HC Deb 22 February 1882 vol 266 cc1348-55

Order for Second Reading read.

MR. HUGH MASON, in rising to move that the Bill be now read a second time, said, he was sure that its object was so laudable that it would not raise any angry controversy in the House, or even the slightest opposition from anyone. It was intended, if possible, to prevent the loss of human life and the destruction of property arising from boiler explosions; and if the House would pardon him for a few moments, he would explain how the Bill came into his hands, and what had led to its proposal. Twenty-five years ago there was established in Manchester, by Sir William Fairbairn, Sir Joseph Whitworth, and Sir Thomas Bazley, a voluntary Association, the object of which was to prevent the loss of human life, which was so prevalent in the manufacturing districts from boiler explosions. The intention was purely philanthropic, and the means adopted at that time by those eminent gentlemen was to establish an Association of Steam Users for voluntary and self-inspection. The Association had gathered strength, and it now included in its ranks the greatest steam users in the country. It had been the means of voluntarily inspecting during the last few years more than 1,000 boiler explosions, searching into the cause of those explosions, and publishing, for the benefit of the country, the information which by that means had been collected. He did not know whether hon. Members were aware that underneath the floor of that House, or very nearly so, there was a group of steam boilers, working at high pressure; and if one of those boilers was to burst at the time the House was sitting, there would be a great many vacant seats in the representation of the counties and the boroughs. But hon. Members might make themselves perfectly easy as regarded those boilers, when he told them that those boilers were continually inspected by the officers of the Manchester Steam Users' Association, and that the officer in whose charge they were placed received his training as one of the sub-engineers of the Association. Though boiler explosions had become less frequent during the last few years than they were prior to the establishment of the Association, they were still lamentably prevalent. One boiler explosion occurred every week, and one person was killed, and two injured, more or less, by a boiler explosion every four days. During the past few years upwards of 1,000 lives had been lost, and upwards of 2,000 persons had been maimed, in consequence of boiler explosions. It had been thought, up to a comparatively recent period, that boiler explosions were mysterious in their origin, and when an inquest was held owing to loss of life, the verdict of the jury had almost invariably been "accidental death." The inquiries made by the Association, however, had demonstrated the fact that boiler explosions were not mysterious in their origin. They knew that no boiler exploded without giving ample warning that it was about to explode. It was owing to the neglect and indifference of steam users that boilers were allowed to be worked to a time beyond the proper length of their life, and thus become dangerous. There had been three recent explosions, involving great loss of life. At Batley: 16 persons were killed and 11 injured; at Walsall 25 were killed and 24 wore injured; and at Glasgow 25 were killed and 25 were injured. In the Batley case the Coroner's jury found that the explosion was accidental, although it was caused by over-pressure. It came out in evidence that the owner had placed on the safety-valve a large stone, in order to work at a high pressure, that he had worked the boiler for 25 years, and that he bought it second-hand. Members of this House were dissatisfied with the inquiry and the verdict, and they made representations to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department, who directed an inquiry of a scientific character; and the result was that the owner of the boiler was tried at the Leeds Assizes on the charge of manslaughter, was convicted, and was sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment. The object of his (Mr. Mason's) Bill was not to enforce inspection. The promoters of the measure thought it was best to take the steam users of the country into their confidence, to show them that it was to their interest, as well as their duty, to enrol themselves in one of the numerous voluntary associations for the inspection of boilers, and to induce them to do voluntarily what a Court, empowered by an Act of Parliament, would require them to do, perhaps, unwillingly. The object of the Bill was to provide that, in the case of the explosion of a boiler, whether it were attended by the loss of human life or not—and at present there was no inquiry unless life had been lost—the circumstances should be thoroughly inquired into by a Court consisting of two competent engineers and one competent lawyer, who should be set in motion by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, or the President of the Board of Trade, and should make a thoroughly scientific investigation. Hon. Members might ask whether a Bill of so mild a character would attain the object in view. Its promoters thought it would, and the records of the Manchester Steam Users' Association, of which he (Mr. Mason) was appointed President on the death of Sir William Fairbairn, proved that, although the number of boiler explosions had been so large, there had not been lost one single life among the employés of the members enrolled in its ranks. Their rough guess was that there might be in the United Kingdom 100,000 stationary commercial boilers. They were placed under the footpaths of our great towns, they were used in hotels, club-houses, and in small places of business; and he could give instances where they had exploded, and where the loss of life had been to innocent children and to people sleeping peacefully in their beds. Some hon. Members might think that the Bill did not go far enough; but if they consented to the second reading there would be an opportunity in Committee of suggesting improvements, and he could promise, as far as his Friends and himself were concerned, that they would be very glad to give their attention to any suggestion which emanated from hon. Gentlemen who did not think the Bill went far enough. In conclusion, he would formally move the second reading.

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


said, that, thinking it would be convenient, he rose for the purpose of explaining the view taken by the Government with regard to this measure. He was quite sure that there was a general agreement of sympathy with the objects which the Bill sought to accomplish, and which had been so well expressed by the hon. Member for Ashton (Mr. Mason). There could be no doubt as to the frequence and the terrible character of boiler explosions, which, as everybody knew, in many cases, unfortunately, were the result either of gross ignorance, or of carelessness so great as to be almost criminal. He would say at once that to the principle of the Bill the Government were prepared to give a cordial assent, and they hoped that the House would agree to the second reading. It was not a very strong or radical measure, as it only proposed that, in all cases of accident by explosion, there should be an official inquiry into the cause of the accident. It might be said by those who were unfamiliar with similar inquiries that that was insufficient; but he was bound to say that his experience in regard to other cases would not bear out that opinion. Inquiries were instituted into the causes of railway accidents and the loss of ships; and he thought that the result was most beneficial. In fact, when the causes of these accidents were known they were half way, at all events, towards their successful prevention. When the Bill got into Committee it might be desirable to make some alterations in matters of detail, and he did not suppose that his hon. Friend would object to those alterations. It was rather questionable, for instance, whether the procedure which his hon. Friend suggested was in every respect the best that could be devised. If the Courts were established, he (Mr. Chamberlain) should prefer that the President should not be an engineer, but that the legal member of the Court should hold that position. There was another point of greater importance to which he wished to refer. The Court was not empowered by the Bill to make any order with regard to the costs of the inquiry. It appeared to him, however, that in cases of gross negligence or gross ignorance, it would be perfectly right that the Court should be authorized to make an order for costs against the person in fault. That was a principle which already obtained in the case of inquiries into the loss of ships, and it would be only natural to introduce it into a similar procedure in the case of inquiries into boiler explosions.


desired to tender his thanks to the hon. Member (Mr. Mason) for the great care with which he had prepared his Bill, and he wished also to bear testimony to the immense good done by the Manchester Steam Users' Association. He was quite aware the Bill was not one of an extreme character, and he thought the ton. Gentleman had given good reasons why it should not be so. He was convinced the Bill, if passed, would do a great amount of good; and he hoped, when the details of the measure were being discussed, hon. Members would not put down Amendments which would have the effect of crippling the Bill. It was a Bill which, in his opinion, ought to pass; and he hoped it would come into law in the course of the present Session.


said, that this was a measure in which he took much interest, having served upon the Committee obtained by Mr. Hick when Member for Bolton, and having drafted the Bill which was the result of that Committee. He had great pleasure in supporting the second reading, and fully concurred with his right hon. Friend (Sir R. Assheton Cross) in the congratulations he had offered to the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Mason). At the same time, he was one of those who thought the measure hardly went far enough. There were one or two points which required amendment, and he should be glad to offer suggestions with regard to them in Committee.


said, he concurred entirely with the object of the hon. Member who brought forward the Bill (Mr. Mason). He should, however, like to have an assurance from the President of the Board of Trade that an order for costs would not be made except in cases of gross negligence, and that the expenses necessary in carrying it out would not throw any additional burden on the rates.


said, that last year he had put down a Notice of opposition to the measure; and though he did not wish to proceed with his opposition on the present occasion, he should expect to see several alterations of an extensive character introduced in Committee. In his opinion, very little good could be done by the Bill as it stood. The Bill, if passed, would be harassing legislation, and would throw great and needless expense on the country. The machinery was very costly, and there were no means of meeting it, except when somebody was found to be grossly at fault. He differed from the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade on the subject of inquiries. The Board already had ample powers to hold inquiries in cases of the kind with which the Bill was intended to deal; and he therefore regarded it as an ineffective measure. The cause of most boiler explosions was the incapacity of those in charge. He did not wish to oppose the Bill altogether; but he said the laws at present existing on the subject were decidedly bad, and were the cause of boiler explosions. More harm and injury was done by boiler explosions through the ignorance of men employed in managing them than anything else. In the borough which he represented there were, perhaps, as many traction engines travelling as in any part of England; and he would venture to say that two-thirds of the men who were in charge of them were unfit to manage them. He said the Bill did not grapple with the question, which should be taken up and grappled with in a statesmanlike manner. But though he thought the Bill inadequate, he would not oppose it, as it seemed to be generally approved by the House.


said, he must express his thanks to the hon. Member for Ashton (Mr. Mason) and the Manchester Steam Users' Association for the attention they had given to this subject. The time had come when investigations in this matter would be very desirable; but he considered that the Bill itself was capable of considerable amendment, which might be accomplished with little difficulty. He hoped the expenses of such inquiries as were proposed would be very strictly limited, as accidents chiefly occurred in the case of small boilers. With these reservations he should have very great pleasure in supporting the measure.


considered that the Bill in its present form would not be a bit of use. He submitted that its contents did not accord with the speech of the hon. Member for Ashton (Mr. Mason), who introduced it. With the principle of that hon. Member's speech he (Mr. Mac Iver) heartily concurred; and it might, therefore, seem ungracious if he opposed the second reading. But the Bill, if to be of any use, must be so altered as to make it the interest of boiler users to subject their boilers to inspection. The hon. Member for Ashton (Mr. Mason) said that was what was intended; but he (Mr. Mac Iver) had read the Bill, and, as a matter of fact, there was nothing in it at present which tended to such a result. Of course, some clause might be added in Committee; but he desired to point out that, in its present form, the Bill was very much like recent Acts relating to merchant shipping which were an utter failure, and which served only to stop the way against useful legislation. Inquiry was all very well in itself; but there were inquiries already, and if useful legislation were intended, he thought that what was required was to encourage a proper system of inspection.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for To-morrow.