HL Deb 29 June 1832 vol 13 cc1152-8
Lord Wharncliffe

rose, pursuant to notice, to present a Petition from certain Owners and Lessees of Collieries in the neighbourhood of the rivers Tyne and Weare, which petition related to the present state of those collieries. He was anxious that the public should know the cause of the dispute which unhappily existed between the workmen and the coal-owners. In doing this, he should be obliged to expl in, in some degree, the connexion which subsisted between the pit-men and the owners of mines. It was necessary that he should do this, in order that their Lordships should correctly understand the situation in which the parties respectively stood. It was customary, in that trade, for the pitmen, in the month of April, to engage with the owners of the pits for one year, on certain specified terms. Part of those terms was, to supply a house to the workman during the time he was so employed. In the month of April, 1831, at the time of binding for the ensuing year, a considerable increase of wages was demanded by the colliers. That increase was at first refused, because it was considered to be much greater than the trade could bear. After a certain time, however, the owners gave way to the demand of the colliers, and agreed to allow the increase of wages to the extent then called for. This went on till the month of November, 1831; and, that being the time when the demand for coals was greater than in any other period of the year, the pitmen, acting under what is called "The Union," refused to work for more than a certain number of hours, which number was settled by "The Union." The owners, naturally unwilling to submit to such a system of dictation, dis- charged the refractory colliers, and obtained assistance, and procured the aid of a number of men, to work their collieries, from the lead mines and elsewhere. The men who were thus employed to supersede the refractory colliers, were then out of work. This proceedine led to outrage on the part of the men who were discharged. The first outrage was committed at Morlage, in the county of Durham, where the refractory colliers endeavoured to prevent the working of the engines which raised the water out of the pits. At this time the workmen hired from other quarters were occupied in the colliery; and, if those misguided workmen had not been prevented, by the timely arrival of the military, from carrying their horrible purpose into execution, all those who were then employed in the colliery, would inevitably have been drowned. This melancholy catastrophe was, however, happily prevented. When the binding time came round again, the owners, seeing that, if they left the settlement of these matters to the colliers and their supposed friends, they must be ruined; perceiving that if they gave way still further, as was demanded of them, the pitmen would work or play just as they were directed by "The Union;" the proprietors, thus situated, determined to make a stand against further encroachments. They offered the workmen the same terms as they had done in the preceding year; and, to show that the offer was not much less than those individuals demanded, he begged to state what that offer was. They were offered 15s. a week, play or work; that was, whether the demand for coals was great or small. Coals were also to be supplied to them, and medical assistance was to be afforded, if they were afflicted with illness. The fact was, that if, on a press of demand, they worked eight hours, they might earn from 4s. to 6s. a day. In the south of England their Lordships all knew that labourers were working, during a longer time, for infinitely less. The owners, determined to emancipate themselves from this system of tyranny, in the first place came to a resolution, that the overlookers of the pitmen—that those who were employed to see that the pit-men did their duty fairly, and to whom, in fact, their interests were intrusted—should not belong to any of those "Unions" with which the men had become connected. The workmen demurred to this determination, and the consequence was, that many individuals connected with the Tyne and Wear collieries refused to work, and they were supported in their idleness out of the funds of the Union Society. This did not pass quietly. The owners, as they were bound to do, for the sake of themselves and families, looked out for other servants. They applied, in the first instance, to persons who had been thrown out of work by the bad state of the lead mines; and they also employed a number of colliers from Darlington, and other distant places. The result of this proceeding had already been the loss of two lives. A man employed at one of those collieries from which this petition came, having refused to belong to "The Union," was shot dead in open daylight. This occurred in the month of April. In the beginning of the present month, a Magistrate of Sunderland, who had been active in affording protection to those strangers who came to work in these denounced collieries, was dragged from his horse, and beaten so savagely about the head, that he had since died, in consequence of the cruel treatment which he had experienced. Yesterday, he was sorry to state, an account of another outrage had reached town. It was at first said that the life of the individual attacked had been sacrificed. He was, however, happy to say, that such was not the fact. The man who in this instance was assailed, was passing by a very public place near the town of Shields. He was suddenly, even in that public place, furiously attacked, and cruelly beaten. He had stated these facts, in order that his Majesty's Ministers might be fully aware of the present situation of that part of the country to which he referred. Every correctly judging man must see, that this was not a mere dispute between the coal owners and those whom they employed about the amount of wages. No; it was an attempt—and a just one—on the part of the owners and lessees of collieries to set their faces against this system of intimidation, which was ruinous not only to their interests, but to the interests of those who blindly supported it. If such a system were sanctioned, if it were not put down effectually, no man could embark in the coal-trade, and the public in general must ultimately suffer. If the masters were not allowed to do that which they thought best, both for their own interests and for those of the workmen (for, be it remembered, that those interests were inseparably united); if they were to be placed under the control, the despotic control, of those Unions, then he would say, that no trade could be carried on, in any part of the country, where such a system was suffered to prevail. The petitioners wished their Lordships to appoint a Committee, to inquire fully into this subject. How far it might be advisable to take such a step, it was not for him to say; but he could not help observing, that it would afford great satisfaction to that part of the country from which the petition emanated, if his Majesty's Government would give their attention to this subject, for the purpose, if possible, of organizing a more powerful and efficient police force. The constabulary force, as it was at present constituted, was not sufficient for effectual exertion in times of great exigency and great excitement. A more efficient police ought to be established to afford protection and assistance to the well-disposed, whenever acts of outrage and insubordination occurred. As to the employment of the military on occasions of this kind, he knew that of late years an opinion had gone forth, that they ought not to act except in the presence of a Magistrate. Now, he believed the law to be, that in case of any flagrant and decided violation of the peace, a military officer, whose duty it was to preserve the peace as far as he could, had a right to interfere, though no magistrate might happen to be present. In his opinion, a soldier was as much bound to give his assistance in putting down outrage and riot, as any other citizen in the country. Having said thus much, he would recommend the petition to the serious consideration of their Lordships; and he should move that it be read at length.

The Petition having been read,

Viscount Melbourne

said, that from all the information which he had received on this subject, he was sorry that he was compelled to confirm the statements of the noble Lord. The observations which the noble Lord had made to the House were undoubtedly founded on fact. Concessions had been made by the owners and lessees of coal-mines to the workmen employed by them, but those concessions had only given rise to more exorbitant and unreasonable demands. It was impossible not to concur in the truth of the statements contained in the petition; and certainly, the interest of those who now applied to the House ought not to be allowed to be sacrificed, in the manner which had been described, by the conduct of those who ought to be actuated by very different feelings. He could not avoid expressing his deep and serious regret at that system of combination and of intimidation which at present existed throughout the country. It reared its front in so audacious, open, and violent a manner, throughout the manufacturing districts, as was truly alarming. And what was the effect of that pernicious system? It was injurious to the manufacturers, it was injurious to the trade and commerce of the country generally; but it was more particularly and decidedly injurious to the interests of the misguided workmen them selves. Those individuals attempted to do that which practical men knew could not be effected; they endeavoured to regulate that which could not be regulated; they wished to settle the rate of wages upon one particular footing, when every person who thought on the subject must see, that the rate of wages must be regulated by the quantity of labour in the market, and by the demand which existed for it. To suppose that a permanent rate of wages could, under all circumstances, be secured to those individuals, was downright folly. Yet that principle had been promulgated, and the passions of those people had, in consequence, been inflamed; their feelings had been excited; and, strange to say, many of them suffered themselves to be impoverished—for what? Why, to support the idle and the profligate, who refused to work on the terms which were proffered to them. They sought an object which they never could attain; and, even if they were successful, the extravagant rise of wages could be but temporary. But, even supposing that it would be permanent, it could scarcely compensate the losses of those who had taken an active part in this proceeding. He entirely agreed with his noble friend in the opinion, that such a system was calculated to impoverish every part of the country in which it prevailed. He was very sorry to find, that this pernicious system was rapidly communicated from one part of the country to another. His noble friend must be aware—more, perhaps, than any other man—that the old Combination laws, which were repealed in 1824, had a very salutary effect in putting down con- spiracies of this description. The subject was a highly important one, and he could assure his noble friend, that every attention would be paid by his Majesty's Government to the statements contained in the petition. No effort should be spared by his Majesty's Government to correct the evils and abuses which grew out of this system of combination. He believed that, in the places more particularly alluded to, there was a sufficient military force to prevent violence and outrage. With respect to the proposition for enlarging the police force, he believed that no difficulty existed to prevent the establishment of such an efficient force, so far as respected the procuring individuals who would be willing to serve in it. The great difficulty, he believed, would be, to find persons willing to bear the additional expense which would be attendant on it. If his Majesty's Ministers were convinced that the inhabitants of the north of England were ready to assent to such a plan, they would at once concur in the measure. He would, however, recommend, that in any such proceeding, due attention should be paid to the discretion, opinion, and recommendation of Magistrates, who were on the immediate spot.

Lord Ellenborough

said, the noble Viscount had observed, that Ministers feared, if they proposed a new system of police for those districts which were mentioned in the petition, that the inhabitants would be unwilling to bear the expense. Now, a former Administration, in proposing the metropolitan police system, had not been deterred by any such considerations. They acted entirely on the necessity of the case. A notification, on the subject of a general system of police, had been made at the commencement of the session. In the Speech delivered by his Majesty at the opening of the Session, an allusion was made to this very point; and they had no right to suppose that the subject would have been introduced in the King's Speech unless Ministers had considered of it, and were ready to come forward with some specific proposition. Not a word, however, had they heard on the subject since. In his mind, they had not acted as they ought to have done, when, through the medium of his Majesty's speech, they called the attention of the House to this subject, without having themselves, in the first instance, maturely considered all its bearings. Ministers would not, he contended, be fulfilling their duty, if they did not bring forward a measure for the preservation of the peace in all large towns, and more especially in those great and populous districts where the public tranquillity had been recently violated.

Viscount Melbourne

gave to the last Administration full credit for their exertions in forming an efficient metropolitan police, but he was sure that the noble Lord himself must see the very great difficulty that was connected with a plan having for its object the formation of a general police for the whole country.

The Lord Chancellor

said, that every disposition was felt by his Majesty's Ministers to redeem the pledge on the subject of a general system of police, which had been given at the commencement of the Session. A measure of that nature had been, and still was, under consideration; but the difficulties and objections that were opposed to it, many of them of a local nature, were infinitely greater than noble Lords seemed to suppose.

Lord Wynford

said, he was sure that the present Ministers could never suffer corporation privileges to stand in the way of the preservation of peace and tranquillity, for which corporations were established.

Lord Ellenborough

hoped, whatever measure was introduced, that this pervading principle should not be lost sight of—namely, that the police appointments should rest on the responsibility of his Majesty's Government.

Lord Holland

was of opinion, that the suggestion of the noble Lord was not intended to facilitate the carrying any new measure speedily into effect.

Lord Ellenborough

said, that unless his suggestions were acted on, any measure of police would be nugatory.

Petition laid on the Table.

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