HC Deb 10 June 1856 vol 142 cc1284-96

said, he rose to move for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the circumstances connected with the purchase by Government from Mr. Archer, of the machine and invention for perforating postage labels, and also with reference to the printing and gumming postage and receipt labels. He wished to point out that a few years ago Mr. Archer invented a machine for facilitating the separation of postage labels, an invention hon. Members could not but admit of great utility. Mr. Archer believing that the invention would be successful, applied to a public department with the object of effecting its sale. Such a transaction would doubtless have been arranged by mercantile men in a quarter or an hour, but unfortunately Mr. Archer had to deal with three great departments of the State—the Post Office, the Commissioners of Inland Revenue, and the Treasury. No one, as hon. Members must be well aware, who had anything useful to propose was received with favour by our public departments, if he had nothing but his ability to recommend him to their notice. A lengthened correspondence took place between Mr. Archer and the public departments referred to, and he (Mr. Whiteside) had been extremely amused by that correspondence, which, with great ability and uncommon perseverance, had been carried on between the inventor and certain official functionaries for a series of years, it having been found utterly impossible, of course, to persuade them of the usefulness of the proposed machine. Eventually, through the intervention of Mr. Keogh, Secretary to the Board of Inland Revenue, an agreement was concluded to this effect:— The Commissioners of Inland Revenue agree with Mr. Archer for the purchase of two machines for separating postage labels, on condition that he is not to be repaid the cost of the same, or compensated for his invention, until the plan is brought into successful operation. When the success of the invention had been demonstrated, Mr. Archer applied to the Board of Inland Revenue, and, after having bestowed three years' labour, and expended £1,500 in perfecting the machine, that department offered him £100 for his invention. Afterwards they made him another offer of £300; and, gradually increasing in their bids, the Treasury eventually offered the inventor £2,000. Now, after three years' labour and the expenditure he had incurred, Mr. Archer was stubborn and determined, but the public departments were inexorable. They knew they had to deal with a man who possessed no political influence, and who had nothing but his abilities to recommend him, and they therefore determined to persist in their injustice. At last the right hon. Member for the University of Oxford (Mr. Gladstone), became Chancellor of the Exchequer, and seeing that the invention would be useful to the country he followed up an offer which had been made by his predecessor to Mr. Archer of £300 a year, a share of the proceeds of the postage labels in proportion to the quantity issued, and a sum in hand. By offering Mr. Archer £4,000, and after some four or five years' negotiation, an arrangement was effected on the terms mentioned, which, according to the words of the agreement, related to postage labels only. Mr. Archer, however, foresaw that his invention would be useful also for perforating bankers' checks, and had, he (Mr. Whiteside) understood, entered into contracts with certain bankers in the city to apply his machines to that purpose, believing that his agreement with the Board of Inland Revenue extended only to the application of the invention to postage labels. Soon after Mr. Archer had effected his arrangement with the then Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gladstone) that right hon. Gentleman busied himself with the invention of fresh modes of taxing the community. The right hon. Gentleman hit on the ingenious expedient of introducing a penny receipt stamp. This novelty complicated a question already sufficiently confused. Mr. Archer's invention was made the subject of additional inquiries, and the gentleman to whom the question was ultimately referred for decision recommended that an assignment of the patent right should be taken, and that the machine should be also used for the purpose of perforating the bankers' stamps. The Government then gave Mr. Archer to understand that a gentleman in the city had made experiments upon his machine, and that £500 had been expended in attempts to improve it, which sum they insisted upon deducting from the £4,000 agreed to be paid to Mr. Archer. In vain did Mr. Archer remonstrate. He was told once for all that before he received a shilling from the Government he must give a guarantee to pay the £500 to the gentleman in the city; and what aggravated the difficulties of his position was that the gentleman in question refused to accept the security, and declared that he must be paid in money—a demand with which Mr. Archer was unable to comply. About this time the gentleman who conducts the legal affairs of the Treasury began to interfere in the business, and gave it as his opinion that no licence to perforate bankers' stamps should be granted to Mr. Archer, and that the use of his patent for all purposes whatsoever should be transferred to the Treasury. In vain did Mr. Archer protest, remonstrate, resist, and threaten an appeal to Parliament. The Treasury, of course, were too strong for him. They got the assignment from him of his patent right and retain it to this day. They not only refused him a licence to perforate receipt stamps, but they also declined to allow him any additional consideration for the services of his machine in that respect. Nothing, he would appeal to the House, could be more illiberal, more ungenerous, than such treatment. But their injustice did not end there. They would not allow him to superintend the operations which his tender originally contemplated—those of engraving, printing, and gumming, as well as of perforating—but they committed all those matters to other hands, and the consequence was, that the texture of the postage labels was coarse, their colour bad, there was much difficulty in separating them, and, in a word, the English public had the worst article of the kind in all Europe at the very dearest price. Had the arrangements been confided to Mr. Archer, the person best qualified to superintend the working of his own invention, the postage labels would have been struck off by a process of surface-printing similar to that used in the Bank of England, and a superior description of gum would have been employed, instead of the filthy poisonous stuff that was now provided for us by the parental kindness of the Treasury. But the health of the people as well as the claims of justice were disregarded to facilitate the perpetration of a disreputable little job. The consequence was that an article was produced which was a reproach to art and a disgrace to the country. He would leave it to the candid decision of the hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Treasury to say, whether the postage label used in England was not greatly inferior to anything of the same kind in France, or, indeed, in any other country of the world. In order to understand the unfair manner in which Mr. Archer had been treated it would be necessary to refer to the correspondence that had taken place between him and the Treasury. On the 30th of April, 1851, he wrote to Mr. Keogh to say that he was willing to undertake— In conjunction with Mr. Branston, who for many years held the appointment of engraver to the late Commissioners of Excise, to engrave, print, gum, and perforate the sheets of postage labels, and to find and prepare all the necessary printing machinery, plates, and apparatus, and also all perforating machines that may be required (except the present) for the sum of 4½d. for every 1,000 stamps. As this proposal, however, referred to a mode of engraving and printing materially differing from the one then in use, Mr. Archer proceeded to make some remarks in reference to the comparative merits of the two systems, and having done so, concluded his letter by stating that should— The Commissioners deem it advisable not to change the present mode of engraving and printing the labels, he was prepared to undertake to engrave and print the same according to the existing plan, and also to gum and perforate them, and to find all the necessary printing machinery and plates, with all the usual guarantees required, for the sum of 5d. for every 1,000 stamps; so that, even according to the latter proposal, the Commissioners would be enabled to save the Post-office £1,500 per annum. The Board of Inland Revenue had this letter in their hands on the 16th May, and mark how they proceeded. Instead of putting themselves in communication with Mr. Archer, or offering the contract to public competition, they took a most disingenuous course, for on that very day the solicitor to the "Board," wrote to Bacon and Petch, their old engravers, stating that a tender had been made to print the labels at 5d. (which was not true, for the tender was to print, perforate, and gum them at that price) per 1,000, and asking if they would abate their price from 7d. to 6d. per 1,000. Of course they assented; and without any notice to Mr. Archer, the contract was concluded with them for five years to do the printing at 6d. per 1,000, he having tendered to do the printing, perforating, and gumming, at 5d. per 1,000. The Committee who had sat upon the subject, and of which the hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Muntz) was a member, had expressed their opinion upon this transaction. They had passed a Resolution— That the tender having been made by Mr. Archer to print, perforate and paste the labels at 5d. per 1,000, a smaller sum than had been paid for the printing alone, it was inexpedient to communicate the terms of the tender to the former contractors. "Inexpedient!"—a delicate expression certainly. He would beg to translate it freely, liberally, and to stigmatise such conduct as unjust and iniquitous. The Committee further reported that, in renewing the contract with Messrs. Bacon and Petch, it was not necessary, neither was it for the interest or the convenience of the public, that it should have been made for five years. A discussion arose in the Committee as to the best mode of printing the postage labels, and three of the most scientific witnesses declared that the system of surface printing must ultimately prevail. Yet the Government alleged that they could not help themselves, being bound by their contract with Messrs. Bacon and Petch for a period of five years, and thus a clear profit actually exceeding the salary allowed to the Prime Minister, or more than £5,000 a year, was secured to that firm! The contract entered into with Messrs. Bacon and Petch having been printed by order of the House, a copy of it was submitted by Mr. Archer to Mr. V. Williams, whose legal opinion, together with that of another eminent barrister, was, that the compact was not binding on the Treasury for five years. Still the extravagant arrangement went on, and enormous profits were pocketed by the contractors, because competition was precluded. The particulars of this job were not yet exhausted—worse still remained. Mr. Archer, persevering in his views with regard to surface-printing, called on Mr. E. Hill, a secretary to one of the Boards, and explained the facts to him. But Mr. E. Hill was so slow to see the supe- riority of Mr. Archer's process, that he did not see it until the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Hankey) had written to him, stating that the Bank of England had adopted it, and would before long print all their notes by it, adding—"I cannot understand why the process is not made use of for the postage labels, since ours are by far the most clumsily and badly executed." Well, two or three years after the "Board" had received Mr. Archer's tender to do the whole of the labels upon the superior process, this Mr. E. Hill began to think of securing it for the Government. Admitting, however, for the sake of argument, that the Treasury were restricted by the contract for five years, as far as concerned the postage labels, yet they might have subjected the receipt labels to the open competition of the trade. Now, Mr. Hill was the partner of Mr. Delarue, the stationer, in a patent for cutting envelopes; but, obtaining an excellent Government appointment, he immediately sold his right to the patent, and managed to give to his former co-partner, at the modest price of 7d. per 1,000, the contract which an expert man offered to execute by a superior process at 2½d. per 1,000. Perhaps a more monstrous instance of jobbery had never occurred. Why were they to have a bad envelope, made of paper so thin that the writing may be seen through it, merely that a favour might be conferred upon some person who was perhaps a friend of one of the department? The receipt stamp, he admitted, was far better than the clumsy article of which he had been complaining. Why, he asked as a man of business, were they to have a good receipt stamp and a bad postage label? The answer would doubtless be, that they must fulfil the terms of the contract; and the system would be continued unless the House of Commons granted the inquiry he now demanded. The respectable stationers in the city had no confidence in the contract system pursued by the Government, which they averred was not carried out openly by public advertisement. In the Estimates which had been laid before the House during the present year, the total sum required for postage labels was £29,000, of which £8,000 was for the manufacture of a new postage stamp for the conveyance of newspapers. He supposed the latter sum was for the manufacture of a die for the impression of stamps upon newspapers, and, if so, a very handsome article of that description he was certain could be procured for £50. Who, then, had got the £8,000? He wanted to find out the whole truth if he could, although he would not say that he should succeed in doing so; but, at all events, if the Committee asked for were granted, he would rely upon the good sense and feeling of the Members who composed it to assist him. All the justice Mr. Archer had received had been from that House, and not from the departments. At first, the departments squeezed from that gentleman the entire right to his patent; then refused him a licence; then deducted £500 from the £4,000 they offered him, ousted him from the contract, and yet made good use of his principle for receipt labels; and then gave another person nearly three times the amount for which he was willing to give them a good and satisfactory article. He (Mr. Whiteside) would like to inquire into those matters, and doubted not but that some interesting communication between some persons would transpire, the result of which was that one party obtained a contract which was worth something more than the salary of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had brought forward the subject upon no grounds of personal or political nature, but simply relying upon the good sense of the House to do justice to an injured and an ill-used man, and he had no doubt but it would give the whole case a fair consideration, and after hearing what the hon. Secretary for the Treasury had to say in reply, would, he hoped, grant him the Committee he moved for. He did not mean to say that the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury was a party to the job, but he hoped that hon. Gentleman would not attempt to defend that which was indefensible. If, however, the hon. Gentleman should succeed in proving to a Committee that the departments were free from blame, he (Mr. Whiteside) would be the first to admit the validity of the defence, and to compliment the hon. Gentleman upon his skill in proving it.


said, that though the hon. and learned Member had exonerated him from personal blame in respect of many of the transactions to which he had alluded, he had not gone on to say who had represented the Government of the day in the Committee which had sat upon this subject, and who consequently were really responsible for the Report of that Com- mittee. That Committee sat in April and May, 1852, and was attended by the Marquess of Chandos, as the representative of the Government of Lord Derby, and than whom a more painstaking Member never sat upon a Committee; therefore, the parties really responsible for that Report were Lord Derby's Government. He (Mr. Wilson) could not pretend to be cognisant of all matters attendant upon the subject, but he would remind the House that they had been brought before the Committee, which had, in consequence, fully investigated the subject. Hence, what had taken place before the Committee sat was hardly a question at the present moment. The Committee had expressed their opinion after due consideration, and it was therefore not to be expected that after four years had elapsed the House would grant a Committee again to investigate the subject. But, in truth, the most important part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's speech was that in which he referred to what had taken place since the Committee reported; the other facts had only been introduced in order that he might heighten, like a skilful advocate, that which was to come. Now he (Mr. Wilson) would take the liberty of informing the House what had actually taken place in consequence of the recommendation of the Committee. The colleagues of the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Whiteside) in pursuance of that Report, entered into correspondence with Mr. Archer. They made him such offers as in accordance with their duty to the country they thought right, but those offers were not agreeable to or at all events did not meet Mr. Archer's views. In the year 1853, as the hon. and learned Gentleman had stated, his (Mr. Wilson's) right hon. Friend the Member for the University of Oxford (Mr. Gladstone) then Chancellor of the Exchequer, received a deputation, urging upon him the expediency of purchasing the patent of Mr. Archer. He should state to the House that the highest and most liberal offer of Lord Derby's Government had been £2,000, coupled with some offer of a commission upon the sale of postage stamps. On the 24th of May, 1853, he (Mr. Wilson) found that he made a memorandum, stating that the Chancellor of the Exchequer having intimated his willingness to purchase the patent in question for £4,000, the Lords of the Treasury were pleased to request their solicitor to place himself in communication with Mr. Archer, and to take steps in order to obtain a legal assignment of the patent to Colonel Maberly, in trust for the public. In consequence of this the solicitor to the Treasury put himself into communication with Mr. Archer, and stated the conditions of the bargain to him. Mr. Archer wished, however, although the patent was to be assigned, that there should be an understanding that he might apply to Parliament for further compensation. The Treasury (acting upon the advice of their solicitor) replied, that although they could not prevent Mr. Archer from appealing to Parliament, they did not think it right to enter into any such understanding as he desired. Mr. Archer also made known to the Treasury that there were several incumbrances in existence affecting his rights, which he had incurred in the prosecution of his inventions. The hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Enniskillen made much of this, and seemed to think that the Treasury had taken the part of these incumbrances. But the fact was, that there was a legal mortgage affecting Mr. Archer's patent, and until that was discharged the interest in the invention could not be properly vested in the Government. On the 20th June, Mr. Archer having consented to assign the patent without condition, the Solicitor to the Treasury wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury, stating that fact, and enclosing the assignment, the original letters, and the mortgage to which he had already referred, and giving instructions with regard to the closing of the transaction. Those instructions were ultimately acted upon, and the transaction closed. In the course of the negotiation which took place, Mr. Archer at one time expressed a desire to limit the grant to the Government to the right of perforating postage labels only. That, however, the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not think it right to accede to, for he considered that the purchase of the patent should be for the benefit of the public generally, so that while the Government availed themselves of it for the purpose of perforating postage stamps, it might be equally available to the public for all other purposes. The hon. and learned Gentleman had also made reference to the subject of surface printing, now a matter not very fit for public discussion. Where they were collecting upwards of £2,000,000 of money in separate pennies, security was the first consideration. Three or four years ago, the Government were induced by repre- sentations made to them to attach great importance to the new discovery of surface printing, but with the knowledge acquired by experiments they were disposed to consider the old style by far the safest. The transactions in 1850 and 1851, having already been inquired into by a Select Committee, could not properly be made the subject of another investigation, unless it could be shown that they bore on the purchase of the patent right. He thought he had proved that the purchase was altogether independent of previous transactions, and up to the present time he had never heard of any complaint showing that Mr. Archer was not satisfied with the arrangement. He thought that the House would not assent to the Motion of the hon. and learned Member.


said, that the whole of the case could be condensed into a very small compass. A man of ability had invented a machine of great usefulness to the public—so useful, indeed, that the Government had considered it necessary to purchase the patent. Now, the object of the Government at the time was to perforate postage stamps, because the perforation of cheques and bankers' drafts was not then thought of. Mr. Archer, however, had ulterior objects in view, and wished to reserve a portion of his right. It was true that Mr. Greenwood, of the Treasury, told him that he did not see how the Government could buy the patent, and yet allow him a right to sell it to bankers; but what Mr. Archer wanted was, that a power should be given him of licensing bankers and others who might wish to use the patent for the purposes alluded to. On that point the agreement was not specific; but when Mr. Archer afterwards wished to exercise such a power, the Government refused to allow him to do so. Considering the enormous amount of property which might be saved to the public were the contracts re-adjusted, and considering that the existing contracts were about shortly to expire, he thought the House would be acting with manifest neglect of what was due to the country if it refused to grant the Committee.


said, he could not help thinking that there was some want of grace on the part of the inventor of the patent in thus coming forward to make a claim upon the Government, after he had unreservedly sold his invention to them for a sum of £4,000. There could be no doubt that the gentleman in ques- tion had transferred his machine to the Government, and parted with his entire interest in it; and with what grace could he now demand additional compensation, because he found his invention was applicable to other purposes? He, therefore, could not support the Motion on the ground alleged. At the same time he thought some explanation was due on the part of the Government as to their paying 7½d. for what they might get for 2½d. The part of the Motion directed to that point should certainly have his support.


said, there was one portion of the subject that ought to be borne in mind, that, however Government had settled with Mr. Archer, they had not settled with him in good faith. They purchased the machinery and patent right merely for the perforation of postage-stamps. That, however, was the smallest part of the question; the largest was, how had the public been dealt with in the matter? The copper-plate process admitted of forgery, and in a conversation which he had had twelve months ago with the Secretary of the Treasury, that hon. Gentleman informed him that they were going to do away with it, and adopt the surface printing in regard to postage-stamps. There was also this proof that they considered the surface printing so superior, that they had adopted it in the printing of the receipt stamps. He was at a loss to understand the vote of £8,000 for a stamp for newspapers, and thought the whole matter called for the investigation of a Committee.


said, the question which the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Whiteside) had raised seemed to divide itself under three heads, the first of which had relation to the remuneration allowed to Mr. Archer for his patent. Now the explanation which his hon. Friend (Mr. Wilson) had given was perfectly conclusive upon that part of the question. The negotiations with Mr. Archer were spread over a considerable number of years, and he himself, when Secretary to the Treasury, had communicated to that gentleman the offer of what was deemed by the then Government an adequate price for his patent, which certainly showed some ingenuity; nevertheless, in the execution of the idea, Mr. Archer, not having sufficient knowledge of mechanics, was greatly assisted by a gentleman in one of the public offices, who enabled him to carry out his views more effectually. How, therefore, they could think of appointing a Committee, with a view of handing over a sum of £6,000 or £8,000, or whatever sum the liberality of Gentlemen opposite might fix upon, surpassed his comprehension to conceive. He was of opinion that the money offered by the Government was a full equivalent for any claim Mr. Archer might have had upon the Government. That gentleman, however, refused to accept the offer; the question was therefore referred to a Select Committee. That Committee recommended a further negotiation with Mr. Archer, which was made, and which ended in an offer of the most liberal terms. Mr. Archer, with a full knowledge of all the circumstances, accepted that offer, without any reservation whatever. The money was paid and received; and he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) could not conceive what possible ground, at this distant period of time, there could be for reopening these transactions, or of inducing Mr. Archer to make any additional demand, on the ground that he had been underpaid. With regard to the contract with Messrs. Bacon and Petch, he had no very clear recollection of the proceedings in the year 1852–53; still the subject was investigated in that year. And the Committee concluded its Report with declaring that they were of opinion that in the renewal of the contract it was not necessary to make it for five years, as neither the interests nor convenience of the public were thereby secured. With respect to the question of surface printing and copper-plate printing, the question had been but recently investigated at the Treasury, in concert with scientific persons; and they were of opinion that, in order to secure the Treasury against forgery, it was desirable to have recourse to copper-plate in preference to surface printing. Another point adverted to had been the question with regard to the contract with Mr. Delarue as to surface printing, it being stated that the price at which the contract had been completed was excessive. Now, he had no knowledge upon the subject, not having heard the question raised before. He would, therefore, only content himself with saying that, nevertheless, he did not think they ought to delegate to Select Committees the duty of making Government contracts. He would cause the case to be investigated, and see whether there were any grounds for the statement of the hon. and learned Member.


in reply, said that the complaint amongst the trade was, that they never got the chance of offering for this contract; but that it was given by the Government to Mr. Delarue, because he was in some way connected with people in office. He therefore submitted that it was a clear case for a Committee, and he hoped that the House would declare it to be so.


said, that there was no explanation given of the £8,000.


said, with regard to the claim for £500 which had been alluded to, if not an actual mortgage, it was considered by the solicitor to the Treasury a valid charge, and therefore one which it was necessary to take into account in purchasing the machine. The £8,000 included in the Votes of this year was for the introduction of adhesive stamps instead of impressed stamps for newspapers.

Motion made, and Question put— That a Select Committee be appointed, to inquire into the circumstances of the purchase of the Machine and Invention for perforating Postage Labels by the Government from Mr. Archer, the inventor; and also into the circumstances under which the existing agreements between the Government and the Contractors for gumming and printing the Postage and Receipt Labels were made.

The House divided:—Ayes 39; Noes 57: Majority 18.


said, he should now move the adjournment of the House. It was nearly midnight; the House had only adjourned at two o'clock that morning, they had to meet at noon to-morrow, and he thought it only right that they should not proceed further with the business on the paper.


said, there were some notices on the paper which might be disposed of without any discussion, and he hoped the hon. Gentleman would not press his Motion, on the understanding that only unopposed notices should be proceeded with.


said, on that condition he would withdraw his Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.