HC Deb 16 March 1865 vol 177 cc1748-59

asked the President of the Board of Trade, Whether any communication has taken place between Her Majesty's Government and that of France with a view to the modification of the Commercial Treaty of 1860; and whether they are in possession of any Report respecting the present condition of the Riband Weavers, and whether it is not the fact that their condition is even more distressing than it was last year; and, if so, whether the Government were prepared to devise some effectual measures by which the annihilation of the English Riband Trade may be averted. The Government were aware of the painful state of distress which existed last year in the city he had the honour to represent, and he was assured it had increased since then. Nothing but misery appeared possible for those who continued to inhabit it. Emigration had taken place since that period; but the state of the riband trade more particularly was most deplorable. It was not surprising that it should be so, looking to the statement he held in his hand of the average prices of the years 1860 and 1865. A piece of riband was about thirty-six yards and there were five principal widths. The average prices paid in the two years were—sixteen-penny widths, in 1860, 2s. 8d. per piece; in 1865, 1s. 6d. twenty-penny widths; in 1860, 3s. 6d; in 1865, 1s. 1d. twenty-four-penny widths; in 1860, 4s. 3d.; in 1865,2s. thirty-penny widths; in 1860, 5s.; in 1865, 2s. 6d. forty-penny widths; in 1860, 6s. 6d.; in 1865, 3s. 6d. From these figures it would appear that the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer was hardly warranted in the calculations he had made, and the golden dreams he seemed to entertain with respect to the prosperity of the riband trade. The French Treaty of 1860 left the English riband trade with a duty of 7 per cent; but now it appeared that under a treaty entered into between France and Switzerland, owing to the Favoured Nations' clause, our weavers might import ribands into France at a duty reduced from 7 to 3½ per cent. Certainly that was a great diminution to jump at once from 7 to 3½ per cent; but that apparent boon would effect no relief to the riband trade; it would still leave it in the hands of the French. Although the duty was only 3½ percent, yet, when compared with the value of the manufacture, it amounted to a protection of 25 per cent. If the French weaver had wages at 12s. a week the English weaver to compete with him on equal terms, could only have 9s. a week. The French had a virtual monopoly in their own market. He understood that the Government, either in consequence of what he had stated, or acting upon their own observations and convictions, had had a communication with the Government of France respecting some modification of the Treaty of 1860. It must he borne in mind that Her Majesty's Government had nothing to do with the relief, be what it may, that might proceed from the Franco-Swiss Treaty. The treaty would come into operation on the last day of January, 1866, till which time no relief could accrue to the weavers of Coventry. He was quite sure the boon, even were it immediate, would be comparatively trivial in its ex tent. But whether or not the Government viewed this treaty with more favourable eyes than he did, they could not tell that when the last day of January, 1866, arrived there might not be some difficulty interposed as to the reduction of the duty. The consequence would be the riband trade of England would be ruined, and the once flourishing city of Coventry destroyed. It was a very unpleasant thing to represent a starving population, when there seemed no possibility of relief. He quite felt the difficulty on the part of the Government, but he wanted to see in them a feeling corresponding to his own in the sense of humanity; so that really they might put their shoulder to the wheel and see whether they could not administer some relief to those who, they could not deny, were in the very deepest distress. He did not think it good policy to drive any trade out of the country. This had been a lucrative trade, one more agreeable in its manipulation than many other trades in England. It had also given employment to many thousands of industrious and rather superior artisans. There were many persons who had emigrated to America from Coventry, and had written letters to their friends encouraging them to go to New York, where an excellent trade was being driven under a 60 per cent duty. The people of Coventry did not ask for protection by putting heavier duties on French goods, but they asked to be placed in a position in which they would be enabled to earn enough to live upon. They, in fact, complained of the superior advantages given to the French manufacturers unter the Commercial Treaty, and said that they wanted free trade principles in respect to their manufactures, adopted fairly and equally in respect to all. Now, as regarded the other people in Coventry, not engaged in the riband trade, their property was grievously affected by the general dulness which prevailed, and the whole place wore a general aspect of misery. A friend, writing to him lately, stated that he had laid out a considerable sum of money in the erection of silk mills, but that his property had been deteriorated at least 50 per cent in consequence of the general depression of trade in that district. There were still about 1,500 houses unoccupied, and rents were badly paid, and with difficulty collected from bad tenants. According to the Board of Trade Returns, it appeared that the value of silk manufac- tured ribands imported in December, 1859, was £25,397; but in December, 1864, the value had increased to £122,996. Whilst, with regard to the exports, the trade had fallen off even in much greater proportion. In December last there were no British manufactured ribands exported into France at all. The Board of Trade Returns showed a considerable increase in the value of manufactured silk imported into this country, and a corresponding decrease in the value of the exports. Whilst the value of the manufactured silk exported from France to England in the year 1863 amounted to 660 millions of francs, in the year 1864 it reached 741 millions of francs. He (Mr. Treherne) maintained that the existence of this state of things justified the inquiries which he had ventured to put to the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Milner Gibson). The question of exports was one which demanded very serious consideration. When he last visited Coventry he found upon his table a paper purporting to be a report dated the 29th of July, 1864, addressed by Robert Weale, Esq., Poor Law Inspector, to the right hon. C. P. Villiers, of the condition of the silk operatives employed in the riband manufacture in Coventry, Nuneaton, and Coleshill districts. It appeared to him that that report was unfeeling and by no means creditable to any one. The author took upon himself to inform the Government of the state of the silk riband operatives, and said that during the last week he had visited several of the unions of Coventry and its neighbourhood, where the strike (as Mr. Weale called it) had taken place; that the weekly relief was generally in excess of what it was previous to the strike which took place in July, 1860. Now it should be observed that the distress in the silk districts arose from our Commercial Treaty with France in March, 1860. But Mr. Weale, in his report, was pleased to attribute it solely to the strike amongst those engaged in the trade in July of that year. The Poor Law Inspector went on to say that, from inquiries he had made, he believed there was still full employment for all classes of operatives in that part of the country; that it was quite true that the earnings of the weavers were much lower than they had been before the strike, but if the amount of pleasure enjoyed were to be taken as any indication of the comforts of the people, he found that picnic parties and excursion trips were never more frequent. He protested against such one-sided reports. These men had 1s. 6d. a day to keep them from starvation, their relaxation was obtained by the assistance of other people, and he (Mr. Treherne) thought that that part of the report was a very unfair and ungenerous comment upon the innocent pleasures of the people. When he was down in Coventry, in September last, there took place a sale of looms which realized only £230 although they originally cost £4,000. But he thought it right to bring this subject forward because he knew that the people were in a frightful state of distress, and it was his opinion that the proposed reduction of duty to 3½ per cent by France would fail to obtain for them that assistance which he was so anxious to obtain for them, having regard to the difference of 25 per cent in the wages of weavers in France and England. The persons who furnished him with the information he had communicated to the House were men of substance, who were themselves employed in the trade, and therefore knew well what they were talking about. If the Government were to reply to him that they considered there had been a great loss of time—that the House had been listening to nothing but an idle story, he (Mr. Treherne) must nevertheless feel that he had attained his object. It was not his wish to obtain applause, but to enjoy that satisfaction which every one felt who had performed his duty.


It might be inferred from the representation of the deplorable distress prevailing in Coventry, coupled with the large quantity of French ribands imported into this country, that the French riband manufacturers were in a prosperous state. On the contrary, he (Mr. White) held in his hand a circular from a manufacturing house in France, dated the 4th of this month, bewailing the condition of the riband weavers in St. Etienne as truly deplorable. A French paper, dated the 14th of this month, also mentioned the distress under which the riband weavers were now suffering. While all regretted that the people of Coventry, or any other place of manufacture, should experience privation from the absence of trade, it must be recollected that it was a matter of periodical recurrence in that city during the last forty years. This branch of industry was peculiarly liable to the caprice of fashion, and neither the House of Commons nor any other power could control the taste and choice of the fashionable world. If the hon. Member for Coventry could bring some occult influence to bear upon that illustrious lady, who ruled despotically over the fashions of Europe, and who resided in a neighbouring State—if he could induce her to take into consideration the deplorable condition of the riband weavers at St. Etienne and at Coventry, and set the fashion, so that instead of gimp and passementerie, the ladies should adorn their dresses with ribands, then it would be found that the riband trade of Coventry and of St. Etienne would be in as prosperous a condition as ever it had been. It was singular that, according to the Board of Trade Returns, the total importation of ribands last year was nearly £200,000 less than it was two years ago. The imports stood thus:—In 1862, £1,470,000; in 1863, £1,359,000; and in 1864, £1,305,000. Allusion had been made to the large importation of manufactured silks to this country, mainly from France. The fact was indisputable that in 1862 we imported £5,967,000 of manufactured silks from different countries; in 1865, £5,775,000; and last year the total was £6,465,000. That was the largest amount we had ever imported. At the same time, it must be borne in mind that we had a large export of raw silk. It would be seen by the total amount of raw and "thrown" silk which we sent to France that the French took nearly as much from us in value as we received from them. The hon. Member instanced this fact, to show the mutual advantage that accrued from the operation of the treaty with France. If the hon. Member for Coventry thought that Her Majesty's Ministers were responsible for the distress in Coventry, he might have used an argument of much greater force than any be had adduced, by pointing to their unwise intervention in China, which had led to a falling off of the supply of silk. We did not now import one-third the quantity we formerly did, owing entirely to our proceedings against the Taepings.


, in reply to the hon. Gentleman's Question, said, that a communication bad taken place between Her Majesty's Government and that of France with a view to the modification of the commercial treaty of 1860. In the autumn of last year inquiry was made of the French government whether they were disposed to reduce the duties upon English ribands imported into France. The reply was that the French government did in a short time intend to reduce the duties upon ribands of British manufacture from 8f. the kilogramme, to 4f. the kilogramme, being a reduction of fifty per cent. And the whole duty would form a reduction to 3½ per cent ad valorem. This must be acknowledged to be a very small import duty, if it could be called an import duty at all. He entirely concurred that it would be very desirable if the importation of silk ribands manufactured and sent into France should be as fairly and impartially admitted there as the manufactures of France were into this country. But the hon. Gentleman must admit that after the change in the French duties which took place in 1860 it was satisfactory to find within so short a time that the French Government should have conceded so large a reduction in their duty as 50 per cent on the article of ribands. Those import duties arose in consequence of our having the benefit of the most favoured-nation clause. The French nation having made a treaty with Switzerland, by which they extended the reduction to that amount, the same favour was granted to us according to the terms of the most favoured-nation clause. The Government, however, were not unmindful of the representations made to them in respect to the distressed condition of the silk trade of Coventry. The hon. Colleague of the hon. Gentleman (Sir Joseph Paxton) had repeatedly pressed those representations upon the Government, and they felt it their duty to state that the importation of cheap ribands into France would improve the trade considerably, and they accordingly made those inquiries of the French Government to which he had adverted, and which proved in their result so satisfactory. He concurred with the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down in thinking that the distress in the silk riband trade of Coventry, however deplorable, was beyond the reach of legislative remedies: and he was afraid it was almost beyond the reach of the executive Government by representations to foreign countries, seeing already how low the duties were on the import of ribands into France. The Coventry riband trade had frequently been subject to periods of depression in consequence of the great fluctuations caused by the variations in fashion. And even supposing fashions changed and ribands were more extensively used, it would probably be to the injury of some other branch of trade; for, in all probability, the money that used to be expended in ribands was now spent in some other article of ornament worn by ladies. He sincerely sympathized with the hon. Member for Coventry in the distressed condition of the people of that town; but he doubted if the hon. Gentleman was correct in inferring that things were worse this year than last year. He did not know what evidence the hon. Gentleman had of that fact, but the poor-law Returns gave a gradual diminution of persons receiving parochial relief. In fact, there was a material difference between the number relieved in 1862 and now. The number of persons in Coventry receiving in-door and out-door relief in the first week in January, 1865, was 1338; in the same week in 1864 the number was 1702; in 1863 there were 3194; and in 1862 there were 4103 persons receiving in-door and out-door relief. He found that during the last three years the imports and exports of ribands had been on the whole nearly stationary, and if that were so the consumption of ribands in this country could not have materially fallen off, or if it had it must have arisen from causes over which the Legislature had no control He had made inquiries in the Metropolis and he was informed that the sale of ribands had not much declined since the French treaty, and that the trade now showed symptoms of revival. He had been informed by those in the trade that the sale of ribands had of late years been nearly stationary, but at the same time showing symptoms of revival in our trade, no preference being giving by the generality of customers to French over English goods—the Coventry ribands having very much improved—but rather the contrary. From all the information he had obtained he had good reason to hope that the trade of Coventry was not in the hopeless state it had been described by the hon. Gentleman. He did not, however, for one moment dispute that great distress prevailed at Coventry, and he considered the hon. Gentleman was only discharging his duty in bringing it under the consideration of the House. If he could point out how the Government could alleviate it he (Mr. Gibson) should be glad to assist in so doing, but he must frankly say that he did not see his way to any legislative remedy for the distress that at present existed.


expressed his thanks to the Government for having obtained from the French Government a re- duction of duty on English ribands imported into France from 8f. to 4f.,and thereby share in all the advantages under the most favoured-nation clause that had been granted to Switzerland; but when the right hon. Gentleman said the duty was now very low, he must remind the right hon. Gentleman of the remark that fell from the hon. Member for Coventry—namely, that the duty must be measured not against the price of the article, because the silk of which it was made formed by far the greater part of its value. The effect of the duty, even as it now stood, was therefore in reality 20 per cent as against the English workman—a serious item, and which, he was sorry to say, fell entirelyupon wages. By the Treaty of 1860 the Legislature of England was prevented from levying a single sixpence upon French ribands imported into this country. The Coventry workmen, therefore, naturally felt it to be very hard that a duty amounting to 20 percent on their wages should be levied on the importation of their ribands into France. Under such circumstances, the House could not expect that the artizans of Coventry should feel the bargain between the two countries to be a fair one. He repeated what he had frequently said, that the French Treaty of 1860 was a very one-sided measure, a very bad bargain for this country; because, whilst we were prevented from imposing any duty upon French ribands imported into this country, the French Government might, if they pleased, raise the duty upon English manufactured ribands into France up to 15 per cent of the value of the article, the enormous percentage of which on the value of English labour he would not then stop to calculate. He hoped, therefore, the House would not be deceived as to the effect of the treaty upon his poor neighbours. With regard to the number of paupers in Coventry being less now than they were in 1862, he must remind the House that something like £20,000, contributed by the charitable feeling of Her Majesty and many of her subjects, had been spent in their relief in that year; and, as chairman of the relief committee, this extraordinary expenditure for relief of course diminished the demands upon the poor rates in 1862, and another element had since come into operation. He regretted to inform them that since the French Treaty had come fully into operation from 11,000 to 12,000 persons had left the town, and those who remained were employed on miserably low wages. He mentioned those facts as a warning to the House and the Government of the disastrous effects of a bad bargain such as the Treaty of 1860. When the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. White) said the trade was subjected to variations of demand resulting from the changes of fashion, he (Mr. Newdegate) begged to remind him and the House that it had always been so, but it did not follow because of those fluctuations that the trade should be destroyed. It was quite true that both St. Etienne and Coventry might suffer from changes of fashion, but the question at issue was, were not the Coventry riband makers suffering (in addition to the depression of trade by the change of fashion) from the additional burden of the import duty into France on the products of their industry? Every effort had been made to supplant the riband trade by the introduction of other employment, and he was happy to say not without success in his own immediate neighbourhood near and in Nuneaton. In thanking the Government for having interceded with the Government of France, he could not but lament that they should be in such a position as to have their hands tied by the Treaty of 1860, so that whilst the French Government could at their unfettered discretion impose a high duty on our goods, we were prevented from exercising that power, should it seem advisable to do so, for the interest of our own suffering people.


said, that the hon. Member for Coventry had brought forward a most painful case, and he had clearly shown the great amount of distress which existed amongst the operatives of that town. He must, however, say that he could imagine nothing less likely to raise the spirits of the people of Coventry than the answer which had just been given by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade. The hon. Member for Coventry made use of a peculiar remark, and one which gave him (Mr. Bentinck) the impression that he had not quite studied one feature of the case. The hon. Gentleman said he brought forward the Motion, not on political grounds, but on the grounds of humanity. Now did any one ever hear of the humanity of a free trader? Why, they might as well appeal to the sensability of a boa constrictor or the amiability of an alligator as to the humanity of a free trader. The great principle of free trade was to carry out its views at any cost, at any sacrifice, and at any amount of human suffering; and, in spite of appeals to the contrary, that principle had not only been defended by the advocates of free trade, but it had been invariably carried out to the best of their ability. His hon. Friend said he did not wish to go into the question of free trade, but he put forward an argument which trenched very closely upon it. He said the result of past legislation had been to cheapen labour, and "cheap labour" was the history of free trade in two words. And without going farther into the question, he believed that, looking to the present position of the silk trade, and to his right hon. Friend's particular allies the papermakers, the time was arriving when the masses of the country would at last wake up to the effect of the extraordinary delusion that had been practised upon them by the introduction of what was miscalled free trade into this country. The time was not far distant when the agricultural labourer would at last discover how completely he had been gulled when he was made to believe that the best way to better his position was by decreasing the value of the produce of his labour; and the great majority of the artisans had been for some years past subsisting on the charity of the nation in spite of the promises of roast beef and plum pudding that were made to them as the consequences of free trade. His hon. Friend asked that the principles of free trade should be carried out with respect to Coventry. It was not an unreasonable request, but the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade consoled him, by informing him, in the first place, that it was a matter for congratulation that the import duties on English ribands into France had been reduced 50 percent. Well, that was not free trade, neither did it avert the distress complained of. Then his right hon. Friend went on to concur with the hon. Member for Coventry that the abolition of all duties should take place in every country, and that the admirable system of free trade should be universally applied. That was an amiable and admirable wish of his right hon. Friend's; but he followed it up by saying that he did not see how the distress complained of could be remedied by any legislative enactment. Now he (Mr. Bentinck) thought it could be done, and that by simply putting the workmen of both countries in the same relative position with regard to import duties. At present in France there was an import duty on the productions of England; while in England there was no import duty on the productions of France. This might be remedied. What was required was that the ribands and other articles of Coventry should be placed on the same footing for import into France as French goods were allowed to come into England—free of all duty. He wished to call the attention of his right hon. Friend to one point which he ventured to think was one of the greatest delusions that had been practised on this country upon the subject of free trade. They had heard the right hon. Gentleman and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and all the advocates of the so-called great principle of free trade, congratulate the House and the country upon the conversion of the Emperor of the French and his Government to the principles of free trade. Now, there never was a greater delusion attempted to be practised than that. The great object of free traders had always been to confuse the public mind between two things of the most opposite principles—prohibition and protection; and what they had done had been not to induce the Emperor of the French and his Government to adopt the principles of free trade—if he had, the Coventry weavers would have had no cause of complaint—but to adopt what he (Mr. Bentinck), as one of the old Protectionist party, ventured to think was the right and sound policy—namety, to abandon prohibition and to adopt the principles of protection. The French Government were not free traders, but avowed protectionists, which was the principle that was formerly understood and carried out in this country, and it was but a poor consolation to the starving Coventry weavers and others to be told that in spite of the amount of distress that existed amongst them the Government were powerless to relieve them. He denied the assertion, and all he asked the Government to do was to carry out the principles of free trade—for it could not be called free trade when there was a difference of 20 per cent in favour of the French and against the English workman, and so to regulate our commercial treaties as to put the industrious artisans and labourers in this country on a footing of equality with the labour and industry of other countries.