HL Deb 24 March 1851 vol 115 cc424-8

The EARL of DESART moved for an account for the years 1849 and 1850, and for the first quarter of the year 1851, respectively, of the number of quarters of Wheat, Barley, and Oats, and of the number of sacks and barrels of Flour respectively, imported into England, Ireland, and Scotland severally, from the United States of America, from Canada, from France, and from all the other parts of Europe; distinguishing the quantity of those articles sent from each country respectively; also stating the number of quarters of wheat to which the entire number of sacks and barrels of flour from each country were an equivalent, stating the difference of cost in freight between imported flour and imported wheat from France, Canada, and the United States respectively. The noble Earl said, that great dissatisfaction had been caused in many parts of the United Kingdom, especially in Ireland, by the large importations of flour which had taken place within the last two years, which had proved injurious both to the farmers and the millers, insomuch that several gentlemen in his neighbourhood, whom he knew to be freetraders, had joined together in a petition, praying for the imposition of a duty upon the importation of foreign flour. It might be said that their conduct was inconsistent; but he thought there was no inconsistency in it, because they asked for a duty not upon the raw material, but upon the manufactured article. The evil had proved a very serious one to mill property, especially in his county, on account of the immense water-power existing there, because, in consequence of the large importation of foreign flour, some of them had been shut up entirely, while others that remained open were having their machinery adapted to the preparation of flax, in pursuance of a speculative movement which was at present taking place with reference to the growth of that article in Ireland. He trusted their Lordships would grant his returns; and, after he had obtained the information he wanted, he would take some future opportunity of directing their Lordships' attention to the subject.


so far concurred with the noble Earl, that he thought it very remarkable that there should have been so great an importation of foreign flour; but upon the whole, he believed that in the end it would be very far from being a disadvantage to this country. On the contrary, he believed that the importation which had already occurred had led to a great improvement in the manner in which the trade of producing flour was carried on in this country. He was persuaded that it was visionary to suppose that our millers were in danger from competition with those of France. The French millers, undoubtedly, had the advantage of improvements in their mills which had not hitherto been introduced into this country; but competition had in this, as in other cases, already produced the necessary effects. The mills in this country, he was told, were fast adopting the improved processes which had long been in use in France. A considerable establishment on the new process was at present, he understood, in the course of erection not very far from this city, in the neighbourhood of Battersea; and, if there was any considerable movement of that kind, he thought it impossible that the advantages should not be on the side of the English miller. In the first place, it had always been admitted by the greatest advocates of protection, that in all that respected machinery and mechanical ingenuity, this country stood at the head of all the countries of the world. He believed that there was no country where such things were so the roughly understood. Our millers had this further advantage over the French millers, that they had a cheap supply of coal for their steam mills, because there was a heavy differential duty levied upon that particular quality of coal which was most used for steam power in France. He happened to know something about this matter himself, being in the situation of the owner of a steam colliery which used to have a great foreign trade, hut in consequence of the differential duty in France, the demand for English steam coal had greatly diminished. He strongly, and he thought so far justly, complained of this duty, and he believed that other coalowners concurred with him in complaining of the inconvenience of being deprived of the French market; but, at the same time, although the duty was inconvenient to the coalowners, it was au advantage to the English millers; for, as long as the French maintained this differential duty upon the means of raising their steam power, our manufacturers, whether of flour or of any other article, had nothing to fear from French competition, because the differential duty in favour of Belgian coals was, in point of fact, a bounty to our millers and manufacturers as compared with those of France. Nor was this all. France had a very restrictive law against the admission of foreign corn. The consequence was, that the French millers were restricted to the particular quality of corn which happened to be grown in a particular year in France; whereas, under our law, the English miller had the range of the whole world, and could select the various qualities of wheat which were calculated to produce the finest article; and with this advantage, combined with the advantage in respect to steam power, he had not the slightest doubt that, very soon, the English millers would entirely distance the French millers in the race of competition, and the effect of that competition must be beneficial alike to the manufacturer and the consumer.


said, that nothing could be better than the noble Earl's reasons for expecting great advantages to the English miller from the changes to which he referred; but the misfortune was, that facts were opposed to his reasons. Just as it was said, when the corn laws were abolished, that the introduction of foreign corn would not bring down the price of English wheat to less than 48s. per quarter, whereas the price had fallen to 37s. and 38s., so the noble Lord now said, with equal probability, that the introduction of foreign flour would not affect the English miller, because he had an immense advantage from the cheapness of coal; though he (Lord Stanley) did not exactly see how that could apply to mills that were driven by water power, which was the case with most of them. The fact was, that notwithstanding all the advantages enjoyed by the English miller, the effect of the competition was to introduce foreign flour in an increased and increasing quantity, and the value of English mill property was greatly deteriorating.


said, that a change of habits did not take place in a day; but the good effects were beginning to appear, several large establishments having already adopted the French system. The spur of competition had, therefore, so far forced the necessity of improvement upon our millers, and other improvements would doubtless follow. With respect to the prices of corn, he begged the noble Lord would except him from the number of those who had made prophecies on that subject, for he had always held that no man could, or at least ought, to attempt to prophecy what prices would be given for an article in any future year; for he had always said, prices ought to be left to regulate themselves, and, in the long run, would regulate themselves. Nothing which had passed had at all altered his opinion, that on an average number of years they would find wheat selling at remunerative prices.


Yes, and in the milling trade also. He believed that by the introduction of the principles on which the French mills were constructed, our millers need have no fear of competing with their French neighbours.


The noble Earl (Earl Grey) had stated, that he thought the milling interest in this country was improving, and that it had taken a lesson from our French neighbours, whom it would supersede in the market. Now he (the Earl of Malmesbury) happened to live upon a coast which had been inundated, principally with French corn and flour. When the corn laws were abolished, the French first tried their hands at introducing corn; and considerable activity prevailing in the milling trade in consequence, several persons invested their capital in the erection of steam-mills, thinking that they would be able to grind corn at a cheaper rate than the French millers; but after trying it for about two years, they found that the French millers had beaten them, and they were obliged to abandon their steam-mills. At this moment every attempt was being made to improve the agriculture of this country, in order to give it a chance of competing successfully with the foreigner; and as water was most useful for the purpose of irrigation, steam-mills had in many instances been erected to render the water by which the mills had been previously worked, available for the former purpose. The French miller principally used water power, and thus the English artificial power would have to compete with the French natural power.

Motion agreed to.

House adjourned till To-morrow.