HC Deb 28 May 1880 vol 252 cc729-36

Order for Second Reading read.


said, that the Bill which he was about to ask the House to read a second time was one of very small dimensions; but he ventured to think that, if passed, it would confer very great benefit upon a large number of the community. Their merchant seamen were exposed to great evils and temptations at two constantly recurring periods in their career. The first period was when the sailor started on his voyage and received an advance note; the second period was when he came back from his voyage and received the accumulated earnings which were then due to him. This Bill had for its object the emancipation of the seamen from the entanglements and difficulties by which he was beset owing to the growth of bad habits and customs, and to restore to him his natural freedom of action. One way to attain this was by abolishing the present form of the advance note. Considering that there were so many new Members in the House who might not be familiar with this subject, he would explain what an advance note was. An advance note was a conditional order given by the shipowner or his agent directing the payment of a certain sum of money—generally about a month's wages—in advance to the seaman or his order, the condition being that the seaman should have gone to sea in a particular ship. The result of that form of the advance note was that nobody would cash it, except a peculiar class of persons who were ready to take the risk incident to the transaction—namely, the crimps. In 99 cases out of 100 the seaman could get no value for the advance note, except from the crimps, who only cashed it at an enormous discount. Another effect of this arrangement was that the crimp had a direct interest in keeping his eye on the seaman, so that he might not go from his bargain, but should get on board his ship in proper time. The only way the crimp had of securing that was by debauchery; therefore the crimp kept the seaman in a state of continual debauchery until the ship sailed, when he put him on board. But the evil did not stop there, for by putting the seaman on board in a state of intoxication the safety of the ship and the lives of all the crew were in danger. Then, again, no sooner did the sailor waken from his drunken bout, and become aware of the way in which he had been treated by the crimp, and of the manner in which he had been deprived of his natural liberty, than he took the first opportunity of paying off the crimp by desert- ing as soon as he possibly could. By that means the crimp was defrauded of his money, the advance note being rendered valueless. The public and the shipowners had a direct interest in this question, because the lives and the property on board the vessel were endangered by the sailors coming on board in a state of drunkenness. The system of advance notes had been universally condemned by all the Commissions and Committees which had inquired into the subject, from that which sat five or six years ago down to the Committee of the year before last, of which he had the honour to be a Member. The system had met with universal condemnation, both in the interest of the shipowners as of everyone else. He would now proceed to deal with such objections as had been raised to the abolition of the advance note. It was said that its abolition would lead to the truck system. The ostensible reason for the advance note being given was to enable the seaman to pay for his outfit, and it was said by many shipowners that if the seaman did not have the advance note, he would not be able to pay for the clothes he required, and that the captain of his ship would be obliged to provide him with them. But this would not be the truck system. That system was one whereby a workman was compulsorily made always to take a certain portion of his wages in kind. But even if the results anticipated did constitute the truck system, it would be only what went on at present. Experience proved that, so far from seamen providing themselves with clothes with the advance note, very few did do so. Another favourite contention was that the abolition of the advance note would interfere with freedom of contract. He (Mr. Evelyn Ashley) did not think that they interfered with freedom of contract, because they did not interfere with an advance, but only with the form by which that advance was now made, which they said was demoralizing and unfair to the sailor. If hon. Members would look into the matter, they would see that the contract under the advance note was not properly one between the shipowner and the sailor, but between the shipowner and a third party—namely, the crimp. They were thus interfering not with a contract between the seaman and his employer, but between the crimp and the shipowner. But even if it were an interference with contract that should not deter the House, for there were many cases in which public advantage justified interference with freedom of contract. The Legislature in this case, finding that the form of the advance was productive of numerous and preventible evils, said that it would not have an advance note, but that there might be a cash advance. The custom of advance notes had sprung up within the last 40 years, and the proposal in question only involved a return to the old plan, by which a seaman could only get an advance in money on the security of his kit, which he deposited on board when he engaged. Under that system there was an inducement held out to providence and sobriety—under the more modern system, good and bad sailors were treated all alike, the most reckless getting an "advance note" as easily—if not more easily—than the best. The hon. and learned Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst) had given Notice of his intention to move— That it is the opinion of this House the exceptional Law by which seamen are liable to arrest without warrant and imprisonment with hard labour for simple breach of contract, should be repealed, and that such repeal would render unnecessary exceptional legislation to restrict the power of seamen to make contracts. It was his (Mr. Evelyn Ashley's) firm belief that the abolition of the advance note would tend more than anything else to do away with the arrest and imprisonment of seamen. The hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Norwood) wished that this subject should be referred to the Select Committee on Losses of Merchant Shipping. He (Mr. Evelyn Ashley) would only remind the hon. Member for Hull that if there was one subject more than another which had been thoroughly inquired into it was that which was dealt with by the present Bill. If one branch of the subject of merchant shipping was exhausted more than another before the Royal Commission it was that of the advance note. That being so, he thought it would be futile to refer this question to another Select Committee. The second period when the sailor was exposed to danger was on his return from his voyage, and while he was awaiting the money due to him, and he was then subjected to even greater frauds than at the first period. He was then surrounded by birds of prey who even went down the river to meet him before his ship arrived. He was obliged to wait frequently a considerable number of days before anything was paid him, and that constituted the opportunity to debauch and defraud him. The present Bill proposed to limit that period to two days, exclusive of Sundays and Bank holidays. At this point he would pay a tribute to the exertions of the permanent officials of the Board of Trade, who had, during the last two or three years, without any pressure from outside, entirely from their own sense of duty, organized the transmission of seamen's wages, which had proved very successful in London, and was then being extended to Liverpool, Glasgow, Dundee, and Shields. The system to which he alluded was that an officer of the Board of Trade went on board a vessel as she was arriving, and ascertained which of the seamen would like to be sent home at once. Those who were willing to be so treated had a certain sum of money given to them by the official of the Board of Trade, who, on his part, received authority to settle the wages of the seamen with the owner, on his behalf. The seaman was then taken at once to the railway station, a ticket was given to him, and he was sent to the place to which he wished to go, the balance of his wages being afterwards forwarded to him. He thought hon. Members would see that it was an enormous advantage to the seamen to be able to reach his destination immediately without being obliged to wait about the docks. It had been objected that this system, by its partial application, had the effect of taking away seamen from the Port of London; but it would be seen that there would also be a current in the opposite direction as soon as the practice was generally adopted. Again, it had been found that the law forbidding persons to go on board ship without the consent of the master was not sufficiently stringent. The object of the 4th clause, therefore, was to make it certain that until the seaman had done with the ship he should not be exposed to the blandishments of the land sharks who batten on him. Then came a provision making service at sea for four years as necessary to qualify for the designation of an able seaman. Some such provision was much wanted in order to improve the qualifications of our sea-going population. The next clause had for its chief object to give power for the rescinding of a contract between shipowner and apprentice, and which was desirable, because, as happened often, for instance, at Grimsby, although an apprentice turned out to be unfit for the sea, he could not be released from his indentures. In conclusion, he would merely say that the Bill, of which he had given a summary, had for its object to restore to the seaman that freedom of action which he had been deprived of by customs injurious to his welfare. He would move the second reading of the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Evelyn Ashley.)


said, he must appeal to the House as to whether a Bill of such great importance should be brought forward for a second reading at that hour—12.45 A.M.—when few Members whose duty it was to consider the Bill thoroughly were present. The Government had had the advantage of explaining the measure at a considerable length, and he thought it was hardly reasonable to expect that it could be discussed in a proper manner under the circumstances to which he had alluded. For those reasons, without any desire to delay the Business of the Government, and after the explanation which had taken place, he begged leave to move that the debate be now adjourned.


said, he was pleased to second the Motion for the adjournment of the debate, because it was only fair that the interests involved in a great question of the kind before the House should be fully and fairly discussed under the eyes of those persons who were accustomed to deal with it from different points of view. His hon. Friend the Secretary to the Board of Trade had spoken of the affairs of seamen as they existed 35 years ago, and not as they existed at the present day. The whole condition of the seafaring class had entirely changed. Large steam vessels had supplied the place of the old description of ships, and had afforded to the seaman an entirely different description of employment. They must not, in his opinion, hamper the trade of the country by any fanciful ideas which might get into the head of the Secretary to the Board of Trade. He thought the hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Norwood) only asked what was fair in moving the adjournment of the debate.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. Norwood.)


said, he wished to endorse the appeal made by the hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Norwood), that they should not be called upon to discuss a Bill of such importance at so late an hour. Perhaps many hon. Members were not fully aware of the importance of the measure. And, moreover, very few hon. Members were present, which would render it impossible that proper attention should be given to the question. As a Member of the Committee of 1878, almost every meeting of which he had attended, and in reference to the question which the Secretary to the Board of Trade had chiefly drawn attention to—namely, that of advance notes, his impression was that nearly every Member of the Committee was in favour of their abolition; but they were told by shipowners, masters, and others of the highest authority, that if advance notes were done away with they would be unable to man their ships. The question involved the interest of the whole of the Mercantile Marine of the country, and he could not agree that they should be called upon at that hour to settle a question of such vital importance. There were, again, a great many details for discussion in Committee. Under the circumstances, he hoped that the Bill would be again brought forward at a time when it could be properly discussed.


said, that there was no doubt of the extreme importance of the Bill, and that if it were carried it would greatly benefit the seamen whom it had in view; but the importance of the proposed legislation was a reason which inclined the Government to yield to the appeal that had been made for a better opportunity of discussing the measure. The Government had been induced to bring forward the Bill by the belief that while hon. Members were anxious to discuss its details they were not seriously opposed to its principles. After the representations that had been made, the Government would consent to the adjournment.

Question put, and agreed to.

Debate adjourned till Monday next.