HL Deb 14 February 1845 vol 77 cc449-53
The Marquess of Normanby

presented a petition, of which he had given notice last evening, relative to the interesting and important subject of the health of large and populous towns. It was not his intention to enter into any details upon that subject on the present occasion, as it was rather his wish to place, at as early an opportunity as was afforded him, before their Lordships the views of the petitioners as detailed at a meeting held at Exeter Hall, in the month of December last—a meeting which was most numerously attended, in spite of the severity of the weather, and the dead season of the year at which it was assembled. The meeting was unanimously of opinion that there ought to be no delay in applying a remedy to the great evils which were described to exist with respect to the drainage, and other precautionary measures, adopted in large and populous towns; and the object of the petitioners, on the one hand, was to stimulate the Legislature to adopt such measures as were necessary to promote the sanatory condition of towns; or, on the other hand, if the Government was disposed to interfere in this respect, then the Association expressed its desire to assist such interference by removing the misconceptions which existed relative to the measures necessary to be adopted; and also by overcoming the local objections put forward in the various towns which would be affected by them, so as to enable the Government to enforce a complete legislative remedy to this great evil. Having observed the gracious intimation relative to this subject which was conveyed in the Speech from the Throne; and having also seen the Report which had been prepared respecting the Health of Towns—but which was not yet in the hands of many of their Lordships—that statement did contain such a variety of important information, and such a number of important recommendations, that any person wishing to express an opinion on the subject it treated of, would naturally desire some time to make himself acquainted with its contents. Dismissing, therefore, with these remarks the subject of the petition, he should confine himself for the present to merely asking a question of his noble Friend opposite, with respect to one particular evil stated by the petitioners to exist in populous towns, and which had not in any way been alluded to in the Report to which he referred. He meant the abuse which at present was observable with respect to burial societies. It was stated in the petition which he had to present, that the greatest proportion of sickness existing in great towns, fell upon persons between the ages of twenty and forty years; or, in other words, upon those whose exertions were most necessary for the support of their families. It was also stated, that a very great mortality existed amongst infants, which was attributed to the very extensive sale of a noxious compound, partaking principally of the ingredient of opium, which was administered to them under the name of Godfrey's Cordial, or Quieting Syrup, of which one druggist alone was stated in a respectable medical journal to have sold six gallons in the course of one day. There were also other circumstances to be taken in connexion with this subject, and which were deserving of notice. Many of the children in these populous towns were made members of burial clubs at the time of their birth, a considerable proportion of them being entered on the books of more than one of these societies; a practice of which he had informed himself, and which he could state of his own knowledge went on to a very considerable extent. Within the last two days he had heard a statement from a clergyman who was cognizant of the fact; a lady had intended to call upon a person in the humbler walks of life, for the purpose of condoling with her upon the death of her infant; and on mentioning her intention to another female, the latter replied,—"Oh, it's a very fine (or good) thing for her; for the child was in two burial societies." It was an abuse of words to assert that such practices and such sentiments as these tended to brutalize the lower classes; for the brutes' instinct taught them to protect their offspring; whereas it required intellect to speculate in the manner described upon human life; and, in many cases, this species of speculation amounted to murder. He found by the burial society regulations that it was necessary for a child to be sixteen weeks old before it was entitled to the benefit of the club; so that a child, when it arrived at the age of four months, might reap the benefits of a burial society, and, consequently became an object of speculation to its parents. He begged to call the attention of the Government to the expediency of instituting some regulation by which a child should be prohibited from being a member of more than one burial society, thus rendering it impossible for the parents to reap any benefit by its becoming entitled to mortuary allowances. Another evil to which he desired to draw attention was the practice of speculating on other persons' lives. He thought no one, not connected by family ties, or not having a direct interest in another person's life, ought to be allowed to speculate either upon the chances of its existence, or rather upon his burial; whereas he understood it was a common practice to speculate upon unhealthy lives or occupations in the form of burial clubs. Another clergyman had stated to him a case wherein the parents or nearest relatives of a transported convict addressed a letter to him whilst he was on his way to a penal settlement, bidding him good bye, reminding him that they had kept his name on the burial club, and desiring him, in case anything transpired (meaning if he died on his voyage out), to be sure to take care and let them know. Now, the cases to which he had referred were only one class of the evils arising from the system described. It had latterly been applied to adults in the mode he had described; but the bulk of the evils which it generated fell upon the infant population. He wished, with reference to this subject, to ask his noble Friend opposite if the Government had taken the subject into consideration; and if, in consequence, he might entertain any hope that a measure respecting it would be proposed to the Legislature during the present Session? If such should not be the intention of the Government, he would, although fully aware of the difficulty with which any measure not brought forward by Ministers always met with, endeavour to introduce some remedy for the evils of which the petitioners complained. In presenting the petition he could only repeat the expression of gratification which he had already uttered with respect to what had occurred on this subject since the meeting at which it was prepared was held.

The Duke of Buccleuch

said, the subject of the petition presented by his noble Friend was one which had come under the serious consideration of Government. It was one, however, of great difficulty as to the power of devising means to check the evils of the practices referred to, nor could he hold out any prospect of a legislative check being found to restrain those abuses. The subject was, however, still under the consideration of Government, it being the anxious desire of Ministers to devise some means to stop the evils complained of; at the same time, whilst the mischievous effects of burial societies were admitted, they were, though liable to abuse, productive of great relief to a large class of persons.

Lord Campbell

said, that if any legislative measure of the kind was intended by Government, it would be well that they should take into their serious consideration the subject of insurance upon lives. He was shocked to say there had happened within his own knowledge an instance where an insurance had been effected on a person's life, and a murder had afterwards been committed on the person so insured. He knew not whether the Legislature could reach such a case as this or not, but when the subject of the petition came under the consideration of Government he trusted it would not be held unworthy of the attention of Ministers to see if some means could not be devised to prevent persons from insuring any lives except those in the duration of which they had a deep and obvious interest.

Petition read, and ordered to lie on the Table.

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