HL Deb 06 May 1842 vol 63 cc196-9
The Bishop of Norwich,

in presenting five petitions from Oldham, Chester, Pendleton, near Manchester, Leeds, and Lancaster, praying the House to take measures to prevent the employ of females in coal mines, begged leave to call the attention of their Lordships to the report of the commissioners for inquiring into the labour of children in mines, and the description it gave of the treatment to which women and children were subject in the mines of the north, where they were chained, according to the report, to their labour of 'dragging small vehicles loaded with coal through narrow apertures or passages, in which they were obliged to crawl upon their hands and knees, their garments drenched with water. It was not, however, to the physical labour alone to which he desired to call their Lordships' attention, but to the moral degradation to which these females from early years were exposed, associated as they were with the lowest profligacy and grossest sensuality. These petitions were, he believed, the first that had been presented upon the subject, and he hoped they would be followed by more, and that the degraded condition of these females would meet with their Lordships' sympathy.

Earl Fitzwilliam

agreed with the right rev. Prelate as to the importance of the subject, but he thought also their Lordships would agree with him that restrictions upon the right of the subject to labour in any way he might wish, were not to be lightly imposed. He hoped their Lordships would maturely consider the important report alluded to, but that they would not legislate hastily. He thought, too, that before adopting any such legislation, they should take a view of the employment of females in other branches of labour. Was it clear there was no other labour in which females were employed to which similar objections might not be made. There were certainly practices set forth in the report which it would not be beyond the province of the Legislature to prohibit, but at the same time he was inclined to believe that those prac- tices were very local, and did not extend generally to the collieries of England. He could himself give evidence that they did not generally prevail even in that part of the country to which his right rev. Friend had alluded. If they wished to protect children against labour. they ought not to confine their inquiries to the collieries, but to take a comprehensive view of the effect of labour upon those engaged in other branches of industry.

The Marquess of Londonderry

thought, that the right rev. Prelate should have given notice of his intention to bring the subject forward. He protested on the part of the coal owners of the north of England, particularly those on the banks of the Tyne and the Wear, against the exaggerations of the right rev. Prelate, that females were chained and dragged in those channels or passages of communication in the mines. The right rev. Prelate had presented petitions from Old-ham, Manchester, Leeds, and Chester. He did not pretend to speak of those districts, but with respect to Durham he could state, that the allegations were not correct. He did not deny, that boys were employed in the coal mines, but they were well used and carefully provided for.

The Bishop of Norwich

explained, that he had merely alluded to those collieries to which the petitions referred, and in respect to those he had evidence that chains were attached to the females employed.

The Marquess of Londonderry

was gratified to hear the explanation of the right rev. Prelate.

The Marquess of Normanby,

to prevent misapprehension, begged to state that the commission had been appointed to inquire generally into the condition of children employed in manufactures, mines, &c. This was only the first part of their report.

Earl Fitzwilliam

feared if the right rev. Prelate's speech should go forth to the public, the impression would arise that girls worked in chains in the collieries, which would be entirely erroneous. The chain was merely used to draw the vehicle containing the coals. Certainly the use of the chain was improper, and ought to be prohibited; but still the fact should be properly understood. Why should the inquiry be limited to children engaged in manufactures? Why not extend it to those employed in agriculture? [A noble Lord: That is a healthy occupation.] He might be disposed to question that. He believed that a boy engaged in a colliery, who had his belly full morning, noon, and night, might, perhaps, be more healthy than the boy who was the son of an agricultural labourer, and whose father earned no more than 7s. a-week, as was the case in some parts of the country, and who had no means whatever of instruction. If the inquiry were instituted in the one case, it ought to be in the other.

The Bishop of Norwich

explained that the manner in which the chain was fastened on the persons of the females, was round the waist, which passing between the legs through a belt, they drew th corve through a narrow aperture on their hands and knees.

The Earl of Winchilsea

was surprised to hear the doubt expressed by the noble Earl as to the relative healthiness of employment in agriculture and manufactures. If the noble Earl were to breathe the air of a cotton factory for sixteen hours, he would not have a very good appetite for his dinner. Let any one compare the situation of a boy engaged in a factory and one engaged in agriculture. Thousands and tens of thousands of children had been destroyed, in consequence of their being compelled thus to breathe an atmosphere unfit for respiration. The noble Lord, in conclusion, begged leave to present a petition from Sittingbourne, in the county of Kent, praying for a legislative measure to limit the period of time during which it should be lawful to employ children in factories. Should such a measure arrive from the other House, he, for one, was fully prepared to give it his support.

Earl Fitzwilliam

repeated, that his own experience warranted him in saying, that there was not the slightest superiority, moral or other, in the agricultural over the manufacturing population. It was impossible for the people of Sittingbourne to have any but very vague ideas of the condition of the people in the manufacturing districts.

The Marquess of Normanby

said, it was very possible that the people of Sittingbourne might have very erroneous opinions on the subject, but, if so, it was the more desirable that a commission should have been appointed, composed of persons competent to inquire into the subject.

The Bishop of London

confessed he had listened with astonishment to the noble Earl's statement, that the condition of children in agricultural districts was not superior to what it was in manufacturing districts. There was no need of the publication of any additional reports to show what the condition was of the poor children employed in factories; the inhabitants of Sittingbourne, if they were able to read, had opportunities of forming quite as accurate an opinion on the subject as any of their Lordships; and he had hoped that no one would be deterred, by anything that might be said in either House of Parliament, from raising his voice against a system which was eating into the very vitals of the country. All the statistical returns connected with this subject went to show that the mortality was greater among those employed in manufactures than among those employed in agriculture. Whatever evils might exist among the labouring classes engaged in agriculture, those evils were fearfully aggravated among the manufacturing population; though he doubted whether their Lordships could form a very accurate estimate of the condition of classes from whom they were so far removed. The Legislature; however, was not only at liberty to step in and endeavour to remedy these evils, but was bound to do so.

Earl Fitzwilliam

must still maintain his opinion that, with the exception of some benevolent individuals among them, who might have inquired into the subject, the inhabitants of Sittingbourne were not qualified to judge of the state of the manufacturing districts. If the poor, either agricultural or manufacturing, did not receive proper moral instruction, the church ought to be held accountable for the neglect.

Petitions laid on the Table.

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