HC Deb 13 May 1863 vol 170 cc1673-87

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving the second reading of this Bill, said, he appealed to hon. Members to dismiss from their minds all preconceived prejudices, and that its provisions would receive careful consideration, so that the railway companies might have the satisfaction of knowing, if the decision of the House were against the Bill, that that decision was the result of deliberate conviction, and not of a foregone conclusion. An idea seemed to exist in the public mind that railway companies should be treated as public enemies, and should, on every possible occasion, be made to pay heavy damages. He frankly admitted that this Bill was brought forward in the interest and with the consent of the railway companies, a body who had conferred greater benefit on the public than any other improvement of modern times; but that admission was no reason why the measure should not be considered in an impartial spirit, or for supposing that there had been any banding together of the railway companies to promote their own interests in opposition to the interests of the public. Such a combination he certainly should feel it inconsistent with his duty to support. The measure expressed the sense felt by the great companies of the grievance of which they had to complain, arising from operations of the law which had never been contemplated by its authors. In the remedy they proposed they did not seek to divest themselves of the just responsibility which attached to all carriers —they merely asked for relief from a misinterpretation of the law, which was not necessary for the protection of the public. By the old common law, while carriers were bound to carry every person presenting himself and every article offered to them for the purpose of being carried, within the limits of what they professed to be their business, it was also incumbent on the persons bringing articles to be carried, to declare their value at the time of delivery, and in the absence of any such declaration no compensation was recoverable in the case of loss or destruction. By the Registration of Traffic Act, which was commonly known by the name of Cardwell's Act, it was enacted that companies should not be liable for animals above a certain value, unless the value was stated, and they had full knowledge of the risk they were incurring. If a race-horse, for instance, were killed during its journey by a railway train, the company would not be liable for the full value, unless they had had full notice before. The only portion of the contracts into which railway companies entered over which they had no control, so far as their liability was concerned, and the full extent of which was absolutely uncertain, was the carriage of passengers. It had been said that the object of this Bill was to upset Lord Campbell's Act, but it was a great mistake to suppose that the responsibility of railway companies rested on that Act. That statute cured an acknowledged defect in the law by extending the liability, which the old common law imposed in cases of accidents to cases of death, so that the representatives of persons killed were able to recover compensation. What he was asking the House to do, was not to reverse Lord Campbell's Act, but to regulate and limit its operation, which Lord Campbell himself in his lifetime acknowledged had been carried too far. The first great injury inflicted on the railway companies by the operation of the law was the inequality of its operation. Two gentlemen, for instance, would take a ticket for the same place and would pay the same fare; the one would be a gentleman of £10,000 a year—he might be the Lord Chancellor of England; and the other somebody, whose life was of no pecuniary value to any one but himself—a subaltern in a marching regiment, or a younger son. An accident happened in which both of them were killed, and then the company found out, for the first time, into what different contracts they had entered. In the one case the compensation they had to pay was comparatively trifling, in the other they were liable to damages of an enormous amount. There never yet had been a case of damages to an enormous amount, but there had been many cases of extravagant damages; but, greater or smaller, the companies had no means of judging of the nature and extent of the contract into which they were entering. There was the case of an inequality of another kind—if a man were killed in an accident, leaving a wife and children of whom he was the support, the company were liable; but if he were a man with no such direct responsibilities, but who assisted his relatives, not in any fixed regular way, but just as they needed it, unless they could show a substantial loss, they could not recover. This Bill would so far extend the operation of Lord Campbell's Act as to give the surviving relatives of a man who was fatally injured, and those who were dependent on him to any extent, a right to compensation. He admitted that the Bill was of an exceptional character—that to a certain extent it proposed to take railway companies out of the category of persons liable for neglect. But it must be remembered that in many respects railway companies differed widely from private persons, who were affected by, and subject to, the provisions of the common and statute law of England. A great railway accident might be brought about by some small matter or derangement, against which it was almost impossible to provide. No matter what care might have been exercised by railway companies in the choice of materials, or in providing officials capable of discharging their duties, accidents might occur. There was an instance in which an accident occurred to a mail train with a new engine, the very part which gave way having been previously examined, and the driver being a most careful man, of twenty years' experience; but a frost had set in, and every possible precaution that could have been taken was baffled. Similar accidents were of constant occurrence, and would constantly occur unless they could insure a certainty which did not belong to human affairs. But the greatest evils in connection with the present state of the law on the subject wore the enormous frauds which it encouraged. Claims were often so long delayed—and delay in many cases was unavoidable—that the truth could not be ascertained. There were many instances in which persons had obtained sums of money from different companies on account of accidents at which they had not been present. Pettifogging solicitors and compassionate doctors were always to be found to do their utmost to enforce claims, no matter how lightly founded, against the companies. A conviction existed on the part of railway companies that there was a sort of partnership between solicitors and doctors in those cases. There was a class of solicitors and doctors who made it a practice to get them up. A small lawyer took up a case, and there was no difficulty in getting half-a-dozen doctors to come forward to support it—for, without casting any imputation upon professional men, it was a matter of fact that almost any number of professional men could be got to give evidence on any side whatever, and often of the most contradictory character. The mass of professional evidence which was brought forward on these occasions was wholly unnecessary, and was produced merely to increase costs. The juries, too, were often swayed by passion and prejudice. Often, contrary to the charging of the Judge, juries gave penal damages when the Judge recommended moderate damages, and they sometimes gave a higher compensation than the claimant himself asked for. Numerous cases of injustice had been brought before him, and the difficulty he experienced was in selecting from them. In the case of an accident on the North Western the plaintiff claimed £5,000. The company lodged £1,000 in the hands of the court. Mr. Justice Willes charged in favour of the company, but the jury gave large damages. In another case a person got £700 damages, on the ground that he was permanently injured for life; but the day after he had obtained his compensation, this person went back to his business. In another case a person got a large com- pensation for the shock to his nervous system in witnessing a railway accident. One individual was so successful in this way that he built a house in Shrewsbury, which his friends called "Compensation Hall." Mr. Saunders, a barrister, got £3,500 compensation, although all that had been proved was that he was in the habit of getting headaches, and could not pursue his usual avocations. It was proved that this gentleman had a fall from his horse some time previously. The hon. Baronet having cited other cases in which large damages were awarded for slight injuries, and even for accidents with which the parties had nothing whatever to do, proceeded to say:—But the worst case of all was that of the Whitehaven Junction Railway accident. This accident took place in 1861; but there was not a bone broken, and not a carriage injured. There were thirty-four passengers, and thirty cases of compensation were brought. The result was that the company had to pay £9,436 as compensation, and £741 as law costs, which was more than a two years' dividend at the rate of 5 per cent. Now, the company had to pay this enormous sum, although not a single carriage had been injured, and although several of the cases had been compromised at the rate of £14 per head. Those on whoso behalf the Bill had been introduced maintained that a specific contract ought to involve definite liabilities, and that railway companies alone ought not to be led into contracts the extent of which they could not tell. It was proposed, then, that the liabilities of the companies should be equal—that as there were equal payments, there should be equal liabilities; but where any individual estimated the value of his life to his representatives higher than the limitation of the Bill provided for, he should be entitled to insure with the railway company to the higher amount which he thought fit. Definite terms of insurance and details might be settled in Committee, or by the Board of Trade. He begged to move the second reading of the Bill.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."


said, that in rising to move the Amendment which was equivalent to the rejection of the Bill, he must appeal to the general sense of justice of the House. He saw around him a great many hon. Gentlemen who were connected with railways; hut, nevertheless, he had that confidence in the justice of the House as to believe they would reject this Bill. He must say that this was one of the most indecent propositions that had ever been submitted to the House. No doubt it was introduced with the sanction of the railway companies, and that was all the merit it had. Were they to be called upon to legislate for the life of human beings as for cattle—for the beast that perisheth—and to sanction the principle that the life of the poor man was not to be put in the same scale with that of the duke? [Sir JAMES FERGUSSON said, the object of the Bill was exactly the reverse.] The hon. Baronet seemed to complain that a railway company should be obliged to carry a subaltern and a duke on the same conditions. Of all the monstrous Bills that were ever introduced, this Bill, which the hon. Baronet had brought in on behalf of the railway companies, was the most monstrous. The Bill was said to be founded on the abuse of juries, medical men, and solicitors—it pretended to give increased facilities to claimants against companies; but it gave them not a single facility that the law did not give them already. The Bill was, in fact, an appraisement of human life according to the valuation of railway directors. The first section of the Bill provided that no person should be entitled to compensation beyond a certain amount, in consequence of an accident, from the railway company, unless his life were insured—thus limiting arbitrarily and indecently the amount at which human life was to be valued. But what was the rate at which railway directors proposed to appreciate human life? The Bill, on their behalf, divided railway passengers into three classes, the lives of which were appraised by the hon. Baronet at the rate of £400 in the ease of a first class, £300 in the case of a second, and £200 in the case of a third class passenger; that being the estimate which the directors had the modesty to put upon human life as represented in those three different classes. The hon. Baronet estimated the value of human life as he would estimate the value of cattle. In the days of Athelstan, indeed, there was a tariff of human life, in accordance with which a man was fined £13 for killing a peasant, the tariff increasing in amount up to £1,500 in case of a monarch. He could not say what was charged in the case of Baronets, for they came later. There was also under the Irish law what was called an eriach, or stipulated rate of payment in the case of persons who happened to be killed by accident or negli- gence. If the present Bill passed, the various companies would have to keep not only railway offices, but also insurance offices, of which the tariff was to be regulated by the Board of Trade, the directors, in addition to their other powers, being now anxious to have the privilege of killing the public at the rate of so much per head. He regarded the proposition as most indecent. If such legislation were sanctioned, it would, he supposed, shortly come to pass that a regular fixed scale would be established, and posted conspicuously at the various stations, by which the life of a sheep would be appraised at 40s., a cow at £15, a horse at £50, the loss of a man's eye at so much, lock-jaw and tetanus so much, general mutilation at so much more, until the maximum of £400 was reached in the case of the life of a first-class passenger. Such was the nature of the legislation which the hon. Baronet proposed—legislation called for by the existence of no grievance which he had proved, by nothing stronger than the assertions of railway companies themselves. He would remind the hon. Baronet that Committees had sat to inquire into the subject of railway accidents, and that reports in reference to it had been made from time to time, not by pettifogging lawyers, but by most competent and disinterested persons connected with the Board of Trade, and he would direct his attention to the evidence. Mr. Lowe, in giving his evidence before one of those Committees, that of 1858, stated that he regarded Lord Campbell's Act as the only security which the public had against railway accidents. He might add that, one of the reports which had been made to the Board of Trade in relation to these accidents showed that thirty-eight persons had been killed and 498 injured, as the result of two collisions; while, in the case of one of them, the accident was proved to have been attributable to neglect on the part of the signalman, a youth of nineteen, who was paid only 14s. or 15s. a week. Now, he had no compassion whatsoever for persons who were guilty of such miserable economy as not to secure the services of competent and experienced men, and who were ready to place the amount of their dividends in competition with human life. But that was commonly the case with the companies to which these reports referred. In twenty-eight instances the negligence of the inferior servants of railway companies had been the cause of accidents, and it was monstrous, he contended, that the House should be asked to throw its protection over those companies to the extent which the hon. Baronet proposed. He, for one, objected to human beings being placed in the same category as cattle, and to having human life sacrificed to the greed and cupidity of railway directors, and for all these reasons he should move the Bill be read a second time that day six months.


, in seconding the Amendment, said, that no one could doubt but that the hon. Baronet who moved the second reading was actuated by the purest and most honourable intentions in bringing forward this Bill, and it was a matter of surprise to him (Mr. Bentinck) that a man possessed of such feelings of justice should have allowed himself to be mixed up with so extraordinary a measure as the present. The hon. Baronet, in introducing the measure, stated that there was a great prejudice against railway companies, which this Bill endeavoured in some degree to remedy, and appeared to think that railway directors were, generally speaking, the purest philanthropists, who were associated together exclusively for the public benefit. Now, he (Mr. Bentinck) denied the existence of any such prejudice as had been asserted; neither was he disposed to consider railway directors such disinterested gentlemen as his hon. Friend seemed to think them. He believed them to be very respectable men, who in consulting the convenience of the public were at the same time very properly alive to their own interests. But it was the public, and not the railway directors, that would be injured by the proposed Bill. If any legislation respecting this subject were to take place, it appeared to him that it should be in the opposite direction to that which the measure before the House went. The hon. Baronet had relied much in support of his case on the argument that railway accidents might be occasioned by very trifling causes, or causes entirely beyond the control of the directors. But it was his (Mr. Bentinck's) conviction that the main cause of railway accidents was attributable to the great speed at which railway trains were now driven, for the purpose of competing with rival lines and filling the pockets of the shareholders, regardless of the interests of the public. The hon. Baronet had said that medical men and lawyers combined in considerable numbers with the view of obtaining larger damages from railway companies than it was just they should be called upon to pay; but the very fact that a great number of persons were enabled to make a livelihood in that way, would of itself show how great the number of accidents must be. That in several instances juries had granted larger sums in the shape of compensation than had been asked for also, he thought, seemed to prove with how much moderation those claims had been preferred. But the point to which he wished chiefly to draw the attention of the House was the danger resulting from over-speed, which he could, from the knowledge which he had acquired as Chairman of the Committee on Railway Accidents in 1858, state was the main cause of many of those disasters which we had to deplore. On that subject he might observe that an hon. Friend of his, who was also a Member of the Committee of 1858, had informed him that at the beginning of last Session, having at his request endeavoured to ascertain privately from the railway directors of the principal companies, who had assembled together at a meeting which he was about to attend, why it was, that when they all admitted that great and serious danger was the result of over-speed, and that it would be a great benefit to the companies and a great source of security to the public if the rate of speed could be diminished, they had so strongly opposed the proposal which he himself had made to effect that object. Their answer to the question was, "We are quite alive to the force of all you say; but we will suffer any amount of loss so far as our dividends are concerned, we prefer exposing the public to any amount of risk, rather than submit for one moment to have our authority over the companies we direct controlled by Government interference." The present was not, however, the occasion to dwell upon that point, although it was, in his opinion, quite clear the railway directors, in thus acting, cut, as it were, the ground from under their own feet as petitioners to Parliament for a diminution of their liabilities. He regretted not to see the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade present, as he wished to place some facts connected with this subject before him. But as the right hon. Gentleman was not in his place, he should defer those observations to another opportunity. He had frequently pressed upon the right hon. Gentleman the importance of legislating on this subject, but he invariably received a reply expressing his unwillingness to proceed in the matter. Much, he might add, had, of late years, been said about cheap travelling; but safe travelling was entitled also, he thought, to have something said in its fa- vour in these days when railways had a monopoly of the whole traffic of the country, and when persons were virtually compelled to use them as a means of locomotion. The public were under such circumstances, he could not help thinking, entitled to the best precautionary measures possible by legislation against railway mismanagement, and consequent danger to life and limb.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months"


said, the hon. and learned Member who had preceded him had laid great stress on the enormity of valuing human beings like cattle or pigs at so much per head, but no one had ever heard in courts of justice any attempt to make reparation for wounded feelings, or for the severance of human affections, for the simple reason that it was quite impossible to make any adequate compensation for the loss of life. The only point which was or could be considered in giving compensation for the death of an individual, was the money loss which it occasioned to his family and relations; and the decision of the jury was necessarily confined, to an estimation of what that loss was. The damages were, in fact, questions of loss of property. The objection to the present system was, that this money value was regulated by totally different rules of law to those which regulated the estimation of the value of all other property. Now, railway companies claimed that they should be allowed to apply to the cases of loss of life, treated as they now were as property—but always remembering that the loss of life itself could not be compensated—the same rules which applied to all other descriptions of property when it was lost by negligence or accident. The object of this Bill was to give, instead of the excessive damages now occasionally recovered, a moderate and fair compensation, which would be promptly and readily paid, and without those expenses in which a considerable portion of the compensation now awarded leaked away. Allusion had been made to the danger arising from the speed at which railway trains were run, but these dangers were very much exaggerated. As instances, he would mention one or two facts, which were better than a volume of declamation. During the last eight years the North Eastern Eailway—a company with which he was connected—had carried 55,160,000 passengers. The number of passengers injured, including the most trifling hurts, was 18⅜ per annum, and the number killed only per annum, or one every two years. The number of deaths, therefore, was about 1 in 14,000,000 passengers. Was there any other mode of conveyance which could be said to be equally safe? On Easter Monday, the London and Brighton Railway Company conveyed, in addition to their ordinary traffic, 112,919 persons, without the occurrence of a single accident. Other railways could show returns equally favourable. He admitted, that unless it could be shown that this Bill would benefit the public, it ought not to receive the sanction of the House. He had already referred to one way in which the public would be benefited, but there would be the additional advantage that railways, relieved from the losses to which they were now subjected by vindictive or excessive verdicts, would be able to provide better for the safety of the public. Railway Companies had great reason to complain of the tendency of the legislation of this House. He might instance the excessive competition to which they were subjected by the multiplication of lines between the same terminal points and the heavy local burthens imposed upon them in consequence of the unequal assessment of railways as compared with other property. He would not dwell on these points on the present occasion further than to point out that the accidents arising from the poverty of railway companies were far more numerous than those caused by excessive speed. The amount of capital expended by railway companies was £362,000,000, and the receipts for last year amounted to about 4 per cent upon this outlay. Of this average profit some companies received hardly any at all; and if they were to be exposed to these enormous claims for compensation, as well as to the other legislative hardships he had pointed out, they would soon become utterly unable to defray the expenses which were necessary to secure the safety of the public. He should support the second reading of the Bill.


said, he desired to state the views which the Government took in regard to this measure, which had been introduced with great ability. It appeared to him that the principles of the Bill, though no doubt they had been carefully considered, were such as to make it impossible that it should receive their support. The hon. Gentleman who had last addressed the House, in a very temperate speech in support of the Bill, had urged arguments which it was very easy to prove to be fallacious—yet it was upon these arguments that the Bill principally rested. It was true that ordinary carriers were, under the Acts of Parliament, relieved from carrying goods of special value, unless that value was declared and special rates were paid; but, that while some lives were of more value than others, railway companies were not entitled to make any difference in the rates charged. In this argument there was a fallacy. Carriers were absolutely responsible for the safe custody of the goods which they carried, and Parliament had provided that they need not carry certain goods unless their value was declared and special rates were paid. But railway companies were not absolutely responsible for the safety of their passengers. It was only when damage resulted from their negligence and wrong—only when they had failed to do their duty—that they were responsible at all. If, through unavoidable accident, life was lost, no liability was imposed upon them. By this Bill, it was for the first time, proposed to fix a purely arbitrary value upon injury arising from wrong and negligence; while, at the same time, a provision was made for an additional sum, for which the passengers were to pay by way of insurance; and insurance against what? Not against unavoidable accident, but against the wrong which they might suffer at the hands of those who had contracted for their conveyance. This was of itself an admission that the arbitrary valuation was absurd; because, if it was suffiicent, where was the necessity for superadding anything to it? The provision was entirely opposed to all the principles of insurance. The principle of an insurance was, that it should be to provide against things for which the insurer would not otherwise be liable. In this case, however, it was proposed that the passenger should enter into a contract with the company to insure him against their own wrong. Without denying that the administration of the existing law might sometimes press hardly upon companies, or that it was a matter deserving of consideration whether some safeguards consistent with the principles of justice might not be thrown round their liability, he was bound to say that the principles of this Bill were such as to disentitle it to the support of the House, and he hoped that the Motion for its second reading would be rejected.


said, he rose to defend railway companies against the charge that they were frequently guilty of false economy; they were always most anxious that the materials they used were of the very best quality, and he would fearlessly assert that their servants always exerted themselves most praiseworthily to secure the safety of the public. Under the existing law, most extravagant and outrageous claims were frequently made against railway companies. He knew nothing of the Bill, or how or from whom it originated; but he could say that the railway directors never desired to shrink from their responsibility when cases of injury arose—in fact, they always exhibited great liberality in dealing with them. On the occasion of the Wimbledon accident, the cause of which the most able engineers and scientific men were unable to discover, and in the case of which the jury at the inquest on the body of Dr. Baly found a verdict of "Accidental death," claims were made to the amount of £30,221; and the London and South Western Railway Company actually paid £15,191. He did not entirely approve the provisions of this Bill, and should have preferred the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the whole question; but he should support the second reading.


, having reminded the Solicitor General that carriers were not liable for accidents occurring by the act of God, said, that this Bill was not the result of a great organization of railway companies. He was Chairman of one of those companies, and he could state that he had never seen the Bill until it was laid upon the table of the House. He approved of it, however, and should vote for the second reading. It was a mistake to suppose that the interests of railway companies were opposed to those of the public. The only way in which companies could obtain large receipts was by giving the best accommodation to the public, and nothing injured a railway more than the occurrence upon it of some great disaster. So long as the public would travel by fast trains, it would be necessary for the companies to run them; and if Parliament would pass an Act limiting their speed, it would be as great an advantage to the companies as to the public. Being the Chairman of a company which insured against accidents, he knew a good deal about fraudulent claims. He could tell stories that would make hon. Members laugh, and others that would make them shudder—including, he was sorry to say, the suspicion of more than one murder—which had been made for the purpose of recovering compensation for alleged rail- way accidents. He hoped that the Bill would be read a second time.


said, that it was not against railway companies alone that fraudulent claims were made; insurance companies were constantly cheated, and it was not long since that the owner of a common street cab was constantly bringing actions against gentlemen for damage to his cab, alleged to have been occasioned by their carriages. It was in vain that the coachmen protested that they had had no collision; the claimant was known to be a person of no means, and the defendant paid, rather than incur the expense of a law suit with a man of straw. The man was at last tried and convicted of extortion. This measure would have no effect whatever in preventing the setting-up of fraudulent claims, while, on the other hand, it would have the effect of hindering persons having honest claims from recovering fair compensation. The Bill was one which assumed that the railway companies were responsible for gross negligence, and it asked the House to absolve them from their liability. The hon. Member for Whitby (Mr. Thompson) had stated, that during a period of two years, out of 14,000,000 travellers on the North Eastern Railway only one person was killed, and eighteen or nineteen injured. But that very circumstance went to show how infinitesimal was the charge for accidents upon the companies, as compared with the enormous revenues which they derived from the traffic. The object of the House ought to be to secure the interests of the public, and the best way to do that was to allow of large damages being given against any company which failed in its duty. Why should these powerful associations have an exemption which was not enjoyed by the poor cab and omnibus proprietors? Suppose a company chose to continue in their employment a guard who had been found drunk three or four times, and the consequence was that the train was smashed; some lost their lives, and several were injured; who would say that such a company ought to be absolved from liability beyond a certain amount? Were they to be protected against the consequences of their own negligence and their own misconduct? But, if that sort of legislation were to be applied to railway companies, it ought to be carried much further, and gas companies and millowners and others ought to be exempted from the consequence of their own misconduct.


said, he would make an appeal to the hon. Baronet to withdraw the Bill, on the understanding that the House would endorse the proposition to refer the whole subject to a Select Committee. He was one of those who thought the subject ought to be considered; but unfortunately the Bill was so framed that it would be impossible to vote for it without committing oneself to principles which were wholly indefensible. There was not a clause or sentence of the Bill which anybody could undertake to justify. Last year he (Mr. Ayrton) submitted the subject to the House in one form, and the year before in another. But the fact was, the whole question was surrounded by great difficulties. The hon. Baronet did not propose that his measure should apply to carriers in general, whether by sea or land, but he had chosen a particular class for special legislation.


said, he hoped the House would agree to refer the Bill to a Select Committee, as the whole subject of damages for loss of life required revision.


, in reply, said, the speech of the hon. Member for Mallow (Mr. Longfield) was in answer to a speech of his own, not to any speech which he (Sir James Fergusson) had delivered. If the House would allow the Bill to be read a second time, in order that the whole subject might be referred to a Select Committee, that was all he wanted.

Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question"

The House divided:—Ayes 70; Noes 90: Majority 20.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Second Reading put off for six months.