HL Deb 26 April 1841 vol 57 cc1069-72
The Marquess of Normanby

rose to bring forward the motion, of which he had previously given notice, that a select committee should be appointed to consider the present system of trafficking on canals on Sundays. He need only trouble their Lordships with a few words in staling why, in his opinion, an inquiry should be instituted to decide whether the present state of things ought to be allowed to exist. It was the first duly of a moral and religious community—when, at any rate, it could be accomplished without injury to any class, and unless some strong reason were opposed to it—to keep the strict observance of the seventh day. Now, he believed that in the present system of Sunday trafficking on canals little benefit was derived by any one, and certainly that no opposing reason justified the deviation from the principle which he had had down, the soundness of which he felt sure would not be denied in their Lordships' House. Other considerations interfered with regard to personal travelling on Sundays, and though there were some people who conscientiously thought that the strong arm of the law might fairly be exercised to prevent, as they considered it, this breach of moral conduct, yet, for his own part, he thought that such an interference could not be justified. The attention of the committee which he now proposed would not be directed to this point. It would be merely confined to the compulsory labour of a particular class who were thus, contrary to their own wishes, compelled to work during seven instead of for six days. He had seen, since last Session, when this subject had been before their Lordships, several magistrates, chairmen of quarter sessions, and other gentlemen who were practically acquainted with the working of the Sunday trafficking on canals, and from their statements he had not the slightest doubt that the present state of the law subjected not only the boatmen themselves, but the whole population along the shores of the various canals through which they passed, to the greatest inconvenience. He had been informed also, and this information of what actually did take place exactly corresponded with his previous notion of what was likely to take place from such a system, that a great part of the smaller crimes—crimes of the nature of pilfering, and of such description—principally arose from these boatmen, who, being as it were perpetually in transitu—having no fixed locality—constantly moving up and down the canals, on which they all but entirely lived, were not easily followed or detected, It was not fair to charge the crimes of individuals on the classes of which they were members, and be would not do so. But an atrocious crime which was committed during the course of last year on one of these canals, and for which two men had been tried at Stafford, proved not only that the unfortunate men engaged in that transaction themselves, but that their fellow-labourers employed in the same occupation—that, in fact, the whole class of these canal boatmen were alike deprived of religious and of secular instruction. This proved that there was an evil in the system, and who could doubt that a remedy would be found in their cessation from Sunday labour, and in the opportunity thus afforded them of frequenting public worship; and of receiving the blessings of moral and religious truth? The labours of the committee would also extend to railways. There was, he confessed, no such thing as urgent necessity in this case as in the other to which he had already directed their attention; but at the same time there could be no reason why an inquiry should not be instituted respecting the expediency of commercial trafficking on railways on Sundays, He thought that there could be no necessity for the transfer of goods on that day in a commercial point of view, and certainly there was an objection to it on several grounds. The subject, at any rate, was worthy of consideration. There were, he knew, in the accomplishment of the object which they all must have in view, some difficulties of detail; but these he believed were not insurmountable, and he relied with confidence on the talents and exertions of the committee. The evil was a crying one. It would be for them to propose a remedy. The noble Marquess concluded by moving for the appointment of a select committee to consider the present system of Sunday trafficking on canals, railways, and navigable rivers.

The Bishop of Lichfield

said, that this question had excited the greatest sensation in the diocese over which he presided, and the motion of the noble Marquess, productive as it must be of the greatest benefit, would be received by all classes with the liveliest gratitude. Men of all parties, and of various classes, joined in an unanimous wish for the abolition of the law sanctioning Sunday traffic on canals. The desire of the boatmen themselves, opposed though it was to their pecuniary interest, had been proved by the petition presented to the House by the noble Lord (Hatherton). The carriers entertained the same wish, and the merchants and manufacturers were influenced by similar feelings. It was absolutely necessary that Parliament should interfere. An attempt had been made on the Trent and Mersey Canel to put down Sunday traffic, but it had only partially succeeded. Its success, however, was sufficient to prove that no commercial considerations demanded the continuance of this system. The moral evil caused by it was painful to be considered of. Almost outcasts from the very pale of humanity—aliens from the Church of Christ—the boatmen grew up from boyhood to manhood in the grossest ignorance, and hence the atrocious crimes to which the noble Marquess had alluded. He begged to thank the noble Marquess for the motion he had just made, and that motion he felt the greatest pleasure in seconding.

Lord Colchester

inquired whether it was intended to include navigable rivers, and to prevent vessels arriving from abroad from entering?

The Marquess of Normanby

said, he thought such a measure would be productive of great inconvenience, and he would remind the noble Lord, that they were not now legislating, but merely arranging as to the duties of a Committee of Inquiry.

Lord Hatherton

was glad that navigable canals had been included in the motion of the noble Marquess. All inquiry would be imperfect without it, and on this point the principal difficulty existed. He was sure, from conversation with practical men, that with regard to canals and railways the Sunday traffick could be abolished without injury to any class, and with great benefit to the boatmen, whose interests had been hitherto neglected. His property lay in a county much intersected with canals. Several, indeed, flowed through his own estates, and he had been in the habit of asking the boatmen whether they were desirous of working on a Sunday? From all he bad received the same answer. They had all expressed their unanimous desire for the abolition of the system, and they had distinctly told him that they only worked from compulsion. The proprietors also wished for an alteration, but no individual could have afforded to act upon it from the strong competition which prevailed among them, and from the loss which he would necessarily sustain were he alone to cease working on the Sunday. This proved the necessity for legislative interference, and he was glad that the subject had attracted the attention of the noble Marquess.

Motion agreed to, Committee appointed.—Adjourned.