HC Deb 16 May 1873 vol 216 cc53-9

who had given Notice to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the operation of the Nitro-glycerine Act (1869), intituled, "An Act to prohibit for a limited period the importation, and to restrict and regulate the carriage of Nitro-glycerine," and the effect of such Act on the manufacture, transit, and use of explosive compounds, said, that Petitions praying for inquiry had been presented from persons employing over 100,000 hands, and that fact would give the House some idea of the large issue involved in the continuance of the Act. Had the forms of the House allowed he would have moved for a Select Committee to inquire into the propriety of continuing it, and it would be a very proper subject of inquiry as to whether gun-cotton was the only safe explodent. The circumstances under which the Act was passed were these—that in 1868 there had been some terrible explosions of nitro-glycerine, and, therefore, it was thought necessary to legislate upon the matter. The Bill brought in was described as one to prohibit "for a limited period" the importation of nitro-glycerine, and, in fact, when the Bill was introduced, there was a clause in it limiting its operation to one year; but during the passage of the Bill through Committee in that House, that clause was, inadvertently, he presumed, struck out; because when Lord Cairns, in the House of Lords, took objection to the Act on the ground of the interference which it would cause to trade, Lord Morley pointed out that the Act would only be in operation for a year, and that in the meantime there would be an opportunity given to scientific persons to inquire whether the compound known as nitro-glycerine was an innocent explosive or not. But the Act had remained in force ever since, and the effect of its passing had been to give a monopoly for compressed gun-cotton as against all other explosives. Now, besides the objection to the Act on the ground of the restraint which it imposed on trade, there was a far more important question involved, and that was, how far persons employed in the Woolwich Arsenal, and who were working with the money of the country, should employ that money and their time in manufacturing, or in obtaining the knowledge of, articles for which they took out patents, and subsequently sold to this country, or to the colonies, or to foreign Governments. One of the principal questions bearing upon the matter was the comparative merits of two explosive agents—dynamite and compressed gun-cotton. The opinion of Professor Abel, chemist to the War Office, seemed to have had great influence upon that matter, though he himself was, in fact, deeply interested in the manufacture of compressed gun-cotton. He had a patent for such manufacture, and he granted the right to make the article to Messrs. Prentice, of Stowmarket, they paying him a royalty, and he recommended to the Government the passing of an Act of Parliament which would give the preference, or a monopoly, to gun-cotton. As to the safety of gun-cotton, on the 11th August, 1871, there was an explosion of gun-cotton at Stowmarket, by which 24 persons were killed and 50 were wounded. Major Majendie was appointed to investigate the matter, and the statements of Professor Abel were those upon which he seemed mostly to rely throughout the proceedings. He came to the conclusion that acid had been put in the gun-cotton, and that the person who had placed the acid there had aimed at doing a commercial injury to the company rather than at anything else. It was an astounding thing that such a deed could have been done by a mere rival in trade; but the Home Office ordered no further inquiry to take place, and so the matter rested. In March, 1872, a Treasury Minute was passed, with the view of preventing persons in the employment of the Government taking out letters patent for any of these explosive compounds, and in the following April, Professor Abel transferred his patent, which had cost him £5,000, to a Mr. Nicholson for £100, and the latter gentleman very recently assigned it to the Gun-cotton Company for £4,000. After the Stowmarket Works were destroyed, in September, 1871, licences were granted by the Home Office for the transmission of nitro-glycerine; but since they were rebuilt, in last April, the Government renewed their prohibition respecting that article. It therefore appeared to him (Mr. Staveley Hill) that this Act then was passed by the Home Office in the interest of Professor Abel. Although he was precluded by the forms of the House from taking a division on his Motion, he hoped the Home Secretary would grant him the Select Committee which he asked for.


said, he came prepared to discuss the policy and administration of the Act, but was utterly unprepared to hear a personal attack made upon Professor Abel gravely affecting that gentleman's character; and, so far as he (Mr. Bruce) was concerned, utterly without foundation. The hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Coventry (Mr. Staveley Hill) assumed that the Home Office were acting under the advice of Professor Abel. Now, he (Mr. Bruce) was responsible for the Act of 1869, which was passed without any communication with Professor Abel; at all events, the only communication with him was entirely indirect. The subject of the danger arising from the explosion of nitro-glycerine was brought before the House by an hon. and gallant Member, whose statement produced a great impression. The Government, therefore, brought forward a Bill vesting in the Home Office the responsibility of laying down conditions for the use, the importation, or the transport of this article. To whom did he refer for information? Not to Professor Abel, but to Professor Miller, who gave an elaborate Report on explosive substances, and it was entirely on his Report that the first licences were framed. From time to time other explosive substances were brought before the Home Office, and it was represented that the conditions imposed as to nitro-glycerine were unnecessary. He did not know that he had ever witnessed conduct such as that of the hon. and learned Member. His Motion was one of the most reasonable character, and he (Mr. Bruce) should have been prepared to assent to an inquiry into the operation of the Act. But the hon. and learned Gentleman had said little or nothing in favour of his Motion, but had made a laboured attack upon Professor Abel, charging him with having reported in behalf of one invention and against another, because he was interested in the one and not in the other. That was one of the gravest charges that could be made against a public servant. Yet the hon. and learned Gentleman had made it without the slightest Notice, and it was therefore impossible for it to be met by those whose duty it would be to defend or explain the part taken by Professor Abel. A Committee of scientific men had sat upon the subject in the War Office, and Professor Abel was, he believed, a member of such Committee; but when the hon. and learned Gentleman stated that Professor Abel was the adviser of the Home Office in the matter, he said that which had not a shadow of truth in it. When the hon. and learned Gentleman intended to make an attack upon an eminent and an honourable man, he was bound to give the ordinary Notice usual under such circumstances. The Home Office, however, had prepared a fresh form of licence, and if the hon. and learned Gentleman thought its conditions still too rigid, he was prepared to welcome the appointment of a Select Committee. The only difficulty was, that there were a few days ago 19 Select Committees sitting, including 275 Members. Three or four others had since been appointed, and he was about to move for another Committee on a question affecting the metropolis. It would, therefore, be difficult to name another Committee, and he recommended the House to avail itself of the experience of the next six months, and if the hon. and learned Gentleman would renew his Motion for a Committee at the beginning of next Session he should be happy to agree to it.


said that, being acquainted with the practical utility of this article, and believing that the dangerous properties incidental to it as an explosive, had been to a great extent neutralized, he thought good would result from relaxing the severity of the restrictions. He had been asked to second the Motion, if made, and he should have been glad to do so; but he must say he was rather surprised and shocked that such charges should be made against Professor Abel without Notice.


thought it desirable that the subject should be fully investigated by a Select Committee, and was rejoiced to think that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department had adopted that course. In his opinion, the Act was fully justified by the evidence given as to the extreme danger of this material; but it appeared by a lecture of Professor Abel, in February, 1872, that it was now one of the safest, most powerful, and most convenient explosives for blasting purposes that could be used. In Cornwall, it was very generally used for mining purposes, and with perfect security to the men employed. In conclusion, he must say he objected to the personal questions which the hon. and learned Member for Coventry (Mr. Staveley Hill) had introduced into the discussion.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being found present—


suggested that the Government should appoint a small independent Committee of eminent chemists, and persons accustomed to the use of explosive materials to investigate the subject, and advise them as to the necessary legislation with regard to it.


explained that in the remarks he had made with regard to Professor Abel, he had only repeated what had already appeared in print. He should be very sorry had ho been led to make any statement reflecting on that gentleman which was not well founded.


regretted the hon. and learned Member for Coventry (Mr. Staveley Hill) should have been led to make remarks with regard to Professor Abel which were not only unfair but were unfounded. Had the hon. and learned Gentleman given Notice of his intention to bring this matter forward he (Sir Henry Storks) should have been prepared to state the real facts of the case in detail; but all he could now do was to state that Professor Abel had given up his gun-cotton patent unconditionally, and that he now received no royalty whatever on the manufacture of the material. The, hon. and learned Gentleman had referred to officers in the service of Government holding patents. He entirely agreed with the hon. and learned Gentleman that the practice was inconvenient and improper. One of the first things his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did on assuming the duties of the War Department was to put a stop to this system, and the Treasury Minute to which the hon. and learned Gentleman had alluded, was issued at the instance of his right hon. Friend. With regard to the main question before the House, he might state that accidents had frequently occurred from the explosion of dynamite, and that to transmit dynamite or any other explosive substance by railway, without due precaution, was a very dangerous thing. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department had promised an inquiry into the subject, and he (Sir Henry Storks) thought it was very right that it should be inquired into. He regretted very much that the hon. and learned Gentleman had not given some Notice in order that he might have come down to the House prepared to reply more fully to the observations of the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Original Motion, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," by leave, withdrawn.

Committee deferred till Monday next.