HL Deb 26 May 1842 vol 63 cc765-77
Lord Kinnaird (Rossie)

rose, pursuant to the notice he had given, to move an address for a copy of the letter of her Majesty, authorising a collection in the Churches for the relief of the distressed in the manufacturing districts. when, on Tuesday last, he gave notice of his intention to move for a copy of the Queen's letter for a public collection to relieve the distress of the country, the noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Wellington) recommended him to inform himself better as to the existence of the letter itself before moving for it. Certainly, he considered that the information he on that occasion possessed was quite sufficient, and from subsequent inquiry he had found that he was per- fectly justified in assuming the existence of such a document. Indeed, that fact was perfectly notorious in the country; and he was astonished that four Members of the Government, one of them the President of the Board of Trade, sitting on the bench opposite, should be ignorant of the fact, so well known in other quarters, that this letter of her Majesty had been issued many days ago. He confessed he was at the time, considerably surprised to learn, that the existence of it was at all doubted. It appeared to him very singular that her Majesty's Ministers, her sworn advisers, more especially the President of the Board of Trade, should have pleaded ignorance of any such document. It was most singular that her Majesty—than whom no Sovereign of this country had shown a more strong and sincere regard for the welfare of her subjects —could have signed such a letter, and have it countersigned by one of her Ministers, and that others of her Ministers should be ignorant of it. [The Earl of Ripon: I never pleaded ignorance,] He certainly understood the noble Earl to state that he did not know anything of the contents of the letter. He held a copy of the letter at that moment in his hand, and it bore internal evidence of its being authentic. Such a fact as that some of the Cabinet advisers of the Crown were ignorant of this letter, went a good way to strengthen a feeling which was very general in the country, that the Government was carried on by one individual only,— an individual, no doubt, of surpassing talent and abilities, but who did not think it worth his while to consult his Colleagues on great and important subjects, but regarded them as so many ciphers. From the ability of the individual at the head of the Government, he, for one, had been inclined to expect great things. Judging from his speeches, no man could be more liberal in his sentiments, but when his measures were looked to, he feared that, after all, very little could be expected. As to the tariff, he could not help regarding it as a precious piece of humbug. He hoped, however, that they should see other measures of a more liberal tendency emanate from one whose opinions and speeches were of so liberal a caste, and that at least one good effect would ensue, and that his less liberal Colleagues would quietly succumb to the opinions of their chief. He certainly expected to see them —he would not say eating dirt according to the common phrase; but eating their Own words. It was, however, a very curious thing that just the reverse of what happened here was taking place in Ireland, for there, instead of the head of the Government being everything, he was nothing, and knew nothing of what was going on. The noble Earl at the head of the Irish government was actually in ignorance of the fact, that there was an individual holding the office of magistrate in Ireland who ought not to have held it, until a noble Friend of his, the late Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland (the Marquess of Normanby), called their Lordships' attention to the fact in Parliament; and then the immediate dismissal of that individual ensued. Here, however, the head of the Government knew everything, while his Colleagues in office were kept in ignorance. Without venturing to make any strictures upon all this, he could not help saying, that he thought it was a very curious system of carrying on the Government of the country, Perhaps there was no great evil in it, and the system might work very well; for, after all, he believed, there was not much mystery in conducting the Government of a country. It was a much more simple thing than people imagined. With one man at the head of affairs, having a certain number of clever clerks under him, the whole might be very well managed. And if this were the case, I no such letter as the present need have been issued, for the difference of the salaries now paid, and those that would have to be paid to the clerks, might have amply supplied a fund to meet the present distress. The letter which he held in his hand directed the most rev. Prelate at the head of the hierarchy to issue letters to the several suffrages bishops within his province, Expressly requiring them to take care that publication be made hereof on such Sunday in the present or in the ensuing month, and in such places within their respective dioceses, as the said bishops shall appoint; and that, upon this occasion, the ministers in each parish do effectually excite the parishioners into a liberal contribution, which shall be collected the week following, at their respective dwellings, by the churchwardens or overseers of the poor in each parish. Acting on this letter, circulars had been forwarded to all the clergy in the country, exhorting them to be active in fulfilling the intentions of her most gracious Majesty. In the circular issued by the right rev. Prelate, the Bishop of London, were the following directions:— You are also desired to cause the Queen's letter to be read in like manner in every place of worship belonging to the Established Church in your parish (if there be any besides the parish Church) and to communicate this letter to the minister or ministers thereof. The accompanying statement will supply authentic information in regard to the distress which prevails in the places therein mentioned, and which unhappily extends to many other populous districts similarly circumstanced. I trust, therefore, that you will feel it your duty, as a minister of Christ, to give full effect to her Majesty's gracious intentions by earnest exhortations from the pulpit, and to make known and enforce as widely and strongly as possible the claims of the sufferers on the charity of their christian brethren. He would, with their Lordships' permission, read that statement of authentic information to the House; perhaps, by doing so, he should be enlightening her Majesty's Government upon the subject of the distress which prevailed, since they appeared to be so uninformed as to what had been done with regard to its alleviation. The noble Lord read the following statement:—


Stockport, in Cheshire, is one of the principal seats of the cotton manufacture, and a large portion of its population is dependent on that manufacture for support. During the last three years many failures among the mill-owners have occurred; but distress among the working people did not assume a very aggravated form until within the last eight months; since that time a large number of the manufacturing workmen, accustomed to constant industry, have been reduced by the stoppage of mills to want of employment, and to a dependence on legal or voluntary alms. Their privations have been borne by a population not accustomed to such dependence, with fortitude and resignation, and the virtues which they have exhibited under such severe trials, not less than the sufferings which they have endured, and are still enduring, entitle them to the sympathy and consideration of their fellow-countrymen. Mr. Waddington, the secretary of the relief fund in Stockport, states that in the official report upon the distress in that town, that the great majority of the distressed families have no visible means of support; that for some weeks they had subsisted by credit; that when that failed their next resource was to sell their furniture, their wearing apparel, their bed and bedding, and in many instances women had been compelled even to part with their marriage rings; and that their dwellings were found literally stripped of every article of comfort. He subsequently proceeds to state, in reference to the district of which he acted as visitor. The greater proportion of the inhabitants of that district were in as lamentable a state of destitution as it is possible to imagine; I am convinced that the relief fund has been the cause of saving hundreds in the borough from a premature grave.


Severe distress prevails likewise extensively at Burnley, in Lancashire, and in the neighbouring district, owing to the same causes as the distress at Stockport. In this district less efficient assistance appears to have been afforded to the settled poor from the poor-rates, and, moreover, many destitute persons who had migrated thither from other parts of the country have been deterred from applying for parochial relief by the fear of removal in consequence of thus becoming chargeable. The funds provided by law for the relief of ordinary destitution in England, however ample they may be, can scarcely be expected to suffice in the depressed state of Stockport and Burnley, inasmuch as the resources of the ratepayers themselves are diminished in nearly the same proportion in which the demands of the working classes upon those resources are increased."

"Paisley, May, 1842.

Since the month of July in last year the labouring population of Paisley has been suffering from distress, caused by the stagnation of trade, and the consequent failure of a large number of firms in that borough. This distress continued with great severity throughout the winter, and the spring has not brought that increased demand for goods which might have been expected. Some of the more skilful weavers have indeed procured employment, but a large portion of the population still remain dependent on charity. As many as 12,000 persons have been maintained for several months from the contributions collected in England and Scotland, and even in India. The Poor-law of Scotland as now administered, confers no effectual right to relief upon men who are able to work, or upon their families; at present, therefore, the legal provision for the relief of the destitute in Scotland is not applicable to this class of persons, and even if it had been so applicable, the pressure of so large a number of men without work must soon have absorbed a considerable proportion of the property in the borough. The subscriptions raised in this country, in the county of Renfrew, in the City of Edinburgh and other parts of Scotland, are all expended. Thus no legal mode of effectually relieving this mass of destitution exists, and the charitable feelings of those connected with the place have been taxed to the utmost. It may be added that these sufferings have for the most part fallen on a class of workmen whose general earnings, even in prosperous times, are insufficient to allow of any provision for future difficulties, and that they have been borne with patience and fortitude. He had letters in his possession from different parts of the country stating the distress which prevailed, which it would occupy their Lordships a considerable time to listen to, were he to read them. They amply corroborated the statement made by the right rev. Prelate. The noble Duke would remember that, in the course of the last Session of Parliament, he begged their Lordships to take into consideration the great distress which prevailed in. the country. The noble Duke on that occasion admitted the distress, but he at the same time considered that the fears he entertained were exaggerated. The noble Duke seemed to treat the matter lightly. [The Duke of Wellington: Not lightly".] At all events, neither the noble Duke nor any of the noble Lords belonging to her Majesty's Government believed in the very great distress that existed, but they all appeared to be of opinion that it was merely of a temporary nature. Now he considered that the very issuing of the Queen's letter was, in itself, a sufficient proof of the permanent character of that distress. If the Government deemed it right to proclaim to the world at large that the people of this country were in such a state of destitution as to make it a matter of necessity to appeal to the voluntary contributions of the wealthier classes for relief, that of itself he considered to be ample evidence of the serious nature of the distress that prevailed. And to what was this to be attributed? He believed that it was altogether owing to bad legislation, to the restrictive and monopolizing laws which were so pertinaciously maintained. This, he conceived, ought to induce their Lordships to accede to the appointment of the committee, for which he had given notice, to inquire into the distress of the country. He should be most happy to serve on that committee with a majority of noble Lords from the Ministerial benches, or even with a committee entirely composed of noble Lords on that side of the House, because he would venture to say, that if he had the power of summoning witnesses, he should be able to prove not only the facts contained in the statement he had read to their Lord ships, but facts still more appalling, and to which their Lordships' attention ought to be most seriously directed. The noble Lord concluded by moving, that an humble Address be presented to her Majesty, praying that a copy of the letter addressed by her Majesty to his Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, for a collection in aid of the subscriptions entered into for the relief of the working classes in England and Scotland, be laid on the Table of their Lordships' House.

The Duke of Wellington

said, that there could be no objection to the production of the letter. The noble Lord had said truly, that he had suggested to the noble Lord that he should ascertain that such a letter had been written before he moved for its production. He ought to take to himself some shame, as a Member of her Majesty's Privy Council, in not being aware that this letter had been written. But he begged to inform the noble Lord that he was present when the subject was discussed in the Privy Council, but he had since been out of town, and when he answered the noble Lord he was not aware that the letter had been sent. He did not happen to attend Divine service last Sunday in his own church, having been in the Chapel Royal, or he should have known it. He had passed the whole of Monday in a distant part of the metropolis, and though he had an opportunity of seeing and conversing with the clergyman of the parish in that part of the metropolis, he thought that if that clergyman had received any such letter at the time, he would have informed him of it. He certainly did not know yesterday that such a letter had been sent, and possibly he might have been guilty of a neglect of duty in not making inquiry. If so, he willing admitted that he was liable to all the observations which the noble Lord who moved for the letter made upon the subject. It now appeared, however, that not only had such a letter been sent, but that the noble Lord approved of the letter. The noble Lord approved of it to-day, although he did not do so on a former occasion; because the noble Lord stated on that occasion that he could not conceive any reason why such a letter had been written at this particular time. The noble Lord had referred to what had fallen from him during the last Session of Parliament. It was really surprising that the noble Lord recollected so accurately what had taken place in a debate in a former Session— that he recollected not only what was said, but the particular expressions that were used, and yet forgot the expressions which he himself had used the day before. The noble said, that he knew no reason why such a letter had been written at the present time, but the noble Lord ought to know that the letter was dated the 11th of May, and the funds collected for the relief of the distress at Paisley were exhausted on the 9th. Now, in reference to the distress, he begged to say, that he had never spoken of it lightly. The noble Lord at the close of the last Session, urged that Parliament should not be prorogued, and stated that those who advised her Majesty to prorogue Parliament at that particular time, were taking on themselves a serious responsibility. On that occasion, and in answer to the noble Lord he stated, that he did not think there was any reason to believe that there would likely be any scarcity of grain in the country for the subsistence of the people—that what they wanted was the means of purchasing grain, and that there was a want of employment, of wages, and consequently of the means of purchasing food. At that time he had also stated his belief, that if Parliament were kept sitting till that time next year, nothing could be done to give the people any increase of means to purchase grain. That was nearly the substance of what he had said; he had never talked lightly of the distress, and he recommended the noble Lord, when he chose to refer to former debates, to recollect accurately what really took place. He had no objection to the production of the letter moved for. He admitted that he felt ashamed that he did not know such a letter had been written on the 11th May, but, as he had already stated, he spent the recess out of town. On Sunday he was not at the parish church, and on Monday he was engaged in a distant part of the metropolis.

Lord Kinnaird

said, that he had not yet made up his mind to approve of the letter. He had asked why such a letter had been issued at this particular time, because it was said that the manufacturers, who were greatly distressed during the winter, had experienced some mitigation of it since the spring set in. He was aware that the funds for the relief at Paisley were nearly exausted. He felt glad to hear the distress admitted by her Majesty's Ministers. He did not, however, see that they proposed any measures for the permanent relief of that distress.

The Marquess of Lansdowne

was glad that his noble Friend had given the noble Duke an opportunity of stating, that this very important and very difficult question had been made the subject of discussion in the cabinet. He was glad to hear that statement, because it might otherwise have been suspected that the letter had been issued on the authority of one individual. As far as he was acquainted with the circumstances, he felt inclined to approve of the issuing of the letter. It would be very unfortunate however, if an opinion should prevail that letters of this kind were to be issued as mere matters of form, and without grave deliberation. In his opinion Government ought not to issue these letters too easily, but ought to reserve them for the most particular, solemn, and urgent occasions, the inevitable consequence of making them mere matters of form, would be to deprive them of their virtue and efficacy; and it was the duty of every Government to consider well before advising her Majesty to have recourse to such a step, because it inevitably partook, in some degree, of the objections which were applicable to Parliamentary grants, and prevented that species of individual exertion which was the best remedy for a distress merely temporary. It was with great satisfaction, therefore, that he had heard the noble Duke state that the measure had not been had recourse to, till the Government were convinced that the means of individual exertion were clearly exhausted. On that allegation, therefore, and on the allegation as to the extent of the distress, in the existence of which he had always believed, and in which the Government now believed, he thought a foundation had been laid for having recourse to a step which he would again say ought only to be had recourse to when individual exertion became exhausted. He begged to remark, that he trusted the collections would not be confined to places of worship of the Established Church, but that in all places of worship the people would be invited to come forward to relieve the distress of a large, suffering, and, let him add, of a most admirably conducted body of their fellow-country men. On these grounds he thought Government did wisely in issuing such a letter.

The Earl of Ripon

said, that nothing could be more correct than the observations which his noble Friend had just addressed to the House. He truly stated, that the issuing of such letters was only justifiable under circumstances of a peculiar and pressing nature. As might be supposed, the Members of the Government had received during the course of the distress numerous representations of its pressure, and earnest and repeated applications for assistance in whatever way it was possible to afford it; but they had felt it to be their duty to pause and hesitate a little before issuing the letter alluded to, and he could confirm what had fallen from the noble Duke, that the subject was for a considerable time matter of most anxious and frequent deliberation on the part of Government; and that it was not until they were satisfied, not only of the state of Paisley, and the defalcation of the local means of relief, but also that distress of a similar though not of so intense a nature existed in other parts of the country; it was not till they were satisfied of this that they felt themselves justified in advising her Majesty to make that appeal to the charitable feeling of her subjects. He did not think that his not knowing that such a letter had been written was matter for serious blame—nor could he believe that the noble Lord who moved for the production of the letter, thought that blame really attached to him for that ignorance. All that the individual members of the Cabinet had to do was, to determine the point, and he saw no reason to blame himself for not knowing that the letter had been actually issued. No such letter was read at the parish church where he attended, and he could not, therefore, speak of it from his own knowledge. That was the state of the case. He could only say, that although it was perfectly true that letters of this kind have very seldom been issued, yet there had often been public subscriptions promoted by the Government, and recommended by the example of the Sovereign. Although the form of this mode of relief was not the same as that resulting from a Queen's letter, still in substance they were much alike, both being appeals to the charity of the public. He felt confident that the appeal now made would be most honourably responded to.

The Earl of Minto

said, that on a former occasion, when a similar step was resorted to, the Government of the day released a considerable quantity of corn from bond. He wished to ask the noble Duke opposite whether the present Government had any such intention?

The Duke of Wellington

said, that he had no knowledge of any intention on the part of Government to release any quantity of corn out of bond. It would be an illegal assumption of power on the part of Government to do so.

The Duke of Richmond

would like to know what good the release of corn out of bond would do? What the people wanted was money not corn. It was want of employment; and any release of corn out of bond would only throw the agriculturists into the same state of distress as that in which the manufacturers now were.

Lord Fitzgerald

said, that the paper which the noble Lord who made this motion read, accompanying the letter of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and relating to the distress which existed at Stockport and Paisley, had been duly considered by her Majesty's Ministers, and had been drawn up in accordance with their united counsel, and sent to the right rev. Prelates. He thought, therefore, that there was to want of information on the part of Government.

The Earl of Minto

said, that when he asked the question relating to the release of corn out of bond, he wished to know whether Government had it in contemplation to make any application to the Parliament in order to effect this legally. Notwithstanding what had fallen from the noble Duke on the cross benches, he could not but think that cheap food would be a very material part of any relief to the distressed.

Earl Fitzwilliam

believed whatever exertions were made, however desirous the clergy might be to exert themselves in their respective parishes, he thought the sum received would be trifling compared with the object which they had in view. He doubted whether the issuing of the letter was an act of prudence and kindness, because it must be prudent as well as kind in order to work the good they intended. He would like to ask any noble Lord what he thought might be the proportion between the amount of the weekly wages paid in a large manufacturing town, and the sum which they might calculate to receive for the relief of the present distress? In a time of ordinary, not to say extravagant prosperity, the weekly wages received by the operatives of a large manufacturing town—of one containing from 50,000 to 100,000 workmen — would give an annual amount of not less than 1,000,000l. He doubted, therefore, whether Government had well considered how very trifling the relief must be from the source contemplated. It was all very well and very praiseworthy for persons in the locality to exert themselves for the relief of the distressed; but it was a very different question if this relief was to be made a matter for the Government. He would like to know whether Government believed the distress to be temporary? He wished an answer to that question, because he believed that it sprung from one of those fluctuations which a noble Lord at present on the other side of the Atlantic used so often to allude to. Did their Lordships believe, that the present distress was a wave of that fluctuation? Were they convinced, as he had long been, that it was nothing but an exhibition of the decline of the manufacturing interest of the country? It was important to know the views of Government on this point, because on the correctness of their view depended the wisdom, the expediency, and even the kindness, of issuing this letter. If the distress is permanent in its nature, he would venture to say that it was not consistent with true kindness to adopt a proceeding which could only be justified by a belief that the distress, though great and pressing, was nevertheless only temporary. In that case some other mode of remedying the distress ought to be adopted, and in his opinion the release of corn out of bond would do a great deal of good towards relieving the distress.

Lord Wharncliffe

said, that he believed the distress arose in a great measure from the state in which their relations had been with America for some years past. He did not think the distress was of a permanent nature. On the contrary, he confidently looked forward for a revival of trade, and a better state of things. He agreed with the noble Lord opposite, that no great relief could be expected from the proposed collections, but when all local means of relief were exhausted he thought the last course they could pursue was to call on the wealthier classes to add their mite. When the funds from that source failed they would then have to look to other sources. They could not expect to make up to people out of work the full amount of their wages when in work; but they would at least be able to relieve them for a short time. He should be sorry to find the opinion of the House to be that the distress which had been most severe, but which at the same time had been borne with a patience beyond example, almost beyond praise, was of a permanent nature: he thought the time, not far distant when a better state of things and a revival of trade would take place.

The Bishop of London

said, that in the year 1825 great distress existed among the manufacturers, especially among those in the metropolis, and the same measure as that now proposed, in conjunction with a public subscription, was adopted for the relief of it. The result of the step was such as to place at the disposal of the committee a large sum for the relief of the distressed, and sufficient to mitigate the distress not only now but for a considerable time afterwards. One great advantage attendant upon such relief was, that it taught the lower orders that those above them were not insensible to their sufferings. He had taken an active part in visiting the distressed manufacturers in Spitalfields and Bethnal-green, and no-thing could be more praiseworthy than the quiet resignation of those sufferers. He doubted not the present appeal would be most liberally responded to.

Production of the letter was ordered.

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