HL Deb 22 May 1865 vol 179 cc631-6

My Lords, I trust your Lordships will permit me to trespass upon your attention for a few minutes with reference to a subject which has already been referred to by my noble Friend (Lord Ravensworth)—a remarkable Report that has been laid upon the table during the last few days. The facts stated in that Report are so remarkable and so satisfactory that I am sure your Lordships will not find it a waste of time if I attempt to give more publicity to the facts than they would be likely to receive from their mere publication in a blue-book. Three years ago—in the year 1862—I brought forward the great injury caused in certain districts of the country from the escape of noxious gases in different processes of manufacture, and your Lordships were pleased to appoint a Select Committee to investigate the subject. In the following year, the evidence was so conclusive, your Lordships passed an Act for the purpose of placing under inspection the particular manufacture which had been the most extensive nuisance, and was also susceptible of the most easy remedy. The Report I hold in my hand is the first Report of the Inspector appointed under the Act. An Inspector and several Sub-inspectors were appointed, and I am sure I only express a universal opinion when I say that the Board of Trade could not have made a better appointment than that of Dr. Angus Smith, whose scientific knowledge is universally known, and who has conducted the proceedings under the Act in so conciliatory a spirit as to have tended materially to the success of the Act. I must remind your Lordships that the Act had only been in operation for nine months down to the date of this Report. I pressed the noble Lord opposite (Lord Stanley of Alderley) to appoint the Sub-Inspectors prospectively, so that they might have been appointed in October or November, and have become acquainted with their duties. They were not, however, appointed until February or March—it was only in March, 1864, that the Act came into operation, and this Report is dated in January or February. To show the extreme sensitiveness of vegetation to the minutest quantity of the muriatic gas evolved in the manufacture of alkali, I will call your attention to a few lines in the concluding page of this Report, which gives the result of a remarkable experi- ment. Your Lordships may be aware that the most effectual test with regard to the condensation of this gas is to pass it through nitrate of silver— Mr. Balmain, of St. Helen's, after passing gas from his condenser through nitrate of silver, led it among growing flowers, covered with a glass shade. These flowers had appeared healthy for a fortnight, hut, suddenly, in two hours, they died; a less perfect condensation had occurred for a short time, hut so delicate were the flowers that, although they clearly showed this difference, it could not be traced by any other method. This shows the destructive effect on vegetation of even an imperceptible portion of this noxious gas. Now, let us look to the Inspector's Report to see what was the state of things previous to the passing of this Act. Before the Committee we could only adduce vague statements in regard to the extent of the damage done; we had no means of showing the amount of gas which escaped and which ought to have been condensed. It is true, the Inspector says— That thorough condensation was known to very few, and practised by still fewer, up to the time of the passing of the Act; and it even happened that for some time after inspection had begun 40 per cent of the gas was in some cases allowed to escape, while 16 was a very common amount. The Act requires that in all cases there shall be at least 95 per cent of the total amount condensed. The Act has now been in operation little more than a year; yet the Inspector is able to report that the condensation of muriatic acid, instead of being 40 or 16 per cent, is actually 98…72 per cent. The average escape of muriatic acid is 1.28 per cent over the kingdom. At page 10 of the Report it is stated that, gradual as the progress has been, it has been very rapid, and improvement is still to be expected— Practical inspection did not begin until March, 1864, and now in February, 1865, every alkali work is condensing at least the amount required by the Act, while twenty-six are condensing 100 per cent, and all the others condense more than by the Alkali Act they are compelled. He then give a list of sixty-four different works engaged in the manufacture of alkali, and of these, in not less than thirty-three the escape of gas is nil or 0.1; in ten under 1 per cent; and only five where the escape of gas amounts to 4 per cent. And I am bound to say that such results would not have been obtained except with the cordial and ready concurrence of all those engaged in the manufacture. So far as I can learn, there is hardly one of the manufacturers who has not lent himself actively and energetically to carry out the object of the Act, and to make the machinery and the apparatus as perfect as possible. Dr. Angus Smith says that the knowledge of good methods of condensation was not general. He says— The knowledge of good modes of condensing was not general among the alkali makers; the knowledge of the amount of escaping gas and the mode of estimating it was also imperfect; and men who imagined themselves free from all blame were surprised to find that they were sending into the air several times more than the law permitted. I am happy, however, to say that in no instance known, has any act been performed to which we can in the slightest degree object, and if in some cases the delay in the alterations was greater than absolutely needful, it may perhaps be said that it was well to wait for the full proofs of deficient condensation, and to satisfy each manufacturer of the accuracy of the statements regarding his own works. Your Lordships will hardly have an idea of the magnitude of the evil with which we had to contend, unless I trouble you with two or three figures. The total amount of salt decomposed throughout England per week is 5,762 tons. This gives out 3,325 tons of dry acid, or about 13,000 tons of strong commercial muriatic acid in a liquid state. The whole amount would escape if there was no condensation. Dr. Angus Smith says— If we estimate the escape of muriatic acid gas at 1,000 tons per week before the passing of the Alkali Act, or at least before the introduction of the Alkali Bill into Parliament, we may be considered as taking a very moderate view of the question. This supposes 2,324.96 to have been already condensed, and is a very favourable view of the case. The 1,000 tons left uncondensed are equal to 4,000 tons of 25 per cent acid. And this amount, at a very moderate estimate was previously poured into the atmosphere every week. The effect of the complete condensation is incredible, for the amount that escaped has been reduced from 4,000 tons per week to forty-three tons. And this has been brought about in the course of a single year. I beg to trouble your Lordships with one case in the neighbourhood with which I am more particularly connected, to show how greatly we suffered from this nuisance. There is in the Report a list of ten works in the compass of a square mile, from which there was poured into the air 255 tons of muriatic acid gas, or 800 tons of strong commercial muriatic acid in a liquid state, the course of week. Seven of these now send out nothing; one sends out l.5; another 0.3, and another has ceased working. Thus 800 tons of noxious vapour escaped into the air every week, which, under the recent improvements, is quite got rid of. That fact may serve as a guide to the amount of suffering which this unhappy district had to endure before the Act was passed. It was supposed that great difficulties would be experienced in the matter of inspection on account of the interference it might cause in various manufacturing processes. Dr. Angus Smith's Report shows that condensation is carried on so completely that the task of inspection was exceedingly light, and some alkali manufacturers have been surprised at the ease with which they had succeeded in complying with the requisitions of the Act, and with which the duties of inspection have been carried out. The only other point connected with this Report upon which I need trouble your Lordships is the subject of expense of making alterations and its bearing upon the profits of trade. Dr. Angus Smith in his Report says— It was my belief that the amount paid annually for damages done by the escaping muriatic acid would, in many cases, be sufficient to make all the alterations required for condensation within the Act. I have received only one letter bearing on this subject; it is from the owner of a large work. The amount paid by him for the last four years has been £150 per annum for damages. The expense of alteration so as to bring condensation within the requirements of the Act has been £300, so that the compensation paid in two years is sufficient to remove the grievance so far. Considering the sum of £300 as capital, condensation within the Act becomes a saving of expense. The owner above referred to adds, 'We contemplate expending a much larger sum than this for further improvements.' When the improvement advances to such an extent as to condense 95 per cent, there is generally a desire to proceed further. In some cases the muriatic acid sent into the atmosphere was actually much wanted in the works for the production of chlorine. Its condensation has then been a great advantage and a means of enlarging the business. I accidentally heard the other day that a new and extensive demand has sprung up for muriatic acid to be used in bleaching rags and other fibres for the manufacture of paper. This is only a part of a subject which must engage the attention of the country. It is most important, with our increasing population and our advanced acquaintance with chemical science, that the subject of sanitary measures should engage the attention of the public, and no subject can be more worthy of the attention of the Government or the labours of a statesman than the application of our improved scientific knowledge to the various processes of agriculture without inflicting injury upon manufactures or deteriorating the public health. I would be the last man to ask the Government to undertake, or to venture myself upon a Quixotic at tack upon the various processes of those manufactures which form the staple of the wealth of this country, and with which my own interests are closely connected; but I hope the successful results of this experiment will have the effect of allaying any jealousy or apprehensions which may be felt by manufacturers in kindred branches of trade, and to encourage the Government to proceed cautiously, but steadily, with the object of introducing measures for the purpose of removing many nuisances which at present unnecessarily accompany many of our manufacturing processes. I know that, for in stance, from copper works noxious vapours now are emitted; but I am told that where those works are in close proximity to alkali works it is possible to work the two together so as to prevent any nuisance to the public, the sulphuric acid evolved from the copper works being very much in demand for some of the early processes of alkali works. That is satisfactory, because it shows that a measure which has already effected much practical benefit has had also a collateral advantage. One manufacturer in another branch had sought the advice and assistance of Dr. Angus Smith to obtain the benefits which this Act has conferred alone upon alkali manufacturers. I myself think the advantages which has arisen in this very limited time, and from this very limited measure, is matter for the sincerest congratulation; and I trust that this improvement will be lasting and will grow greater, and that the Government and the manufacturers will combine in endeavouring by improved systems of manufacture to remove many of the evils at present complained of and which maybe prevented. I am quite aware that Dr. Angus Smith's duties are confined to the alkali works alone; but it is quite open to the consideration of the Government whether they will avail themselves of his great experience and his great chemical attainments; not to direct him but to authorize him to inquire into the practicability of applying a similar system and scientific methods to some other manufactures. I repeat that I am not asking for this duty to be imposed upon him; but I think that in his position he would be very willing to furnish the Board of Trade with information which would enable them safely, temperately, and usefully to proceed in the course of legislation already adopted. I thank your Lordships for having allowed me to detain you, but the subject is so interesting and the result so gratifying that I felt it my duty to make this statement.


said, the House and the country were very much obliged to the noble Earl for bringing this question before them, for no doubt what he had said would serve to attract greater attention to the Report, of which, however, he himself had stated the marrow. Like the noble Earl, he was much gratified to find that the measure from which they had expected good results had not disappointed them. The success of the measure was no doubt attributable to the fact that it had met with the approval of the manufacturers themselves; though no doubt the Inspector had also contributed much to its success. Any future legislation must greatly depend for success upon having the approval of the manufacturers, and therefore it would be necessary to proceed very cautiously; and although he did not at present say that any measure extending legislation to other manufacturers could at present be proposed, yet he did not dispair of continued legislation in this direction, so as to mitigate, if not remove, some of the evils complained of.