HC Deb 13 August 1881 vol 264 cc1865-77

MR. O'DONNELL, who had the following Notice on the Paper:—To call attention to the Report on Accommodation for Emigrants in Transatlantic Passenger Ships; and to move— That the grave abuses complained of by Miss O'Brien, and partly admitted by the Board of Trade, require a prompt legislative remedy, said, he thought a great misapprehension had gone abroad with regard to the alleged failure of Miss O'Brien to make out her case. The substance of her complaint, he held, was made out beyond all doubt by the admissions of the Government Department itself. He also wished to call attention to the fact that the only evidence called at the inquiry was that of a character which ought to be looked at with healthy suspicion by the public at large. The Blue Book on the subject, laid before the House, consisted of a Minute by the President of the Board of Trade upon the conduct of his own officials, and of the evidence of the managers of a large number of Companies. Where none but the witnesses for the defence were heard, it was a triumph for the prosecution to see that practically these charges were proved, and that was the case with the present inquiry. The emigration question was of great importance, as emigration was increasing; and they must not forget that the arrangements for emigration were more and more controlled by the circumstances of the great rush of Continental emigration. To Miss O'Brien was due the deep gratitude of Irishmen and Irishwomen, for the womanly courage with which she had come forward and made her statements, by which she had exposed herself to opprobrium and something very like insults on the part of the officials of the Government. It would be seen, by reference to the admissions of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, that he practically admitted the truth of Miss O'Brien's statements. He admitted that provision ought to be made for keeping communications between the married and the single women separate; he agreed that the lavatory accommodation ought to be separate. The President also seemed to be disposed to agree that, if a certain number of women were carried, there should be a woman of position to act as matron, and that showed how well founded were the allegations made on the subject. It was stated that some of the Companies were very well arranged and managed; but the law was not made for the restraint of the well-behaved, but for the restraint of the ill-behaved. He (Mr. O'Donnell) very much regretted that the President of the Board of Trade had thought fit, in that statement, to indulge in a serious reflection against Miss O'Brien and against the poor, and he also regretted that he should put those reflections in a public document. It was admitted, by manager after manager, that it was practically impossible for the emigrants in a large number of ships to change their clothes, or to wash themselves from the beginning of the voyage to the end. Among those persons for whom the President of the Board of Trade had such unquestionable scorn, he chose to particularize in referring to workmen's garrets and hovels. He thought so eminent a democrat might have kept in the background such an expression. The answer, which had attended the inquiry, he was sorry to say, appeared to be re-echoed by the subordinates of the right hon. Gentleman, and especially was this found to be the case in Mr. Gray, Assistant Secretary to the Board of Trade. Miss O'Brien had described the monster berths in which passengers were packed as "huge hammocks," in which men, women, and children lay side by side promiscuously. To a person like Miss O'Brien, not acquainted with the nomenclature on board emigrant ships, it was not unreasonable that those long trays of passengers, one above another, should look like "huge hammocks," or that the way the passengers were packed together should suggest something like "promiscuousness." In drawing upon the horrors of association with persons of dissolute morals and conversation, Miss O'Brien had asked if a shrinking girl-child of 11 years should strive "to rise and flee to save her soul," what could she do? In these monster berths, which were divided, the "pigeon-hole" sleepers could only get out head foremost or feet foremost; and, in cases of prostration or sickness, that must be a matter of some difficulty. But what was the interpretation put upon the supposition of a girl striving "to flee to save her soul" by the Assistant Secretary to the Board of Trade? What was the base, ignoble joke made of the innocent expression of this lady by Mr. Gray? Addressing each manager that came before him he asked—"Supposing that a girl-child—a shrinking girl-child—should strive, in Miss O'Brien's words, 'to flee to save her soul,' or to leave her berth for some natural purposes—." This was the base, ignoble jest of Mr. Gray. It was in the face of officials of this character that this spotless Irish lady had been compelled to fight on behalf of her countrywomen. Mr. Gray's "dirty joke" was repeated in every ease. Such was the character and tribunal that had tried the case; and yet upon the evidence of this tribunal the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade declared "that Miss O'Brien's case had completely broken down." that her statements had been thoroughly investigated by competent officials—like Mr. Gray—and that it was not too much to say that they had been entirely disproved. The fact was that, with regard to one particular ship, Miss O'Brien's case did break down, and she was the first to admit it; but the general charge of want of proper precautions in the trade at large was proved to demon- stration. Undoubtedly, it was the case that men, women, and children were pigeon-holed in monster berths; and matters should be so arranged as to prevent any more serious consequences than lack of ventilation or suffocation. Miss O'Brien complained that the single women were not necessarily partitioned off from the married couples; thus, anyone who claimed marriage might, in reality, be an agent of infamy in New York, as had often happened when, owing to great pressure, the worst-managed Companies did a roaring trade in emigration. The Companies themselves could not be altogether blamed for this state of things, for the simple reason that the Passenger Acts did not compel them to separate the passengers as suggested. Yet it was said that Miss O'Brien's charges had been disproved. Owing to the fact that there was a common thoroughfare to the lavatories, available at night, indecent persons had the most dangerous facilities for carrying out their purposes. Miss O'Brien asked that there should be legal prohibition of such facilities. The present Acts did not provide for the separation of single men from single women on board, and that statement had been made by Mr. Montgomery, the representative of the Dominion Steamship Company, apparently to the surprise of the officials of the Board of Trade. It was urged that there was the steward's watch at night to preserve the passengers from molestation, but that officer was not allowed to examine the women's berths at night; thus, if a man entered these berths he was comparatively safe. Miss O'Brien had further complained that the women's berths, in many cases, had no fastenings from the inside, and urged that the provisions made by the best Companies should be made compulsory in all cases. The women were frequently unable to offer any resistance, as when they were prostrated by sea sickness. Passengers had no protection against the semi-sailors and semi-lubbers who did the unsailor-like work, and, practically, had the run of the whole vessel, and many complaints had been made against these men. He (Mr. O'Donnell) was not aware that immorality always followed where facilities for immorality were provided; but he maintained that emigrants had a right to be pro- tected against indecency as well as against immorality. Cases of immorality were not always made known, for the simple reason that such exposure would reflect upon the conduct of the Companies upon whose vessels they occurred. The minds of the heads of these Companies were so interested and so disposed, that even when grave charges were made they were at once led to take the view of their under officials. He (Mr. O'Donnell) could assure the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade that, besides the people, the great mass of the Bishops and clergy of Ireland were most deeply interested in the matter, and most grateful to Miss O'Brien for her heroic efforts. A worthy Irish priest had sent him one or two extracts to which he would refer. He had an extract from a most popular newspaper, circulating amongst the classes that came out as steerage emigrants—namely, Frank Leslie's Weekly, which dealt with the misconduct and abuses that had occurred on the steamer Hecla. The evidence given before the Emigration Commissioners at Castle Gardens showed that the steward had been drunk during the entire passage, and had taken liberties with the female passengers as if it formed part of his duty. It was high time, the paper stated, that the owners and agents of these Line steamers, who had a snobbish contempt for poor people of humble birth, should understand that America took a different view of the matter, and would enforce, so far as they were able, the better treatment of persons who came there to enjoy the freedom of that country and the equality guaranteed by her Constitution. A respectable Irishwoman, writing from her uncle's home in Boston to The Boston Pilot, one of the most respectable papers in any country, gave an account of her sufferings, and the insults to her and other women in a ship belonging to one of the best conducted Lines. She stated that on Sunday, the 20th September, she sailed from Queenstown (Ireland) on board the Hecla, and received the worst ill-treatment. The steerage passengers were packed together like cattle in a truck, and constant abuse and insult were offered to the female passengers. The steward especially was most insulting, and used the worst expressions towards them. They made several com- plaints to the captain, and he told them that he would make it all right; but he never did. The females could not dress or undress during the voyage, or even wash themselves. Some of the gentlemen passengers complained to the captain of how the females were treated; but he gave them no satisfaction, but laughed in their face. The steward was drunk all the time. She never suffered so much in her life as she did during that voyage. He had also a letter from a gentleman connected with the Catholic University School, Stephen's Green, Dublin, dated May 10, 1881, in which he related particulars of a double visit he paid to America on board two ships which he mentioned. He did not go steerage; but he said it was a matter of common talk among the better class of passengers—the freedom and liberty the sailors permitted themselves among the young women of the steerage class. It was notorious among the passengers that gross acts of impropriety were committed by sailors towards the female passengers, and four females became insane during one voyage. He (Mr. O'Donnell) got another letter, mentioning the name of the ex-emigrant agent in Liverpool, who was prepared to give information in regard to the gross misconduct of sailors on board Atlantic steamers. Sailors were not only admitted to the female compartments, but actually outraged the passengers. To show that his (Mr. O'Donnell's) description of the hammocks was not in any way exaggerated, he might refer the House to the statements on the subject by Dr. De La Poer, the Medical Officer at Queenstown. The principal officer of the Board of Trade (Captain Wilson) was sent over from London, and he also practically admitted the whole substance of the charges made by Miss O'Brien against the present system. He (Mr. O'Donnell) contended that the fact that there were precautions taken on well-managed Lines furnished no argument against the necessity of altering the law so as to compel misconducted captains and sailors in charge of those ships to become well-conducted. Captain Wilson said that the longitudinal division between the berths, which was only from 6 to 10 inches high, was movable, and, as a matter of fact, was removed if a husband and wife with children were together, so that, when the mattrass and bedding were put in, the division practically did not exist. The berths all formed one long mattrass. He contended that that was a colourable evasion even of the existing law, because the Passenger Act provided that, except in the case of married couples, every adult passenger should have a separate berth. The existing system was simply scandalous, and it was a wonder there were not more complaints. Although his statement had been necessarily brief, he had brought forward ample proofs from the admissions of the Board of Trade, the admissions of their officers, and in the absence of any impartial investigation, that though, of course, it was quite open for well-conducted Lines to conduct themselves well, it was also open for ill-conducted Lines to conduct themselves badly. He hoped a new spirit would be breathed into this administration, and that now that the Government were to take an official part in Irish emigration, they would not by a superficial examination, but a real determination, put an end for ever to the scandalous abuses which disgraced the present passenger traffic.


said, the question was one of great importance, and he and others felt that, particularly now that the Government meant to promote emigration by Government means, it should engage their serious attention. He ought to say that Miss O'Brien's statements with regard to the Germanic were not fully borne out by some of the emigrants. He (Mr. Moore) had promised to abide by the verdict of the emigrants; and the moment it was received he conveyed his regret to the Company to which the ship belonged. He, however, felt, after having taken great interest in the question for some time past, and after having carried on a long correspondence respecting it, that Miss O'Brien had done a real service to the country by her disclosures. It was perfectly clear the law was in a most unsatisfactory state, and he could not imagine a more dishonest inquiry than that held by Mr. Gray at Liverpool. That gentleman went down to Liverpool with a preconceived view, which he was determined to prove, and every question he put was what lawyers called a "leading question." His report was the report of the permanent official whose dignity had been touched. It was wholly misleading, and was re- plete with the most offensive, insolent vulgarity. Father Nugent was the only independent witness summoned, and what was his evidence? It amounted to this, that upon the first-class Lines from Liverpool to New York things were pretty well conducted. He told them that these Lines had separate inclosed berths for married couples, for single men, and for single women. But the point was that the law did not compel the Companies to provide these inclosed berths; it only stipulated that males above 14 should be separated from all other classes in the ship, and did not prevent married men or supposed married men sleeping in a room with unmarried women, no matter what their age. As at present framed, the law opened the door for every kind of abuse on inferior Lines. He held in his hand a report of the proceedings at the trial of the masters of a great many ships in New York. That would have been a mere futile ground for observation for the officials of the Board of Trade. The captains of these ships had been convicted for gross overcrowding. One of the first ships on the ocean, one belonging to the Inman Company, sailed from Queenstown 18 months ago with about 450 passengers more than the number she was entitled to carry, and instead of punishing such a gross scandal as it deserved, the Board of Trade let off the owner with an ample apology. When they had these direct proofs of overcrowding, it was necessary that they should look into the state of the law, and see that it was thoroughly reversed. He received a number of letters on this subject, some of a most atrocious kind, from dismissed agents and others, which he intended to pass over, and others from persons of undoubted respectability, disclosing a state of things which required the prompt intervention of the Legislature. He was sensible that, in bringing forward these complaints, they might possibly divert traffic from British shipowners to foreign Lines. That would be a great calamity, because foreign Lines were managed in a most abominable way, and emigrants would not even have that protection which the present unsatisfactory state of the law afforded with respect to British vessels. The substance of the complaints he had received was that there was not proper separation for the sexes, and that young single women were attended by men. These men might enter the compartments of females at any time for the nominal purpose of attendance, when, perhaps, the poor young women were absolutely exhausted from sea sickness. He had received letters from females who travelled to America, complaining of the want of privacy in their compartments, and of the undue proximity of their berths to those of single and married men. The absence of medical assistance when required, and of the attendance of a stewardess, were also complained of by the young women whose letters he read. Referring to the advertisements published in London, inviting emigrants to travel by a Line which would convey them to New York at a rate considerably lower than that of the Liverpool Companies, he said it should be publicly known that emigrants beguiled by these solicitations were merely taken in small coasters to Antwerp, and there transhipped for New York in vessels of a most filthy description, which rendered life almost insupportable during the voyage. He had received a communication, in which the fullest credence could be placed, showing how a ship of this kind became a perfect pandæmonium after a certain hour in the evening. In the vessel to which the letter specially referred there were 430 passengers, some of whom were subjected to the roughest usage, and even kicked. The women on board were not given separate accommodation. He complained—first, that there was no legal obligation to enforce separation; second, that the Board of Trade had no legal control over the arrangements under which passengers were conveyed who left this country and were transhipped at a foreign port; and, third, that the Board of Trade had no control over the arrangements with regard to immigrants coming to this country. The horrors of the 48 hours' voyage from the Scandinavian and North German ports exceeded what was experienced in the long Atlantic voyage. The only satisfactory solution of the matter was to insist on the separation of the sexes. He did not think the shipowners would be hostile to such a regulation. Indeed, the Allan Line had for years carried out the system of separation, and would not now depart from it for the world. True, the male and female passengers were on the same deck; but no man was permitted to enter the inclosed berth in which a woman was. A strong argument was that on board the Indian troopships the most absolute separation prevailed, and there was no sufficient reason why the same system should not be enforced in the ordinary emigrant-carrying traffic. It was also necessary—and he was glad that the Board of Trade supported them in this—that there should be some woman appointed to take charge of the female department. Perhaps the House was not aware that the emigrant traffic from Queenstown to New York paid the shipowners a great deal better than the first-class passengers. The total cost for each steerage passenger was not above £2, leaving a net profit of something like £4. A Protestant clergyman in the East End of London had told him that the question would never be settled until they got some religious ladies of the Catholic faith to take the work in hand voluntarily. The emigration to our Australian Colonies was conducted under admirable regulations, and in Melbourne there was an excellent house for the reception of emigrants. He trusted that some similar establishment would be provided at Queenstown. The sanitary arrangements were scandalous in almost every case; certainly some that he had seen on a White Star vessel seemed very satisfactory; but, for the most part, they were very much the reverse. The whole subject was one in which Irish Members felt a deep concern for the honour and happiness of a number of poor people. They thought that every protection ought to be afforded to emigrants going out to America in order to give them a fair chance of starting in life.


said, he would endeavour to lay aside all personal feelings in replying to the speeches of hon. Members, although he thought he might complain of the tone and temper of the hon. Member for Dungarvan (Mr. O'Donnell). He came to the consideration of the question with one feeling only—an earnest desire that, out of the discussion, the House might arrive at some practical conclusion as to what alterations, if any, were possible and desirable to secure the comfort and decency and morality of the emigrants. The hon. Member for Dungarvan had commented strongly on the persons who had conducted the inquiry for the Board of Trade, and also on the evidence given. Mr. Gray was a trusted and valued officer of the Board of Trade, and was most impartial and disinterested in the matter, because there was no question of the conduct of the Board of Trade officers. As to the evidence, what other evidence was it possible to get? The first point to be decided was the actual system; and for that purpose Mr. Gray and Captain Wilson, accompanied by Miss O'Brien, personally examined some of the great Liners. Miss O'Brien was, of course, not present at the inquiry; but she was present at the personal inspection, and she coincided absolutely as to the statements made with reference to what was seen at that inspection. He agreed entirely with the hon. Member for Dungarvan as to the importance of the subject. It was important, in the first place, to the emigrants themselves; and it was also important to the owners of the great steamship Lines, whose character had been so seriously, and, as he thought, unjustly impugned. It had been said that the Board of Trade, to a great extent, had admitted the charges of Miss O'Brien, and that they had shown that by the recommendations they had made. Well, he did not wish to minimize those; but he must say they were not of urgent importance. After careful inquiry, it was recommended, in the first place, that there should be, what already existed in many cases, separate communication from the single women's and from the single men's quarters without going through each other's quarters. That was desirable; but he did not think it was so important that a different state of things necessarily contributed always to immorality. A common passage and a common staircase was the usual thing with all houses and hotels; and the idea that these emigrants, men and women, were not to be trusted to go upstairs together involved an accusation against the people concerned that he should be sorry to make. Then, the second recommendation was the possession of a sufficient number—an ample number—of lavatories and latreens; and, having expressed the strong opinion of the Board of Trade on this point, it would be carried out. Then, the third recommendation was that a matron should have charge of the women's quarters, and that was a sug- gestion that shipowners would do well to consider. On some Lines it had been adopted, and afterwards abandoned for reasons not connected with expense. It was always usual in long passages to select one or more of the women to act as matron during the voyage. The hon. Member for Dungarvan said Miss O'Brien's statements had been proved; but there he must differ from him; and then the hon. Member went on to observe that he (Mr. Chamberlain) had used scornful language with reference to Miss O'Brien, and that was a statement he must absolutely and utterly deny. He had treated Miss O'Brien throughout with the greatest respect—a respect to which her sex and her good intentions entitled her, though he could not but regret that, in making statements rashly without sufficient experience, she had done injustice to a respectable trade. The words he had used, and which the hon. Member had quoted, were— It might be doubted if Miss O'Brien had done full justice to the well-known character and virtue of her countrywomen, and he denied that there was anything in that of the nature of an expression of scorn to Miss O'Brien or the emigrant classes. If single women were berthed together—from 20 to 30 together—if all were virtuous and well disposed, or even if any were, it would be impossible that any immorality could take place. Miss O'Brien was certainly mistaken in many of the statements she had made, as she herself admitted. No such thing as a "monster hammock" existed in any of the emigration vessels that had been referred to by the hon. Member. There were separate compartments, in which trays one above another were placed at right angles to the vessel, these trays consisted of five or six berths; so that in a whole compartment it was possible to have 24 beds; but they were not in line as in a hammock. The mistake was perfectly unintentional on the part of Miss O'Brien, if she had admitted that she could not reconcile what she saw on the second occasion with what she thought she saw on the first. She had further stated that she had seen "a dark hole" resembling those on board slave ships. It was proved that there was no such hole; but that the decks were well lighted and ventilated, and the one referred to was subsequently used for cabin passengers. The charges in regard to the misconduct of stewards and sailors were not, as far as he knew, possible of prevention; inasmuch as it would not be possible, by any legal proceeding, to prevent these persons from making their way into the quarters of unmarried women if they chose to do so. As far as overcrowding of emigrant ships was concerned, he could only say that that had already been legislated against; and if any complaint on the point was made, he should certainly take steps concerning it, as he should also if it was made known to him that in emigrant ships male servants were allowed to go into rooms occupied by women. Separation was possible, no doubt; but it could not be carried out without considerable difficulty and expense, and ought not to be attempted unless the legislation was made universal as far as all the emigrant-carrying Companies were concerned. He admitted that the Passengers Act might, with advantage, be amended in some particulars, and nothing would please him better than to bring in an amending Bill; but the conduct of the hon. Member for Dungarvan and his Colleagues had made such legislation rather difficult and left the time very short indeed, and a Government might be excused from undertaking such legislation when so many arrears were left unattended to.


said, after the statement made by the Prime Minister yesterday as to the hour at which Supply would be taken, he should not ask the House to go into Committee of Supply that night.


expressed his regret that the Government did not see their way to requiring the complete separation of the sexes on board emigrant ships, and said the time the Government had employed in passing Coercion Bills for Ireland would have been much better spent in legislating upon the question under discussion.

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

House adjourned at Seven o'clock till Monday next.