HL Deb 12 May 1865 vol 179 cc174-7

, in moving that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty to request that Her Majesty will be graciously pleased to direct that the Commission appointed in answer to an Address of this House on the 18th February, 1862, to inquire into the employment of Children and young Persons in Trades and Manufactures not already regulated by Law, do include within its Inquiries Children and young Persons employed in some parts of the country under an organized system known as that of Agricultural Gangs, said, that of late there had been constant reference made in newspapers and other publications to the agricultural gangs in different parts of the kingdom. He had not been able to institute himself much personal inquiry into the subject, but he had received information of an important character with reference to these agricultural gangs of children, upon which he could rely, and he should be able to show that it was a subject well worthy of attention. His statement rested mainly on a paper read by the Rev. Thomas Hutton, rector of Stilton, before the Social Science Meeting at York in 1864, a gentleman who had devoted a great deal of time to this matter, he related—and his testimony was confirmed by that of many other persons—that this abominable system had been in operation in Norfolk for upwards of twenty-five years, in relation to gangs of women and children; but what he wished more particularly to call attention to were the gangs of children—some of boys, some of girls, and other mixed gangs of boys and girls of tender ages. They prevailed to a great extent in the Fen district, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, and in parts of Northamptonshire and Norfolk. They were to be found also in other parts of the country, but not so widely. The children were of very tender ages, varying from five years to sixteen years of age, and they were formed into gangs of from ten to sixty, according to circumstances. The children were hired from the parents by a person who was called by the names of "gang-driver" or "undertaker," and the mode of transaction was this—that he contracted with the parents for the services of the children and then he afterwards let their labour out to the farmers at so much per score, and at other times by the acre. The children were employed in different kinds of farm labour, and they frequently had to walk long distances, and from parish to parish to their day's work. The "driver" or "undertaker" was generally a labouring man, who was not seldom of very dissipated habits, and his conduct towards the children was very severe, his object being to get as much labour as he could out of them. The effect of this system upon children of such tender years was of the most pernicious and demoralizing character. Being away from their natural protectors, and having no power of appeal, and no help against the oppression to which they might be exposed, these children were no better than slaves; in fact, they were slaves to all intents and purposes. They had all the conditions of slavery—with a slave-market and a slave-dealer—the children were sold by the parents to the "undertaker," who took charge of them, and set them to work wherever their services were required without any responsibility attaching to them. The system had a most serious effect, both physically and morally, on these poor children. The same rev. gentleman further stated in a brief description of the gang in a parish where the system had been in operation, though not to its present extent, for twenty years— The population is about 3,000. Here all the farmers encourage the gangs. There are eight gangs at work, containing about forty children each—five of these are mixed gangs of boys and girls; two consist entirely of girls, and one is formed of boys only. During the three winter months, the average attendance at school is 100 boys and eighty girls, but when the gangs are in full work, these numbers are reduced to forty and twenty respectively. The association of the younger children with the hardened, wicked, and corrupted boys and girls of fifteen and sixteen years of age is described as most demoralizing. Their language is awful; vice and immorality in every form are the fruit of the system. These children may be frequently seen on a Saturday night, as late as ten o'clock, going from one beer-shop to another, in search of their driver, for their week's wages. The educational status of this parish is represented to be 50 per cent lower than that of the manufacturing districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire. That description exactly agreed with the testimony he had received from all his correspondents in all other parts of the country where the system prevailed. When children of tender years, especially girls, were employed under such a system, and frequently in all weathers, they were exposed to most serious injury to their health; but the moral contamination to which they were exposed was positively frightful. Gangs of one sex, having no proper superintendence over them, were bad; but when the two sexes were combined in the same gang the vice and immorality which resulted were fearful to contemplate. Of course such a life unfits girls for domestic service, or for their future position as wives and mothers. The difficulty of obtaining suitable female domestic servants in those districts amounts to an absolute impossibility. Where the system prevailed many parents had no choice, but must either send their children to the gangs or lose employment for them altogether. This was a state of things utterly inconsistent with the spirit of the age, and entirely at variance with the principles of recent legislation as applied to other branches of industry. He thought, therefore, their Lordships would agree with him that the case called for an inquiry, in order to see whether the facts were as they are represented to be, and whether the evil does not admit of a remedy. Such an inquiry was due to the manufacturers, whose employment of children and young persons the Legislature had subjected to regulation and investigation. They are accused of having been exceedingly sharp in looking after the abuses of factory labour, while they had sheltered those connected with agricultural industry. An opportunity was now presented to them of showing the reverse to be the fact. He, therefore, appealed confidently to their Lordships to accede to a Motion having for its object the extension of the inquiries now being made by the Commission to which he had referred to the employment of children and young persons in agricultural gangs.

Moved, "That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty to request that Her Majesty will be graciously pleased to direct that the Commission appointed in answer to an Address of this House on the 18th February 1862, to inquire into the Employment of Children and young Persons in trades and Manufactures not already regulated by Law, do include within its Inquiries Children and young Persons employed in some Parts of the Country under an organized System known as that of Agricultural Gangs."—(The Earl of Shaftesbury.)


said, he hoped their Lordships would accede to the noble Earl's Motion. He thanked the noble Earl heartily for bringing it forward. In the South Eastern part of his diocese he had received communications from clergymen which entirely bore out the statements of the noble Earl. He was quite aware that the inquiry was not to embrace female labour in general, but the two were intimately connected. The evils of early field labour haunted the girls who had been subjected to it through life. Females who had been brought up to gang labour were not only unfitted, but they were indisposed for home duties. Once having tasted what were called the sweets of liberty, they preferred field work to indoor domestic labour, and when they went to field labour their infants were "stilled" with laudanum and often, no doubt, unintentionally, poisoned to death. In Lincolnshire, the general death-rate was low, but the rate of infant mortality was high, where the system prevailed. His correspondents had informed him that this gang labour had the most demoralizing and profligate effect on the youth of both sexes, and fostered the most vicious habits amongst them. He hoped the attention which the noble Earl had called to this subject would put a stop to the evil, and if so, his Lordship would add another to the many claims which he had on the gratitude of the country.


said, that although he knew of circumstances under which the gang system was of advantage to boys, nevertheless, on the whole, he did not think it was a practice to be encouraged. He, therefore, concurred in the propriety of the inquiry suggested by the noble Earl.

Motion agreed to: The said Address to be presented to Her Majesty by the Lords, with White Staves.