§ MR. DENT
said, he rose to call the attention of the House to the sixth Report of the Children's Employment Commission, and to move that, in the opinion of this House, the employment of Women and Children in Agriculture should be regulated, as far as may be, by the principles of the Factory Acts. The Report contained facts of so grave a nature as to the bad results attending the indiscriminate employment of women and children that it became the duty of the House, as it had already been the duty of the Press, to take cognizance of them. In 1843 the Assistant Commissioner appointed by the Poor Law Board touched upon the system of employing 1005 women and children in gangs in the agricultural districts. In 1862–3 the medical officers connected with the Privy Council, in their Report upon infant mortality, again alluded to this system. It prevailed in Lincolnshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Notts. A gangmaster contracted for the work of the farmer, and was a sort of middleman, often perfectly unfit to undertake such a charge. Under him worked the gang, which consisted of from ten or twelve to 100 women and children of both sexes. This system had been attributed to the existence of large properties and close parishes, on which the labourers were not allowed to live. But it was not entirely consequent upon this state of things, because in the isle of Axholme, where the land was owned principally by small freeholders, women and children were employed "to a greater extent, perhaps, than in any district in the county." The Commissioners estimated that 6,400 persons were employed in public gangs; but there were also private gangs, superintended by one of the farmer's own labourers. Au analysis of returns from a number of parishes showed that 1,636 children were employed under the age or thirteen, of whom 871 were males and 765 females; that of young persons between thirteen and eighteen quoted there were 386 males and 536 females; and over eighteen years there were seventy males and 388 women. Mr. White found twenty children employed under the age of seven, and they began work even as early as five or six. Boys and girls of this tender age went five or six miles to their work and the same distance back. In fact, a case was given in which two girls aged respectively eleven and thirteen years had to walk eight miles each. day to their work, so that they walked sixteen miles each day, besides working from eight in the morning to five or half past five in the afternoon. In some districts the day's work averaged eight, in others eleven hours, and in some cases these did not include the time occupied in reaching and returning from work. Children were sometimes called up at half past five in the morning, and did not return home till seven or eight o'clock at night. Their wages were in Suffolk as low as 2d. or 3d. a day; and one woman stated that—Frank was six years old when he went out. He got 1½d. a day the first year, and was raised 1006 1½d. a day each year. Agnes, seven years old, got 2d.Although the individual wages were small, the aggregate sum earned by women and children was very large. Mr. Hudson, of Castleacre, said that he paid in the year no less than from £700 to £800 to women and children alone. In one district the earnings of a family reached 37s. 6d.; in another, four or five children earned 14s. or 15s., and in others about 5s. each. As a rule, the evidence received by the Commissioners was that the children and young persons employed in agricultural operations exhibited the appearance of rude health. But this testimony must not be received without some hesitation. If they examined the Reports of the medical officer of the Privy Council, who was struck with the extraordinary death-rate of infants in these districts, they would be rather startled to find what was the result of the employment of women in public gangs in the field. The great cause assigned by the medical officer for the large infant mortality was the employment of adult women in the manner he had mentioned. In Wisbeach the death-rate of children under one year was the same as in Manchester. In Whittlesea the death-rate was 23, in Spalding 21, and almost an equal amount in Goole. Not only was the result of the system bad with regard to the children, but it produced the most horrible and frightful feelings in the women themselves. The recklessness of human life by these women was something terrible—nay, almost brutal. Young women were often seduced whilst at their employment, and after coming out of the workhouse they lost their children, and the brutality of elder mothers after losing one or two children was something shocking. It was a common remark of the neighbours, after a woman had had one or two children, for them to say amongst themselves when she had another, "Oh, that won't live long"—the prophecy being made the subject of laughter. He could not conceive a more fatal or hardening influence to come over the women of this country. The gang system was spoken of by the Royal Commission as a recent thing. It had only been in existence about twenty years, and arose mainly from the reclamation of large tracts of land from the sea, which now had become, through the ingenuity of our engineers and the energy of our farmers, from mere marsh, the most fertile part of the country. As yet the effects of the system 1007 had not been thoroughly felt by the people of this country; but they might depend upon it that if this hardening and cruel influence was allowed to continue and increase it would be hardly possible to conceive the injurious effects it must have on the whole of our future agricultural population. Other medical men, besides the medical officer of the Privy Council, had had their attention directed to the present frightful state of things. A tradesman of Chatteris, in his evidence before the Royal Commissioners, said the death-rate in that district of children under two years was very great. He attributed this to the conduct of the mothers towards their infants, and to the drugging them with opium. He added that out of seventy-two burials in the year, thirty of them were children of one year old and under. However healthy and hardy and strong these women might be, and however admirable labourers the men might make, the system, if continued, must have a considerable effect on the diminution of the population in those districts In a moral point of view, nothing could be worse than the description they found in the Report of the Royal Commission. He would not quote the evidence of the clergy, knowing the prejudice that existed against them in the minds of some persons. He believed their labours had been, and still were, most meritorious and painstaking in the agricultural districts; but he would quote some of the evidence given by the women themselves and the employers of this description of labour. The first effect of the system on the women was to produce a hard, rude, bold manner, which perfectly unfitted them for all kinds of domestic service. They found that ganging was a more free and independent life, It enabled them to stay out at night, and to spend the Sunday as they pleased, which they frequently did immorally, wildly, and recklessly. The consequence was that it unfitted them hereafter to become good mothers of families or comfortable wives. What possibly could be more uncomfortable or wretched than for a labourer to marry a woman who had never been trained to anything like domestic habits? Such a woman could never make him happy or bring up his children properly. The women themselves admitted that they did not like their daughters to work in the gangs, and that if they remained out too long they did not make good wives. One said it was not fit work for girls, and another that she would rather her girls 1008 had to go into the workhouse than join the gangs. The employers of labour themselves condemned the system for girls of tender years, and said they should be glad indeed to see women and girls excluded from the fields. He was inclined to believe that the evil did not arise from the scarcity of male labour in those districts, but rather from the cheapness of female labour. In different parts of Norfolk agricultural wages were as low as 10s. or 12s. per week, and in other districts he found that the farmers were complaining that the labourers were emigrating because wages were so low, and this lowness of wages was attributed by many persons to the competition of these gangs of women and young children of both sexes. He did not believe there were so many advantages to be gained from female and children's labour in the place of labouring men as some persons supposed. If they put a check upon it the position of the labouring man would be greatly improved without any great expense to the employers of that labour. He was happy to say it appeared from the Report that several large farmers were giving up the public gangs. They also disapproved of large numbers of children working together in private gangs. The Royal Commission had suggested the adoption of several remedies. First, they suggested that no gangmaster or middleman should be allowed to take out gangs without a licence from a magistrate. When they considered that these middle-men were many of them convicted felons and thieves and men who had committed gross and indecent assaults on members of their gangs, all must acknowlege how desirable it was that there should be a cheek, some hold upon them, that some course should be adopted to ensure as far as possible their respectability. He could not imagine there could be the slightest opposition raised to having the gang-master licensed on the recommendation of one or more of the guardians. His opinion also was that no child should be employed for hire under ten years of age, though some wished to fix it at eight. Some decided restrictions also should be adopted to prevent the sexes from working together, for he left it to hon. Gentlemen who knew the Fen districts which were without hedges or places of shelter, to say, if they mixed the sexes in gangs, what decency or morality they could expect to prevail? He doubted if they could restrict women from working in the fields, but he should like to see young females under seventeen years of age re- 1009 stricted from being employed in public gangs. He should rejoice could all women be prevented from doing so. He thought that eight hours a day, including the time occupied in going to and from work, sufficient for children of from eight to ten years of age. From ten to thirteen he thought ten hours would not be too much. At the age of twelve, from the work being scattered over large districts, the principle of the Factory Act, with regard to the attendance at school, must be left in a measure to the discretion of magistrates. In some places the half-day system, in others alternate days or weeks, might be devoted to labour and education. In others it would be impossible to do this. They might then have to require three or six months' continuous attendance at the school at one time of the year to make up for the continuous labour required of these children at another period of the year—such, for instance, as at harvest time, hop-picking, &c., which were special times, that could not be interfered with or interrupted. Much might be done towards checking the employment of women or children in gangs by improving the dwellings of the labouring classes, and by their being located near the farms on which labourers were required, instead of their having to reside a distance off. The blame in that respect did not wholly lie with the landlords. In some districts, such as the Fen district, where the land had been but recently reclaimed, there had been no opportunity of building the cottages required—a great portion of it not being fitted until lately for the habitation of man. In other districts the farmers were to be blamed as much as the landlords for not having cottages erected on their farms for the labourers, having been anxious to drive them away to save the poor rates; but he believed they were now beginning to appreciate the fact that a labourer who had to walk four or five miles daily to his labour had so much good work taken out of him. Another thing that would in a great measure tend towards removing the evil complained of was better schools and more attention paid to education. Mr. Long, the Assistant Commissioner, stated, in his Report, that children were less worked where there were good schools, and he had found that in almost every instance where there were no day schools these agricultural gangs existed. In the diocese of Norwich there were at the present time no less than 120 parishes in which no day schools 1010 existed. With regard to the attendance of children at day schools a portion of their wages might be set aside for their education, when they began to earn wages for themselves, and he suggested that the guardians of the poor should be empowered to pay the whole or a portion of the school fees of the children of an earlier age who attended where they thought it right to do so. That was allowed to be done at present by Mr. Denison's Act as relief to the parents; but as there were many who did not like the idea of receiving relief, even for the education of their children, he should like it to be put on a different footing, and not as relief. He regretted that many hon. Members who resided in the Fen districts and other places where these gangs were employed were not present to give them their opinions and their experience, because he had been told by some persons that they could scarcely believe the evil existed to the extent which had been stated. All he could say was, that the evidence, which had been carefully and fully taken by the Royal Commission, and detailed in the blue book, justified immediate legislation with reference to the public gangs; but whether they should go further as to the employment of children generally in agriculture was not for him to say. With regard to public gangs, there was sufficient evidence upon which to legislate about them and put them under proper and strict regulations. The horrors disclosed in the Report were greater than anything he could possibly have conceived, and worse than anything that had been brought before the notice of the House, He was not disposed to condemn the gang system altogether. There could be no doubt that boys could be worked in the fields with advantage to the employer and the employed; but they must take care that they were not treated as slaves, so as to enable the gang master to make the whole of his income out of the hard work of the boys. They must take care that he was a respectable man, over whom they could have some control. He hoped the House would see it was right and proper that this kind of labour should be confined to males. But if females must go out into the fields to work, they should go out with their fathers and mothers and sisters, and not indiscriminately with both sexes. He was sure that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State (Mr. Walpole) must have had his attention called to this subject before, and he should 1011 be glad to find that the right hon. Gentleman would be able to legislate upon it this Session. If not, he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would be able to assure the House that he or his successor would be able to do so next Session.
§ MR. FAWCETT
said, he was glad that this subject had been so ably brought before the House by an hon. Gentleman having such a thoroughly practical knowledge of agriculture. Any one who bad read the Report which that Gentleman had referred to must have become convinced of the fact that a more pressing case for immediate legislation was never disclosed to that House. The most melancholy and startling facts had been disclosed; they must feel humbled until something was done. When they passed through the counties of Lincoln, Norfolk, Huntingdon, and Cambridge, and saw the beautiful fields of corn, they must remember that that admirable thing had been produced by sacrificing the minds and bodies of hundreds of children and bringing immense numbers of women to a state of perfect degradation. Were not those counties represented in that House? and how was it they had heard nothing of that before? The hon. Member for Lincolnshire came down to that House and made piteous appeals to the Government to save the country from the murrain which was raging amongst cattle. Why did he not tell them of that which was far more frightful—the sacrificing of the minds and energies of a large class of the people in the country? Could anything bring out more strongly the fact that the interests of those who were not directly represented were too often little regarded? How came it that the Church had told them nothing of that frightful calamity? The cathedral at Peterborough was in the centre of those districts. Often and often from the pulpit of that cathedral had appeals been made for funds to reclaim the heathen in foreign parts, and how did it come that under the very shadow of that beautiful cathedral there existed a degree of ignorance, of immorality, of depravity, which if they found in any foreign country would at once confirm them in saying, "this is indeed a country devoid of the blessings of civilization?" He had had many letters on the subject. One clergyman told him that as the archdeacon of the diocese and himself were riding along one day they saw several gangs of men, women, and children working together, and the women as these gentlemen were passing committed a gross 1012 act of immorality, which he could not mention in that House. How was it that they never heard of such a state of things before? What he wished to point out to the House, as showing the necessity for prompt legislation, was the primary cause of the evil—namely, the utter want of cottages in those districts. If they wanted to remedy the evil they must interpose every obstacle in the way of the gang system. The building of cottages would take some time, which was in itself an argument for immediate legislation, and there was another argument on which he would appeal to their generosity. The gang system was the natural but unfortunate offspring of unjust legislation in past years. The future historian of this country would have to write a melancholy page when it became his duty to describe the evils which had resulted from the Law of Settlement, which was one of the most obnoxious laws that had ever disgraced the statute book. The first effect of that law had been to throw the burden of supporting the poor upon the parishes in which they were born, and many landlords thought that if they built no cottages on their estates, but imported labourers from other parishes, they would escape their due and just share in supporting the poor. In the counties to which he had referred large tracts of land were reclaimed fifty or sixty years ago. There were of course no cottages on such estates when enclosed, and in order to escape the poor rates those who reclaimed and enclosed the land seemed to have agreed among themselves not to build cottages at all, which was really the cause of the gang system. There were in the district of the Deeping Fen farms of 300 acres and upwards on which there was not a single cottage to be found. He only wished that the names of the landowners of such farms had been published by the Commissioners, so that they might be held up to the scorn and contempt of the world. It might be said that if they placed any impediments upon this gang system they would destroy it altogether. That was exactly what he should like to see done—and by destroying it and building cottages it was his opinion that they would ultimately confer great advantages upon the landowners themselves. He agreed in many of the proposals which had been made to remedy the evil by the hon. Member for Scarborough (Mr. Dent); but he would go further than that hon. Member, and urge that no child under thirteen years 1013 of age should be employed in such gangs. As for the gang master, he should be compelled to take out a license, and one condition should be that no children or young persons should be employed, which would go far to put an end to the system, for a careful scrutiny of the Commissioners' Report would show that it was by exhausting the strength of the poor helpless children, who could not defend themselves, that the gang master made his profit. Who could say that by the abolition of such a dreadful system altogether they would not confer a benefit upon the landowner? Was he benefited by it? Suppose a farmer were forbidden the use of stables upon his farm, and his horses had to travel five or six miles before they reached the fields in which they were to work, would not the farmer complain that their strength was to some degree exhausted, and would it not form a great grievance as against the landlords? Yet these poor workers often had to walk six or seven miles to their labour, and was it not of greater importance that the strength of the labourers should be unexhausted than that of his cattle? What strength could these poor children have left to work after such a walk? There was every reason indeed to believe that the building of suitable cottages for farm labourers, so far from being a burden, would prove remunerative. Lord Leicester, in a remarkable speech, had detailed his experience of the result of building cottages. He told the tenant farmers that if they wished to farm with success they must have good cottages, and he expressed his belief that if the experiment were tried, farmers within ten years would care more about having good cottages on their farms than they would about good stables or a reduction of rent. The Legislature, therefore, in abolishing this system, and compelling the landowners to build cottages, would in effect confer an equal benefit upon landlords and tenant farmers. But this gang system was after all only a branch of a much wider question, that of the education of the agricultural labourers. The Commissioners had incidentally remarked that the ignorance manifested by those employed in gangs too often represented the general ignorance of the agricultural labourer, and that was true, because no skilled artizan or well-instructed labourer would allow his children to join such gangs, and they were made up of the sweeping and refuse of large towns and the rural districts. Since 1014 he first brought the subject before the House he had received communications from all parts of the country, which fully convinced him that the only way to remedy the evil was to endeavour as much as possible to dispel the ignorance which reigned among agricultural labourers, in consequence of which he had endeavoured to incorporate the educational clause of the Factory Act with the Bill so far as it could be made to apply. He did not think the difficulty of dealing with the question was so great as was anticipated, because they would have the sympathy of all the clergy and lauded gentry enlisted in their favour. It might be said that if they employed children under thirteen years of age only on alternate days or weeks, they would have to employ adults. Making due allowance for that, he did not believe, from the calculations made, that on a farm of 1,000 acres the increased cost would be more than £20 per annum, which was a very trifling sum to be put in the balance compared with the benefits to be derived from the improved education of such children. That £20 would not be money lost, or unprofitably spent, but would rather be of the character of an investment of capital, the profit of which could not be over-estimated. He could hardly venture to predict the extent to which the wealth of the country would be increased, its prosperity augmented, or the greatness of the nation stimulated by the formation of an educated and skilled class of agricultural labourers. The other day the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Gladstone) pointed with solemn warning to the Treasury Bench, and asked whether the Government were going to enfranchise the agricultural labourer. He did not share the right hon. Gentleman's alarm, but what a sarcasm was that upon past legislation. What a stimulus to future effort when such words could be addressed to the House with reference to a class spread over the length and breadth of the land, whose labour was the prime source of all its wealth, but who stood so low in the social scale, in consequence of their poverty and ignorance, that the right hon. Gentleman should express astonishment and dread at a proposal to enfranchise them, and give to a few thousands a direct voice in that Legislature by the action of which alone they could hope to improve their condition.
§ MR. A. PEEL
said, that all who were interested in the condition of the labourer must feel grateful to the hon. Member for 1015 Scarborough (Mr. Dent) for the manner in which he had brought this subject before the House on that occasion. In considering this question it must not be forgotten that the provisions for education in towns were more numerous than in the country where there was a sparse and scanty population of agricultural labourers spread over a large district. Therefore, it would be impossible to apply the provisions of the Factory Acts to the children of agricultural labourers unless they were considerably modified. Agricultural employment was of a very peremptory and yet of a very desultory character. It had, therefore, been suggested that the children should work during one half and be taught during the other half of the year. But if such a system were to be adopted, it would be found that the children would forget in one six months all that they had been taught during the previous six months, and therefore, in his opinion, the alternate-day or half-day system was the best compromise that could be come to. One touching argument that had been used on behalf of the agricultural children was that, whereas the adult labourer saved and economised his strength, and took care not to overwork himself, the child, in its innocence and unselfishness, tasked its feeble strength to the utmost. The House was therefore called upon to protect the child from the consequences of its own unselfishness. He wished to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Walpole) to a particular kind of labour, something akin to the agricultural gang system that had come under his especial observation—namely, what was called the coprolite gathering and manufacture, in which a large number of women and children were employed, in the counties of Bedford and Cambridge. He had made some notes of the state of things in two of those coprolite mills. In the first, which was a small mill, thirty-five men, women, and children were employed, among whom were three female children from five to seven, and three from eight to ten years of age. The education of all these labourers was on the whole fair. The second case was of a very different nature. In that mill, which was a large one, 196 men, women, and children were employed, of whom twenty were women, twenty-six were children of from five to seven, and twenty-three from eight to ten years of age. Of the 196 individuals ninety-one could read, but only forty-eight could read 1016 and write, and their education was of the very lowest and most imperfect character. The coprolites were first dug out of the earth by means of a pick, and then were gathered up and taken to the mill, where the women and children were employed in selecting the true from the false coprolites, in doing which it was necessary to use water. The coprolites when chymically treated, washed, and ground, furnished the best superphosphate of lime, was exported to Germany and used by our own agriculturists. To revert to the gang system. He had seen instances of tyranny on the part of the gang masters towards those under them which would make one's blood run cold. It was imperatively necessary that the gang masters should be required to have a certificate, and there should also be a proviso that they should not be publicans or innkeepers, otherwise all the evils of the truck system would be revived. He had seen men at the end of the week going for their wages, and instead of receiving money for their labour they were obliged to truck or barter, mostly for drink sold at a price fixed at the discretion of the gang master. He therefore hoped that that fact would be kept in view in any legislation which might take place on that question. The subject of education was intimately connected with that of the employment of women and children in agricultural gangs; but there was one kind of mis-named education by which the House ought not to suffer itself to be misled. At the town of Luton, in Bedfordshire, the great head-quarters of the straw-platting trade, there were so-called platting-schools, in which the worst tyranny was practised in regard to the exaction of youthful labour for the sake of trade, with the least possible reference to any educational training whatever. The inspector of that district mentioned thirty-three of these schools in which straw platting and reading were supposed to be combined. Of the 1,015 children attending those thirty-three schools he classed the whole of them in the category of children who were deprived of the benefits of education owing to the demands of labour. Those "schools" were nothing less than low, hideous, damp, and fetid factories; and it was to be hoped they would be brought within the scope of the proposed beneficent legislation. He trusted the House would endeavour to protect those who could not protect themselves from the double danger to which they were 1017 exposed—first, from the danger of missing all, or nearly all, the advantages of education; and secondly, from the tyrannical exaction of what little residue of health and strength they possessed.
§ MR. POWELL
said, he much regretted that the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Fawcett) should have taken advantage of that occasion in order to make remarks hostile to a large class of English society—namely, the clergy and the owners of land. The hon. Gentleman had also thought fit to re-open the question of the cattle plague, which certainly had no relation to the present discussion, and the introduction of which could not possibly facilitate legislation in reference to organized gangs. All who had read the Report of the Commissioners must have observed the extreme anxiety evinced by the clergy to put an end at once to every evil connected with the gang system. The hon. Member also must have been unhappy in his acquaintance if he had not found that there now existed a widespread desire among the country gentlemen to ameliorate the condition of those who lived on their estates, and to provide better dwellings for the families of labouring men, who were unfortunately too often ill-housed. Very few were aware of what was recorded in the ghastly pages of the Report referred to. It was only by exacting severe labour from children that a profit about equal to that of ordinary day labour could be made by those who led these gangs. Human nature being what it was, great cruelty and hardship would frequently be inflicted by these men upon those under them. The Rev. Henry M'Kenzie, rector of Tydd St. Mary, in his evidence, described the evil effects of the employment of women in field work, enumerating among them—The loss of self-respect, dirty and degraded habits, slovenly and slatternly households, the alienation of husbands by the discomfort of their homes, the great neglect of the education of children, drunkenness among the men, and the consumption of opium among the women. The evil effects of employing girls in that manner comprised first, boldness, next ignorance, then unchastity, want of cleanliness, incompetency in sewing, mending, cooking, and other household work, indifference to parental control, and unwillingness to apply themselves to any regular employment to gain a livelihood.What were the causes? The state of the law previous to the passing of the Union Chargeability Act had a great deal to do with the matter; and all who had aided in carrying that measure 1018 must be delighted to find that it was already helping forward the improvement of the condition of the people. Another cause was that in textile manufactures the material being once procured, operations could be carried on at any time. But agriculture was dependent on the weather and the seasons of the year. Periodically, therefore, there was a great demand for labour all over the country, and at other times scarcely any such demand. Migratory labour was, consequently, necessary for agricultural operations. It was well known that bands of humble Irishmen came from their own country to gather in the harvests of our Northern counties. Still, though migratory labour could not be entirely done away with, attention ought to be directed to the best means of regulating it and preventing the mischiefs arising from it. Another cause of the evils which had been referred to was the low moral tone which undoubtedly existed in some parts of the country. The evidence contained in the sixth Report of the Children's Employment Commission disclosed that lowness of wages was not the cause, for that parents in the receipt of £4 per week sent their children to labour in these gangs. It was not therefore so much a question of necessity as of will and inclination. The remedy for these evils might be divided into two classes—the one self-acting, and the other dependent upon legislation. In the first class might be included the multiplication of houses, which would bring the children nearer to their work. Next, an improved cultivation of the land, whereby it would become better cleaned. One witness said that the quantity of weeds growing upon the Fen land was becoming less every year. Another remedy in this class was the introduction of machines to do the work now performed by children. Parliament must legislate on this subject, but should proceed with caution. It was stated in the Report that, in many districts, the condition of the labouring class was so good, that they declined to employ their children in the gangs. If Parliament were too severe in its legislation, and attempted wholly to suppress the system, he feared that it would re-appear in some shape which would evade legislation, and which it would be difficult to bring into order. The hours of labour must be restricted, and if so, it would be necessary in the same Act of Parliament to impose some educational provision for the hours gained from 1019 labour, or the young people would be exposed to dangers from which they were now exempt. He doubted the possibility of adopting the half-time system, or even the alternate day or week system, owing to the urgency arising from our fluctuating climate. Still, he thought it would not be very difficult to devise a scheme which would secure some education to the children. Legislation must be uniform; he did not think it could be left to the option of the different localities. If a licence were to be given to the masters of gangs, it must be given under stringent conditions, after due investigation into the character of the applicant, and taken away promptly in cases of misconduct. He trusted that the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Walpole) would remember that the whole question of agricultural labour should be gone into.
§ MR. READ
said, that all must acknowledge the moderation and fairness with which the hon. Member for Scarborough (Mr. Dent) had introduced this subject. He went a long way with the hon. Member in condemning the evils of the gang system, and in many of the remedies he proposed. He did not, however, believe that public gangs were so numerous as they used to be, and bad as they were at the present time, they were much worse a few years since. He could endorse the truth of the statement made by the hon. Member for Warwick (Mr. A. Peel) that it was customary a few years ago for the head of the gang to keep a public-house or general shop, and to pay the wages in drink, &c. He agreed that mixed public gangs were an unmixed public evil. By all means let them license the master, separate the sexes, and limit the distance of walking to the place of work, but let the House be reasonable and moderate. Let them keep out boys under nine from the gangs, and girls under thirteen, but not go the length of some of the recommendations contained in the Report, one of which was that all the females under eighteen should be excluded, and another that no women should be allowed to work in these gangs. In this free country it would not be well to put this fetter upon free labour. There was a difficulty in providing employment for females of all classes, and there was a growing superabundance of women in agricultural districts, owing to the migration of the men into towns, and the numbers of those who left this country for foreign shores. Many young women, if not employed in this way, would grow up in idle- 1020 ness. It was all very well to say that they ought to be employed as domestic servants; but if they did not wish to be so employed, Parliament would not be justified in depriving them of one description of labour in order to force upon them another. Then it was said that field work was detrimental to the refinement and delicacy of women. It did not, however, follow that because they were coarse and rough that they were also immodest and immoral. He believed that female immorality was not unknown either in manufacturing towns, in farm kitchens, or the servants' halls of the "upper ten thousand." The mixture of boys and girls in field labour was not an evil so great as the crowded state of the cottages, for when young persons of both sexes herded together in the same bed-room, they grew up with no sense of decency or delicacy. It was singular that the arguments stated to be used by the mothers against allowing their daughters to work in the gangs were the same which were used to himself when he asked the reason why they did not send their children to school. A woman told him one of her daughters caught a fever at school and died, and on no account would she send another. A second said her daughter caught rheumatism from the cold and wet of the journey. A third said her girl got into bad company, which did her more harm than the school did her good. With regard to the causes of the ganging system, sixty years ago the land which in Norfolk was tenanted only by rabbits and bustards, and which in Lincolnshire produced only the wild duck, the bittern, and the snipe, was now covered with fleecy flocks and waving corn. There were neat farm buildings and good roads, but not many cottages. The question in those days was not how to get labour, but how to employ it, and he must bear his testimony to the way in which the landowners were building cottages. Every farmer would gladly pay 5 per cent for a judicious outlay of this kind. The employer of agricultural labour was treated, as a rule, in a very different manner from that in which the employer of manufacturing labour was treated. The manufacturer might shut up his mill or work half time without his conduct exposing him to remark; but a farmer could not cease growing corn, or be stingy about the employment of labour without being reproached with not being a good citizen. The farmer, indeed, was driven to the employment of these gangs, and did not employ them as a matter of choice. No 1021 labour, in his opinion, was so bad or so costly as this kind of labour, and he assured the hon. Member for Scarborough that the gang system did not supplant good manual labour, and that it in fact only existed where that real and good labour could not be obtained. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Powell) had suggested that improved machinery might supersede the necessity of employing these women and children. But there were some things that machinery could not do and never would be able to do which manual labour alone could perform, and this was especially the case in some departments of agriculture. In manufacture machinery was employed for working on material in a uniformly good and excellent condition; but in agriculture it was very different, and the farmer had to contend against different descriptions of land and weather as well as different descriptions of crops. He did not, however, believe that if properly managed, these gangs were altogether bad. It would too, he thought, be a mistake to keep the agricultural labourer too long at school. Boys kept at school until they were thirteen or fourteen years of age might make very good indoor servants, but they required the hardy training which could only be gained from an outdoor employment while young, to qualify them for the work of agricultural labourers. Strong muscles and sturdy health were necessary, and the rural clergy whose opinions were entitled to every respect, were of this opinion. The intermittent system of education might be very easy in the case of farmers living near the manufacturing towns, where relays of boys could easily be obtained, but in the purely rural parishes it would be found more difficult to adopt such a system. Inspection was indispensable in the case of gangs or any description of field work where boys were employed. They had a saying in Norfolk to the effect that one boy was equal to half a man, two boys to half a boy, and three boys to no boy at all.
§ MR. W. E. FORSTER
said, he thought the debate of that evening must convince the House of the progress that had of late years taken place in the minds of the public on this question. The exceedingly moderate and excellent tone of the hon. Member who had just sat down, and who, as they all knew, sat in that House as the representative of the farmers, was in itself a proof of that fact, for in all attempts to improve the con- 1022 dition of the juvenile or female labour, the opposition to the improvement had invariably come from the employers of that labour. The hon. Member, however, evidently felt that the case presented to the House was so strong that he did not pretend to oppose legislation on the subject, but simply to direct the manner in which that legislation should be applied. He rose—without any practical knowledge on the subject, and judging merely from the Report—to suggest that the matter should not be legislated upon without further information. The Report of the Commissioners proved that no sufficient reasons had been advanced for allowing bodies of girls to work in public gangs; but he agreed with the hon. Gentleman that premature legislation ought not to take place. The House ought to have some information with reference to private as well as to public gangs, otherwise the effect might be simply to lessen one evil by promoting another. In any case it would not, he believed, be possible, or, at all events, advisable, in respect to education, to apply the provisions of the Factory Acts to this kind of labour. Still, the public would not much longer remain quiet while the children of the agricultural labourers of this country were allowed to grow up untaught or certainly less educated than children engaged in other employments. Speaking from his experience of factory legislation, he trusted his right hon. Friend (Mr. Walpole) would not legislate on this subject without providing for ample inspection, without which all enactments would be useless. Even delay was preferable to more speedy legislation if that delay resulted in a more complete and useful measure.
§ MR. GREENE
said, he tendered his thanks to the hon. Member for Scarborough for having introduced this question. As the farmer of a large estate, and one practically interested in agriculture, he could indorse much that had been said as to the state of the agricultural population; but he must remind the House that the question had its bright as well as its dark side. He could not subscribe to all that had been said that evening as to the condition of agricultural labourers. He believed that their progress, both morally and physically, would compare with that of those of many of the manufacturing districts. He cordially assented to the proposal that women should not be employed in the fields until they were at least seventeen years of age, 1023 because then he believed they would never be employed at all. Field labour unfitted girls for domestic service, and induced immorality, and on these accounts the question peremptorily demanded attention. The employment of boys also required regulating. There was no intermission of the labour of boys, so numerous were the jobs to which they were put. Although Englishmen were averse to compulsory measures, he thought it would be well to forbid the employment of a boy who could not read or write; indeed, without such a regulation be thought it would be impossible to get the poor properly educated. On making inquiry he found that scarcely any of the boys on his farm could read or write. He sent them to an evening school; but that had remedied the evil as far as his farm only was concerned. He thought it a mistake to suppose that field labour hurt young people physically. The evil was a moral one; and in gangs, of which he knew little, he presumed it was to be found in the indiscriminate mixture of boys and girls. He had found that female labourers might be dispensed with. With regard to cottages, it was clearly the interest of the landowner to build them. He always provided not less than three rooms where there were both sexes in a family. He thought the condition of the rural districts was not quite so black as it had been painted. As an instance he might mention that in his own neighbourhood a tenant farmer had presented a reading room, for the use of the labourers of the parish. He objected to agricultural employments being tacked on to the Factory Acts; but be believed a separate measure might be framed which, while no hardship to the farmers, would be of great advantage to the labourers.
§ MR. WALPOLE
said, he agreed with the hon. Member, that they could not deal with field labour in the same way as with labour in factories. The Report which had been referred to related only to public or to organized gangs of labour. The hon. Member for Scarborough (Mr. Dent), who had brought the subject so ably and clearly before them, desired legislation for women and children employed in agriculture as if they were employed in factories. His opinion was that if they attempted to legislate in that manner they would not be able to follow it out. He cordially assented to the Resolution which the hon. Gentleman had moved, on the understanding that it did 1024 not imply that the employment of women and children should be placed under the same regulations as factories, but that the principles of the Factory Acts should be applied to it as far as practicable. Whether immediate legislation could be founded upon the Resolution was open to doubt, for only public or organized gangs had yet been reported on, although the evils attending private gangs were equally great. He had considered the subject a good deal since reading the sixth Report of the Royal Commissioners. The number of women and children employed in public gangs was much less than the number employed in private gangs. There were about 6,400 employed in public gangs, and—according to the best information he had—nearly 20,000 in private gangs. He wished to impress on the House and hon. Gentlemen opposite, that if they attempted to legislate for public gangs before they had information as to private gangs they would find themselves in a great difficulty; for if they legislated for the one and not the other, the gangs being frequently in close proximity, they would drive the women and children from the one to the other. The time, therefore, had hardly arrived for legislating on the subject. He had ascertained that Mr. Tremenheere was of opinion that the inquiry ought to be extended to private gangs. He thought, therefore, the best plan would be to re-appoint the Commission for that purpose. The inquiry could probably be completed by the end of the autumn or beginning of the winter, and the House would then be in a position to legislate with regard to the employment of women and children in gangs of any kind. Whether the employment of women and children in agriculture generally could be regulated was a larger and more difficult question, which must, be thought, be postponed to a later period. In the meantime, he heartily supported the Resolution proposed by the hon. Member for Scarborough.
§ SIR HARRY VERNEY
said, he regretted that immediate legislation was not instituted, since he thought the Commissioners had already reported on private gangs, and on the general employment of women and children in agriculture, and that their Report presented ample materials for Parliamentary action. Some of the evidence which had been taken was in favour of compulsory education, and there might be some stipulation with respect to the age and acquirements of children 1025 allowed to labour. Parliament certainly ought not to permit another year to pass without ameliorating the disgraceful and indecent state of things which existed in some parts of the country.
§ MR. NEWDEGATE
said, lie must remind the House, as to building cottages in the fens of Lincolnshire, that it was only in recent years that the fens had been rendered habitable. Formerly the miasma was so bad that farmers who resided in the districts died of ague. Recently drainage had been carried out to a great extent, and the water during the hot weather was forced up the drains, and in that way the miasma was dissipated, or sufficiently so to render the district habitable. The remarks of the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Fawcett) upon the landowners for not building houses were totally misapplied. At the same time, he was far from saying that some restraint should not be placed on the gang system. If it were to be allowed to prevail it would have to be regulated in the same way as labour was in mines and potteries. The evils were the result of the new system of farming. Under the old system of agriculture the farmer was identified with his labourers by ties of neighbourhood and of instruction in farming, but the modern system was based upon economical principles and looked chiefly, if not only, to profits. The gang system, therefore, was of recent growth, and though it might have advantages, it had many evils. He was glad that the question had been brought under discussion, and hoped some good would be the result.
§ MR. DENT
said, he had felt much gratification at the recognition of the evil by practical agriculturalists on both sides of the House. He left it to the Government to determine whether or not they had sufficient information to justify legislation, only trusting that whenever a measure was introduced it would deal with the whole question of the employment of women and children in agriculture.
Resolution agreed to.
Resolved, That, in the opinion of this House, the employment of Women and Children in Agriculture should be regulated, as far as may be, by the principles of the Factory Acts.—(Mr. Dent.)