HC Deb 04 August 1882 vol 273 cc758-65

, in rising to draw attention to the state of the law regarding emigrants; and to move—"That in the opinion of this House, the Passenger Acts require revision and reform," said, he felt bound to congratulate the Board of Trade on the fact that, owing to the labours of the Select Committee of last year, considerable improvements had been made since last year, when many complaints had been made as to defective passenger accommodation. Very desirable changes had been made in this respect by most of the great Steamship Companies whose boats ran between Liverpool and New York; and one line in particular— the White Star—had made great strides in the right direction, and was being followed in the way of improvement by the National and Allan Lines; but these improvements did not, of course, alter the very unsatisfactory state of the law, Much had also been done for Irish emigrants by Miss O'Brien, who had opened a home for them at Queenstown, and had inspected many of the vessels. But neither the efforts of the benevolent, nor the improved condition of emigration introduced by the Steamship Companies, would be wholly effectual as long as the law remained unaltered. In spite of all that had been done, as many as 200 complaints of overcrowding had been received within the last two years in the ease of vessels arriving at New York; and he had the authority of Miss O'Brien, who had taken great interest in this matter, for saying that, in these cases, no woman could keep her character above reproach in one of these crowded voyages. Beyond that, the state of things that occasionally prevailed on board emigrant ships might be gathered from the report issued officially from Castle Garden, New York, of what had occurred on one of the best steamers between that port and Liverpool. The New York officials said, with reference to this vessel, that they had carefully inquired into the facts of the case, and found that the bread supplied to the emigrants was sour, that the potatoes were not good, that the sleeping accommodation was promiscuous, and that the conduct of the chief steward was reprehensible. In fact, the circumstances made public in this case fully justified the complaints made last year. The laws of the United States respecting emigrants had recently been altered; but those of this country were still very inadequate, and he would urge upon the Government to take steps to effect concerted action on the part, not only of England and America, but of other European countries. By some strange anomaly the Passenger Acts did not apply to "short" ships—that was, to vessels carrying fewer than 50passengers. Besides short ships, homeward-bound vessels, and vessels plying to European ports, were also exempt from the provisions of the Passenger Act. He did not see why the same protection was not necessary in the case of a ship coming home; and then, if complaints were made, we were ourselves in a position to inquire into and remedy the grievance. In reference to the point, he had received a letter, detailing the shameful treatment by the chief steward of a poor girl on board one of these homeward-bound vessels, and which showed the necessity for extending to passengers coming home the same protection which was given to passengers going out. With regard to the third portion of his case, or vessels plying between European ports, he last year called attention to the very bad state of the Scandinavian traffic. He did not wish to lean very heavily upon the owners, because he believed they would be willing to set things right; but he received his information from such high authority that he felt bound to bring the subject forward. The President of the Board of Trade sent out an officer to inquire into the matter, and he reported that the accommodation was very bad, in fact, of the worst kind possible, and that there was no attempt at a division of the sexes, nor even of individual berths. That was last autumn, the slack time of the year, and the officer recommended that he should be sent out again. That was done, and it was found that a considerable improvement had been made. The vessels of one or two Companies were in a very satisfactory state. He had heard complaints of the boats plying between Hamburg and Loudon, in which passengers spent two days and two nights on deck crowded together like swine. Over the emigration carried on by foreign Lines, the President of the Board of Trade would, no doubt, say he had no jurisdiction. The fact, however, was that the agents disguised from the emigrants that they were to be transhipped; but when the President of the Board of Trade asked any questions, they said they only booked to European ports, and that the Passenger Acts did not apply. But he held in his hand a ticket which, professed that the passengers should be carried direct from London to New York. In these steamers there was no adequate provision for the decency, comfort, or health of the emigrants; and there was no reason why British emigrants should be carried by a circuitous route to America. He complained especially in this connection of the Compagnie Transatlantique de Havre, and of the two Antwerp Companies— the Red Star and the White Cross. They had in the House already some details in connection with the Royal Netherlands Steamship Company in the case of the Nemesis, a vessel which had carried several hundred, emigrants to New York from Amsterdam. From the report of the emigration agent at New York, it was shown that the passengers were most unhappy during the whole journey, which lasted 16 days. Ten children died on the voyage, 11 had died since, and a number of the adult passengers had to be taken to the emigration hospital on landing. It was further said that a ship's load had never before been received in such a wretched condition; that the water furnished to the passengers was bad, and that the officers and employés of the ship were careless of the comfort and welfare of the emigrants. Besides all this, it was also stated by the agent that directly it became known to the officers of the vessel that an inquiry was to be instituted, the cable was slipped in the night, and the vessel disappeared. He maintained that this country, in the interests of its own traffic, should exercise the strictest supervision over the emigration agents here, who, escaping all the regulations in force applying to agents shipping direct from British ports, represented to the Board of Trade that they wore booking passengers to European ports only, when they were really arranging for their passage to America. The present powers of the Board ought, he contended, to be extended, so that passengers thus treated might have the protection of the law. Then, better accommodation ought to be provided for foreign emigrants passing through this country, for the total disregard of all the necessary arrangements as to their comfort on landing was most shameful and deserving of the utmost condemnation. These remarks especially applied to the case of those foreign emigrants who shipped from England and Scotland, through the three great channels of emigration, the ports of Leith, Hull, and London. In the 10 months ending last February, the number of foreign emigrants entering Hull en route to America was 58,000. As regarded the accommodation of these people on shore it was reported to be so unsatisfactory that Mr. Gray was sent down by the Board of Trade to inquire into it, and he discovered that many of the emigrants were entirely without sleeping accommodation, and were found lying about on their boxes in the open air, without any roof covering over them, and the accommodation in other respects was most deplorable and required alteration. In London, the position of foreign emigrants was still more pitiable, for they became the prey of the worst description of lodging-house keepers, who, finding it to their interest to detain their lodgers as long as they possibly could, frequently allowed the vessels to sail without them, and he knew of young girls being detained in this way until their ruin was completed. But a more iniquitous practice was this—the lodging-house keepers, who received from the shipping Company 1s. 6d. to 1s. 9d. per day for each emigrant, were in the habit of subcontracting for the maintenance of the emigrants in small starvation lodging-houses, at a rate at which it was impossible that they could be fed. He knew of one case in which an emigrant was detained absolutely five weeks in town for a ship. The police had no power to interfere; and, therefore, it was imperative that the Government should take some action in the matter. Either these establishments should be brought under the immediate control of the police, or, better still, Government should provide a general depôt at some spot down the River, for the reception of emigrants while waiting to be transhipped to the Atlantic Line vessels. The Board of Trade, too, should take care that these ships carried steady and experienced surgeons, and not mere boys fresh from the medical school. Their position should be improved, and they should be made more independent. At present, their pay was small; but, no doubt, that was because of their youth, and the fact that they came to the ship generally straight from school without experience. He thought the time was come when, for reasons of humanity, the large streams of emigrants coming from abroad should be saved from lodging-houses and from infectious diseases. There should also be established an efficient system of inspection. The character of the ships should be improved, and depots established for the reception of the emigrants during their stay in London and other ports. The hon. Member concluded by moving the Resolution of which he had given Notice.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, the Passenger Acts require revision and reform,"—(Mr. Moore,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, he thought his hon. Friend the Member for Clonmel (Mr. Moore), far from needing an apology, had done good service in calling attention to this subject, in which, as was well known, he had taken great interest. He rejoiced to hear his hon. Friend say at the outset that he recognized the very great importance of the new arrangements that had been made for the convenience, comfort, and health of emigrant passengers on the great Atlantic Lines. The hon. Member paid a special compliment to one Line; but his (Mr. Chamberlain's) own inspection led him to believe that the same favourable opinion might be expressed in regard to the great majority of Lines going from England to the United States. As far as he (Mr. Chamberlain) knew, there was now only one Line which had hitherto failed to comply with the recommendations that were made some time ago by the Board of Trade, and that Line, he hoped, would not be long in following the example of the others. His hon. Friend had recognized, and he (Mr. Chamberlain), also, was quite prepared to recognize, the services of Miss O'Brien in this matter; although, at the same time, it was only fair to say that she commenced her agitation in connection with the subject by bringing very serious charges indeed against one of the great American Lines—charges which further examination showed were, at all events, immensely exaggerated, and which she subsequently withdrew in a most honourable way. There seemed to be a little confusion in the mind of his hon. Friend as to what a revision of the Passenger Acts might be expected to do. For instance, he had called attention to one or two painful cases happening on board British or foreign ships, in which women had been subjected to outrage, and passengers insulted by officers of the ships; but he (Mr. Chamberlain) would point out to the hon. Member that the law was already amply sufficient to deal with these cases. No alteration of the law would enable them to insure that every officer of every ship should be civil and obliging; but if a man, under any circumstances, committed a ruffianly act, ample provision was made for his punishment by a Court of Justice if sufficient evidence was forthcoming. The hon. Member went on to say that the powers of the Board of Trade were limited in certain cases, and that the regulations which applied to emigrant ships should apply also to ships plying between European ports and ships homeward bound. He (Mr. Chamberlain) imagined that the reason why these cases were excluded was, that no considerable number of emigrants were carried under conditions that justified the stringent provisions of the Passengers Act. The Scandinavian trade was alluded to by his hon. Friend as an illustration of the necessity of applying the rules. That trade had already engaged the attention of the Board of Trade, and an officer of the Board of Trade had gone to Hull to inquire into it. At Hull it was found that there was some reason to be dissatified with the then existing provision. The officer thought it might be improved; but he pointed out it would be extremely undesirable, in the interest of the emigrants themselves, that such stringent provision should be made as would largely increase the fares which were now charged. Subject to that circumstance, however, the officer made certain recommendations, which were forwarded to the owners of the Lines; and he (Mr. Chamberlain) had received the most ample assurances of their intentions to do, not only what was recommended, but anything else which, from time to time, he might point out to secure the comfort and health to the whole subject. His experience was, that much could be done by friendly representations to the owners of Lines, without compulsory legislation. There was always the objection to compulsory legislation, that they must lay down hard-and-fast lines to go upon in all cases, a course of proceeding which would sometimes interfere unwarrantably with private enterprize. So long as he could obtain fair and reasonable attention from the parties concerned by their voluntary action, he greatly preferred it to asking the House to attempt to control the whole of a very complicated trade by regulations which took the form of an Act of Parliament. As to the treatment of emigrants when they got to Hull, that was, no doubt, in an unsatisfactory condition; but it was the fact that cases of detention occurred very seldom during a season. The only way to remedy the cases of hardship, which occurred three or four times last year, was to erect a depôor large lodging-house for the reception of emigrants when it was impossible to send them on; and the matter had been under the consideration both of the steamship owners and of the local authorities of Hull, but no definite conclusion had been come to; one question being whether it was worth while to make such a provision, because the occasions when such buildings would be useful were so infrequent. With regard to the state of things on board foreign Lines which traded between foreign ports and America, which did not call at all in England, but for which English subjects were sometimes booked, these foreign Companies had, no doubt, agents in this country who were amenable to English law, and if his hon. Friend could lay before him any evidence of fraud, he had no doubt he would be able to bring them to a reckoning. But so far as he had been able hitherto to follow the complaints of his hon. Friend, he had no such case of fraud brought to his attention. On the contrary, the tickets he had seen distinctly stated that the voyage was only to Rotterdam, and thence in the steamers of the Transatlantic Line to New York. Under those circumstances it would be quite impossible to accuse the parties of any improper conduct. It was necessary ' to scrutinize complaints, because they sometimes came from competitors; and although that did not make them less worthy of attention, yet it suggested caution, without which we might embarrass our relations with foreign Governments. The law was already sufficient to meet cases of fraud. The case of the Nemesis had been alluded to, and there might be ground against the action of these foreign Lines; but this country had not control over them, nor could any law that they might pass give them much control. They must trust to the fact that circumstances such as those which seemed to have been brought out by the inquiry at New York were published far and wide, and that they would prove prejudicial in regard to the Line about which such statements were made, for passengers would always select that which bore the best reputation. His hon. Friend, as he understood him, proposed that the Government should erect depots, with the necessary arrangements belonging thereto, at London, Hull, Leith, and probably other places, where emigrants could be received. It seemed to him (Mr. Chamberlain), however, that if the Government were going to take such a step, it would be going very far in the direction of grandmotherly legislation, and it would be very difficult to say when the functions of the State would stop in such matters. He quite admitted that the Passengers Act required revision and reform, for it was passed 30 years ago, and it required revision in many respects to which his hon. Friend had not alluded. There was also not a single branch of the Board of Trade in regard to which he did not see that legislation of a practical and useful character might be proposed if they had only time for the business; but until some change was effected for restoring to the House control over its Business, it would be absurd to give any promise to his hon. Friend that he would bring in a Bill to deal with the subject that had just been brought under the notice of the House.


said, that, after the explanation of the right hon. Gentleman, he was ready to withdraw the Resolution. ["No, no!"]

Question put, and agreed to.

Main Question again proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."