HL Deb 16 June 1823 vol 9 cc985-8
The Lord Chancellor

said, he had a petition put into his hands, which, as it contained nothing disrespectful in its language, and related to a measure of very great importance to the petitioners, he thought it his duty to present. It was from the operative silk-weavers of Spital-fields against the bill now in progress. With respect to the disputed objects of the manufacturers on the one hand, and of the weavers on the other, he did not profess himself to be a competent judge. The subject was important, and he would, for the present, only express his hope that those who approached that House as petitioners asking its favour and protection, would continue to deserve it, by their peaceable and orderly conduct.

The Earl of Liverpool

said, that it was the full and decided conviction of those by whom the bill in question was introduced, that the alteration of the law which it proposed was absolutely necessary for the just interests of the Spital-fields manufacturers. It was equally their opinion that the bill would not, in its operation, be found to militate against the interests of the labouring weavers. Such was the principle on which the measure was founded. It, however, turned out that many of the latter class took a different view of it, and a large body of the weavers of London and Westminster had petitioned against the bill. It was his opinion and his feeling, that, before the House proceeded to adopt a measure so interesting and important to that class of men, that they ought at least to receive a full and patient hearing. It seemed to be their impression, that the proposed alteration of the law would aggrieve them. They were, therefore, in fairness entitled to a hearing. The petitioners were a body of men who had conducted them selves with the utmost propriety. They were a sound, orderly, loyal body of men. He spoke not from their conduct during the agitation of this measure, but on former occasions. When the poor were labouring under the pressure of scarcity or famine, and under the most trying circumstances, their conduct had been orderly and loyal. He hoped he was not going out of his way in making these observations. Without entering more than he had done into the principle of the bill, he only asked for the petitioners the undoubted right of the subject be heard in their own case. There existed a standing order of their lordships' House, that any bill relating to trade or commerce, should be referred in the first instance to a select committee. It was necessary that the petitioners should be heard, either by counsel at their lordships' bar, or in a select committee. He therefore proposed that the bill, under the standing order of the House, should be referred to a select committee on Wednesday next.

Lord Ellenborough

said, he held in his hand two petitions, the one was signed by 179 manufacturers, the other was signed by about 10,000 persons, inhabitants of Bethnal-green, against the bill. He had heard, with great satisfaction, the observations of the noble earl on the general conduct of the petitioners. In those observations he cordially concurred. It was impossible to speak in terms of too strong commendation of the conduct of those persons—of the loyalty and good order which, for half a century, had distinguished them. They had been at all times inaccessible to those who endeavoured to turn the feelings of the people against the institutions of the country. In times of difficulty, of distress, of famine, they had been distinguished for their patience, their temper, and their respect for the laws. They had therefore no ordinary claims upon the indulgence of their lordships. The peculiarity of the bill before their lordships was this; it brought under the consideration of parliament regulations affecting the silk trade—it proposed alterations respecting that trade at a time when that trade was not only not in a state of depression, but when it was unusually prosperous. Of the improved state of that trade their lordships would form a judgment, when he stated that the annual quantity of silk imported 21 years ago, was 830,000lb. That the quantity in the last year was 2,500,000lb. That the duty on that material 21 years ago, was 200,000l.; that the present duty was more than 600,000l. There was no proof before their lordships that the trade stood in need of the proposed alteration. On the contrary, its progress had been rapid, and increasing. There was another peculiarity in the present measure. The acts in question had reference only to a distance of 10 miles round the metropolis-r-a mere speck. He verily believed they were interfered with merely to gratify the theoretical views of political economists. The alterations proposed were at least doubtful; for there was no proof that the bill would be attended with public advantage. On the other hand, the proposed alterations filled with the most gloomy apprehensions the minds of a large, deserving, and laborious class of men. If the repeal of the existing acts would produce any sensible advantage to the silk trade, it might furnish an argument in its favour; but the fact was indisputable, that the trade at present was flourishing, and stood not in need of new regulations. He could not agree with the noble earl, that the bill could ultimately be serviceable to the labouring weavers. He could not see how any alteration in the law, which would have the effect of reducing the rate of wages, could be beneficial to the labourer. It might indeed, be, said, that the reduction of the price would have the effect of increasing the quantity consumed. To that he would answer, that there was every reason to suppose that the domestic demand would go on increasing; and, with respect to exports, that branch of the trade was always variable, uncertain, and liable to embarrassment. He always looked on the acts in question more as a measure of police than of trade. They were, in his opinion, most efficient in preserving peace, and a good understanding between masters and journeymen. Nothing, in principle, could appear more absurd, than that the lord mayor and aldermen should regulate the scale of wages between masters and journeymen. Looking, however, practical, effect of that regulation, it did not appear so absurd. Combinations throughout the country were carried on by journeymen and by masters. The parties generally came to an agreement. The list of prices was made out by a committee on behalf of the journeymen and the masters, and in many in- stances an umpire was called in to decide between them. They then went before, a magistrate, and the agreement was ratified. In fact, the regulations with respect to the silk trade differed but little from the regulations with respect to other trades. He confessed it appeared to him, that, considering the parties had laid out their capital in machinery, resting for half a century on the faith of those acts, every consideration was due to the prayer of the petitioners. It might be said that manufacturers should be allowed to employ their capital wherever they thought fit, and that there should be a limitation to the; time of instituting prosecutions under the, acts. Now, the journeymen had no objection that the capital of the masters should be employed wherever they thought fit, and that the period for instituting prosecutions under the acts should be settled at three months. But they wished to retain the principle of the bill, as to the regulation of wages. They did not wish to be left at the will of the master manufacturers, but sought for the continuation of the protection of the magistrate. To him there appeared no good reason for the repeal of those acts. If the effect of that repeal would be to extend Spital-fields, he could not view any measure with more uneasiness. He did not wish to see another Manchester growing up near the metropolis; and thought that if the bill would have that effect, it would be an effect most injurious.

The bill was ordered to be referred to a select committee, and the petitions were referred to the same committee.