HC Deb 01 June 1860 vol 158 cc1906-9

said, he rose to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, Whether his attention has been called to the renewed agitation of the Metropolitan Operatives for a diminution of the time of labour to nine hours; and whether the Government will be prepared to protect independent labourers against the coercion and violence practised towards them on a former occasion, should similar illegal I proceedings be attempted by the men on strike. He had no objection to legitimate combinations carried on by fair means; but the agitation from which the Metropolis had but scarcely recovered was of a different character. It professed to be founded on the circumstance that the introduction of machinery had lessened the demand for manual labour, and instead of; offering more labour for the same price the operatives proceeded to offer less; in other words, they demanded ten hours' pay for nine hours' labour. The absurdity of this proposal ensured its failure; but in the attempt to carry it out the society men resorted to coercion and intimidation against the more rational and independent workmen. Workmen who did not join the unions were abused, illtreated, their tools were stolen from them, and in some instances they were compelled, in self-defence, though against their will, to join the forces of the rebellious labourers. That was a state of things which deserved the serious consideration of the Government, and summary means should be taken for the future to protect workmen who wished to maintain, their independence. He entertained no distrust of the natural good sense: and good feeling of English labourers generally; but the very honesty of their nature made them peculiarly liable to deception by the persons who professed to advise and to guide them. The nature of the rules drawn up for adoption in trade societies was such that no one could be astonished at the results which had developed themselves. The Friendly Society of Masons, for instance, was one of the most powerful and most advanced of these societies; and one would, therefore, expect to find in their rules nothing inconsistent with sound principles of general policy. But in the preface to their rules the following sentence occurred:— As no degree of human happiness can possibly exist without society, it is the great principle of the Friendly Society of Operative Masons to bring into force among its members the truly i valuable object of self-protecting power against the selfish and unprincipled proceedings of the capitalists. Now, when he read an assertion so utterly at variance with common sense, sound principle, and proper fooling, he could not but entertain considerable suspicion as to, the rules which were to follow. In point of fact, he found this compilation to be not only a code of Friendly Society's rules to which allegiance might properly be given, but also a code regulating the action and proceedings of the members in all their relations with their masters, and amongst other matters containing a chapter on strikes. These strikes were not only advocated for the purpose of promoting the interests of workmen, but as an instrument of attack on masters when, by their selection of other than Society men, or by giving piecework, they incur the opposition of the Society. He was not surprised that, with such rules before them, workmen were apt to confound the obligations which, as members of the Society, they might properly observe, and those rules which he believed to be most illegal. He ventured to think that some notice should be taken by the Government of the illegality of these docu- ments, seeing that the rules were not certified under the Friendly Societies Act. During the existence of the strike last year, Mr. Potter, the Secretary of the United Trades Association, encouraged the men in their resistance to the authority of the masters by assuring them that, with the exception of the master builders, every person of position, influence, and wealth, sympathized with the operatives. A more unfounded assertion never was made, and it was so far from being true that you could find no man of intelligence, whatever might be his position, who did not entirely condemn proceedings so illegal in their character, so detrimental to the public at large, and so injurious to the prospects of the operatives, and the interests of their suffering families. It seemed that they were about to witness a renewal of those miseries; but he hoped the Government would feel it their duty to interfere to protect honest and rational workmen in carrying their labour where they pleased, and to warn those who, perhaps from ignorance of the law, were, he feared, about to break the law.


The fact to which the hon. Gentleman has referred— namely, that the building trades of London contemplate a renewal of the strike of last year—is only known to me by the ordinary means of intelligence open to every Member of this House. No communication has been made to the Metropolitan police upon the subject, nor has their assistance been in any way applied for. With regard to the statement which has been made that violence and intimidation were practised in the strike of last year, there is no doubt that it is, to a certain degree, well founded. But the general character of the strike was an abstinence from violent measures. No doubt some exceptions did occur, and I believe some cases were brought before the magistrates. What the results may have been I do not at this moment remember; but I think I am borne out in saying that, considering the length of time during which the strike lasted, and the large number of persons engaged in it, its general character was an abstinence from violent measures. I have inquired of the Commissioners of Police and I am not aware that in any instance they failed to afford assistance when applied to on the part of persons who were threatened or intimidated, and I am also informed that the Commissioners of Police are not aware that any complaints were made of any want of assistance upon their part during the continuance of the strike. I will only say, upon the general question, that I conceive it to be peculiarly the duty of the Executive Government to hold itself perfectly impartial with regard to these unfortunate occurrences, for unfortunate I must consider them. I think experience has shown that the policy of strikes is one which, in the long run, and upon general experience, is eminently disastrous to the working classes themselves; therefore I look upon an occurrence of this sort as disastrous. At the same time I shall feel it my duty, as a Member of the Executive Government to hold the balance with a perfectly even hand between the two contending parties, looking to no other principle than that of maintaining the ascendancy of the law, and of preventing, so far as is in our power, intimidation and violence. Before I sit down I will call attention to the fact that a Committee of this House has been sitting during the present Session upon the state of the law as between masters and workmen. That Committee have made recommendations, one of which is, that a Bill should be brought in to enlarge the facilities for arbitration between masters and men upon the occasion of strikes. I cannot say that I am myself very sanguine of the success of any such measure; but the proposal will come under the consideration of the House, and if any hon. Gentleman has any proposal to make for the Amendment of the existing law, that Bill will afford a favourable opportunity for its consideration.

Motion agreed to. House at rising to adjourn till Monday next.

The Order of the Day being read, for the Committee of Supply;—On Motion that Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair—