HL Deb 23 June 1873 vol 216 cc1242-5

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


in moving that the Bill be now read the second time, said, that last Session he introduced a Bill similar to the present, and it was read a second time. He was afterwards induced to withdraw it, partly because the lateness of the Session afforded but little chance of its being considered and passed by the other House but chiefly on the representation of noble Lords that as drawn it might have the effect of interfering with athletic and gymnastic exercises generally. In order to avoid that difficulty the present Bill had been so framed as to be applicable, as far as could be secured, only to children under 12 years of age, and to the employment of such children in any muscular exercise or any performance practised or given by way of trade or for the purpose of gain, whereby limb or life or health of such child might be endangered or injuriously affected. In various parts of the country, as well as in the metropolis, young persons and very young children were constantly employed in performances which exposed their lives to considerable danger. The noble Earl read newspaper reports of some of these performances. One described a performance which had taken place in a music-hall in the Metropolis, where a child about six years of age performed various feats with astonishing coolness and striking neatness and quickness, on a trapeze, suspended from the ceiling, at what most people would call a dizzy height. The little fellow also went through a ceiling- walking performance, which consisted of going forwards and backwards, head downwards, by placing his feet successively in loops. Of course, the report added, he was enthusiastically cheered by the spectators. At Edinburgh there was "one of the most startling performances by a troup of acrobats ever witnessed;" and at another place the performer rode on a bicyle along a wire rope suspended high in the air. Entertainments such as these were not prohibited by present legislation, notwithstanding the great danger which attended them. He thought the sooner they were prohibited the better, in the interest of morality and the public taste. He did not desire in any way to interfere with legitimate athletic and gymnastic exercises, but he thought these exhibitions by adult performers tended to degrade the public sense. What then must be the case when they were exhibited by young boys and girls? He knew he should be met by the objection that unless the training commenced at a very early ago, children could not perform such feats. If so, he said they ought not to be allowed at all. Training commenced almost as soon as the child was born—its limbs were subjected to the most hideous contortions; and even if these tortures were not followed by death, they must be very injurious to the health of those who were subjected to them.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Lord Buckhurst.)


thought there was a fatal objection to the third clause, which was the really operative clause of the Bill. In his part of the country children were frequently employed in cutting turnips, a "muscular exercise" to which their Lordships would probably see no objection, but which was attended with the danger of cutting their fingers; and under some circumstances almost any "muscular exorcise" might be dangerous to limb or health. A Bill therefore which prohibited "muscular exercise" in such general terms was likely to produce inconvenient results.


said, he was fully sensible of the desirability of a measure of this kind, but he was also sensible of the difficulty of so defining the Bill as to make it effective. It was very right to prohibit the performances of children under 12 years of age because they were dangerous to life and limb; but to say that they should not be permitted to perform in public under that age was no real protection to them, because it did not prohibit the training of children under that age with a view to future performances. The fact was that all the horrors connected with acrobatic life were enacted when the children wore of very tender years—often at two or three years. These infants were tied and twisted in every imaginable contortion, and so kept for many hours in order that their limbs might acquire the particular curvatures that might be necessary for some peculiar kind of acrobatic performance. But this Bill would not touch tortures of that description, inasmuch as all these abominations were perpetrated at home and under the secrecy of privacy. What he desired was that their Lordships should read the Bill a second time by way of recognition of the abuses that existed and expressive of their feelings of the expediency of suppressing them, but for his own part he looked for the real remedy for the evil in the vigilance of the School Boards and in looking up children of tender years and putting in force the compulsory powers of the Act in compelling them to attend the schools.


fully agreed that something should be done to put a stop to this barbarous system, but he thought it would be sufficient to pass a Bill which would be confined to professional gymnasts.


said, that School Boards would have no authority over children so young as those mentioned—two and three years, this being, to his own knowledge, the age at which they were trained as acrobats by a process which could not but inflict personal injury. The remedy lay in the prohibition of these performances. If children were not allowed to perform in public their parents would not think it worth while to train them.


said, the employment of children in pantomimes up to a late hour might be deemed prejudicial to health, a phrase which would also apply to children eating plums. The law as to acrobatic performances might be made more stringent.


speaking from his experience as a magistrate, agreed that legislation on this subject must begin at the beginning in an attack on the training of these poor children.


said, there ought to be an adequate definition of the performances sought to be condemned before a Bill of this kind passed. As it then stood, it would not deal with the private training of children for public exhibition. He therefore put it to the noble Earl whether it would not be better to withdraw this Bill and attempt to obviate the objections to it in a new measure.


said, he strongly desired that the principle of the Bill should be affirmed by the second reading. The objections to the Bill—which were principally to the third clause—could be amended in Committee, if the Bill went any further.


deprecated the second reading of a Bill which was so unsatisfactory in its terms. He thought it would be far better for the noble Earl to withdraw the Bill altogether, seeing there was no chance of passing it this Session, though noble Lords were all agreed as to the desirableness of putting an end to these dangerous performances.


finally consented to withdraw the Bill.

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.

Bill withdrawn.