The EARL of WINCHILSEA
said, he had to present a petition from the owners and occupiers of land and others of Sleaford, in the county of Lincoln, complaining of agricultural distress. The petition was signed by nearly 5,000 persons, by farmers, labourers, tradesmen—in short, by persons who were all differently engaged in industrious pursuits. Looking to these petitions, and to the facts they stated, he did not think that the Legislature could long refuse to do justice to the landed interest. The noble Earl having read an 216 extract from the petition, proceeded to say that he did not think that that and the other House of Parliament could refuse the protection which was so loudly and so urgently called for. He believed that in the annals of Parliament there could not be found any record of an announcement having been made by the Sovereign that there was a considerable amount of distress experienced by one great interest of the empire, and that announcement, unaccompanied with the expression of an earnest hope that Parliament would take the subject into its immediate consideration, for the purpose of ascertaining what was the extent of the distress, and what measures might be devised for its relief. He owned that it was with feelings of bitter disappointment that he found that no announcement was made of a recommendation to both Houses of Parliament to take agricultural distress into their immediate consideration. The evils of the system of free trade were every day becoming more manifest, and pressing more severely, in the agricultural districts. Hitherto the landowners and the farmers had been the principal sufferers; but now the pressure had descended lower, and the labourers were unable to obtain employment. In Lincolnshire, the county from which this petition emanated, there had been less want of employment than in any other county of England. There thousands upon thousands of acres, that in former times had been under water, had been brought into cultivation, and made to produce wheat. There it was difficult at one time to find an unemployed labourer, and now there was want of employment and great distress amongst them; and if such were the case in Lincoln, he was sure that greater distress must be felt in other counties of England. Five years ago, if he wanted additional labourers, it would take him some weeks before he could procure them; and now, as the land ceased to pay a profit for its cultivation, they were without employment, and he could get hundreds without looking for them. To show the progress of pauperism, he would take the following return, showing what it had been in three years in the highest farmed district in all England. [See Table at foot of next column.] At the smallest calculation there were upwards of 70,000,000l. lost to the agricultural interest by the fall of prices consequent upon the unfortunate change in the law that took place a few years ago. The 217 greatest injustice was done to those who had been induced to invest capital in the cultivation of land. If the present experiment were persisted in much longer, considerable tracts of land in this country must necessarily be thrown out of cultivation. He dissented altogether from a statement made the other evening by a noble Lord opposite (Lord Wodehouse), in respect to the condition of the agricultural labourers in the county of Norfolk. He believed that the agricultural labourers in that county were suffering from the want of employment equally with the same class in every other county in England. When it was thought fitting by a former Government and a former Parliament to deprive the agricultural interest of this kingdom of that protection under which it had risen to the highest stage of prosperity, it was at all events only fair that the foreigners, who had reaped such advantage by the change, should be put upon the same footing as ourselves. One thing, however, was certain, that they could not allow things to go on as they were. They were gradually getting from bad to worse, and if timely precautions were not taken to disperse those clouds which were thickening over the agricultural interest of the country, the most fearful results might be anticipated. There was a strong feeling growing up that it was almost useless to present petitions to that House, inasmuch as they were not treated with that respect which they had a right to receive. He sincerely trusted that something would be immediately done by the Legislature to allay the distress and the discontent that at present prevailed, and that Government would feel it to be their duty having—acknowledged in Her Majesty's Speech the existence of considerable distress—to introduce some measure that will tend to alleviate the sufferings of that most im-
|RETURN of TOTAL NUMBER of PAUPERS chargeable in the following Unions, in January, 1849, 1850, 1851—|
§ portant class in the community, the agricultural interest.
said, that he had made full inquiry since he had made the statement referred to, and he adhered to his statement. He found that, in his neighbourhood in Norfolk, there had been fair average employment; and, although wages had been in some cases reduced from 8s. a week to 7s. 6d., and even 7s., the price of food was so much less than it used to be, that it was more than an equivalent, and the labourer was in a better position than he had been in with higher wages and higher prices of articles of consumption. There had been a statement in some of the papers in reference to the observations which he had made, to the effect that in the parish of Kimberley there were no paupers in 1848; in 1849, 2; in 1850, 9; and in 1851, at the beginning of this year, 15. The object of this was, to show that he was incorrect. His statement, however, had been made with reference to the average number of paupers throughout the year. It was true that there were 15 at the beginning of the year; but two of them were above 80 years of age each, five were young children, and the remainder were an able-bodied man with his wife and seven children. The man was not an agricultural labourer, but a bricklayer, a dissolute man, who had been repeatedly in the workhouse, with his family, and who had been dismissed from employment upon his (Lord Wodehouse's) estate for drunkenness and misconduct. He certainly should not have troubled their Lordships with a statement so utterly contemptible as the present, if some of his friends had not been of opinion that considerable doubt was thrown upon the accuracy of his former representations in that House. He had the satisfaction of knowing that in two parishes in his neighbourhood, which belonged, with the exception of a few acres, to him, there was not at the present moment a single ablebodied man out of employment; and though, in certain parishes near the coast where he had property, there were some out of employment, he was happy to say that there had been no increase of pauperism, which could be accounted for by the change that had taken place in the price of corn in this country. It was stated by the noble Earl (Winchilsea) that, in the parish of Hinghum, there was a great increase of crime: he (Lord Wodehouse) had certainly not heard of any such increase; but, at any 219 rate, it was satisfactory to know that there were no ablebodied men in the workhouse from that parish; there were 13 paupers, but they were all, without exception, aged, infirm, or unable to work; and, on inquiry, it would be found any increase of pauperism that had occurred was attributable, not to a decrease in wages, but to age, infirmity, and sickness. He had no acquaintance with Lincolnshire; but, on reference to the returns made to the other House of Parliament, he found that in the county of Lincoln there had been a decrease of 6 per cent in pauperism in the year 1850, and that in the county of Norfolk, in the same year, the decrease in ablebodied pauperism had been 8 per cent.
said, that, connected as he was with the county of Norfolk, he wished to make one or two observations on the subject now before the House. He did not for a moment desire to question the accuracy of the statements of his noble Friend who had just sat down; and, indeed, knowing that his noble Friend had turned his attention very fully to the state of the agricultural districts, it would be highly improper to do so, but he must confess that he had heard the noble Lord's former statements with a great deal of surprise, and was well aware that they had caused a deal of excitement in the county of Norfolk. In his (Lord Sondes's) neighbourhood he knew that the able-bodied population were in a state of distress, and that, though that population obtained bread a little cheaper than formerly, the prices of other necessaries of life were little varied. From inquiries instituted amongst the small tradesmen of Norfolk, it appeared that less money was in circulation amongst them this last winter than had ever been known. If he had anticipated that Norfolk would have been cited on the present occasion, he would have been prepared with further information; but, in reply to the statement that pauperism had decreased 8 per cent in that county, he could only say that an anonymous letter had appeared in a Norfolk newspaper the other day, signed "A Magistrate,"—and it was desirable that letters on such subjects should not appear anonymously—in which it was stated that, in the twenty unions in the County of Norfolk, the expense had increased between the years 1838 and 1848 to the amount, within a few pounds, of 51,000l. If this were a true representation of the fact, it betokened anything but a 220 decrease of pauperism in that county. He was anxious that the most minute inquiries should be made into these matters. He had always been opposed to these free-trade measures; and it was his firm conviction that they would prove destructive to the best interests of the country.
§ Petition read, and ordered to lie on the table.
§ House adjourned till To-morrow.