HC Deb 09 August 1875 vol 226 cc778-82

Order for Third Reading read.


said, he wished, without trespassing too long upon the time of the House, to avail himself of the privilege which was usually accorded to hon. Members, when questions involving a grant of money for the public Service were before the House, of drawing the attention of the Government to any particular subject, and more particularly to the necessity for redressing some grievance. Representing, as he did, a constituency that contained perhaps as great a number of persons in the service of Her Majesty's Government as any other in the country, it was not surprising that he had acquired a certain degree of familiarity with the many hardships incidental to such employment. These, he was bound to say, had hitherto always received fair and impartial consideration at the hands of those Members of Her Majesty's Government to whom he had felt it to be his duty to make representations; and it was therefore with feelings of regret that he now found himself compelled to ask the indulgence of the House, whilst he briefly drew the attention of his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to what appeared to him to be a grievance of no ordinary magnitude. On the 24th of May last, for the purpose of trying an experiment, a 7-inch Palliser shell was being filled at the Royal Arsenal, with compressed gun cotton, by three men—Charles Young (foreman), and two assistants, Joseph Walstow and Joseph Bardon. The place selected for this—as it proved to be—exceedingly dangerous operation, was the Cap Factory, where, in a workshop, which, usually and then, was crowded with men and boys tending the machines employed in preparing the copper capsules used in the manufacture of percussion caps, the shell exploded, presumably from the enormous hydraulic pressure required to force the gun cotton into its position. The foreman. Young, was killed on the spot, Walstow survived but a few hours, and Bardon was grievously mutilated; but, by an accident of fortune, little short of a miracle—and certainly in no way due to the prudence of the person who chose such a place for the performance of the operation—none of the other workmen employed in the shop were injured. It was true that the gun cotton in question was wet, and in that condition considered safe; but it seemed to him that, in dealing with such dangerous materials, the nature of which was, by that very occurrence, shown to be yet but imperfectly understood, the greatest caution should be used, and, above all, operations involving an experimental use of them, should be conducted at a safe distance from places where large bodies of workmen were congregated. The point in connection with this accident to which he particularly wished to draw the attention of Her Majesty's Government, was the amount of the compassionate allowances awarded to the widows of the two men who were killed, and he thought hon. Members would agree with him, that they were miserably inadequate and utterly unworthy of the country. Both men were specially selected for the duty that cost them their lives, on account of their skill, experience, and trustworthiness. Young, the foreman, was 40 years of age, had been employed 20 years in the Royal Arsenal, and at the time of his death was in receipt of 57s. per week, consequently he would have been entitled to a pension of about 16s. per week, if he had retired the day before the accident occurred. He left a widow and seven children, to whom a gratuity of £49 and a compassionate allowance of 7s. 10d. per week had been given. Walstow was 42 years of age, he had been 25 years in the service, his wages were 33s. per week, and he would have been entitled to a retiring pension of 14s. 5d. per week. He left a widow and three children, and in his case a gratuity of £40 and an allowance of 5s. per week had been granted. Thus it would be seen that these widows received less than half the amount their husbands would have been entitled to on retirement, if their characters had been less exemplary than they were; for it was on account of their excellent characters that they were chosen for employment on this dangerous experiment: and it must be remembered that no negligence on their part had ever been suggested, either at the inquest or at the official inquiry that took place immediately after the accident. To put the case in plain language, the Government had actually saved money by the death of these men—they would probably have profited by the success of the experiment, but its failure was to be dearly paid for by the men. He had no wish unduly to blame the Government, but that was practically the result of the transaction, and he repeated that it was unworthy of the country. Economy was no doubt an excellent thing—as the attribute of a statesman it ranked as a virtue—but this was not economy—it was cruel parsimony. He had no doubt he should be told by his right hon. Friend that he was unable to give expression to the sympathy, which he was sure he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) felt, for the fatherless and the widow in whose behalf he was pleading; he would probably tell him that he was bound by rules for the making of which he was not responsible—that his hands were tied and his actions fettered; but this was an occasion when he should free himself from those ties and strike off those fetters. What a Treasury Minute had done, he presumed a Treasury Minute could undo. He might be told that the system of compassionate allowances was intended for exceptional cases, and so, no doubt, it was; but this was an exception amongst exceptions, and therefore entitled to extraordinary consideration. A soldier employed for the defence of his country must be content to carry his life in his hand—it was part of the contract of his service. A workman whose duty it was to tend heavy machinery knew that he was always exposed to a certain amount of danger—he might lose a limb or an eye or be otherwise crippled through no negligence of his own—for such cases the scale of compassionate allowances was probably sufficient, but that of which he had spoken could not be included in that category. The work on which these men were employed was unique in its character—they were required to prepare a yet untried experiment—to brave a danger unsuspected even by their superiors—they were chosen for their skill and trustworthiness proved by long service—were they then to be treated like those who merely took the ordinary risks of their calling—like those who were aware of the dangers that surrounded them, and therefore, by the exercise of care, could in great measure protect themselves? He felt sure that such a course would not commend itself to his right hon. Friend's sense of justice; and that, consequently, he would find means to relax a regulation, the operation of which he thought he had shown to be unjust, and therefore injurious to the interests of the public service.


, said, he entirely sympathized with his hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Boord) in the feelings he had expressed, and they were largely shared in by those who were acquainted with the facts of the case. He believed the men had borne a high character, and their death was due to no fault of their own. At the same time, no blame could be imputed to any one in connection with the accident. By what might be called the common law of the Civil Service, the widows and families of persons dying in the service were not entitled to any pension at all. The men employed were entitled, when past work, to a pension, but widows were supposed to be provided for by their husbands. It had been the habit, however, in former years, when a case like the present arose, to make a compassionate allowance of some irregular amount to the family. A natural feeling of compassion, and even of justice led to this being done. Some two years ago—shortly be-fore the present Government took office—it was thought desirable that these compassionate allowances should be put on a regular footing, and a Treasury Minute was passed in December, 1873, with the object of securing more certainty and consistency of practice. It was laid down in that Minute that in the cases in question, the widow should receive an annual pension not exceeding ten sixtieths of the husband's emoluments at the time of death; or that a pension of £12 might be given where the amount, calculated as above, fell short of that sum. There was also a provision for children. The House must recognize that it was reasonable the pension to a widow should be less than that which would be given to the man himself. If the man had been granted a higher pension for life, the widow would have found herself deprived of anything; but, in the present case, the widow would be in receipt of it for the whole of her life, unless she married again. His hon. Friend had not given quite accurately the sums to which the husbands would have been entitled. The man Young was entitled, at the time of his death, to a pension of 14s. a-week; his widow received £20 a-year, or about 7s. or 8s. a-week. It would be extremely difficult to deal with these questions satisfactorily, if they had to consider each as exceptional. He had carefully considered the matter himself, and he had reluctantly come to the conclusion that the course pursued was the only one they could adopt.

Bill read the third time, and passed.