HC Deb 15 May 1860 vol 158 cc1287-93

said, he rose to move a Resolution in favour of Public Walks and Places of Recreation. It was of the utmost importance to the health of towns that proper means should be provided for the recreation of the people away from the close factories where they were obliged to work. He ventured to say that the change of circumstances was such as to call attention to this subject. At the beginning of this century the rural population was as to the civic population two to one, but now the proportions were reversed, and the civic populations were upwards of two to one to the other portions of the population. The condition of the lower classes in the great centres of population had been inquired into by several Committees and Commissions—by the Factories Commission, the Handloom Weavers Commission, the Childrens' Employment Commission, the Health of Towns Commission, and the Railway Labourers Commission. It was shown that the cost of crime had increased by £10,000,000 a year. The spirituous liquors of various kinds consumed by the dwellers in close and narrow courts and places, after every allowance had been made for necessary refreshments, were calculated at £15,000,000. The two totals gave an aggregate of £25,000,000, a great portion of which might be saved by an improvement in the physical condition of the great mass of the population. The late lamented writer, Mr. Porter, stated that the number of criminals was now five times more than it was at the beginning of the century. It was also undeniable that the industrial classes had not improved in physical comfort in the same proportion as the middle and higher classes. In 1840 he moved for a Select Committee to inquire into the Health of Towns. Their Report described a lamentable state of things on the part of those who live in closely-pent, narrow courts, and who work in ill-ventilated workshops and factories. In 1842, Sir R. Peel issued a Commission for inquiry into the Health of Towns. The result of their inquiry was to establish that, in regard to three main points necessary for the comfort and health of towns—the supply of water, the drainage, and cleansing—out of fifty towns only seven or eight were tolerably well off. The Commission established incontestably that a large class of crimes were much fostered by the low state of physical comfort in which the town population often lived. The consequence of the crowded state of the large towns and the absence of open spaces was that the health of the inhabitants suffered, and that the appetite for intoxicating liquors, the prevalence of which among the lower classes they so much deplored, was developed to a frightful extent. The Health of Towns Act had, no doubt, tended considerably to remedy the evil, and the Local Improvements Act was also of use, but neither went far enough. The rapid growth of population and increase of buildings far outran all attempts at improvement. A General Building Act was imperatively called for, not merely to regulate the width of party-walls as a preventive against fire, which was all that was done at present, but to check the erection of those narrow, miserable streets and alleys which fostered uncleanliness and disease. Periodical reports of the condition of the large towns in these respects ought also to be published. Above all, it was necessary that large open spaces in towns should be preserved, and anybody who witnessed the manner in which the people of London flocked to the Parks on Sundays and holidays must be convinced of the very great moral influence they exercised, as well as the physical benefit they conferred on the poorer classes. In 1833 he moved for a Select Committee on Public Parks, which was the first movement in this direction which was ever made. The Report of that Committee stated that during the last half century a great increase had taken place in the population of towns, while little or no provision had been made for public walks and open spaces for the recreation of the public. Now population had increased fourfold, while much of the space which then existed in towns had been built over. He appealed to the House whether the opening of public parks and places of resort in Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, and other places through private liberality had not been productive of great good, and whether they had not materially increased the comfort and content, as well as the health of the working classes, besides giving a stimulus for innocent enjoyment, of which they were not slow to avail themselves, and which had exercised great influence in the amelioration of their moral and physical condition. Reverting to London and the Report of the Committee on Public Parks, he rejoiced that Primrose Hill had not been covered with buildings, and that thousands of working people were able to go there on Sundays to breathe the fresh air which could not elsewhere be obtained. He regretted that Copenhagen Fields had been partly occupied with the New Cattle Market, but he suggested that there was still space enough to lay out a public walk, and that by the addition of a few benches and buildings for shelter, people might be induced to resort there, especially on those days when the market was not held. The Victoria Park was an inestimable boon to the inhabitants of the east end of London, and he was glad to see, in the course of frequent visits which he had made to it, that it was extremely well managed. The embankment of the river from Limehouse to Black wall, which had been recommended as a not very expensive work, had not been done; but he hoped that public attention would be called to it, and that the improvement would be made. Kennington Common had been enclosed and improved, and Battersea Park was becoming the resort of great multitudes. Partly in consequence of the Report of a Committee, and partly in consequence of the Health of Towns Commission and the Health of Towns Acts, improvements had been made at Manchester and other large provincial towns. A great deal had not been done for London, but he felt sure that opulent persons would be most willing to contribute if it were officially pointed out how such means could be best directed to the object in view. There were various sources from which assistance might be derived. Moderate grants from the Crown for a great public benefit like this were justifiable, and especially if they called forth large private donations. An exchange might also be made of Crown lands near large towns for other lands at a greater distance, and funds might be raised by a voluntary rate, to faciliate which a Bill was now before Parliament that be hoped would receive the Royal Assent. The splendid palaces of Genoa and Turin had been described in eloquent language by Mr. Roscoe, as the work of great merchants and great landowners; but in a single street in this town — Pall Mall—might be seen a whole row of palaces equally splendid, which were the result of a combination of a number of small contributions. The Crystal Palace, too, was formed by a number of small shares under limited liability, and though it had not been so profitable as it might have been in a pecuniary point of view, there was no question that it had conferred the greatest benefits on the working classes in the way of amusement and recreation. If the Government and the Legislature would but lead the way, this law of limited liability, he had no doubt, would be very generally taken advantage of by benevolent persons to establish institutions for the benefit and recreation of the great mass of the community. Such places as those which he was anxious to see set on foot ought, for instance, to be exempted from taxes; for two or three days in the week they might be allowed to make a small charge for admission, but the rest of the time they ought to be open entirely free. He had no doubt that many benevolent persons would be willing to take shares in such undertakings. There was no time, however, to be lost, for open spaces were daily being more and more built upon, and in a short time few would be left. He thought, also, that much might be done in the way of improving the existing Parks. It was not merely exercise, but regulated recreation, that was necessary for the humble and lower middle classes. If places for athletic exercise and small low buildings in which accommodation might be given to school parties taking a holiday were erected in some of the public parks great benefits would accrue to a large class of the population. There was one society, of which he had the honour to be a member—the Zoological Society—which was extremely liberal, inasmuch as they gave any member power to send a school of sixty or seventy, at certain hours, to see the different specimens in their collection. That was an example which he should be glad to see generally followed. As most of the public fairs in the neighbourhood of the Metropolis had been done away with in consequence of their having been ill-regulated, he would suggest that in Regent's Park, Victoria Park, and Battersea Park, fairs under the regulation of the Commissioners might be held for three days in the week twice a year—in the spring and in the autumn. He would venture to say if this were done the whole expense would be paid, and the people would behave as if they were grateful for the boon. If there was an act for the improvement, not the enclosure, of the commons about London, so as to enable persons, by subscriptions, to clear them and put down benches, just as had been done at Clapham Common, it would be a great public benefit. He would suggest, also, that many of the gardens in the squares of the Metropolis might, under certain conditions, be thrown open to the general public. Take the case of Lincoln's Inn Fields. A garden existed there; but it was comparatively useless, for the persons — lawyers and others—who occupied the dwellings which looked down upon it remained in town for the most part, only from ten to five o'clock in the day. He would ask, what harm would be done by throwing open this garden to those persons who dwelt altogether in the neighbourhood — perhaps in close streets or pent-up courts and alleys — for the purpose of slight but still beneficial exercise and recreation? He would venture to suggest to those who were possessed of well-situated properties in the immediate vicinity of this great city whether, without injury to themselves, but with much benefit to those who toiled hard and for long hours in a vitiated atmosphere, they might not, especially during their absence abroad or at their country residences, give facilities to their less favoured countrymen to take recreation in their grounds. The subject was one deserving consideration, both at the hands of that House and of the country. The great and rapidly increasing mass of the people were industrious, contented, and loyal, and deserved every en-encouragement, and all the advantages in point of health which could be afforded them.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That it is expedient Her Majesty's Government, or Parliament, should take steps to inquire how best adequate open spaces in the vicinity of our increasing populous towns, as public walks and places of exercise and recreation, may be provided and secured; and to encourage and direct efforts, by private subscriptions, voluntary rates, or public grants, to carry out such objects.


said, he hoped his hon. Friend would not think him guilty of disrespect if he abstained from following him at equally great length through the various topics which he had brought under the notice of the House. Few, he thought, would withhold their assent from the general proposition that parks and other public places, where they could enjoy the fresh air, were of the utmost importance to inhabitants of large towns, especially to the working classes. But the question for the House practically to determine was as to the mode in which, under the existing law, or by any modification of it, provision could best be made for the establishment of such modes of recreation. The inquiry which the hon. Gentleman proposed to institute was not one into which it would be necessary for the House to enter, as, with the exception of London, where peculiar facilities were afforded, either by grants of public money or of land by the Crown, it was evident that improvements such as were now advocated must be provided for out of the local funds under the control of municipal bodies. The existing law defined the objects to which the revenues of every borough were applicable, and proceeded to declare that in every case where the funds should more than suffice for those purposes the surplus might be applied, with the consent of the proper authorities, for the public benefit in the improvement of the borough. The Towns Improvement Act, the Public Health Act, and provisions in various local Acts gave facilities by which advantages such as the hon. Member desired to secure could be to a greater or less extent attained; and exchanges of laud for a similar purpose were likewise sanctioned. The existing law, therefore, seemed to provide various means by which in largo towns these improvements could be carried out, and where obstacles arose the proper course would be for the local bodies to apply to Parliament for further powers. But the Motion of the hon. Gentleman likewise contemplated that Her Majesty's Government should "encourage and direct" efforts of this character "by private subscriptions, voluntary rates, and grants of public money." It was true that it was open to the Executive Government alone to propose public grants of money; but the funds which could be allocated for such purposes were very limited, and there were various objects of local utility which had prior claims as compared with parks or public walks in the neighbourhood of large towns. In interfering by the promotion either of private subscriptions or voluntary rates, the Government, he thought, would rather mar than forward the end in view. The local authorities would naturally, and with good reason, consider that they were better acquainted with the object to be attained than the Government could possibly be, and consequently that they were the persons who ought to take the initiative. If any amendment of the existing law could be proposed, he should be ready to give it an attentive and favourable consideration; but he did not think that the admittedly praiseworthy design of the hon. Member was likely to be advanced by the adoption of a general declaration such as was em- bodied in the terms of the Resolution which he had put on the paper.

Question put, and negatived.