HL Deb 12 May 1862 vol 166 cc1532-41

said, he had given his noble Friend the Presi- dent of the Council private notice of a Question he was about to put, on a subject of painful and general interest. Their Lordships had, no doubt, all heard of the great distress now unhappily prevailing in the cotton manufacturing districts of Lancashire, and of the admirable manner in which it was borne by the people. Nothing could exceed their dignified and noble bearing under the trials they were called upon to sustain. Their endurance was not to be measured by the amount of physical privation which they had to contend with. To his certain knowledge many, who, by great industry had, during the period of prosperity—a period extending over the last five or six years—invested very considerable sums, by which they hoped to make provision for, perhaps, premature old age, had been compelled to expend the whole of their savings, in procuring sustenance for themselves and their families, since the commencement of the distress; so that when again they should be able to recommence work by the removal of the cause which had for a time put an end to the demand for their labour, they would have to recommence under every disadvantage the task of making provision for the future. But, notwithstanding all their privations, and all the difficulties to which they were exposed, he wished their Lordships to remark the good sense and sound judgment which these operative classes had displayed throughout. They had been guilty of no excesses; they did not complain of their employers, nor attribute their sufferings to social distinctions; nor did they expect that they could be ameliorated or remedied by any interference on the part of the Legislature or of the Government. It was admirable, also, to see the good understanding which prevailed between the employer and the employed in an emergency in which both were such severe sufferers. No doubt very large fortunes had been amassed in this branch of industry, and some few employers were not fully sensible to the demands of their duty; but a great many of the manufacturers, in order to afford employment for their hands, were carrying on their operations at a serious loss; others were expending considerable sums in the shape of contributions for the relief of the workpeople; and the consequence was, that the most happy understanding existed. If their Lordships contrasted this state of feeling with that which had existed during former periods of manufacturing distress, they could not but be gratified with the increase of intelligence which was manifested among those classes of our population. Several modes had been suggested by which the distress might be temporarily relieved. First, there was a proposition for a large grant from the Consolidated Fund. That, however, he apprehended, would not be received with much approbation in any quarter. There was also the resource of private contributions. Although, undoubtedly, he was far from saying that sympathy might not be shown in the way of contributions. But that was not the mode in which he believed the people would desire to be relieved. He believed they would prefer to receive relief from the administration of the Poor Law, in so far as it could be made adequate for the purpose and to the peculiar circumstances of the case. Therefore it was that he wished to ask his noble Friend if Her Majesty's Government were prepared to advise anything in the shape of a relaxation of the rigid rules of the Poor Law in respect to relief, more especially in respect to the labour test. He would oven now have the labour test applied to those who were idle and not disposed to work. But it must be borne in mind that these people were destitute from no cause which they could control. They were disposed to work if work could be found for them to do; and in the present state of the trade, when there was no employment for them, and they were consequently driven to ask for relief, the enforcement of the labour test would be most cruel and injudicious. This was especially the case with regard to the class of persons employed in many branches of the manufactures carried on in these cotton factories, and which required very delicate handling, and could not be performed by persons whose hands were hardened by rough work. To set such persons to break stones would be not only to expose them to much unnecessary suffering as a condition of the relief afforded, but would in many cases deprive them of the means of earning their bread when a revival of trade took place, and their labour was again in demand. Then, again, to put men to outdoor labour, and expose to drenching rains those who had been accustomed to work in the heated rooms of factories, would be to bring on them other inevitable disorders. He hoped, therefore, his noble Friend, on the part of the Government, would be prepared to give, in answer to his question, an assurance that some relaxation would be made in the administration of the Poor Law relief, especially in regard to the labour test. But, whatever the decision of the Government, he was sure they would join with him in the expression of sympathy and respect for the admirable conduct of those honest but industrious and suffering men. He begged to ask his noble Friend, Whether it was the intention of Her Majesty's Government to advise some temporary relaxation in the administration of the Poor Law relief, especially as regards the labour test, in order to meet the present emergency?


said, he was not aware that this Question was to be put, but he could not allow the opportunity to pass without expressing his feeling of deep sympathy for the sufferings endured, and of respect for those who bore them, with the patience and manly fortitude so well described by the noble Earl. He joined cordially in his expression of admiration for the conduct of the people of Lancashire in their distress; and he felt confident they would continue to show the same noble bearing whatever trials might still await them. Connected as he had been through life with the district, he necessarily regarded their sufferings with the greatest interest and sympathy. He had lived among the people of Lancashire, and knew them to be amongst the most industrious, intelligent, and well-conducted of the labouring classes. He had known them from the highest and most wealthy classes to the most needy and hard-working, having lived among them in the days of their highest prosperity and passed among them many and many an anxious day in periods of the severest trials and distress. He knew the enlightened views and liberal generosity of the richer classes, and he was equally acquainted with the manly courage, the love of country, and attachment to the principles of justice which characterized the poorer classes of that district. He therefore was not surprised that the conduct of all classes in the present crisis had been such as to command the approbation of their Lordships and of the country at large. He certainly did hope, not only that the attention of the Government, but of all classes, would be extended to that district during the fearful trial which he feared was yet awaiting them. It would be felt, on the one hand, that their suffering was not occasioned by any fault or misconduct of the people, but in consequence of the firm adherence of the Government to the law of nations in not interfering with either of the belligerents in the contest unhappily going on in America. But, at the same time, they would all feel that a case of greater difficulty or of more grave responsibility could scarcely arise than that which was presented to the Government in dealing with the sufferings of these people. It was easy to satisfy their own feelings by calling for relief from the Consolidated Fund, or from private subscriptions; but it was imperative, that while every facility should be afforded for making those resources applicable for the relief of distress, they should nevertheless proceed upon those sound principles which alone could render such relief a blessing to those to whom it was extended. He was confident that the Government in this great emergency would not fail to act under the guidance of sound principle and with a due regard to the ultimate consequences as well as the immediate effect of their measures upon the condition and permanent well-being of the manufacturing population.


said, it must have been satisfactory to the noble Earl (the Earl of Shaftesbury) to have an opportunity of expressing his own feelings, which were those, he was sure, of the House generally, as they were those of Her Majesty's Government, in favour of the class in whose behalf he had pleaded. It was impossible for any one representing the Government to deny that very great distress did exist in the cotton manufacturing districts, and that much individual suffering had resulted; or to withhold his sympathy and admiration at the manner in which that suffering and destitution had been met both by the employers and the employed. At the same time, so far as the facts were known to the Government, that distress was not quite so general as had at first been imagined. There were great numbers of persons wholly out of employment, no doubt—large numbers, also, were working half instead of whole time; but there were others, again, in some districts who were employed at nearly full time. Great sympathy had been manifested for the suffering class both in Lancashire and in the adjoining counties; and he thought great judgment had been shown by the manufacturers and employers of labour, as well as by the guardians of the poor of the several unions, in the mode which they had adopted of meeting the distress. With regard to the steps taken by the Government in reference to the administration of the Poor Law, and in especial regard to the labour test, he had to answer with reference to that test, that it was to be remembered that there was already power in the boards of guardians to dispense with that test for a period not exceeding three weeks at their own discretion, in cases of emergency, at the end of which time they must report to the Poor Law Board; who, if they saw sufficient reason, might permit the discontinuance of the test for a still longer period. It must also be remembered that there existed a large class of operatives who would desire to perform some labour in return for the relief that might be afforded to them. The great object of the Government in dealing with the Poor Law authorities was to see that the rules and regulations of the law were conformed to, but at the same time to make them so elastic that they might at all times be made available for meeting cases of pressing emergency. Her Majesty's Government had considered the subject most anxiously, and had come to the same conclusion that the people of Lancashire themselves had come to—namely, that the resources of Lancashire were as yet sufficient to meet the emergency. Up to the present time he believed there was nothing in the case, either in the number of persons thrown upon the relief fund or the amount of the rate, which should cause serious alarm, or lead to the opinion that the Poor Law would be inadequate to meet the demand upon it. Except in one or two parishes, the rate had not yet readied any very high amount; and those parishes had, under the existing law, power to call upon the adjoining parishes for aid. With regard to the capability of the district, he reminded their Lordships that six years ago the ratable value of the property of the district was £7,000,000, and it had since considerably increased. There was no reason to suppose, therefore, that the resources of Lancashire would fall short of the demands which might possibly be made upon them in the present exigency. He found that committees were beginning to be organized to aid the local authorities in the administration of the relief, by ascertaining the wants and claims of the distressed people; and the Poor Law Board had sent down a most experienced Inspector, a gentleman who had been for five or six years engaged in an adjoining district of Lancashire, and who enjoyed the confidence of the authorities, to co-operate with the guardians. That gentleman, Mr. Farnall, would confer with the magistrates, with the clergy of all denominations, the Poor Law guardians, the committees, and others; he would endeavour to place their local committees in harmonious working with the local authorities, would advise the guardians as to the best means of providing labour or other tests for those who might become the objects of relief as circumstances suggested, and would originate and put in force such other measures as were calculated to load to the most satisfactory solution of the difficulty. The noble Lord (Lord Overstone) had referred to the feeling of sympathy exhibited by the manufacturers, and he (Earl Granville) admitted that it was impossible to speak too highly of their conduct, taking them as a body. No doubt a certain number of the manufacturers had shut up their mills, and thereby contributed to the general distress; there was no doubt that in other parts the manufacturers were a little inclined in some instances to cast a burden upon the Poor Law guardians which in some sort belonged to them; but there was no doubt that the majority were animated with the best feeling towards those they employed, submitting to very great sacrifices themselves in order to alleviate the suffering of their hands, and were taking that course of prudence and humanity which was most likely to avoid those consequences which an injudicious course of conduct would produce. With regard to the operatives, it was impossible to speak too highly of them—their patience, their submission to the will of God, their perfect knowledge of the secondary causes that have led to the difficulty, their feelings for the sacrifices to which their employers are exposed, their appreciation of the relations between the Government and the people, and their understanding that Government, not having mixed in social affairs of this kind, are not responsible when distress arising from any failure in the demand for labour takes place, and further, their knowledge that the Legislature was wholly inadequate to meet such an emergency. Knowledge of these facts, and the conduct which that knowledge has produced, reflect most creditably upon the operatives of that large district, and speak for that increased intelligence and intellectual improvement, as well as that great improvement in their moral character, to which the noble Lord has so properly borne testimony. It was with great satisfaction that he was enabled on his own part, and on the part of the Government—he believed he might say on the part of all their Lordships—to express their admiration of the conduct of these poor people, together with their deep sympathy for their sufferings.


said, he could not refrain from bearing his testimony, from personal knowledge, to the admirable manner in which the manufacturing population of Lancashire, both employers and operatives, had met a calamity which was almost unparalleled in the history of England. Nothing, on the one hand, could be more admirable than the patience and submission which the operatives had displayed under privations which they had little reason to anticipate; and, on the other hand, the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Shaftesbury) had only done justice to the great majority of the millowners when he said, that at considerable loss to themselves, they had carried and were carrying on their works for the sole purpose of furnishing employment to the population around them. It was to be remembered, moreover, that many of them had most generously and liberally contributed from their private purses to the relief of the distress around them. He was entirely satisfied with the statement which the noble Earl (Earl Granville) had made as to the course which the Government were pursuing. The very last resource to which, under circumstances such as the present, any population ought to have recourse, more especially a population upon the whole so well to do as that of Lancashire, was assistance from the public purse; and he certainly should not be disposed to hold out to the distressed districts any expectation of their receiving, until they were reduced to the last extremities, any aid from that quarter. He thought the Government had taken a judicious course in sending down a confidential agent to communicate with the boards of guardians, the relief committees, and others engaged in the work of relief, and to keep the central Board constantly and thoroughly informed as to the particular condition of each district. As to the statement that the present distress was not so great as on some former occasions, he thought the Poor Law authorities might themselves be misled—he was afraid that statement was true only of Lancashire as a whole. Although it might be correct to say that there had been times when Lancashire was in greater distress than at the present moment, yet he believed that in particular towns and districts, such as Manchester, Blackburn, Preston, and Wigan, distress was never more general or pressing. The Government, no doubt, were right in their determination to use, as far as they could, the machinery of the Poor Law for the relief of the distress but it ought never to be forgotten that among the manufacturing operatives there were thousands who would bear any amount of suffering and privation rather than submit to the degradation, as they deemed it, of applying for parochial relief. Their Lordships must not, therefore, think that the funds administered by the Poor Law Board would, however liberally they might be applied, be sufficient to meet the distress which in many instances prevailed to so great an extent. Those who were suffering from that distress must look to assistance from private sources, and he was sure private charity would not, on an occasion which called so loudly for its aid, be found wanting. Contributions were, he rejoiced to say, proceeding at the present moment from persons locally connected with Lancashire to a great extent; and he might also state that many persons, in their anxiety to do their duty under the circumstances, were quietly and unostentatiously subscribing funds, the subscription of which might hereafter seriously interfere with the rendering of that public assistance which the public generally might feel they were called upon to make. He was therefore anxious that it should be understood, that if hereafter it should be found necessary to make an appeal to the country at large, the disposition and liberality of persons immediately connected with Lancashire should not be estimated by their assumed ability to contribute to any public subscription; because he felt assured a very unjust measure would be taken of the efforts which had been, and which were continuing to be, made locally if any one were to say, "It is not right that the Lancashire manufacturers should apply to us for assistance, seeing as we do from the published list, how small is the sum which they themselves subscribe who are locally interested." He might add, that while he was satisfied, on the one hand, that the people of Lancashire were bearing the distress which had fallen upon them with a patience, a resignation, and a resolution which did them the highest credit, he was, on the other hand, convinced that many were exerting them- selves to the full extent of their means to relieve that distress; and he felt assured that when these means were, if not exhausted, greatly reduced, those who so exerted themselves would not appeal in vain to the sympathy and liberality of their fellow-countrymen to meet an exigency for which their own funds might be insufficient, and to cope with which the Poor Law furnished an inadequate machinery. The last resource, he believed, to which the manufacturing population of the North would desire to have recourse would be to present themselves as petitioners for relief from the public funds of the country.