§ MR. TREHERNE
said, he rose to call the attention of the House to the injury which the staple trades of Coventry have suffered, and are still suffering, from the operation of the Commercial Treaty with France, and to ask the Government, Whether they will use their influence with the French Government to obtain the same free admission into France of English Rib-and and Watches as is accorded by that Treaty, on the principle of Free Trade, to French manufactures of a similar description in England? His constituents were still suffering so much from the consequences of the French Treaty that, although labouring under infirm health, he felt it to be his duty no longer to delay bringing their case under the notice of the 506 House. They had heard a great deal about free trade, and it was on that principle that he requested the favourable consideration of the Government. The value of an abstract principle depended entirely on the manner of its application. Free trade implied an intercourse carried on without hindrance or obstruction on either side; but in the treaty to which he referred, protective duties were retained for the benefit of one country and wholly abolished in the case of the other. That was the bargain which our Plenipotentiary had made for the disadvantage of the silk trade and certain other branches of our industry—a bargain contrary to the principles which Mr. Cobden himself had approved in the month of June 1859, when he endorsed the principles of the Liverpool Financial Reform Association, and which every fair-dealing man would also approve. About the year 1860 the city of Coventry began to experience such severe distress as, he believed, had not been exceeded in Lancashire or any other part of the country. He would not seek to harrow up the feelings of the House by a narrative of persons dying from want, nor would ha dwell on the fact that weavers, who had been brought up rather better than the common labourer, had been obliged to accept sixpence a day for grubbing up commons, and working with the spade and shovel, to gain a miserable subsistence. What he wished to urge upon the Government was, that they ought to do something for his constituents, and endeavour to put an end to a state of things under which Coventry ribands could not be sent into France without paying a duty of 7½per cent, whereas the French were permitted to send their ribands into England without paying one farthing of customs duty. The old saying, "Fair play is a jewel," was one by which Englishmen liked to be guided in their conduct. His constituents sought to bring their case under the consideration of Parliament, not pressing it unduly, not framing any condemnatory Resolution, but simply bringing the facts to the knowledge of the House, and asking whether they were such as to meet with the approval of the Legislature. And it was the duty of those who passed that treaty, and who urged the Emperor of the French to make the arrangements which had led to the hardships complained of, to see whether by further negotiation they could not obtain some welcome concessions. The city of Coventry, whose connection 507 with the riband trade dated from the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, had for many years been a flourishing city. In 1801 the population was 16,049, in 1861 it contained no less than 41,647 inhabitants. Up to that time the weavers always had plenty to eat, and economized their funds for the purchase of looms, at which the father of a family worked, surrounded and assisted by his children, whom he was thus enabled to bring up decently and to educate well. These looms cost as much as £50 to £80 each to buy; but when pressure came upon them in consequence of the treaty, and the choice lay between starvation and selling their looms, they were obliged to part with these for £5 each. Although the town contained the very large proportion of 5,000 electors, as a class they were so high-spirited that until the last election, when distress was general, any one known to accept parish relief was sure to be taunted with it upon the hustings. Many years ago, when first he canvassed the electors, he had seen men eating potatoes and salt rather than apply for parochial aid. Now, on the contrary, men with their utmost exertions could not earn enough to support life. The ill effects entailed upon Coventry were by some attributed to a change of fashion, leading to consequent change in dress. But the consumption of riband, far from diminishing, had increased of late years, having become a prominent feature in the trimming of bonnets and dresses. The Coventry weavers were confident that they could still beat the foreign manufacturers if they only competed on equal terms; but from undue competition great numbers had been obliged to leave their native place for the colonies, and though the population had thus diminished, the inmates of the workhouse had increased from 169 in the week ending April 23, 1859, to 231 in the corresponding week of 1864, being at the rate of 40 per cent additional. Before 1860 there were seventy or eighty master riband weavers in Coventry; now there were not half that number, and from the want of private looms additional numbers of hands were driven to the factory, where nothing like remunerative employment could be afforded. Out of about 9,000 houses, 1,500 were without occupants, and yet some people with more money than wisdom were building twenty-five new houses; in fact, the place were a deserted appearance. It was said that Coventry had been greatly affected by the 508 American war; but it was curious to note that in the watch trade, which that conflict must have affected, there had been a revival; while in the riband trade, upon which the war had no perceptible effect, there had been a marked falling off. At present a weaver, taking advantage of all the opportunities that were open to him, could not earn half as much in Coventry as a bricklayer's labourer. Even if peace were restored in America the watch trade would not be expected to be much improved, as an ad valorem import duty of 60 per cent was levied on English watches. The French import duty on English watches was 7½ per cent. Coventry was interested in ribands, but was not so much concerned in broad silks as Macclesfield, Manchester, and other places. The imports of broad silks in 1858 were 309,926lb.; in 1863, 1,504,848lb., being an increase of 500 per cent. The imports of foreign watches were, in 1858, 99,335; in 1863, 160,648. The imports of ribands in 1857 were 375,890lb.; in 1863. 849,835lb., being an increase of more than 100 per cent. On the other hand, the exports had fallen off. The exports of English ribands in 1859, the year before the treaty, were 25,580lb.; in 1863 they had dwindled to 13,709lb. He thanked the House for the attention it had given to the case of his constituents, and he trusted that the Government would, both on grounds of humanity and justice, take their claims into favourable consideration.
§ SIR JOSEPH PAXTON
said, he was unfortunately able to bear testimony to the severe distress which had existed, and still existed, in Coventry. He was unable to take quite the same view with his hon. Colleague as to the causes of that distress; but he was perfectly satisfied that the French Treaty, coming into operation at the particular moment it did, had greatly contributed to that unfortunate result. Indeed, it had had a most injurious influence, not only upon the trade of Coventry, but upon the silk trade of the country generally. He was told that at the present time at Macclesfield there were 2,000 houses unoccupied. No doubt there had been various times when the silk manufacturers of Spitalfields, Coventry, and Macclesfield had been in great distress; but the French Treaty coming into operation at the very moment when the riband trade was already in a state of great depression had greatly aggravated that distress. He argued at the time, that if the duties on the importation of riband had been gradually 509 lowered instead of being taken off at once, the whole tax of 15 per cent, the abolition would not have pressed so severely on the riband manufacturers. His hon. Colleague had expressed an opinion that English ribands should be admitted into France upon the same terms as French ribands were admitted into this country, and he (Sir Joseph Paxton) thought that if proper representations were made to the Government of the Emperor of the French, that might be done. The manufacturers of Coventry could not compete with the French in the production of the finer kinds of ribands, but they made an inferior kind of riband cheaper than it could be made in France; and they believed that they could carry on a considerable trade in this article if it were admitted into France on equal terms. With regard to the present distress in Coventry, he was bound to bear his testimony to the marvellous patience and forbearance with which the weavers had borne their sufferings. The whole inhabitants seemed to be actuated by a pride and determination to abstain, even under circumstances of the deepest privation, from seeking relief from the parish; and there was no place in England of equal population where the poor rates had been on an average so low as in Coventry. The freemen would rather starve than accept relief from the parish; and they were no doubt to some extent influenced in that resolve by their extreme reluctance to forfeit their right to vote. He should be glad if the request of his hon. Colleague could be complied with. One of the French Chambers of Commerce most interested in the question had declared that they had no wish to maintain the protection; and it seemed a strange omission in the treaty that the French duty should have been maintained when so great a reduction was made in the duty levied upon French ribands in this country. He felt sure that if vigorous representations were made to the French Government they would consent to forego the duty now placed upon this article imported from this country.
§ MR. MILNER GIBSON
said, it was quite true that it had been repeatedly urged upon the Government that they should exert their influence with the Government of France to procure a better market on the Continent for the cheap ribands manufactured at Coventry. His hon. Friend, however, had made a remark in which there was much force—namely, that the Coventry manufacturers, in their turn, must submit to the application of the prin- 510 ciples of free trade; and seeing that the manufacturers of nearly all other articles had been required by the Legislature to submit to free competition, it was clear that the same principles would ultimately have to be applied to the silk and riband manufacturers of Coventry. The Coventry manufacturers were about the last to whom the principles of free trade had been applied. It was put off in their case for a long period; but no doubt, whether there had been a French treaty or not, it would have ultimately been the policy of Parliament to apply to the silk manufacturers the principles which had been applied to the other manufacturers of the country. The hon. Gentleman who had brought forward the Motion put in a word for the paper manufacturers, and said that riband manufacturers and the paper manufacturers had been unfairly treated. But the hon. Gentleman had forgotten that his own constituents were much interested in free trade in paper, because they said it was no extensively used in packing their manufactures that its price ought not to be enhanced by a protective duty.
§ MR. TREHERNE
said, the right hon. Gentleman had misunderstood him. He had alluded to an agitation which he had heard was going to be got up in the spirit of free trade.
§ MR. MILNER GIBSON
All he could say was that it was an advantage to the riband makers of Coventry to have free trade in paper. He deplored the distress which prevailed in Coventry, and if any representation which could be made would have a tendency to mitigate that distress, such representation should have his support. But although there was a duty upon ribands imported into France, that duty was not very low. The French Government had adopted the policy of entire freedom of trade in the import of goods into France; but while they retained a duty on manufactured goods imported into France, it could not be said that the duty was very large. For instance, on velvet ribands it was 5 per cent, ad valorem; on other descriptions 8 per cent, ad valorem; and on mixed kinds 10 per cent, ad valorem. These duties did probably stand in the way of the trade of the cheap ribands manufactured at Coventry being carried on in France; but he was glad to find that there was a tendency to increase the export of British silk ribands. Take, for instance, the returns for the first five months of 1864, as compared with some months of 511 1863. In 1863, during the first five months of the year, the value of goods exported was £24,000, while in the same months of 1864 the amount had risen to £50,000, or more than double. He did not say this increase would go on throughout the entire year, yet the return at present bore a very favourable aspect. He believed that there were symptoms of a revival of trade in Coventry. With regard to the imports into England, although he admitted there was an increase, yet one fact must be taken into consideration. He was informed that the weight given of ribands imported included the packing paper, and therefore the whole quantity of ribands was not so large as appeared on the return. And then the sale of ribands was affected by the fashions: it must be remembered that ribands were not now so extensively worn as formerly; and he was informed there had been considerable distress in the trade in France. The hon. Gentleman said he did not think the American war had any effect upon the riband trade. He very much doubted whether that statement was correct. He should rather say that the American war had had a considerable effect upon the demand for silk goods in France, and consequently the English market being open would be flooded by French goods and prices unduly depressed. There had been many causes which had been operating together to produce the present depressed state of the riband manufacture, and it was not fair to say that the only cause of the alleged distress was the operation of the French Treaty. He felt that this was one of those cases in which the House could really do little. He entirely sympathized with the hon. Gentleman and his Colleague, but he was afraid it was beyond the power of legislation to meet that distress in the way that, perhaps, some hon. Members thought it might be met. The policy of the country would not admit of that course of proceeding. Any representations that could be made at a fitting opportunity, he, for one, would be most happy to back. Speaking for the Government at large, he would say that they would only be too glad to see the same freedom in the importation of British manufactures into France and other countries that we permitted those countries to enjoy into England.
§ MR. NEWDEGATE
said, he was not about to enter into the history of the protracted distress which had existed, and was still felt, in Coventry and a large district 512 of Warwickshire. It was impossible to dispute the facts, because, as his hon. Friend had said, 4,000 people had left Coventry. He had had some experience, having acted upon the relief committee for three successive years. A computation had been made, that from eleven to twelve thousand people had left Coventry and that district. He was happy to say that neither the people of the city of Coventry, nor the upper classes of North Warwickshire, had sat down idle under the distress. They had made every exertion. They had promoted other manufactures. The very clothes he (Mr. Newdegate) were had been made by riband weavers, who had turned their hands to cloth manufacture and to other sources of obtaining a livelihood. But, notwithstanding all these exertions, the depression had been very severe, and he was sorry to say the trade was sinking. He did not wish to go back to all the circumstances that occurred in 1860; but he remembered urging the hon. Member for Coventry opposite (Sir Joseph Paxton) to do all he could to delay the change. He was sorry to say that in 1860 the hon. Member did not agree with him; but he was willing to bear testimony to his exertions to obtain such a change in the stipulations of the Treaty as should place the riband trade of England exactly on a par with the trade in Franco. He voted with the hon. Gentleman when he asked that the change should be simultaneous, and that the same terms should be adopted by either country; but they met with no success. This matter had not rested with the House of Commons. He was sorry to say that the House had been precluded by the fact that the Treaty had been negotiated, as they were then precluded; and they could not do more than express a hope that her Majesty's Government would approach the Government of France, and represent that as France had gained great advantages from the Treaty, they would use the discretion which they possessed in order to place the export of English silk goods, particularly ribands, upon the same terms as the imports from France were received in this country. That was the request they made, and he was afraid, from the tone of the Government, that there was little prospect of its acceptance. When his constituents were now told that years ago they should have foreseen the change which has befallen them, and the distress which they had suffered in consequence of that change, he would ask, whether any class of manu- 513 facturers was justified in trusting to the faith of the Legislature? The faith of the Legislature had been as much pledged to the continuance of the protection of the silk manufacture as they were now told it is pledged to the abolition of every import duty which could afford protection to any branch of native industry. If it were not for the French Treaty it was his firm conviction that there would have been a modification in that rigid rule. He admitted that if it were possible to abolish import duties throughout the whole world that would constitute free trade; but that supposition rested upon a fallacy. It rested upon the belief that all the world would be governed by one system, or that there would spring up some gigantic power which should govern all the world. When they looked at the import duties levied by the United States, and when they looked at the stipulations of that very Treaty—under which import duties of 7 per cent at present, with power to raise them to 30 per cent for a time, and then to fix them at 15 per cent—he could not believe that we had yet reached that period when the nations of the world would consent to be governed by one absolute system of free imports; he was afraid it was chimerical to look forward to that period. In the United States import duties were the main source of the Federal revenue, for by the constitution they could not impose export duties; and the levying of direct taxes upon real property within the states was the privilege of the states themselves, from which the Federal Government was debarred except in cases of war and great emergency. There fore he thought it was idle to look forward to a period when the system of free imports would universally prevail. Believing that, he had only to hope that the Government would take into consideration the long period of patient suffering which his constituents had undergone. He spoke it to his honour that the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his private capacity had extended to them his aid, and they were grateful to their fellow-countrymen for the sum of £50,000, which had preserved thousands from absolute destitution. The depression had not ceased, although it was abated. The people were willing to turn to other trades; but the period of transition was one of great suffering, for it was impossible to divert a population who had been brought up to an occupation requiring skill in one generation from the prosecution of that trade. He thought it most unreasonable that the House should declare 514 that we should have no silk or riband trade in this country. It had been a profitable business, under which had grown up an intelligent, thrifty, and worthy population, who shrunk from parochial relief. Could it be sound policy to crush such a population? He thought not. He hoped that the Government would accept as a fact, proved by four years' experience, that there was great depression, and that they would ask the French Government to I reciprocate more closely the extreme liberality which induced us to abandon the whole duty upon the importation of silk goods and ribadns.