HL Deb 14 June 1855 vol 138 cc1940-8

THE EARL OF SHAFTESBURY rose to move that the Bill for the Limitation of the Working Hours of Needlewomen be referred to a Select Committee. In doing so, he said he would take the opportunity of addressing a very few observations to their Lordships, when he hoped to be able to satisfy them that the objects of the Bill were among the most helpless and oppressed of Her Majesty's subjects. He was perfectly aware of the ridicule that attached to a Motion of this kind; but could only say he was quite willing to submit to this, provided he received in exchange some modification of the wrongs to which this unfortunate class of persons was exposed. Some of the greatest statesmen of this country had taken up the cause of the black man, and he could not see why an inferior statesman like himself should not also advocate the cause of the white woman. The question of the condition of the needlewomen and dressmakers had repeatedly been discussed and agitated in the public papers, and had been brought under the notice of Parliament; but nothing was done till 1842, when a Commission was appointed to inquire into the trades and employments in which children and young persons were usually employed. That Commission made a Report, but no legislative results followed. The latest evidence was contained in a Report of the Royal Commission of 1843. Since that time a slight improvement of the hours of labour had taken place; but during the last year and a half there had been strong indications of a return to the old state of things, and on that ground he was prepared to advocate the necessity of legislation. The evidence stated, first, that there were two distinct classes employed in the business of millinery and dressmaking—the indoor and outdoor workwomen. The former were the greatest sufferers, and it was to their case alone that he should allude. The same evil prevailed to a great extent in almost all the large towns—in Nottingham, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bath, Norwich, &c.—but the Bill was confined to London alone. In 1843 the statement made was, that there were in the metropolis 1,500 employers, who had six, ten, thirty, forty, and even fifty workwomen, but that each employed on an average ten hands, thus giving a total of 15,000 young persons engaged in that employment in the metropolis. The age at which they began to work was usually fourteen; they were then apprenticed for two years, and at the age of sixteen or seventeen they came up to London to complete their education in their respective departments. This was the period of life when the greatest care was required to be taken of the health and constitution, and yet this was the period when they were exposed to the most excessive labour, to insufficiency of food, and an impure atmosphere of sixteen or eighteen hours together, involving an amount of work and labour scarcely endured by our soldiers in the trenches before Sebastopol. The testimony was that, in what were well-regulated firms, the work was from fifteen to eighteen hours a day. "In many," said the Commission, "the hours of work during the season are unlimited—the young women never getting more than six, often not more than four, sometimes only three, and occasionally two, for rest and sleep: frequently they work all night." The work was often carried on till ten and eleven on Sunday morning, and frequently over the whole of Sunday. One witness stated that she had worked without going to bed from four o'clock on Thursday morning till half-past ten on Sunday morning. The meal hours were stinted and irregular; food was taken as quickly as possible—perhaps a quarter of an hour being allowed for dinner; frequently not more than half an hour was allowed for the whole of the meals, and often they were not permitted to sit down. To this rule there were, no doubt, exceptions, but these were not numerous. The result was, according to the evidence of the medical men, that their health was ruined, and they fell victims to consumption, loss of sight, and distortions of every kind. Sir J. Clark, physician to the Queen, said— The mode of life of these poor girls is such as no constitution could long bear. …. A mode of life more completely calculated to destroy human health could scarcely be contrived. I have long been most anxious to rescue these unfortunate girls from the slavery to which they are subjected. Dr. Hamilton Roe and Dr. Hodgkin gave many distressing details, and Mr. Dalrymple, surgeon to the London Ophthalmic Hospital, showed that all forms of ocular disease were induced, from simple irritation to complete blindness. Mr. F. Tyrrell, surgeon to the Ophthalmic Hospital, gave sad accounts to the same effect, and added this illustration— A delicate girl, about seventeen years of age, was brought to witness in consequence of total loss of vision. She had been an apprentice as a dressmaker, and her health, before her vision was affected, was deranged by excessive work. The immediate cause of disease in eyes, continued and excessive application to making mourning. She stated that she had been compelled to remain without changing her dress for nine days and nights consecutively; during this period she had been permitted only occasionally to rest on a mattress; her meals were placed at her side, cut up, so that as little time as possible should be spent in their consumption. Dr. Devonald, a surgeon, said of these needlewomen, "Their health and strength are gone; many are reduced to permanent debility; many die, especially from consumption." Dr. Shaw and Dr. Johnson stated that these women became unhealthy themselves, and, when married, consigned disease to their offspring. A medical practitioner, long acquainted with the system, said, ''No men work so long; it would be impossible for any animal to work so continuously with so little rest." This system prevailed in all large towns, and, indeed, wherever there was sufficient wealth to maintain a regular demand for dress. The communication he had received, said, "It may be stated without exaggeration that, in proportion to the numbers employed, there are no occupations, with one or two exceptions, such as needle-grinding, in which so much disease is produced as in dressmaking." The Royal Commissioners, in summing up their Report, said— Notwithstanding the most unfavourable character of this Report, it is proper to state that we have reason to know that, in some respects, it falls short of the truth. In the course of the inquiry we repeatedly noticed a great disinclination on the part of young persons to state what they knew, and this owing to a feeling of intimidation which was very prevalent. Many of these young women abstained from making any statements in order that they might not give offence to their employers; and this was no matter of surprise when the position of these poor girls was considered. Many of them were orphans, or the daughters of half-pay officers, poor clergymen, and respectable but needy parents, who were wholly unable to help or defend them; they were at a great distance from their friends, and were completely at the mercy of their employers; they must either do the bidding of their employers, or expose themselves to the fearful alternative of being turned unprotected into the streets, and what would be the fate of such young women if they were reduced to that alternative? In 1844 a Committee was formed, consisting of many ladies of rank and position, who hoped that they might be enabled, by their remonstrances, to abate many of the evils which existed. Some good was effected for a time; the hours of labour were shortened, and Sunday work was abandoned. In the year 1853 the proprietors of many of the principal dressmaking establishments, to the number of fifty-three, resolved to abide by the rules laid down by the association, to reduce the hours of work, to provide suitable sleeping accommodation, to avoid overcrowding, not to require work on Sunday or all night, and to supply food of the best quality and unlimited in quantity. Since that time, however, he was sorry to say there had been strong indications of an inclination to revert to the old system, and the committee of the association to which he had referred had reported that some of the employers who had entered into a pledge to reduce the hours of labour had exacted sixteen and even seventeen hours' work from the young persons they employed, and that it appeared that, during the past year, many of the worst evils that disgraced the dressmaking business had been revived. There were, no doubt, some honourable exceptions, but he feared that the greater portion of the 15,000 young persons who were engaged in these establishments would be again exposed to all those evils from which it had been the object of the association to rescue them. In the hope of mitigating those evils he had prepared the present Bill, which was a very short one, which did not profess much, and which did not perhaps require enough, and which could be carried out with very simple machinery. He admitted the difficulty of legislating in the matter; but, at the same time, it was a great thing to obtain a decision from the Legislature against the barbarities that were practised and to have them stamped with illegality. He proposed that between the 1st of May and the 1st of August, which included what was called "the London season," work should be prohibited between the hours of ten at night and eight in the morning, and that during the remaining months of the year work should he prohibited between eight at night and eight in the morning. He also proposed that an hour and a half should be allotted to meals in the course of the day out of the working time; and that all proceedings for the enforcement of penalties under the Bill should be taken before magistrates at the police courts, to whom the jurisdiction in these matters was exclusively committed. The noble Earl concluded by moving that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee.


did not rise to oppose the Motion, but to express a hope that the Select Committee would seriously consider the effect of the noble Earl's proposition. He was anxious to do full justice to the motives which had induced the noble Earl to bring this subject under their Lordships' notice; but the question was whether, if this Bill were passed into law, it would be possible to carry out its provisions, for it would be an act of the very worst policy to call into operation an Act which would be habitually disregarded. He had very great doubt whether an Act such as the noble Lord proposed could be carried out without all the inspectors and varied machinery required for the supervision of labour in factories. He believed the noble Earl had not exaggerated in the slightest degree the sufferings of these unfortunate needlewomen; but it must be remembered that their labour, being a description of skilled labour, of which there was an enormous supply, the consequence was that very low wages were given, and that these women were obliged to work for many hours in order to earn sufficient to provide adequately for their subsistence. In some of the large millinery establishments a number of women were employed; in some of the smaller establishments not more than two or three were employed, and in other cases piecework was distributed to workwomen to be completed at their own homes. He must say that he thought it would be impossible to carry out the plan proposed by the noble Earl, and if it were carried out he saw no limit to interference with every sort of labour. There was, no doubt, great hardship in many cases in the servants' hall, and if a law were passed enforcing limited labour in milliners' establishments, where sometimes not more than two or three workwomen were employed, their Lordships might be called upon to enact laws to prevent the energies of domestic servants from being overtaxed. He hoped, therefore, that the Committee would give the subject very serious and attentive consideration.


said, he must remind the noble Earl that they had already relinquished the principle of not interfering with labour, and had passed laws to protect the poor from overwork; they had, therefore, to discuss, not the principle of interfering with labour, but the question whether or not it was expedient to apply it in this particular case. He thought he could prove that there was no class which so much required the protection of the Legislature as that class whose interests had just been advocated by the noble Earl. In the first place, their sex, to a certain extent, gave them additional claims to the consideration of the Legislature. The argument of the noble Earl opposite, that the girls employed in millinery, dressmaking, and similar establishments, were not so much in a position to be overlooked as the girls employed in factories, was only another reason, in his opinion, for pressing the duty of investigation upon the Legislature. He should certainly support the Motion of the noble Earl.


did not deny the power of the State to interfere; but he questioned whether in this case the State could interfere beneficially. He admitted that the State had interfered beneficially in the case of the factories, but what he deprecated was the enactment of a law that would undoubtedly be a dead letter. If the noble Earl could point out any manner in which his Bill could be enforced, he would most heartily support it. Machinery was provided in the Factories Act for the enforcement of that measure; but the present Bill, as the noble Earl had explained it, was entirely devoid of any such machinery. The noble Earl did not propose to appoint inspectors, or to adopt any other means for the purpose of seeing whether the law would be carried into effect or not. Indeed, it would be impossible to send inspectors all over England, to see that needlewomen were not overworked; but unless the noble Earl provided some machinery of that sort, it was quite clear that to pass the Bill would be to enact a law for the very purpose of its being broken. The noble Earl had stated that there was a great reluctance on the part of needlewomen to come forward and state the hardships they endured. Could it be expected, then, that they would come forward and lodge information against their employers? Certainly not. The law, therefore, would be a dead letter, incapable of being enforced, and consequently inadequate to effect any useful purpose whatever.


denied that the principle of the Bill had been conceded by the Legislature. The principle which had been adopted was, that Parliament had a right to interfere with the labour of persons under a certain age, and not with regard to adult persons. With regard to the present measure, he concurred in all that had been stated by the Lord Chief Justice, believing that it would be almost impossible to enforce such a law. In fact, the Bill as it stood at present would interfere with numerous private families throughout the country; for it would be difficult to separate the case of a lady employing her own maid at needlework after ten o'clock at night from that of a milliner or dressmaker employing a large number of hands.


said, it was a mistake to suppose that the principle of this Bill had not received the sanction of the Legislature, for three great measures had already been passed by their Lordships—the Factories Act, the Act restricting labour in mines, and the Hours of Labour Act—in which adult women had protection given to them, and he could not see why adult women should not receive protection in this case. A great proportion of the persons who would be affected by the Bill were girls of tender years, principally under twenty years of age. His noble Friend the President of the Council seemed to have fallen into some confusion upon the subject, and spoke of milliners, and dressmakers, and needlewomen as though they were of the same class. That was a mistake, for the needlewomen formed a totally distinct class, being principally what were called "slop women," and they were a class who were helpless and friendless, and who were subject to the greatest oppression. It was not intended, however, that this Bill should apply to the needlewomen properly so called, who lived in their own houses, and worked for great establishments elsewhere, but to milliners and dressmakers who lived in the houses of their employers, chiefly in the fashionable districts of the metropolis. The noble Earl admitted the enormity of the evil, but said that nothing could be done. But, to admit the evils by which these unfortunate women were surrounded, and then to say that nothing should be done to remedy them, was, he thought, a declaration on the part of the Government which showed that they were prepared entirely to repudiate the duties intrusted to them. He must certainly say that it reflected no credit upon Members of the Government and Cabinet Ministers to admit the enormity of an evil that was disgraceful to the country and to humanity, and then, rather than make an effort to remedy it, to declare that they were content to allow things to remain as they were.


thought that the noble Earl had entirely misunderstood the remarks of the noble Earl the President of the Council. All the noble Earl had said was, that in referring this measure to a Select Committee he felt it his duty, as the head of the Government in that House, earnestly to remind the Committee that they would have to deal with an exceedingly delicate and dangerous matter, and that it would be necessary for them to examine most carefully the provisions of the Bill, in order to see that all the good which the noble Earl proposed to effect would be really effected. Further, the noble Earl (Earl Granville) impressed upon the Committee the necessity of guarding against inflicting an indirect injury where they intended to effect a positive advantage. In interfering with the freedom of labour it would be very easy to impose restrictions which, though appearing to produce considerable benefit, would in reality be highly mischievous. He (Lord Overstone) therefore thought that it would be impossible to attend too carefully to the admonition of the noble Earl the President of the Council.


said, the censure passed by the noble Earl opposite upon his noble Friend the President of the Council rested entirely upon a misconception of what his noble Friend had stated. Not one word had fallen from his noble Friend against the abstract principle of those measures which had already received the sanction of the Legislature, but he had merely pointed out the practical difficulty of enforcing such a law as that proposed by the noble Earl opposite. He understood from his noble Friend opposite (the Earl of Shaftesbury) that up to this year he had seen very great difficulties in the way of such a measure. Now, his noble Friend must not be surprised if the difficulties felt by him in former years, and which he had only just now overcome, should press severely on the minds of others. For his own part, considering the nature of the employment, and that it was carried on chiefly in private houses, he (the Duke of Argyll) saw great practical difficulties in the way of enforcing such a law; and the noble Earl would himself admit that it was not desirable to have upon the statute book laws which could not be enforced.


said, that, though there was no law without some defect, the laws already passed for regulating the hours of labour had, he believed, proved very beneficial, and he saw no reason to doubt that further legislation in the same direction would be attended with equal advantage. He thought their Lordships, and the community at large, owed a deep debt of gratitude to his noble Friend for bringing forward this and other measures of the kind.

Motion agreed to; Bill referred to a Select Committee under Standing Order No. 175, relative to Bills for regulating Trade.

House adjourned till To-morrow.