HC Deb 22 March 1867 vol 186 cc400-13

said, he rose to call attention to the Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the condition of all Mines in Great Britain, to which the Act 23 & 24 Vict. does not apply. He considered the condition of the mining population, particularly in Cornwall, Wales, and the North of England, as very unsatisfactory. The state of things was very serious; the men employed in the mines were prematurely old, and communicated their infirmities to their offspring. Through the indomitable perseverance of the hon. Member for Perth (Mr. Kinnaird), his right hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth (Sir George Grey), then Secretary of State for the Home Department, thought it desirable to issue a Royal Commission, the Members of which, at great personal risk and inconvenience, visited the various localities, and came to a most conclusive Report. They reported in 1864; their Report was unanimous and very strong; but hitherto nothing had been done on the subject. The conclusions at which they had arrived deserved the serious attention of the House and of the Government. They had found that in metalliferous mines the men in many cases lived twenty years less than the general mass of our population. That excessive mortality was caused, not by any sudden and violent accidents, such as often occurred in collieries, but by the generally unhealthy influences to which the men were exposed. Among the principal of those fatal agencies was imperfect ventilation, and that amidst circumstances which must in any case be unfavourable to the maintenance of health. The miners had frequently to work at a temperature of not less than 100, and they were further subject to the alternate visitations of foul air, and of bitter and sweeping draughts. The Commissioners had recommended the adoption of regulations for the removal or the mitigation of those evils, and it was manifestly desirable that those regulations should as speedily as possible be adopted.


said, the statement the hon. Gentleman had made relative to the lamentable occurrence that had lately taken place must satisfy the House that there was a great call for legislation upon this subject. But the necessity for legislation was not limited to coal mines. There the danger forced itself on public attention by the wholesale sacrifice of life that too frequently took place, but the metalliferous mines equally required attention. The Report of the Commissioners in 1864 demonstrated this fact; but if they wanted a proof of the necessity of Reform they had it here, for that Report for all practical purposes hitherto might as well not have been made. Let him call attention to the following Resolutions:— Resolution 1. That there is a great excess of sickness and mortality among metalliferous miners which is mainly attributable to the imperfect ventilation of the mines. 2. That several other causes, both general and local, largely contribute to impair the health of the miner—namely, exposure to cold and wet, and to sudden alternations of temperature, wearing wet clothes, inhalation of gritty particles, and the exertion of climbing ladders from great depths. And here he would remark that in metalliferous mines the danger arose, not from firedamp explosions, but from the ordinary state of the mine atmosphere, which was capable of remedy. The present system of ventilation only kept up a current of air; but what was needed was a second shaft, such as was in use in coal mines, to change the air completely. This would effectively secure a ventilation which would prolong the lives now prematurely and lamentably cut off by a slow process of poison. It had been proved that the real danger of the miner did not lie so much in the explosion of firedamp as in the vitiated and unwholesome atmosphere which he was compelled to breathe while pursuing his avocation. Sickness and loss of vital power were very common among them on this account, and as a general rule a miner at fifty years of age, instead of being in the full enjoyment of vigour, like ordinary men, was a decrepid old man. As an illustration, he would quote a small portion of the evidence given before the Commissioners?— Mr. Richard Burford Searle, M.R.C.S.: Are you well assured of that?—I was looking over my list to-day, and I came to that conclusion. It is remarkable how the children die off here.—Chairman; Is that conclusion drawn from the register, or from your own observation?—From my own observation.—Mr. Kendall; As far as your experience goes, do the children of the miners die more under three years of age than the children of the agriculturists?—Yes; most decidedly.—To what do you attribute that? Why should a miner's child be more subject to die under three years of age than the child of an agriculturist?—Because the father is generally in a more infirm state of health. The state of health of the miner tells upon the offspring decidedly. Mr. James Jago, M.D., Oxon, questioned by the Chairman: From your observations in the examination of miners, should you say that their illness was the effect of working in impure or poisonous air?—Looking at the anœmic and pasty colour of the miner, which is very peculiar, and other facts as to his breathing—and I have seen them come to me excessively weak, when I have been unable to detect any special cause to account for their want of breath and general weakness, excepting the mere absence of the red colour in their features—the unfavourable condition under which they work alone seems to me sufficient to account for the great deterioration in their strength, and very likely for their gradual decay, bringing on premature old age, and I think a loss of their vital power or force. The third Resolution of the Commissioners was to the following effect:— That accidents are of frequent occurrence in metalliferous mines, and that they principally result from miners falling from ladders and stemples, or from one level to another; from falls of the rock or stuff; from want of caution in blasting; from defective gear and imperfect supervision of machinery; from sudden eruptions of water or foul air, and from the bursting of boilers. And here he would suggest that the substitution of copper for iron tools in blasting, copper being confessedly not liable to explode, would be preferable, and would avoid one present great cause of danger, and that by a little expenditure the iron ladders now in use might be divested of their danger by the insertion of a slip of lead or of copper, like a sandwich, in the iron. What was, perhaps, wanted now for carrying out the Report of the Commission appointed in 1864 was a Commission to report as to the best means of immediately carrying out the Resolutions of that Commission. This was all he had to say as far as the metal mines were concerned.

With reference to the coal mines, a system of ventilation existed, but it was insufficient in many cases, as, for instance, in the Oaks colliery. There it was proved on evidence that for seventy miles of travelling way there was only one up-cast and one down-cast shaft. But at least two up and two down were necessary, and had they existed half the lives lately sacrificed might have been spared through that alone. The area of ventilation in all cases should be within defined limits. But this was not all—taking for granted that the men employed in mines would be often so unconscious of danger that they would frustrate the wisest regulations, he maintained that on that very account the risk they incurred ought to be reduced to the smallest minimum possible, and that if any indicator of risk existed the Legislature were bound to see that it was used. In the Barnsley pit the great loss of life would not have occurred if the state of the air of the pit had been registered. Mr. Ansell's fire damp indicator, he had reason to believe, supplied amply the means both of giving notice of any sudden outburst of firedamp and of marking its amount. The presence of 7½ per cent of firedamp was enough to insure explosion if mixed with atmospheric air. He thought, then, that it would be a great improvement on the present law if it was definitely enacted that the presence of 5 per cent of that gas should be considered an offence against the Colliery Inspection Act, for at present the amount was left indefinite, being "a dangerous amount," and therefore liable to be overlooked altogether. Some effective test, together with a system of telegraphic communication, would remove the present danger arising from sudden explosions, while a more effective ventilation would give a greater chance of escape, and also prvent the accumulation of firedamp to so great a degree. And a regular system of registration, also, while it would not prevent men "coming upon gas," would prevent their going down into the pit when gas to a dangerous extent was in it. One more suggestion he had to make was that this country should follow the example of the French Government, who had offered a reward of £4,000 for the best system of protecting lives. Such an offer would call out the energies of practical men to help in the solution of our difficulties.


said, that a Bill upon this subject was in preparation when the late Government went out of office.


said, he thought that while thousands of lives were being sacrificed it was no answer to his appeal to that House for some speedy legislative enactment to protect the lives and the health of miners to be told that a Bill had been in preparation. What was wanted was immediate remedial measures. The noble Chairman of the Commission (Lord Kinnaird) had himself prepared and brought in a Bill which might have proved beneficial; but it was impeded, instead of assisted, by the late Government, and it was a Member of that Government who obliged him to withdraw it. When the present Government came into office an appeal was made to them to introduce a Bill, but the mass of business devolving on a new Government was some excuse for their not doing so; but he hoped and trusted that his right hon. Friend (Mr. Walpole) would satisfy these poor men who were certainly some of the most industrious of Her Majesty's subjects. They were treated with considerable neglect when legislation was deferred from time to time, notwithstanding the presentation of a Report showing how their lives were sacrificed. No private Member could bring in a Bill on the subject, and these men felt they were not represented. Who were these men to look to for relief unless to the Government, after the Government had obtained the information contained in the Report? To the noble Chairman of the Commission it was a matter of the deepest regret that a Bill was not introduced, knowing as he did that the fatal consequences continued to this day from want of legislation on the subject. If a deaf ear was still turned to such an appeal he could only repeat what he began by saying, that the country had here a practical proof of the need of Reform. What he pleaded for would involve, doubtless, some expenditure of money; but if this were to be placed in the scale against the lives of a most deserving and industrious class of Her Majesty's subjects, then, he said, it was proved that the possessors of capital were more effectively represented in that House than the creators of capital. He trusted, however, that Her Majesty's Government would take this question into their most serious consideration.


said, he had had some experience in mining matters, and he, together with the other Commissioners, had endeavoured to prevent the noble Lord at the head of that Commission from bringing in a Bill upon the subject, showing him that the matter was one of extreme delicacy, and that great care was necessary. Contrary, however, to the wish of the Commissioners, his Lordship had brought in a Bill, which he undertook, as a practical man, to say was as unpractical and visionary a Bill as any ever brought into the House of Lords. The ventilation proposed would be most difficult and expensive. The noble Chairman, while in Cornwall, had endeared himself to every one, and, some short time since, would have been received with open arms. Now, however so great a change had taken place in the feelings of the people, that whereas he was formerly almost worshipped by the miners, he would now, if he went into Cornwall, stand a very good chance of a ducking. The fact was that the noble Chairman, by proposing his Bill, had greatly offended every one connected with the mining interests; and the lords and adventurers were so opposed to a measure introduced by one who pretended, and who I really believe, wished to be their friend, that they had of late evinced a reserve which made it difficult to approach them. About two years since mining operations, which had until then been in a flourishing condition, were in a terrible state, and the present moment, when mining interests were so depressed, was about the worst possible one to select for introducing a Bill which would tend to increase the expense of working the mines. One-half of the miners had left Cornwall, and of those remaining the half were unemployed. Great profits had been and might again be made by mining; but he hoped that, while mining was in its present depressed condition, no measure tending to increase the expense, and consequently to injure the interests of the poor miner, would be introduced into Parliament. He repudiated the assertion that the children of miners were less healthy than those of other people, and asserted on medical testimony that, though the father might be what is called consumptive, the children were as fine and as healthy as those of the healthiest man in the world.


said, he did not agree with the opinion that the question was one admitting of easy solution. On the contrary, there were great difficulties in the way, and these would require grave and mature consideration. The evils arising from the manner in which the mining operations were carried on had not been exaggerated by the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Clive). The evils were mainly caused by defective ventilation, the ascending and descending, and the early employment of children in the mines. It was admitted on all hands that the mortality amongst miners between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five was almost double the mortality amongst other classes of the working population. In collieries, good ventilation was absolutely necessary for carrying on the works. Without a large stream of air it would be impossible to carry on colliery operations; but it was not so in the Cornish mines; but the Cornish miner was behind all other miners in understanding the rules of ventilation. He (Mr. Bruce) knew that from having descended into mines of considerable depth. The condition of the workmen was awful, and the surprise was how they could do their work. When added to that the miner had to ascend after his work the height of a mountain, it would be seen what heavy calls there were on the strength of the miners of Cornwall. It was well known that in collieries the air was carried down one shaft and up another; but the ventilation in the Cornish mines was different, and men exhausted by work might have to climb up, breathing vitiated air that had passed through the mine. It would be impossible to supply the Cornish mines at once with the necessary facilities for ventilation, and the operation would in many instances be attended with great expense. The question was, what remedy should be applied. The late Government had examined the matter carefully; and after communicating with the Cornish Members and other persons, they had made considerable progress towards the preparation of a measure. He should pay homage to the humanity of Lord Kinnaird. His Lordship had spent a week at the mines in examining and acquainting himself with all the circumstances of the case, in order that he might be able to conduct the examination more effectively. What the late Government proposed to do, and what they would have done if there had not been a change of Ministry was this—they would have laid on the table a Bill re-constituting the Court of Stannaries with power to improve the ventilation of mines. And if there were no other means of doing so, it was proposed that inspectors should be appointed to recommend some means of ventilation. He believed the matter was ripe for legislation, and he believed that ventilation would not be followed by the ruin which his hon. Friend (Mr. Kendall) feared. The late Government very carefully examined the subject, but finding that the Bill of Lord Kinnaird was too sweeping in its provisions they could not support it. If the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary (Mr. Walpole) would look into the archives of the Home Office he would there find material to enable him to proceed with this question.


said, that the observations of his right hon. Friend (Mr. Bruce) were extremely just and accurate as to the course which the late Government intended to pursue, and which they considered would have been the best mode of remedying the evils that now existed. The proposal amounted to this—that the metal milling districts should be divided into seven, and that each should be placed under the superintendence of three persons selected from a general body, composed of lords, adventurers, and mining workmen. He admitted that the numerous things which had fallen upou him to do had prevented him taking up the subject with that speed which it deserved; but he begged to assure the House that he had not lost sight of it, and after the appeal which had been made to him to-night he would do his best to take the matter in hand, and to see if some measure could not be framed so as to prevent the present disastrous and injurious effects in these mines. As regarded the question of Scotch business in Parliament, the hon. Member for Montrose had referred to a proposal which he made some years ago in this House for the better conduct of the Scotch business. He begged to say that he did not coincide with the conclusions at which the hon. Gentleman had arrived. He believed himself, from the ability which had characterized a number of Lord Advocates who had had seats in that House, and from their knowledge and acquaintance with the Scotch Members, there was no part of the business of this kingdom really better done than the Scotch business. At the same time, he could not close his eyes to the fact that a great change had for some years been coming over the minds of the Scotch people, and that they would prefer that some civilian in the shape of an assistant or Under Secretary should be the medium of communication with them instead of the Lord Advocate. When this matter was brought before the House some years ago, it was lost by a great majority. There was a discussion subsequently, and there was then considerable division of opinion even amongst the Scotch Members themselves; but he was bound to say, after listening to what had been said in the debate of to-night, that amongst the Scotch Members on both sides there seemed to be no difference of opinion now, and they all seemed to be agreed that some change in relation to the conduct of Scotch business in Parliament should be adopted. If he might venture to give an opinion, he would say that his own views more or less—he would say, more than less—coincided with the opinions which had been expressed by those Gentlemen—and seeing at the present moment the great inconvenience of not having the Lord Advocate in the House, he thought that it was a matter which deserved the consideration of the Government, and he promised that so far as he was concerned it should receive the attention of Her Majesty's Government. One word in reference to the present state of things. The hon. Gentleman had said that when these Scotch matters were brought under his attention, he (Mr. Walpole) was entirely in the hands of the Lord Advocate. On that point he wished to observe that there were three distinct matters which the Home Secretary had to look after in reference to Scotch affairs. In the first place he had to superintend in Scotland, as he did in England, the general criminal business of the country. Then he had Church patronage to a large extent, and in the third place he was supposed, and did, with the aid of the Lord Advocate, attend to the Scotch legislation which occurred in the House of Commons. Now, with regard to the first of these matters, the superintendence of the criminal business of Scotland, he thought he might say that he had paid and would continue to pay as much attention to that as he did to the criminal business of his own country. With regard to the patronage, it was not just to say that it was left entirely to the Lord Advocate. In the case of every one of the livings which were given away he had all the testimonials brought before him, and he examined them himself before any patronage was disposed of. Therefore, instead of a nomination or suggested name being taken as a matter of course, the reverse was the case. It had happened to him within the last six months that he had been in office that he had had to question the propriety of three appointments, and he did not sanction those appointments, which were recommended to him not only by the Lord Advocate but by others. He was thankful to say that the late Lord Advocate, before his promotion to the Bench, informed him that in two out of those three appointments he had ascertained that he (Mr. Walpole) was right and that the Lord Advocate was wrong. This would show that the business was not done in a perfunctory manner, but that it was carefully conducted. As to the Scotch legislation, without the aid of the Lord Advocate he could not conduct it. As regarded the business now before the House, the hon. Baronet the Member for Peeblesshire (Sir Graham Montgomery) would be considered in this House as the person with whom the Scotch Members could communicate on all subjects of Scotch legislation, and the Lord Advocate, out of the House, would also communicate with them, and by their joint assistance he hoped they would be able to get through some of the most important Scotch business which would be submitted to this House in the course of the present Ses- sion. He might here remark that there were two Bills already in the House of Lords. First there was the Hypothec Bill, which had passed through Committee, and the other was the Recovery of Debts Bill, which was on the point of going through Committee. Then there was the Justiciary Courts Bill, which he believed would come down to this house at no very distant day. Then, as regarded the House of Commons, the Lyon King at Arms Bill had gone through Committee, and the Consolidation of the Public Health Bill stood for Monday next. This was an important measure, and if the Scotch Members would give him their assistance he would do his best to facilitate Scotch business in the House. He thought there would be advantage in having a civilian Under Secretary, who could be the medium of communication between the Scotch Members and the Government as to what ought to be the transaction of Scotch business in and out of the House, and whether the Government could see their way or not to such an appointment, he would at least take care that it was brought under their notice.


said, he wished to confirm what had fallen from his right hon. Friend, not only as to the supervision by the Home Office of the affairs of Scotland, but also to the duties performed by the Home Secretary in reference to Scotch patronage. It was a mistake to suppose that the patronage was disposed of by the Lord Advocate. No doubt legal appointments were made after consultation with the Lord Advocate, and his recommendation was necessarily of great weight. As regarded the church patronage, the Home Secretary disposed of it on his own responsibility, as he did of the Professorships in the Universities, after obtaining the best information he could from every quarter. As to legislation, no doubt the Scotch Bills were framed with great care on the part of the Lord Advocate; but he understood that one complaint on the part of Scotch Members was, that during a large portion of the Session the Lord Advocate, if in extensive practice, was detained by legal business in Edinburgh. Another objection was that under the present system Scotch Members, not belonging to the legal profession, had no opportunity of being brought forward to take charge of the Scotch business. He should be sorry to express a decided opinion as to whether an Under Secretary should be appointed for the Scotch business; but he doubted whether he would have sufficient employment either of an administrative or legislative kind. He would suggest whether, by a different arrangement of the duties of the present Under Secretaries, one of them conversant with Scotch business might not, in the absence of the Lord Advocate, with the aid of the hon. baronet the Member for Peeblesshire (Sir Graham Montgomery), take charge of the Parliamentary business relating to Scotland. That arrangement might, as a temporary measure at all events, be satisfactory.


said, he was quite ready to go along with the hon. Member for Perth (Mr. Kinnaird) in any reasonable legislation, having in view the important object of saving life in mines, as far as practicable. But some of the remarks of that hon. Gentleman were, he thought, not altogether reasonable. The hon. Member, referring to the recent deplorable catastrophe at the Oaks Colliery, stated that there was positive proof that if certain precautions had been adopted that accident would not have occurred. Now, when the inquest was held, and an inquiry conducted with the utmost care and skill had been brought to a close, the jury were absolutely unable to satisfy themselves as to the causes of the accident. It was therefore too bold an assertion to say that there was positive proof that the calamity would not have happened if certain precautions had been taken. The hon. Gentleman stated that if the indicator had been in use in that colliery the presence of explosive gases would have been ascertained, and the danger might have been averted. But it should be remembered that that instrument was a most delicate and complicated piece of machinery, and it was exceedingly doubtful whether, as at present constructed, it was adapted to the ordinary wear and tear of coal mines. Though, however, it was a comparatively novel invention, and as yet had been only tried on a small scale, there was no indisposition on the part of the coal owners to give it a fair trial. It was not quite fair when such a strong feeling had been excited in regard to that accident to say that if an instrument like that had been used it would not have occurred.


said, that he had not spoken upon his own authority on that subject. He understood from a gentleman of great experience in mining that the instru- ment in question was not so delicate as the hon. Gentleman supposed, and that where it had been tried it had been found effective.


said, he only wished to say one word upon the question brought forward by the hon. Member for Hereford. His (Lord Elcho's) attention had recently been drawn to this subject, and he would observe that the present state of inspection of coal mines was most unsatisfactory. They had twelve inspectors, but the inspection was practically null, for it appeared from a statement made by a deputation to the Home Secretary that one inspector had no less than 900 mines under his inspection, and therefore the House must see that it could not be well done. He had heard that the Oaks mine had not been inspected for six years, and Mr. Matthews, the chairman of the Mining Association, was of opinion that the two shafts at that colliery were quite insufficient. The upcast and downcast shafts were close together, and the air had to travel sixty miles through the works to supply ventilation. The men had to travel one-and-a-half to two miles each way through the works. Now, that was the case of a coal mine where there was the danger of an explosion. In the metalliferous mines there was not the same danger from explosion, but they were charged with deleterious gases most prejudicial to life; and though coal mines were nominally inspected, metalliferous were not inspected at all. There ought to be better arrangements for carrying off the noxious gases. It would be a wise economy, as well as to the interest of the miners, if there were a better inspection of all mines, in order to secure safety and proper ventilation. His hon. Friend the Member for Perth (Mr. Kinnaird) said that if miners were better represented in that House, these accidents would not happen; but he (Lord Elcho) had had an experience of twenty-six years in that House, and had always seen plenty of Members ready to take up such cases and to represent the views and interests of the working classes. With respect to the question raised by the hon. Member for Montrose, he had had some experience of the subject during the time that he was the Scotch Lord of the Treasury in the Government of Lord Aberdeen, and he must say that owing to the occasional pressure of legal business in Edinburgh rendering it impossible for the Lord Advocate to be in his place in Parliament, he had himself to discharge duties which would have properly devolved on that learned Lord. He thought that Scotch business would not suffer, but rather gain, if some such suggestion as that of the hon. Member for Montrose were adopted.