HL Deb 08 March 1819 vol 39 cc899-903
Lord Auckland

, in rising to move the second reading of this bill, expressed his sincere hope that time and reflection had removed the objections which existed to this measure in the last session. The present bill was the same, with the exception of a few clauses, as that which had then come before their lordships, and the consideration of those clauses he should reserve for the committee. The principal means by which the object of this bill was proposed to be attained, was, by repealing the act of the 28th of the king, and limiting the number of apprentices. After the 1st of May 1821, the use of climbing-boys, except for the purpose of examining chimnies, would be done away altogether. This prohibition naturally gave rise to two questions; first, whether it was necessary for the protection of the boys employed in sweeping chimnies; and, secondly, whether it was consistent with the security of houses against fire, that it should be enforced. Upon the first of these questions, he could not anticipate any difference of opinion: it was impossible to see the unfortunate children to whom the bill applied, hourly in the streets, without experiencing the most painful emotions. Who could read the evidence which detailed the great privations and distress which they endured, without wishing to rescue them from such a state of degradation and misery? Their lordships would never permit their fellow-creatures to continue subject to such tortures as those to which these poor creatures were exposed, when they had it in their power to relieve them. This bill had been called a violent interference with the rights of individuals. On his part, he considered it a necessary measure, to protect from violence innocent children. With regard to the question of safety, it had been found that all chimnies, except a few in the houses of the rich, could be swept by machines of one kind or another. It was, indeed, thought by some, that after the introduction of machinery, boys would still be necessary to examine chimnies; but if that should be the case, it would be a less evil than the present practice. An order had been issued to the surveyor-general of the board of works, to ascertain the practicability of superseding the necessity of employing climbing boys in the sweeping chimnies by the use of machinery, and to the result of the experiments made under that order he could with confidence refer. Though colonel Stephenson thought it impossible to sweep all chimnies at present with machinery, yet, as there were but few flues to which some sort of machinery might not be applied, and these were all in the houses of the rich, it was obvious, that all the necessary alterations could easily be made before the period of the operation of this bill arrived. He had remarked, that those who doubted the practicability of the abolition of climbing-boys were chiefly those who had least experience on the subject. This might be illustrated by reference to the report. It would there be seen that Mr. Davis, who had been employed to make the experiments, spoke with the greatest confidence of the application of machinery. That gentleman had divided the flues at present in use into four classes, according to the order of their construction and the difficulty of clearing them, and it was worthy of remark that the constructions which were most easily cleaned were the most numerous. The relative proportion of the different classes of flues were thus stated by Mr. Davis. Out of 1,000 flues, there were of the first class 910, of the second 50, of the third 30, and of the fourth or most difficult only 10. It had been stated in the evidence of last year, by gentlemen on the part of the insurance companies, that if machinery was used it would be necessary that climbing-boys should examine the chimnies after they were swept. This was provided for by the present bill. He might be asked, of what use then was the bill, if these boys were still to be employed. To this he would answer, that the number would be diminished, and that was a great step towards the total abolition. The proportion required, after the operation of this bill, would not be more than one boy for every hundred now employed. To another objection, that the bill would have the effect of turning many boys out of employment, and throwing them, destitute, on the parishes, he should only remark, that before the period fixed for the commencement of the bill, the great majority of the boys now employed in sweeping chimnies would become totally unfit for business. The noble lord concluded by moving, that the bill be now read a second time.

The Earl of Lauderdale

was sorry to hear that the noble lord was determined to push the present bill onwards at this time Their lordships had lately heard complaints of the encouragement given to machinery, in preference to manual industry. Now, though he differed most completely from those who cherished the prejudice he alluded to—though he was convinced that the introduction of machinery had not only had the effect of enriching the proprietor, but also of enabling the workman to live better and cheaper than he otherwise could have done—yet there certainly was some difference to be drawn between their encouraging and enforcing the adoption of machinery, and especially when those persons who best understood its application in the way of trade were against its introduction at all. This species of legislation he would resist to his latest breath; and he could only account for its introduction on the score that every man who got into parliament thought himself bound to propose some novel measure, in order to become popular—a notion or persuasion, or whatever else it might be called, than which none had ever been conceived more mischievous to the interests of the people, nor more degrading to the dignity of the legislature. If their lordships were determined to adopt such a course, they must introduce a code of moral legislation unknown to their ancestors, and quite unsuited to their habits and laws. The better way, in his judgment, would be to leave reforms of this kind entirely to the moral feeling of, perhaps, the most moral people, on the whole face of the earth. At all events, he disliked a prophetic legislation, which pre-supposed that our successors would be neither so enlightened or benevolent as ourselves, and accordingly bound them over to their moral good behaviour. He most sincerely wished that sweeping by machinery was so perfected as to justify the disuse of climbing boys; but this did not appear to him to be the fact, and, although no stranger to emotions of humanity, he could not suffer his humanity to run headlong with him, and thereby risk the incurring of those accidents which the metropolis and populous towns might suffer from fires. He was satisfied that the humanity of the country would be as much alive two years hence to the situations of sufferers of every kind, as it appeared to be now, and that the resistance he offered to the present bill would not retard the abolition of the use of climbing boys for one single hour.

Earl Grosvenor

thought that if the measure was proper to be adopted, it should now receive the sanction of parliament; for, if two years were suffered to elapse, parliament might then suppose that it had been postponed as injudicious and impolitic. Possibly he might, in supporting the present bill, be accused of inconsistency, having appeared to adopt a different course with regard to the children employed in cotton factories; but the cases were essentially different. In that of the climbing boys, actual inhumanity was practised, but in that of the cotton-spinners, no objection of that nature was made, and their employment, however injurious it might eventually prove to health, was not accompanied by positive cruelty.

The Earl of Harrowby

was surprised to hear an objection made to the bill, on the ground of its being prospective. That was a quality common to many acts, and in a measure of this nature was unavoidable; for time must be allowed for making the alterations in flues to which at present machinery could not be applied. If, when the time arrived, further time should appear necessary for accomplishing this object, parliament could suspend the operation of the present bill. The noble earl had objected to legislating on feeling; but if in this case their lordships were convinced that there existed a great mass of human misery, which it was in their power to remove, it was their duty to act on that view. What relation had this principle of action to the introduction of a moral code? It was not proposed to pass a law with reference to moral conduct generally, but to apply a practical remedy to an existing evil. Their lordships well knew that, in a great country like this, some inconvenience was to be expected in any change of practice, however desirable that change might be; but the inconvenience in this case dwindled to nothing when compared with the act of humanity which was to be performed. The houses in which it was necessary to make alterations belonged to individuals who could easily sustain the expense, and he doubted not that they would be made before the period fixed for the operation of the bill.

Lord Melville

was sorry that he could not give his support to this bill. Before their lordships made up their minds to pass it, he hoped they would well consider what was said by the surveyor-general in his report, namely "that the total abolition of climbing boys in the sweeping of chimnies was at present impracticable, and could not be attempted without incurring much risk of danger to the general safety of the metropolis." This opinion, from such an authority, made him hesitate to concur with his noble friend in voting for this bill.

The House divided: Contents 17; Not Contents 14. The bill was then read a second time.