HL Deb 13 March 1860 vol 157 cc440-4

said, that their Lordships would recollect that he had a few evenings before presented a petition signed by no less than 20,000 tradesmen engaged in business in various parts of the metropolis, praying that there might be an amendment in the law as regarded Sunday trading; and that on a previous evening he had presented a petition from Bermondsey to the same effect. In pursuance of a pledge which he gave to their Lordships on that occasion he now asked leave to introduce a Bill on the subject. He would briefly explain to their Lordships the extent to which he proposed to legislate on the matter. He would do so in as clear terms as possible, because he believed that previous Bills which proposed to deal with Sunday trading had failed in consequence of their not having been properly understood. It was no wonder that the consideration of Parliament should have been engaged by this subject. When they considered the enormous extent of the evil to be remedied, the generally pernicious consequences that resulted from it, and the numbers of persons who would be relieved by any change in the law, and who were most anxious for such change, he ventured to think that it might be deemed a matter of reproach that all their previous, attempts at legislation of this character had been entire failures. Select Committees had been appointed to investigate this subject in 1832, in 1847, and in 1850; and the results of the labours of those Committees were contained in three or four large volumes; but the extent to which the evidence went was of such magnitude as almost to deter any one from perusing it, however anxious he might be to inform himself on the question. After the Report of the Committee of 1847 a Bill on the subject was introduced in the other House, and in 1850 their Lordships' attention was directed to the subject by a Bill introduced by a noble Friend of his (the Earl of Harrowby), and that measure, after having passed through their Lordships' House, was sent down to the House of Commons, but unfortunately at too late a period of the Session for it to be passed. In 1852 his noble Friend Lord Ebury, at that time Lord Robert Grosvenor, introduced in the House of Commons a Bill very much, though not entirely, to the same effect as that which he (Lord Chelmsford) now asked their Lordships' permission to read a first time. That Bill of his noble Friend was almost unanimously approved of by the House of Commons; was read a second time, and several of its clauses were passed. But it unfortunately happened that in the previous Session an Act for limiting the hours during which public-houses should be kept open had been passed. That measure had excited a good deal of dissatisfaction, and it was supposed that the Bill of his noble Friend was intended to impose further restraints; agitation was consequently excited, a great deal of misrepresentation took place; and ultimately the Bill was abandoned. The difficulty of passing any moderate Bill on the subject had been very much increased by injudicious attempts at leglislation on both sides. On the one side, Bills had been introduced to enforce a better observance of the Sabbath—Bills which, from their nature, were calculated to affect only the lower classes, and which certainly were open to the objection that it was sought to render people religious by Act of Parliament. On the other hand, proposals had from time to time been made for the opening of the British Museum and other such places on Sunday, which attempts had induced many religious and conscientious persons to evince hostility to any relaxation in the matter of Sabbath observance. He did not sympathize with either view. He should regret any legislative interference with the poor man's Sunday, which should convert a day of rest and cheerfulness into one of irksomeness and gloom; and on the other, he thought it was not desirable that the Legislature should set the example of countenancing the opening of places of public resort on Sunday, if for no other reason, because the precedent would be likely to be extended in every direction, and Sunday would become a day of licence and riot. What he desired by his Bill was to give persons, who really had a sense of duty and religious obligation, an opportunity of paying to the Sabbath that observance which all must desire, but which they were now prevented from doing in consequence of the system of Sunday trading which prevailed, and prevailed to an enormous extent, in all the populous suburbs of the metropolis. Their Lordships could not have the least idea of the extent of this Sunday trading. The neighbourhoods in which it was carried on were crowded as though so many fairs were being held; not only articles of a perishable and necessary character, but other articles, which might be purchased any day in the week, were exposed for sale, and a most brisk and stirring trade went on. Many shopkeepers who objected to Sunday trading were obliged to open their shops in self-defence, as the petitions laid on the table satisfactorily proved, and the consequence was that the observance of the Sunday was entirely neglected. A gentleman who had written a letter to The Times on the subject, described in very forcible language the hindrance which this Sunday trading was to the efforts of those who were endeavouring to bring about a better observance of the Sabbath among the poorer classes. The shopkeepers, he said, cried out against it, and the very publicans strongly condemned a system which deprived them of a day of rest; but they were obliged to keep their shops open, unless they were prepared to give up the principal profits of their business, as their sales were larger on that day. He need not picture to their Lordships what must be the inevitable effect of this system in depriving the people of the enjoyment of the blessings of the Sabbath. As for the children of these people, they must of course be brought up in habits of neglect of the religious observance of the Lord's Day. As it at present stood the law was entirely powerless to redress the evil. The Act which was in force on the subject was the 29th Charles II., which was partly positive and partly negative. The positive part was directed to compelling a due observance of the Sabbath. It directed that all persons on every Sunday "should apply themselves to the observance of the same, and the exercise of the duties of piety and true religion." And it provided that any person exposing for sale any article on that day should be liable to a fine of 5s. From the construction put upon this Act it had become a perfect dead letter. It had been held that the mere opening of a shop, was not an exposure for sale sufficient for the purposes of the Act, there must be an actual sale; and the magistrates thought that they could only issue their warrant of distress against the particular article sold. Of course the attempt to follow it would be fruitless. Then the penalty of 5s. could only be imposed once for one day, no matter how many the articles sold. Looking at the profit derived from this Sunday trading, it was easy to conceive that a penalty of 5s. for an entire day would be utterly ineffectual for its suppression. Indeed, he understood that some of those Sunday traders had jeered the authorities and offered to pay six months' fines in advance. To a very great extent the evil had been promoted by the practice, which was almost general, of paying workmen's wages on Saturday night, the consequence of which was that the working people were unable to procure on Saturday the necessaries which they required, and were driven to make their little purchases on Sunday morning. He was happy to say that there had, within a recent period, been a great improvement in that respect. An example was being set which might ultimately lead to what was most earnestly to be desired, which was that Saturday should become the labouring man's market day. An excellent example was set in the Royal establishments, in the whole of which, with one exception, the wages were paid on Friday. In that one they were paid early on Saturday. The efforts of the Early Closing Association were likely to effect much good in this direction; but much still remained to be done in order to put an end to the Sunday traffic. The Bill he now presented to their Lordships was intended to forbid the sale, within the City of London and the Metropolitan Police District, of any wares or merchandise whatever on Sunday; but as to meat, fish, or poultry, the dealer might deliver it before nine o'clock on Sunday morning. The penalty for each breach of the law was to be not exceeding 20s., nor less than Salt was not a Bill of coercion, but of protection. It was not a Bill of restraint, but of liberty. It was for the protection and advantage of those who were compelled by the hard necessity of the existing system to carry on trade on Sunday, and all he feared was that it would be objected that he had conceded too much in that direction. He believed that the Bill, if passed, would confer the greatest benefit upon society, and put a stop to that wholesale traffic on the Lord's-day which had caused so much scandal and dissatisfaction.

Bill to amend the Laws relating to the Selling and Hawking Goods on Sunday within the Metropolitan Police District and City of London and Liberties thereof, presented, and read 1a.

House adjourned at Half-past Six o'clock, till To-morrow, Half-past Ten o'clock.