HC Deb 02 August 1861 vol 164 cc1867-70

rose to call the attention of the Secretary of State for War to a Petition which he had to present on a subject that had excited great interest throughout the country. The petition emanated from 6,000 working men, who complained of the employment of Sappers and Miners in building the new barracks at Chelsea. The circumstances stated in the petition were these:—Some time ago a builder named Higgs had taken a contract from the Government for the construction of these barracks. After he had made that contract he determined to alter his mode of paying his workmen, and to pay them in future by the hour. His men, thereupon, declined to continue in his employ. He believed that out of about 400 masters in the Metropolis only about twenty-five had adopted this new and as the men believed most objectionable and demoralizing mode of paying their workmen. The consequence was that the men refused to work upon these terms, and the contractor could not get persons to carry on the building. Instead of calling upon Mr. Higgs to fulfil his contract, and if he failed to do so giving the work to other contractors, the Government had, it appeared, sent for a body of Sappers and Miners, and let them to the contractor. This proceeding had astonished the working people, and the only justification he had heard of it was that the work was to be done for the army, and it was necessary that it should be completed at as early a period as possible. That would be a good reason for rescinding the present contract, and putting a new one in the hands of some person who, by the proper employment of men, might command any amount of labour, but it was no justification for the Government letting out to a private contractor the services of soldiers in the army. It was stated in the petition that the workpeople considered it a grievance that they should be taxed in the first instance to raise an army, and then that that army should be let out in order to prevent them settling among themselves in what manner and under what conditions they should be employed. The petitioners, therefore, prayed that the House would take some steps to put an end to this proceeding. He had no doubt that the course taken by the War Office had been inadvertently adopted without considering its serious consequences. If, whenever a dispute arose between masters and workmen, the Government assumed such an attitude, though they might obtain the cheers of the employers of labour who generally sat in that House, yet just in the same proportion they must alienate from themselves personally the good feeling of the great body of the English workpeople. He trusted that the Secretary of State would be able to announce that the Government would withdraw from the position which they had inadvertently taken up, and that they would at an early day put an end to the employment of these soldiers. He was told that, notwithstanding any topics in dispute between the workmen and the employers, the workmen took a just view of their position, and gave an assurance that they desired to make no difference with respect to works under existing contract; but these masters, with an arrogance which they had better have avoided, insisted on introducing a new system, and the workmen in self-defence withdrew from employment. It was a mistake to say that they "struck" in the technical sense of the term, for it was, in truth, a "lock out" on the part of the masters, because they chose to change the conditions of employment.


said, that a definite Vote was taken in the present year for the construction of barracks at Chelsea, and a contract was entered into for the building. A difference arose between the contractor and his workpeople, and a number of the latter were discharged. Without going into the causes of the difference, he might state that the result was that the contractor was unable to continue the work with the same number of people as had been previously employed. Under these circumstances the contractor applied some time ago to the War Department for the assistance of the Sappers and Miners, and a company was furnished on the arrangement that the contractor should pay for their services according to the plan which had been previously pursued in such cases. The single object of the War Office in so doing was to accelerate the work, as its speedy completion was of importance to the army and the Government, and it was not at all their wish to interfere in any dispute between an employer and his men, though incidentally it might have had that effect. It certainly was not in contemplation of the Secretary of State that any such feeling as had been adverted to should be produced; and as it was represented to him in strong terms that the workmen considered this as an interference on the part of the Government in the struggle now going on between a portion of the masters in the building trade and their workpeople, and as undoubtedly it must always be a great object that the Government should hold a perfectly neutral position in a matter of that kind, he had caused notice to be given that from the 1st of September this assistance was to be discontinued.


, as "an employer of labour sitting in that House," said, that no far from the masters with whom he was acquainted having any desire to oppress their workmen, he believed that they would, by the arrangement now being carried out, largely benefit the workpeople. In reference to the subject of the petition, he was very glad, indeed, to hear that the right hon. Baronet had intimated his intention that the employment of soldiers in connection with public works should entirely cease under the circumstances. He could only say that the employers would deprecate, as strongly as possible, the in- terference of Government in any way in this matter. They felt that it was simply an affair between the workmen and themselves, and that the course of conduct which they had adopted would enable the workpeople to continue on more beneficial terms their engagements. The matter being left between the masters and the men, he was quite sure that the issue would be the universal adoption of payment by the hour, as the fairest mode for both. He fully concurred in the prayer of the petition; and he had another to present with the same object; and though he was sure that what the Government did they did for the best, yet he conceived it was an inadvertence, and was glad it not to be persisted in.

Motion agreed to.

House at its rising to adjourn till Monday next.