HL Deb 08 April 1853 vol 125 cc791-802

presented a petition of Master Mariners, Mates, and Seamen of the Port of Hartlepool, against any Repeal of the Provision of the Act of 12th Victoria which restricts the number of Foreign Seamen in British Ships. His Lordship said, that the petitioners addressed their Lordships in consequence of their having been greatly alarmed by reports which had reached them that it was the intention of Her Majesty's Government to propose alterations in the law which at present fixed the proportion of British seamen to be employed in merchant vessels. By the law as it stood now, ships employed in the coasting trade must be entirely manned, and those engaged in the foreign trade three-fourths manned, by British seamen. The petitioners understood that it was intended to repeal that provision, and to admit, indiscriminately, foreigners both in the foreign and the coasting trade of the United Kingdom. Against this they entered their most solemn protest. They desired that if their Lordships gave unlimited protection to the interests of capital, they should likewise give protection to the rights of labour. It appeared to him, on looking into various returns which had been laid before their Lordships, that, considering the actual position of the mercantile marine of this country, we really were not in a position to trifle with the existence of our maritime strength by agreeing to provisions which might have the effect of diminishing the number of our seamen. He acknowledged that since the alteration which was made in our navigation laws six or seven years ago there had been a very great increase in the commerce of this country. He admitted that there had been also a very large increase in the navigation of this country. But that had always appeared to him to be only part of the question. It seemed to him that the real question for them to consider was this—had the increase of foreign navigation been equal to the increase in our own navigation? We had heard much on the subject of the number of ships. Now, he found, on referring to these returns, that there was no one year since 1846 in which the tonnage of vessels built in British ports had been equal to what it was in the years 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842; and on looking further into the returns of the foreign trade entered inwards he found this result: that, taking the average of the tonnage entered inwards, foreign and British, for the two years 1844 and 1845, which preceded the alterations made in 1846, and comparing the average of those two years with the average of the years 1850 and 1851, which was the last in the account, that the tonnage of this country had increased 21 per cent, and that the tonnage of foreigners coming to this country had increased rather more than 66 per cent. He found that the total increase of British tonnage was 840,000 tons, while the total increase of foreign tonnage was 1,098,000; so that the actual increase in foreign tonnage was 258,000 more than in the British, while the proportionate increase was 3 to 1—the increase in the foreign tonnage being 66 per cent, and in the British only 21. The petitioners stated that in their particular employment— that of the colliers— the tonnage had decreased in 1851, as compared with the year 1850; that the decrease was not less than 868 ships, representing 316,000 tons; and that the number of men employed was from 3,000 to 4,000 less in 1851 than it was in 1850. And now, as regarded a part of the subject which appeared to him of the very greatest importance—he meant the number of our seamen—he requested their Lordships to pay particular attention to the facts conveyed in a return laid before the House in, if he remembered right, November last, which, as he believed, really for the first time did give a truthful statement of the actual number of seamen belonging to this country. He confessed, although these facts did not surprise him, inasmuch as, having been some years engaged on the commission which investigated the Merchant Seamen's Fund, he was cognisant of the fallacy of the returns ordinarily presented to Parliament as to the number of our seamen, yet he could not help seeing with regret (and he thought their Lordships would see with surprise) a comparison of the real number we possessed with the 240,000 seamen who appeared in the returns to which he alluded. The actual number was, in reality, 80,000 less than that. Exclusive of masters, it appeared that the total number of seamen actually employed in the coasting trade was but 43,000; and that a number somewhat fewer than 9,000 was employed in the trade that was half home and half foreign, which was understood to be the trade between the ports of this country and the opposite ports of the Channel, and upon the other side of the North Sea. We could depend, undoubtedly, at all times, on having under our hands, in case of immediate necessity, the 43,000 men who belonged to the coasting trade. We might at all times depend upon one half, and probably in the course of a fortnight or so it would be possible to reckon upon the whole of the men who belonged to the partly foreign and partly home trade. Here, therefore, was a dispossable force of 52,000 men. The number of men employed in the foreign trade was about 90,000, and of that number, of course, a portion must always be in this country. If we assumed that the portion in this country was one-twelfth of the whole body, the number always present in this country would be 7,500, and we might assume that, under all circumstances, we had ready under our hands 60,000 seamen, but no more. But their Lordships must observe one point, which was well worthy of consideration—namely, that the period at which we had fewer seamen at home than at any other time was the summer, in which there was more possibility of enemies coming against us than at any other season. That being the case, it seemed to him highly imprudent to adopt any measure by which this small number of seamen could by possi- bility be diminished. Ho thought it right shortly to state to their Lordships, according to the information he had received from the petitioners, what their present circumstances were, and it would be then to consider whether it became the Legislature to make their position worse than it now was. He understood that these poor men made eight voyages in the course "of the year, and that they were on shore 10 weeks in the course of the year. For each voyage they received a sum varying from 3l. 10s. to 4l. 10s.., and, taking an average of 41., which he was assured was about the mark, it would be seen that they received 32l. in the course of the year for their services. He had desired to be informed what their expenses were, and he found—he hoped he should not be troubling their Lordships too much in giving these minutim—that they were as follows: Their clothes cost about 10l. a-year, which might well be supposed to be the case, when their Lordships considered how extremely liable to dirt and injury their clothes must be on board the colliers; their shoes cost them 3l. a year; their house-rent not less than 5l.; their coals, 2l.; their water-rate and other rates, 10s.; which was rather a low than a high estimate; and, although provided with provisions on board, they would have to find their own tea, sugar, soap, and tobacco, which would come to 2l. 10s. more. Their total expenses while at sea, including the necessary charges for house-rent and coals for home consumption, were therefore 23l., and the sum remaining to a seaman who spent 10 weeks of his time at home, for the maintenance of his wife and family, was therefore but 9l.—a little more than 3s. 6d. per week. Now, the object of the measure which the petitioners understood was contemplated by Her Majesty's Government was to add to the profits of shipowners by diminishing the wages of the British seaman. There could be no other object, because why otherwise should foreigners be admitted, to the exclusion in some cases, of a portion, or in some perhaps the whole, of the British seamen? Now, was it fitting that, the number of our seamen being what he had represented it to be, and they retaining, as was the case with the petitioners, so small a pittance after paying their necessary expenses for the support of their families—was it fitting, was it politic, was it just that the Legislature should endeavour to bolster up the profits of the shipowners by taking from that poor pittance which remained to the working seaman? In his opinion it was to the last degree impolitic. He regretted to inform their Lordships that he observed, on the part of those who had put their names to this petition, a degree of strong feeling and excitement with respect to the conduct—unjust, as they considered it—of the Government towards them, which he witnessed with great pain, and he would add, with some degree of apprehension. It was not satisfactory to him to hear British seamen talking of their intention and determination to seek employment in some foreign State. In former times it used to be said that the most difficult thing to remove was a man; but now it seemed almost as though the easiest thing to remove was a man, and nothing was done with more facility than the transfer of large masses of population from one country to another. Now, he dreaded this exodus of the British seamen. He perfectly admitted all the general advantages derived from the application of what were termed the principles of free trade and of political economy under ordinary circumstances; but it seemed to him they all broke to pieces when they came into collision with questions which involved the national security. He thought the maintenance of the maritime strength of the country involved the national security; he would not say he agreed with those who imagined our defence against invasion rested on our maritime superiority alone, and he should deeply regret if they still clung to that delusion; but we still must maintain our maritime strength to prevent, as far as possible, the great mischief and danger of invasion, which must be met, however, by the military spirit which he was glad to see increasing, and by the internal defences of the country. He, for one, was not prepared to bring into the domestic service of this country the cheaper foreigner instead of the British seaman. It appeared to him that in public as in private life, there were things far more valuable than money. We could not estimate in money the value of the hearts and affections of British seamen—of those men to whom we must recur under circumstances of danger. The Roman statesman who first invented the plan of hiring the Goths, thought, very probably, that he had achieved a great triumph in political economy—he had bought soldiers in the cheapest market; but he had, at the same time, unconsciously sold the empire he was bound to preserve. He trusted this country would never have to regret a similar loss, but that their Lordships, disregarding the advantage of a small additional profit for one branch of persons engaged in mercantile transactions, however influential the distribution of the Parliamentary franchise might make them, and however much they might hang together, would uphold the interests of an honest and valuable body of men devoted to their country, to whom they had had recourse under circumstances of danger in times past, and to whom he was sure they might again recur with confidence in similar circumstances of danger, if we would only treat them with justice. Let them depend upon it, however, that they could not, under any circumstances, treat a large body of men with injustice, and that there was no loss this country could sustain so severe and so irrecoverable as that of the hearts of the best portion of its population.


said, that it was certainly inconvenient, when a matter of considerable importance was to be brought before the House in the shape of a Bill, to enter into discussion of the subject before it should be regularly brought before them. The noble Earl opposite seemed to infer that the intentions of the Government upon this point were only matter of rumour. The rumour was embodied in a Bill that was now before the other House; and he thought it would, therefore, be better for him, on the part of Her Majesty's Government, to postpone for the present all discussion of the policy of a measure, from the defence of which they would not shrink when it came before the House, than to enter into it in the course of a conversation on the presentation of a petition. He certainly had hoped that if it fell to his lot to come forward in defence of this measure, he should have had an advantage which he did not enjoy when he was defending the repeal of the navigation laws five years ago. He then felt the utmost confidence in the policy which he was recommending, though he thought there was some degree of presumption in opposing opinions which were entertained by some of the ablest Members of that House, who adhered to those axioms which had become almost traditional in this country, with respect to the necessity of maintaining the navigation laws in order to provide a nursery for seamen, to prevent the destruction of our mercantile marine, and to prevent this country falling into the power of her neighbours. Opposed as he was on that occasion, he did hope that the triumphant success which had attended the repeal of the navigation laws would have placed him, when advocating the measure now before the House, in a much better position than he then occupied. But he regretted to find that the noble Earl, who was so intimately acquainted with these subjects, still seemed to have a doubt as to the expediency of the change that was then made. He was, however, relieved by finding that the strong point on which the noble Earl chiefly rested his case, was the falling-off in the tonnage engaged in the coasting trade. It was, however, satisfactory to him (Earl Granville), to reflect that this was the only portion of our navigation which was protected, and was defended from competition with foreigners. The only reason he had for rising then was—not to go into the policy of the measure which the Government had, after mature consideration, thought it right to bring forward—but to protest against its going forth to the country, and especially to a set of men who were particularly liable to become irritated from their ignorance of matters of this sort, that the object of the Government in proposing such a measure was to do them injustice, or to lower their wages. He believed, on the contrary, that no such effect would arise. He might quote a consular despatch lately received, which showed that the wages and advantages received by the Swedish sailors were as high as those enjoyed by the English sailors. It was well known that America employed no fewer than 20,000 foreign sailors; for notwithstanding their navigation laws contained a clause similar to that in our own with respect to the manning of the ships, their shipowners could get any crew they might wish to employ naturalised for a few shillings, and could thus obviate the difficulty. Now of those 20,000 foreign seamen all but a very small percentage were English. If, then, there was any advantage in employing foreign rather than English sailors, why did it not weigh with the American shipowner as well as with the English shipowner? If the American did not find it better to employ English than Swedes or Danes, or other natives of maritime States, it was clear he would not draw his whole force of seamen from England; and it was equally so that the English shipowner would continue, notwithstanding these changes, to man his vessels with those sailors, in the compliments paid to whose good qualities by the noble Earl he en- tirely concurred, but who might, he believed, be still further improved by the slight competition to which they would be exposed, while they remained possessed of all those physical and mental qualities which the noble Earl had ascribed to them. As to the coasting trade, the real difficulty of that trade had been the con-petition with the inland communication of the country; and the only way by which it could be maintained in a flourishing state was to give the shipowners who carried it on every facility in carrying it on by which they might be enabled to employ the greatest possible number of ships. For the manning of those ships they would come to the English, who were the best and cheapest sailors in the world, particularly for a trade where a local and practical knowledge of the coast was of paramount importance. He must apologise to the House for detaining them so long; but he thought it right to enter a protest against an imputation to which it would be disgraceful to the Government to submit—that they had the object of lowering the wages of British seamen, and that they contemplated the possibility of these men being driven to such employment in other countries.


said, he must differ from the noble Earl who last spoke as to the propriety and convenience of discussions of this kind. On great occasions, and when great principles were involved, their Lordships ought to pronounce their opinion, just as the noble Earl who introduced the subject had done; for, as hardly any measures of importance were brought forward first in that House, unless they were discussed here on petition, their Lordships would have but little opportunity of stating their opinions on them to the country; while, on the other hand, they went forth with all the weight of the authority of the House. He would not venture on the question of the working of the navigation laws; but he might observe that the Bill under discussion formed part of the plan of the former Government which introduced the repeal of those laws, but that they had not ventured to introduce it, because they were given to understand that if they did so they would be defeated, and therefore the measure was withdrawn. He was willing to hope—as the noble Earl who spoke last had stated—that it was not the wish of Government to lower the wages of our seamen, and to drive them into foreign service. He was willing to believe that such was not their intention, and that if they found that such was likely to be the result of the measure, they would not persist in it; but he had as little doubt that such was the intention and wish of those who called themselves the shipping interest, and that they desired the introduction of foreign seamen in order to create a lower rate of wages, which British sailors would ultimately be forced to accept, or leave the service. He said this because he found it stated and admitted over and over again in the evidence before their Lordships, and he, for one, could not agree in that object. It was obvious that they must have their own seamen for their defence in time of war; and, in order to render them willing to come forward then, they must treat them kindly and well in time of peace. He very much feared the feelings of British seamen were changing. Let Government ask the officers of their naval departments— not the representatives of the seaports, who had interests adverse to the seamen—but their captains and admirals on service; and he was disposed to think they would find the feelings of the seamen were not such as could be desired in reference to the defence of this country in time of danger. Let them look to the comforts of these men now, and induce the shipowners to treat them as well as foreign sailors, and they would ever be found ready to render their country that good service which they had ever done in the hour of danger. The noble Earl said there were nearly 20,000 English seamen in the service of America. Why was that? Because they got better wages. Well, then, let the English shipowner give the same, and not go into a cheaper market, to exclude the English sailor, and drive him to other service. In fact, the shipowner did not care whether his men were good or bad—his ships were insured. If the noble Lord, who seemed to dissent, would look at the evidence, he would find it stated by a witness that many shipowners thought the best way of getting a new ship was to lose an old one. The question was one of the most important their Lordships could consider, and he was very glad the noble Earl had brought it forward.


said, though he agreed with his noble Friend the President of the Council (Earl Granville) that in general it was better that discussions of Bills coming before them should be reserved till those Bills themselves were regularly submitted for their decision, yet as this discussion had gone so far, he could not avoid entering his protest against representing the measure, which he was happy to hear was likely to come before them, as one of injustice to the British sailor. He thought that was a representation calculated to do much mischief out of doors, and against which, considering it entirely unfounded, he must protest. The noble Lord who had just sat down, and the noble Earl who preceded him, had represented this measure as one intended to reduce the wages of British seamen. He (Earl Grey) could not conceive it to be the duty of Parliament to regulate, either by increasing or decreasing, the wages or profits of persons engaged in any branch of industry whatever; but he was convinced of this, that after the measures which had of late years been adopted by Parliament with such brilliant and generally admitted success, it was a little too late at this time of day to say that Parliament was bound to interfere, and by regulation endeavour to keep up the wages of any particular class of Her Majesty's subjects. Did Parliament interfere with the employers in any other branch of industry obtaining labour wherever they could get it best and cheapest? Did they forbid German sugar bakers coming over to this country, or ingenious foreign artisans being introduced into Manchester and Spitalfields? Certainly they did not; and their Lordships were aware that this country was indebted for some of its most valuable branches of manufacture to the introduction of skilled labourers from foreign countries, and that nothing could be more impolitic than to throw obstacles in the way of doing this. But he believed further, that the seamen were deeply interested in getting rid of all these restrictions; because we invariably found that the tendency of such restrictions as existed was to make those in whose favour they were imposed careless of what ought to be done for their own benefit. With respect to the particular measure in question, it was one which he certainly thought ought to have followed the repeal of the Navigation Laws; but, for the very sufficient reason hinted at by the noble Earl, the then Government were perfectly aware at the time that if they had made this part of the scheme, they would have lost that great and beneficial measure, which with great difficulty Parliament was induced to pass. No doubt the noble Lord was right in saying that this measure should have formed part of the Bill; but this was now an attempt to complete the plan of that day, and he was extremely happy to find that the present measure was likely to pass. He did not believe it would be a dangerous measure; but it would afford a more abundant supply of labour of a particular description, and there would be an increase of that kind of employment quite equivalent to the increased supply of labour introduced. As far as he could judge, from the statements which appeared in various newspapers, he believed there was no greater danger at this moment to our commercial marine, than the tendency which existed to combinations on the part of the seamen to avail themselves of the monopoly they now possessed for the purpose of maintaining restrictions which, in the end, would be most pernicious to themselves and to their masters. All experience tended to show that this was the consequence of every description of monopoly—that restrictions never were for the advantage of the interest in whose favour they were supposed to be established; and be was quite persuaded that the case of British seamen would form no exception to the rule, and that in the course of two or three years the apprehensions now expressed on their part would be admitted to be as entirely chimerical as experience had shown that the apprehensions expressed by the shipowners, four years ago, had been groundless. The noble Earl who introduced this subject, said it would be no consolation to him to find our mercantile marine increasing if that of the rest of the world was increasing in the same or a larger proportion. He (Earl Grey) must express his entire dissent from that proposition. He believed that this country had no interest apart from the general prosperity of the world—that we had no interest in checking the general prosperity of the whole civilised world in commerce and navigation; and he, for one, entirely repudiated the sentiment that we ought to look with jealousy and apprehension on the flourishing condition of trade in foreign countries. He said this the more frankly, because if the noble Lord analysed the subject, he would find that the increase which had taken place was in the marine of nations which we could not have the slightest reason for regarding with apprehension or jealousy.


said, he could not but notice one observation of the noble Earl, who had cited the employment of the Goths as mercenaries by an Emperor of Rome as a parallel to the case now before Parliament. He could not conceive any case more entirely or utterly destitute of any foundation for drawing such a comparison. They were not going to introduce foreign seamen as mercenaries into the service of the State, or to employ them in naval service. It was the decay of the military spirit among the subjects of the Roman Empire which produced the necessity of hiring the Goths; but, so far from this being the case now, they proposed this measure with the conviction that, such was the naval capacity of this country that it would be promoted instead of impeded by competition with all the world. Upon the general question of the repeal of the navigation laws, it was quite manifest that noble Lords on the opposite benches had always entertained a misgiving as to the policy of that measure, and had appeared to apprehend that the maritime power of this country would not be able to maintain that position which it had hitherto occupied, but that we should be beaten from the seas by foreign competition. He thought the result had shown how utterly unfounded such an opinion was of the strength of our mercantile marine; but as the noble Lords on a former occasion did not seem to feel any confidence in the energy of our shipping mercantile classes, so on the present occasion they appeared to be equally wanting in confidence in the character and capacity of our seamen. They spoke of the measure now proposed as being an act of injustice to those men; but Her Majesty's Government had a higher opinion of the capacity of the merchant seamen of this country; and believed, not only that they possessed all those virtues which the noble Earl had ascribed to them, but that they, and the people of this country generally, were so essentially by nature a maritime people, above all the other nations of the world, that there was no fear whatever to be entertained from an open and free competition with any, or with all, of them.

Petition ordered to lie on the table.

House adjourned to Monday next.

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