HC Deb 11 March 1915 vol 70 cc1712-7

I want to call attention to the action of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. I am afraid this action will come as a surprise to everybody who has not heard the facts before. For thirty or forty years the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company has carried from Ireland, in its Sunday boats, the scenery of the dramatic companies. Last August they suddenly made up their minds to refuse to carry this scenery any longer. It is quite possible, owing to the large demands upon the company through the military and naval preparations, that they had some excuse of pressure at that period, but the pressure passed away, and afterwards the company still refused to carry the scenery on their Sunday boats. This decision had very serious and disastrous consequences upon the dramatic profession. The great companies producing great spectacular plays have to carry round a large amount of scenery. No local theatre is able to supply the scenery of itself.

Under the old system this scenery left Dublin on Sunday morning by the City of Dublin Steam Packet mail boat. It got to Holyhead a little after eleven o'clock. At one o'clock there was a special theatrical train, because this is the only company on land or sea that does not cater for this custom and does not facilitate it in any way, and by catching the train the companies were able to reach with their scenery, the same evening Manchester, Liverpool, and even at a later hour for more remote towns like Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London. Therefore, they were able to have their scenery for rehearsals all prepared for the Monday night's performance. Since this happened it is impossible to fulfil an engagement on the following Monday, with the result that all the great heads of the profession with anything like a large quantity of scenery have been compelled to refuse to come to Dublin, and Dublin, according to the statement of one of the leading Dublin papers, is now dramatically being sunk to the position of a small village. I have received letters from Sir Herbert Tree, Sir George Alexander, Mr. Fred Terry, Mr. Lewis Waller, Mr. Henry B. Irving, and many others who say that since this new arrangement came into operation they have been compelled to refuse all engagements in Dublin, Belfast, and Cork. This is a very serious blow at the drama in Ireland.

In all the three kingdoms I do not know of any that are keener or take a more intelligent interest in the drama than the people of Dublin. I do not know whether the managers of this company belong to that party known as the "unco guid people," who regard the theatre as the invention of the devil. There may be some such people left in the world, and among certain classes in Ireland, and that may be the reason for this extraordinary performance, but, unless this man thinks it his duty to put down dramatic performances in Dublin, I cannot understand why he has adopted these measures. The matter has been debated a good deal in Ireland. The Press is unanimous. How could any journal in Dublin, Belfast, or Cork do anything but resent the robbing of Ireland in this way of the drama. The Lord Mayor of Dublin has taken action. The President of the Board of Trade, whose absence I regret, especially as I believe it is due to illness, has protested, and I think I may say my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General is in sympathy with my views. In fact, this company has not a single supporter in the whole world in the extraordinary action it has taken.

Let me deal briefly with the two excuses they made. The first is that the Post-master-General intervened on the ground that it might interfere in some way with mail delivery. I understand that that statement is absolutely without foundation, and I believe the right hon. Gentleman will confirm that. The second excuse is that this scenery can be brought over by the London and North-Western Company, and actually a statement was made by the manager of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company that he had made an arrangement with the London and North-Western Railway Company to take over the scenery instead of his own company doing it. The third reason is that the scenery had increased so largely as to be a burden. I understand that, on the contrary, the whole tendency, for commercial and other reasons, of modern stage producers is to diminish scenery as far as circumstances will permit.

With regard to the suggestion that the London and North-Western Railway Company would do that, and that arrangement had been, made for that, there has been a correspondence between the manager of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company and the London and North-Western Railway Company, and the latter company has denied in the most emphatic terms that he ever consented to carry the scenery over. I say that this suggested arrangement between the two companies has no existence except in the imagination of the manager of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. What are the facts with regard to the London and North-Western boat? They do send a boat on Sunday mornings, but it starts at such an hour that it gets to Holyhead too late to catch the one o'clock theatrical train, and this prevents the companies producing their pieces on Monday in any of the English towns. This boat, in addition, is a cargo boat, its main purpose being to carry cattle and other provisions to the English Monday morning markets. Will anybody suggest that at a time like this it would be wise that the food required in the markets of England should be sacrificed in order to carry over this scenery? In the case of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company's boat no such sacrifice is required. It is, in fact, impossible for the London and North-Western Railway cargo boat to do it without seriously imperilling the supply of perishable goods to the English markets.

The only foundation for this statement is that on one or two occasions the manager of the London and North-Western boat did consent to carry scenery, but then the circumstances were exceptional, as he saw a number of unfortunate members of the theatrical profession—men and women—stranded in Dublin and threatened with the loss of engagements through violation of their contract. With the assent of the Custom inspector he did carry the scenery on two occasions, but he has declined ever since, and I think rightly so, to subject the perishable food which he carries to the delay and possible loss which the carriage of the scenery might entail. This is also a question of employment. There were actually sixty unfortunate women in Dublin, members of a musical comedy company. They had a fortnight's engagement in England and Scotland. Their manager was unable to take over the scenery, the results being that he had to break and lose his fortnight's contract and that these unfortunate young women were deprived of their salaries for a fortnight. This was all done in the name of that severe form of religion which regards the theatrical profession as bad for the morals.

I hope I have only to state the case to carry with me all Parliamentary opinion. All Irish opinion is united upon the subject. The dramatic profession rightly resents this action. This company lives on the mail subsidy. It is the creation of this House. It is largely the creation of the Members from Ireland. On several occasions, because it was an Irish company and a large amount of Irish capital was invested in it, we have defended this company and got the contract for £80,000 or £90,000 a year renewed time after time, but when we find that a company getting this vast subsidy, the creation of Parliament, violates one of its great public obligations as a carrier, I am sure many of us will have to reconsider our position.


The first intimation I got of the dispute that has arisen in connection with the carrying of theatrical scenery from Dublin to this country came to me in a letter from one of the hon. Members for the City of Dublin, in which he made one or two statements which I felt it my duty to investigate. He informed me that the managers of the Dublin Mail Packet Company had refused to carry this scenery, and he went on to say that their reason for the refusal would be divulged only to myself. Upon receiving that letter from the hon. Member I wrote to the manager of the Dublin Steam Packet Company asking him to be good enough to give me some explanation of the statement to which I have just referred. I received a letter from him repudiating entirely the statement. Of course, I do not know what transpired at the interview between the manager of the company and the hon. Member for Dublin. The manager of the company, Mr. Watson, entirely repudiates the suggestion.


Which Mr. Watson?


Mr. George Watson, I think, not Sir Edward Watson. He repudiated entirely the idea that it was only to myself that he would divulge the reasons for refusing to carry this scenery. Indeed, he went further. He added two statements which, I am bound to say, appear to me to be rather contradictory, one of which was that he put no obstacles in the way of transporting theatrical properties, but he would not give any reason for the decision of the company in these circumstances not to carry the scenery. So far as Mr. Watson is concerned, that is really all I know about this unfortunate dispute. Whether his version of the interview which took place between him and the Member for Dublin is the correct one I have no means of ascertaining, but following on that letter I made some researches into the correspondence which had appeared in the Dublin newspapers on that point, and I am bound to say it revealed a rather remarkable state of facts. My hon. Friend (Mr. T. P. O'Connor) has pointed out perfectly truly that this scenery must leave Dublin the first thing on Sunday morning if it is to get to England in time to enable English managers to open their theatres on the following afternoon, and in the old days it appears that this scenery was transported byroad from Dublin to Kingstown and there put on board a mail packet. The general manager of the company, in one of the letters which he addressed to the local Press, seems to have given as one of his reasons—I think the second, or, at all events, one of the later reasons—for refusing to carry this scenery, that his men were so hard-worked, following on the outbreak of war, during the week, that he was unable to require them to work early on Sunday morning, because otherwise they really got no rest-day in the week. He seems to have put forward also an earlier statement that his real reason for refusing to carry this scenery was that four packet boats of the company had been requisitioned by the Admiralty, and he left it to be inferred that the other boats were not suitable for carrying it.

These are the four different reasons which have at different times been advanced by the company for this very unfortunate refusal. It seems to have rendered great hardship to the theatrical world in Dublin, or, at all events, that part of the population in Dublin which desire to go to the theatre, and a real and substantial hardship on the members of the theatrical profession. I really have no sort of part or lot in this controversy. It is quite true that we pay a substantial subsidy to the company, but that is given for carrying the mails, and for no other purpose whatever. We have given no directions to this gentleman in respect of the transportation of mails which would in any way interfere with or inflict any penalty on him. He has taken this action entirely upon his own initiative. The reasons which animated him and have led him to adopt this course of conduct are unknown to me, save as they are presented to my hon. Friend and the rest of the Irish world in the newspapers of Dublin. I must confess that, speaking as an Englishman, looking at it merely from the point of view of the ordinary citizen, it seems a regrettable course of action to take. There is nothing in the mail contract which enables me to put any pressure upon him at all to restore the continuation of a state of things which has obtained for a great number of years.


How long is the contract for?


The contract began eighteen years ago, and it comes to an end in March, 1917. At all events, until that time comes, it seems to me impossible for this House to bring any pressure to bear in the matter. My duty is to see that he fulfils his contract for the carrying of mails, and I shall take very good care he does that.