HL Deb 11 April 1867 vol 186 cc1465-77

, on rising to bring under the Notice of the House the Sixth Report of the Commissioners relating to the Agricultural Gangs, said: My Lords, I have no intention of troubling your Lordships at any great length, particularly as I know that a debate of very great importance is going on in the other House; but, having given Notice some time ago of my intention to bring this subject under your Lordships' notice, although I have been forestalled by a Motion made in the House of Commons a few nights ago, yet I think it my duty to show, as briefly as I can, that this House has not been unmindful of the welfare of the agricultural community, and that the charge made against the landlords, that they evince no interest with regard to their poorer tenants, is altogether unfounded. Two years ago I had the honour of bringing this subject under your Lordships' notice, and, I believe, I was the first per- son who drew attention to it. I then moved your Lordships to present an Address to the Crown, praying for the appointment of a Commission to inquire into the subject of the employment of children and young persons in various trades not protected by the Factory Acts, and that that Commission should take into consideration the system of agricultural gangs. The Report of that Commission was made a very short time ago, and I wish to read a few extracts, in order to show your Lordships what the system really is. The Commissioners say— The system of 'organized' labour known by the name of 'agricultural gangs' exists, as far as the Commissioners have been able to ascertain, almost exclusively in the following counties:—Lincolnshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Nottinghamshire. There are a few instances of the employment of these gangs in three other neighbouring counties—namely, in the counties of Northampton, Bedford, and Rutland. They are not found over the whole of any of these counties, but are distributed irregularly through various parts of them, in obedience to local circumstances. All organized agricultural gangs consist of the gang master, a number of women, young persons of both sexes. The Commissioners, in designating 'young persons,' adopt the definition of the Factory Acts—namely, those between thirteen and eighteen. Children of both sexes from the age of six to thirteen. The 'organized gang'—the subject of the present inquiry—is called in some districts the 'public gang,' in others the 'common gang,' in some places it is called the 'jobbing gang,' elsewhere the 'travelling gang.' The numbers in each public gang are from ten or twelve to twenty, thirty, and forty, very rarely above forty. But the most common, because the most manageable number, is about twenty, employing in the whole about 7,000 boys and girls, from six years old and upwards. In addition to the 'public gangs,' employing full 20,000. The 'public gang' master is an independent man, who engages the members of his gang, and contracts with the farmer to execute a certain kind and amount of agricultural work with his gang. The 'private gang' is a small gang, seldom exceeding twelve or twenty, similarly composed, but in the farmer's own employ, and supertintended and directed by one of the farmer's own labourers. The unanimity with which the public gang system is condemned in consequence of its injurious influences on the moral character of those subject to it is all but entire throughout the whole evidence. The number of persons who are able to speak well of the system under its moral aspects, as far as they have witnessed it, is very small indeed. The rest, with an earnestness of expression which testifies to the sincerity of their convictions, are evidently deeply impressed with the desire to call attention to the great amount of moral evil connected with the system, and to urge the consideration of some mode of improving it. A great part of the work consists in making or keeping the land in a fit state for the growth of crops by cleaning it from weeds of all kinds, and may be included under the description of weeding, 'knocking,' or spreading, and putting in manure are sometimes added. Thinning or 'singling' turnips and mangold wurzle is a work of the same nature as weeding. The work also includes the putting crops into the ground, as by setting potatoes and dropping seed for dibblers, treading corn on light soil, &c. The work also includes the getting in of certain crops when ripe, e.g., pulling turnips and mangolds or beet, pulling flax, and sometimes peas, instead of their being mown; picking up potatoes when dug or turned up; also gathering garden produce in market gardens of fruit and vegetables. The turnips or mangolds when pulled have also to be topped and tailed. As an instance, take the following, which is recorded by Mr. Savage:— Mrs. Antony Adams, labourer's wife, Denton, Huntingdonshire—'In June, 1862, my daughters, Harriet and Sarah, aged respectively eleven and thirteen years, were engaged to work on Mr. Worman's land at Stilton. When they got there he took them to near Peterborough; there they worked for six weeks, going and returning each day. The distance each way is eight miles, so that they had to walk sixteen miles each day on all the six working days of the week, besides working in the field from 8 to 5 or 5 30 in the afternoon. They used to start from home at 5 in the morning and seldom got back before 9. They had to find all their own meals, as well as their own tools (such as hoes). They (the girls) were good for nothing at the end of the six weeks. The ganger persuaded me to send my little girl Susan, who was then six years of age. She walked all the way (eight miles) to Peterborough to her work, and worked from 8 to 5 30 and received 4d. She was that tired that her sisters had to carry her the best part of the way home—eight miles, and she was ill from it for three weeks, and never went again.' When a system like this exists, it is obvious that the Legislature ought not to hesitate a moment in applying a proper remedy for the evil. The Report goes on to say— The dress of females collects wet much more than that of boys or men, and even if they are at work does not dry nearly so quickly. The workers are often waiting about for long intervals with wet feet and their clothes soaked through up to their knees or waist, or higher, doing nothing but waiting till the weather or the crop is drier. Children, from being shorter, are wetted by the crops higher up their bodies than elder workers, though not worse off as to rain. The gang-workers, as a rule, are the poorest of the labouring class, and many of them are badly fed, shod, and clothed, and have very small means of making a change of clothes when they return home. Not only rain, but even in fine weather the dew makes the crops very wet, some much more so than others, and the higher the crop the more are the workers exposed to this wet, and females owing to their dress much the most. Hence they are often soaked through up to the knees or waist, and children even higher, and have to squeeze or wring out their petticoats, and even take them or other parts of their dress off and hang them up to dry. A young woman entirely crippled with rheumatism, which she got soon after going into a gang at eleven years old, says 'We have had to take off our shoes and pour the water out, and then the man would say, 'Now then, go in again.' It is suggested by a competent person that, if the employment were placed under regulation, one of the several rules which it is suggested should be endorsed on a license to be required from the gang-master should be 'No girls to be permitted to enter high wet corn in weeding.' In my opinion, my Lords, no female at all should be engaged in this injurious and disgusting employment. To say nothing of the moral considerations involved, there is not a medical man who will not tell you that the most critical period of a woman's life is that between eleven and thirteen years of age. That is the time when a change in her constitution takes place, when maladies are most easily contracted, and when the female child requires to be watched with the most parental and minute care. Children at that tender age are nevertheless exposed, as we are told, to all the inclemencies of the seasons, with every malady that besets humanity, and yet no hand is stretched out to rescue them from their miserable condition. I shall next proceed to read to your Lordships the evidence of Dr. Morris, of Spalding, who says— I have been in practice in the town of Spalding for twenty-five years, and during the greater portion of this time I have been medical officer to the Spalding Union infirmary. I am convinced that the gang system is the cause of much immorality. The evil in the system is the mixture of the sexes in the case of boys and girls of twelve to seventeen years of age under no proper control. The gangers, as you know, take the work of the farmers. Their custom is to pay their children once a week at some beer-house, and it is no uncommon thing for their children to be kept waiting at the place till eleven or twelve o'clock at night. At the infirmary many girls of fourteen years of age, and even girls of thirteen up to seventeen years of age, have been brought in pregnant to be confined there. The girls have acknowledged that their ruin has taken place in this gang work. The offence is committed in going or returning from their work. Girls and boys of this age go five, six, or even seven miles to work, walking in droves along the roads and by-lanes. I have myself witnessed gross indecencies between boys and girls of fourteen to sixteen years of age. I once saw a young girl insulted by some five or six boys on the road side. Other older persons were about twenty or thirty yards off, but they took no notice. The girl was calling out, which caused me to stop. I have also seen boys bathing in the brooks, and girls between thirteen and nineteen looking on from the bank. I now come to the evidence of the Rev. Mr. Huntley, the rector of Binbrooke, who says— Turning to the moral side of the picture, all is blank. The benefits of education, which charity has provided, are thrown aside by the parent. The young being occupied in manual labour from morn till night, the village school is comparatively denuded of scholars. In room of moral and religious teaching, children are auditors of obscene and blasphemous language, while also exposed to the most profligate and debased examples; thus completing the first stage of ruin. Progressing from childhood to womanhood, the girl is brought up without experience in the management of domestic affairs, and it is no wonder that when the duties of servitude and married life are demanded of her she is ignorant of both. There is not one extensive occupier of land, nor one sober-minded person throughout my parish, who does not denounce the gangs as destructive to the morals of the poor. Then we have the evidence of Mr. Richard Greenwood, a farmer, who tells us— I never employ a common gang. The common gang is very bad indeed. There is a reason for them when children can't be got otherwise, but I think that they could, if they tried, in many cases. I don't think that work is done much cheaper by the gang. I think the gang system is full of evil. There are great girls and boys of fourteen to fifteen years of age among them, and there is always something wrong going on. It does not matter who the ganger is; where there is a lot together, he has a control over them all. I have counted twenty to twenty-five in the gangs that come from Binbrooke. The only advantage to the farmer is that it saves him the trouble of seeking the children. Half the girls from Ludford have been ruined by going out. I think that farmers would not be at all losers by girls not going out to work at all. That is the testimony of a man who farms 1,000 acres. But I now come to the evidence of some mothers whose opinions on this subject are entitled to the greatest weight. A very intelligent woman named Rachel Gibson says— I can't speak up for any gangs; they ought all to be done away with. Most heartily I say "amen" to that. My children shan't go to one if I can help it—that is, as long as I and their father are alive, I hope, if we can keep them; one is seven, one five. I believe that I am the same as many other people about this. There are a great many mothers who send their children into gangs who would not if they could help it, and they say so. Nothing comes amiss to children after they have been in them, no bad talk nor anything else. I know that a child if brought up in a gang is quite different from what it would have been if brought up otherwise; you would soon know that it had been out, especially if you were talk to it. Gangs might be very well for boys, but never for girls. I did not go myself till I was seventeen, and could take care of myself. The coming home is the worst part, that's when the mischief is done. There never was any good got out of gangs, neither in talk nor in the other way, and they never will be kept as they should. I don't think it proper that womenkind should go into the fields at all, in gangs or not, though I have done both. There would then be more in the houses to mind them. Harvest work is different; you are not under a gangmaster, except that sometimes the tying has been done by a gang, and at harvest much more money can be made; a woman may make 2s. 3d. in a day, and that comes nice to any one. But other work is different. I should just have liked you to have met that gang coming back this afternoon, with their great thick boots and buskins on their legs, and petticoats pinned up; you might see the knees of some. A girl whom I took in to live because she has no home to go to came back to-day from the gang all dripping wet from the turnips. If you don't feel any hurt from the wet when you are young, you do afterwards, when you are old and the rheumatism comes on. Girls wear a pair of buskins to keep them from the wet. It is hard work when you have to wring the tops of turnips and mangolds up, and often makes blisters on the hands. These are the views of another mother as to the working of the system— What I say is, these gangs should not be as they are. There are so many girls that they make lads at a loose hand—that is, leave them nothing to do. Then there is the girls coming home at dark; that is, when the job is done. The gangs are draughted off, two (that is, workers) here, three there, and so on, so that the gangmaster cannot look after them, and is not to blame. I have gone with twenty in a morning, and seen only two perhaps come home with the man at night. Then girls will have bad language among themselves, though the man might wish to stop it, but there are so many together, twenty or thirty perhaps, that he can't keep them quiet. I have worked in gangs many years. Sometimes the poor children are very illused by the gangmaster. One has used them horribly, kicking them, hitting them with fork handles, hurdle sticks, &c., and even knocking them down. These are not things to hit a child with. My own children have been dropped into across the loins and dropped right down, and if they don't know how to get up he has kicked them. I have many a time seen my own and other children knocked about by him in this way. It was not from drink; he was quite sober. Sometimes, too, they cannot work properly because their hands are cut all across and blistered where they twist the stalk round to pull up the root. Of course, he don't knock the big ones; it is the little ones he takes advantage of. I have heard him use to a child most awful words for a girl to hear. My boy, when about ten or eleven, had a white swelling on his knee and lay suffering nearly six years before he had his leg and thigh taken off, all but about as long as a finger. He came back one day and said he had a thorn, but others told me about the man kicking him. He was a very quiet boy, and was for peace. The doctor said it was from ill-usage, a fall or kick; there was no thorn. I beg, in the next place, to call the attention of your Lordships to the sixth Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council, because he points out how serious is the effect produced on the mortality of the children by work such as that to which am referring. The Report states— That in some entirely rural marsh districts the habitual mortality of young children is almost as great as in the most infanticidal of our manufacturing towns; that Wisbeach, for instance, is within a fraction as bad as Manchester; and that generally in the registration districts (eighteen others, which include several in which the gang system prevails) the death-rate of infants under one year of age is from two and a quarter to nearly three times as high as in the sixteen districts of England which have the lowest infantile mortality. The result of this new inquiry, however, has been to show that the monstrous infantine rate of the examined agricultural districts depends only on the fact that there has been introduced into these districts the influence which has already been recognised as enormously fatal to the infants of manufacturing populations—the influence of the employment of adult women. It goes on to say the effect of the gang system is to increase the employment of females, adult as well as young. The consequences are thus described— The opinions of about seventy medical practitioners, with those of other gentlemen acquainted with the condition of the poor, were obtained. With wonderful accord the cause of the mortality was traced by nearly all these well-qualified witnesses to the bringing of the land under tillage—that is, to the cause which has banished malaria, and has substituted a fertile though unsightly garden for the winter marshes and summer pastures of fifty and 100 years ago. It was very generally thought that the infants no longer received any injury from soil, climate, or malarious influence, but that a more fatal enemy had been introduced by the employment of mothers in the field. It is unnecessary to multiply instances of the evil consequences of this system, but I think I must give you the results of the employment of women in this way, as stated by the Rev. H. Mackenzie, rector of Tydd St. Mary's, who says— The causes of the gang system are the comparative cheapness of female and child labour. The effects of the employment of women in fieldwork are:— Loss of self-respect, and dirty and degraded habits. 2. Slovenly and slatternly households. 3. Alienation of husbands by the discomforts of home. 4. Neglect of the education of children. 5. Drinking habits among the men, and opium consumption among the women. The effects of the employment of girls in gang fieldwork are:—1. Boldness. 2. Ignorance. 3. Unchastity. 4. Want of cleanliness in work and person. 5. Incompetence in sewing, mending, cooking, and all that pertains to household economy. 6. Indifference to parental control. 7. Unwillingness to apply themselves to any regular mode of gaining a livelihood. Girls who have up to a certain time made good progress at school are materially injured in morals, discipline, knowledge, and regularity by going for two or three weeks to work in the fields. It will be a blessing to this neighbourhood if fieldwork for girls under age can be prohibited. This in a few years would abolish field work for women altogether. There is only one other extract with which I shall trouble your Lordships, showing how totally unnecessary it is to employ females in this manner, and that it is merely by indulgence in an old habit that the system is persevered in. This, my Lords, is described as the state of things at Eye, with a population of 2,430 persons, and where the property of Sir Edward Kerrison is situated— It will be seen that no females are employed on the gang system here. This is owing to the interest taken in it by Sir Edward Kerrison, who is owner of the greater part of the parish of Eye. It was entirely by his desire that girls were not employed in these gangs. The demoralizing effects were seen to be so great that for some years past only males have constituted the gang, and it certainly has worked admirably, for a distinct moral control is at the same time exercised over these lads by the instruction given to the master to check all obscene language and unbecoming behaviour, not only in their work, but if they are so ill-behaved either by language or manner when not in their work it is checked by special observation to the proper quarter, and the individual is admonished so as to let him know that he is not unobserved, and most probably he will find it much more to his own interest to behave in such a manner as may warrant those who have the power and influence to help him in after life. And all these poor people well know from practical experience that they have the kindest friends in Sir Edward and Lady Caroline Kerrison. Year after year young lads and young girls are looked after and helped out in their start in life, and assistance given in clothing and travelling expenses, where the parents require the help. This has an immense moral effect on the poor of the place and neighbourhood, coupled with the fact that the large landowner is a resident and taking personal interest in the welfare of the people. That proves that the employment of females in these gangs is wholly unnecessary; and if their labour of this kind can be dispensed with in a district like Eye, it can be dispensed with anywhere.

Such, then, my Lords, in a very few words, is an outline of this system as described in the Report of the Commissioners, and of the mischief which it inflicts on a considerable portion of the population. I believe that a remedy might be easily and speedily applied to it. I regret very much to find from the report of the discussion in the other House that the Government think that no attempt at legislation can be made during the present year. I hold that when such a frightful state of things as this is found to exist it is incumbent on us to strive to correct it. I am myself disposed to undertake, immediately after the Easter recess, to move that your Lordships should adopt a Bill containing provisions which are almost certain to meet the requirements of the case. In the first place, I would proceed on the principles of the Factory and Colliery Acts. When in 1842 I introduced a Bill in the House of Commons to remove women from employment in the collieries of the United Kingdom, I was told that I should do no end of mischief by depriving women of their means of subsistence, and that I should be the cause of misery in many families. Nevertheless, I persisted, the Legislature adopted my proposal, and nothing but good has come of it. From that hour to this the condition of the colliery districts has been greatly improved in consequence of the non-employment of women in that disgusting and unsuitable labour. I shall propose by my Bill, immediately it passes, to exclude from these public gangs all women whatever under eighteen years of age. If I were to exclude women altogether, even above that age, as they are excluded from the collieries, I might be thought to be asking too much, as old habits cannot be got rid of all at once, and a little time might be necessary to find some substitute for the labour of women. But by removing all women under eighteen from these public gangs you would at once set at liberty 1,478 girls out of a population of 7,000. I speak now only of the public gangs. The private gangs are, it is true, the most numerous; but they are much more difficult to deal with than public gangs, comprising, as they often do, women and children living in the neighbourhood of a farm, and working under the superintendence of the farmer's son or of one of his labourers. I should reach them in another way, by clauses which would affect the whole agricultural population; because it is perfectly manifest that some measure relating to this matter must be brought in which will touch the whole agricultural population. The particular machinery of the Factory and Colliery Acts would be wholly inapplicable to agricultural industry; but, as I have said, I should propose to proceed upon the principles of those Acts. The main outlines, then, of the Bill which I desire to introduce would be as follows:—1. That no female under eighteen years of age shall be employed in any public gang of agricultural labourers. 2. That no child under eight years of age shall be employed for hire in field labour at all. 3. That after the 1st of January, 1869, no female under eleven years of age (I should like to say up to thirteen) shall be employed for hire in any field labour whatever. This will affect not only the private gangs, but the entire agricultural population of every county; exceptions, or course, to be allowed for harvest. I maintain that physically, morally, and economically such a provision as this will be most beneficial in its effects. Certainly the extensive employment of women and girls in fieldwork has tended more to degrade women and lower the rate of agricultural wages than the operation of almost any other causes whatsoever. Then I should next provide that no child between the ages of eight and thirteen shall be employed for hire in field labour, without producing to its employer, at times to be appointed, a certificate of its having attended school during the preceding intervals for a certain number of hours, calculated according to the most convenient arrangements, whether by half-time, alternate days, or by the system under the Print Works Act, of so many hours collectively, of education, in any assigned period, regard being had to the seasons of the year. I believe that the half-time and the alternate day system cannot be adopted in the agricultural districts; and I therefore suggest that what is required is the attendance of a child at school for a certain number of hours during a definite number of weeks or months. My Lords, in attempting to grapple with this evil I hope your Lordships will kindly give me your sympathy and support. In this way you will give the crowning stroke to the various efforts made for many years past to bring all the industrial occupations of the young and the defenceless under the protection of the law; and, whether they are employed in trade, in manufactures, or in any handicraft whatever, every child under a certain age will be subject only to a limited amount of labour, and will be certain to receive a certain amount of education. All that remains for your Lordships now to do, as representing the landowners of the Kingdom, is to embrace within the scope of your beneficent legislation the whole mass of the agricultural population. Then, I believe, we shall be enabled to say that no country upon earth surpasses us in the care we take of the physical, the moral, and the educational well-being of the myriads of our humbler fellow-creatures. I am quite sure, my Lords, that the object you have in view is one well worthy of all the time, the anxiety, the zeal, and the talents which can be bestowed upon it; and I am satisfied that your Lordships will earnestly desire to see it accomplished.


said, that being connected with one of the districts in which the system that had been described by his noble Friend existed, he wished to express his thanks to him for having brought the subject before their Lordships. There was no place where it could be better discussed than in that House, where there were so many owners of land and persons practically conversant with agriculture. After the very full account given by his noble Friend of the state of demoralization which had been shown to exist in those parts of the country where the gang system prevailed, he would not trouble their Lordships with any detail; but, having for many years been acquainted with the course followed in these gangs and with the effects they produced in the districts where they were to be found, he did not think his noble Friend had said one word about them which was too strong. He could assure their Lordships that where the gang system had been introduced it had been the cause of the greatest mischief to the population concerned. The evil was one which he believed they ought to lose not a day in dealing with by legislation. He was therefore glad that his noble Friend was likely to introduce a Bill, because their Lordships would then have an opportunity of discussing the subject in a practical manner. He would not at that moment express any decided opinions with respect to the proposals; but be thought that his noble Friend scarcely went far enough in proposing that no girl under eleven years of age should be employed in field labour. For himself, he should be sincerely glad if a law could be framed to prevent girls from being employed in agricultural labour under thirteen years of age. It was desirable that boys intended for agricultural pursuits should be early accustomed to field labour, but he thought they ought not to be employed for hire under eight years. It was also desirable that there should be some provision for their education. The most difficult point in the scheme of his noble Friend would be to prevent women from being employed in public gangs under the age of eighteen. He did not mean to say that that would not be desirable; but considering the extent to which females were employed in some parts of the country, he doubted whether it would be practicable at once to adopt so decided a measure. Such were the evils attending these pub- lic gangs, that he was persuaded the farmers themselves would soon be glad that the Legislature had interfered for their suppression. It seemed to him desirable that some attention should be paid to the system of private gangs, and he was happy to learn that it was the intention of the Government to extend the inquiry to them. He would only add that, melancholy as the fact might be, there could be no doubt that, to a very considerable extent, the smallness of the wages received by agricultural labourers compelled them to employ their wives and children in work of that description; at all events, the element of wages could not be kept altogether out of view. Fortunately, it happened that the wages of agricultural labourers were at the present moment on the rise, and the moment was therefore favourable for legislation. He trusted that his noble Friend would bring in his Bill as soon after Easter as possible.


thought that the noble Earl deserved the thanks of their Lordships for bringing this matter before them. The disclosures made in the former Reports of the Commissioners were painful enough; but those contained in the sixth Report were more painful still, because they established the great demoralization produced by this system, and more especially among the young girls employed in this sort of labour. One of the Commissioners, however, in his Report, remarking on the influence of out of door employment on the physical condition of the women and young persons, stated that, working as they did in the fresh air, their appearance was generally satisfactory, and that some of the young women were exceedingly healthy and muscular. His noble Friend had stated that immediately after he would introduce a Bill dealing with the subject:—he (the Earl of Belmore) need hardly say that Her Majesty's Government would give their best consideration to any measure having that object. The noble Earl had expressed his regret that the Secretary for the Home Department had stated in "another place" that he could not undertake to deal with the question during the present Session of Parliament. But in pronouncing a judgment upon that announcement of his right hon. Friend it was necessary to remember the great difficulties by which the subject was surrounded. If they were to deal solely with public gangs the result would be that many of those employed in them would join the private gangs; and if they were to extend their legislation to private gangs it would be very difficult to define where the system began and where it ended. His right hon. Friend, feeling these difficulties, did not see his way at present to the introduction of a Bill upon that sub jest; but, as it was desirable that further inquiry should take place, he proposed almost immediately to reappoint the Commission, and they might then hope to be able, in the course of a year or two, to deal in a satisfactory manner with the whole question of agricultural labour.


said, that in the measure which he hoped to introduce he should endeavour to meet the case of private as well as public gangs.