adopted before leave was given for the introduction of the Bill of the hon. Baronet.


said, he was somewhat surprised and exceedingly sorry to hear that the right hon. Baronet the Home Secretary, on the part of the Government, was prepared to resist the introduction of this Bill. The right hon. Baronet had declared it was a measure "altogether illusory," but that was surely begging the whole question, for the Committee which had been appointed last Session to consider that question had not been able to arrive at it, and it was scarcely to be affirmed that the measure was illusory before its character had been really inquired into. If the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Craufurd) had been in earnest as to the desire for an inquiry, he would have proposed the reappointment of the Committee before the reintroduction of the Bill, which, however, it should be observed, affected only the hosiery trade. It appeared that a particular class of the community were suffering grievous wrong—it was a maxim of the constitution that wherever there Was a wrong there was a remedy—and it was to be ex- pected that the House should at least attempt to provide a remedy. It was all very well to talk of theories of political economy, and to use phrases of "labour" and "capital," and "supply and demand," and so forth; but the plain simple fact was, that capitalists were too powerful for the artisans, and that the latter must accept their terms or starve. The master manufacturers charged 2s. a week for frames, worth hardly 5l.—about 100 per cent, and if the poor artisan happened to obtain possession of a frame he was denied employment. This was a grievous injury to a large class of workmen in the midland counties, and for that wrong there ought to be a remedy. It was not just to refuse to permit a Bill to be brought in for that object, or to throw it over until a Committee had sat on the subject, which would be postponing it sine die. The measure ought, at least, to be allowed to be brought in, and he should certainly vote for it.


said, he thought it would be cruel to hold out to parties in distress that by means, such as this Bill contemplated, their condition could be bettered, or that it was in the power of the House of Commons to remedy such grievances as these men complained of. The measure would be a delusion. The men should be told at once that theirs was a bad trade, and that they had better leave it.


said, he must express his surprise at that which had fallen from the hon. Member for Lambeth. That hon. Gentleman had been pleased to call this Bill a cruel measure, calculated to deceive the workmen, and subversive of all the true principles of trade. It had been acknowledged by almost every speaker that stocking weavers were in a most depressed and disastrous condition; that they had been so for years, and were almost without hope; that their wages were lower than those of the agricultural labourer, and that they were subject to heavy deductions. These men had for years prayed that House to consider if any and what measures could be adopted for their relief. They believed that by a Bill for the payment of wages in full, without deductions, they might have the opportunity of bargaining and reducing those charges which were deemed exorbitant. They had petitioned that House again and again that leave might be granted them to make known and explain their grievances, and to show that the remedies they proposed were just and reasonable, and they were now to be told that the Bill they prayed for was a cruel measure. It appeared to him that to refuse their prayers was indeed the cruelty which might be fairly complained of. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Home Department had been pleased to make an assertion which he took leave to repudiate, namely, that the Bill was an attempt to regulate the rates of frame rents and charges. The right hon. Gentleman ought to have informed himself on the fact, and not have made such a representation to the House. So far from attempting to regulate the rates of frames, the workmen desired that they should form a question of bargain between employer and employed, and not by custom, as at present. Neither did the workmen attempt any dictation as to the rates of wages, or desire to do so. On the contrary, they were prepared to take even less wages than they now received, rather than submit to the charges at present levied. He had never hesitated to declare their anxious wish to sustain the rights of property, to pay for the frames they used; but they objected to have their wages reduced by deductions to which they were not a consenting party, and which were founded on what they believed to be an unjust principle. It was urged they would be in no better position were this Bill to become law; but those who used this argument should remember that the men had some experience in the matter, and ought to have credit for understanding their own interests. It would be a cruel mockery to refuse inquiry to the prayers of 60,000 people in such a state of suffering as had been described. It should also be remembered that hopes had been held out for inquiry. In a full House of 311 Members, a majority of sixty-one affirmed the same Bill last year; and it was sent to a Committee upstairs, but who had not time to examine into its merits. Surely the same course might be adopted now. He sincerely trusted, whatever might be the result of the Bill, they would not act so discourteous and offensive a part as to refuse the introduction of the Bill. All that was sought was a full, a searching inquiry. He believed such was as essential to the welfare and comfort of the manufacturers as to the workmen. Many of the manufacturers were favourable to the principle of the Bill: some had long worked profitably under similar regulations, and, he believed, that in a few years there would not be a manufacturer who would not rejoice in the passing of this Bill, as, he believed, they would all do on seeing their workmen happy and contented.


said, that no doubt there were cases in which such abuses existed with respect to the relation between capital and labour as to render the interference of the Legislature necessary, and he hoped, therefore, that the House would not act upon the expressed wish of the Government, and prevent the introduction of this Bill, the only object of which was to place the artisans in the hosiery trade on the same footing as workmen in other trades. It had in former years been considered by Parliament that there were cases in which "capital" proved too strong for "labour," and this was one of them. Abuses had arisen which it was necessary to put a stop to, and he trusted the House would not refuse to entertain a measure brought in for that object. He had served upon the Committee which was appointed to consider this subject last year, and he regarded the suggestion that the Bill should be referred to that Committee as a mere attempt to get rid of the measure altogether. He had entered the Committee-room with very strong preconceived opinions in common with one-half of the Committee; the remainder of the Committee entertained equally strong preconceived opinions on the other side; and he believed that the evidence given before them only tended to confirm the original opinions of both parties. The Committee agreed to no Report, but they simply adopted a Resolution recommending the reappointment of a Committee to consider the subject during the ensuing Session. He hoped that, if a Committee were reappointed to consider the Truck Acts, it would be an entirely new Committee, composed of persons who bad not formed any opinion on the subject. It was true that a great deal of evidence was adduced before the Committee of last year to show the advantage which had been derived by the population of England, Scotland, and Wales from the working of the Truck Acts; but, on the other hand, many individuals were brought forward, including shopkeepers and persons engaged in manufactures, who condemned the operation of those Acts. That Committee failed, however, to come to any determination, and he therefore thought it desirable that a new Committee should be appointed to ascertain whether the truck system was or was not beneficial to the working classes.


said, he considered that if it was not the intention of the promoters of this Bill to raise wages by Act of Parliament, any agitation on such a subject could only have the effect of bringing that House into contempt and odium with the people, by leading them to suppose that the House had the power but not the will to afford them relief. His hon. Friend (Mr. Booker) had said that the investigation before the Committee had not altered his views on this subject. He (Mr. Gardner) had been a Member of that Committee, and he must say their inquiries had produced an effect upon his mind. After hearing the evidence given before the Committee, any doubts he had entertained with respect to the truck system were completely removed, and if the truck question was brought forward again he would oppose any imprudent and injudicious legislation upon such a system.


said, he thought his hon. Friend who last spoke had misrepresented the object of this Bill when he had called it a measure for raising wages by Act of Parliament, for it was not a Bill for raising wages, but for enforcing the honest payment of wages. The principle of the Bill seemed to him (Mr. Fox) to be most simple and unobjectionable, and whatever inquiry might be needful could surely only be necessary with regard to matters of detail, and not with respect to the principle of the measure. What an employer undertook to pay the operative he should pay according to contract. When the work upon which the operative was engaged was brought to the employer, whether that work was produced by a machine belonging to the labourer himself, or by a hired machine, or by a borrowed machine, or by a machine obtained in any other way, the business of the employer was to remunerate the employed for the work which he had completed. As to the master's stopping the wages of the operative, in order to provide for the punctual payment of the person whose machine the operative might have hired, it appeared to him that a master had no more right to interfere in such a case than for the payment of the rent of the labourer's cottage, or of the tradesman from whom he obtained provisions. The hire of the machine was a debt, to be treated like all other debts. The House of Commons ought not to expose the labourer to the inconvenience and injury of allowing his master to withdraw, in an arbitrary manner, a portion of his wages to pay for the machine he had hired. He supported the Bill on the simple principle upon which it was based—that "the labourer is worthy of his hire." Let the master pay the operative his hire, and let the operative expend it as he pleased.


said, that as one deeply interested in the question, he would not oppose the introduction of the Bill, though he did not believe any good would result from such legislation. He considered that the measure of the hon. Baronet would, by a series of vexatious enactments, so complicate the relations of labour and capital in the midland counties, and diminish the profits of manufacturers, as to lead to the withdrawal of capital from the trade, and its application to other objects. The Bill proceeded on the assumption that considerable distress existed among the operatives engaged in the hosiery trade in the midland counties, and that such distress was caused by the cupidity of the manufacturers, who exacted undue rents and made unfair charges upon their work-people. But could they reduce those rents and charges without reducing also the rate of wages? If they could, the House might, perhaps, be justified in interfering on the score of common humanity; but what was the fact? The hosiery business was carried on in the midland counties, where it had been established a century and a half, and employed about 50,000 hands. The custom of charges against which this Bill was levelled had existed since the establishment of the manufacture, and had no influence whatever upon the prevailing distress, which had arisen from a combination of causes, one of the main causes of such distress being the introduction of improved machinery. The trade was in a transition state, and there bad been a great pressure on the whole system. There were now 50,000 frames in the midland counties, 10,000 of them being new and improved frames, by which a woman or a strong boy or girl could produce six stockings in the time it would have taken a man to make one stocking by an old frame. It was impossible for the English manufacturers to compete with the Saxons without making continual improvements in machinery, and exercising their skill in the most judicious manner. The depression of this class of workmen had been going on for the last thirty or forty years, and the great reason of it was the continual growth of improved machinery. Any attempt at legislation on the subject would only hold forth delusive hopes to those poor men, who complained of the hardships which they endured without having any adequate knowledge of their causes. The Bill of the hon. Baronet opposite was levelled at two things—at the taking of rents for the frames, and at certain charges to which the workmen were liable. Now, this was a trade carried on in numerous villages and in the cottages of the workers. The frames were generally, though not always, the property of the manufacturers; and if they abolished this rent, they might, on the same principle, abolish the rent taken for cottages, or even for farms. It was said no rent was charged for the ploughs, the shovels, and other instruments used in the labours of a farm. No; but rent was taken for the farms; and he contended that these frames were the farms of the stocking manufacturers. Capital was invested in this kind of property with the intention of receiving interest or rent from it. He warned them that the effect of passing this Bill and taking away the rent or consideration given for the frames would be to reduce the wages of the workmen. As to the other charges to which workmen were liable, he was willing to admit that cases might have occurred where cupidity on the one hand, and dependence on the other, led to exaction; but that was no reason why legislation should be levelled against a whole class. He believed that, morally and intellectually, and for the social good they had done, the manufacturers in the midland counties might be compared with any order of men in the empire. The charges referred to were incurred on account of the soap, oil, water, light, &c., used by the individual workmen in weaving the raw material. One man took charge of, perhaps, twelve or twenty workmen, went to town, got the raw material for them, and provided the articles just mentioned, deducting the price of the latter from the wages of the workmen, before he went to the warehouse with their work. This was done by him much cheaper than they could do it for themselves, and it was a natural result of the trade being left to itself, and being carried on upon the cheapest and most economical system. The Bill, if it passed, would not get rid of this process, for the articles must be paid for either by the individual workman or by a middleman, who would provide them at a much cheaper rate. The hon. Baronet's plan had been tried to a certain extent, and abandoned, it being found of no benefit either to the masters or the workmen. If this Bill should pass, it would be a dead letter, and as valueless a piece of legislation as ever had passed that House. The only remedy was for the operatives to transfer themselves to other employments that were more profitable, and if they could not do so, legislation of the kind now submitted to the House would not assist them.


said, he should vote against the introduction of the Bill with a feeling of deep regret that the trade had fallen into such a state that no legislation could mend it. The Bill would cause an interference between masters and workmen, and could do no good. He could not believe that tradesmen who were driven out of the market by machinery would be benefited by it. If this Bill should pass, it would lead to the transfer of machines from the cottages of the workmen to large factories, and he was quite sure that those who were friendly to the workmen did not wish that they should be concentrated in large masses and exposed to the evils of strikes, which might follow from such an arrangement.


said, it was not denied that abuses existed in this trade. The existence of these abuses was admitted fully by those most disposed to refuse all legislative attempt to remedy them. The legislation proposed by the Bill which it was sought to introduce was directed against the truck system, in an aggravated form, which had existed in the hosiery districts for many years, and been productive of very painful results to the operatives. The hon. Baronet who brought the subject forward had studied it for years, and all he asked was that he should be permitted to bring in the Bill—a permission granted last Session in a full House—for the purpose of having it considered in committee upstairs. It would be most inconsistent to refuse permission to introduce this Bill, for the Committee, part of whose duty it was to consider this Bill last Session, was so occupied by other business, that it never reached the subject of this Bill, and consequently had never performed the task assigned to it by the House. He hoped the House would not revoke a decision to which it had come last year. From his (Mr. Newdegate's) knowledge of the locality in which this truck system prevailed, he was prepared to assert that the grievances complained of had an existence, and could be dealt with without injury to the fair trader, and, he believed, with great advantage to the operatives.


in reply, said he could not avoid expressing his surprise at the course that had been taken by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department. His surprise was the greater, because that course was different from the one which had been adopted last year by the noble Viscount now at the head of the Government. He could not reconcile it to his conscience to abandon the measure, and would divide the House upon it.

Motion made, and Question put, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restrain Stoppages from Wages in the Hosiery Manufacture."

The House divided:—Ayes 58; Noes 96; Majority 38.