Saturday, 11 February 2017

11th February 1817: Leeds Croppers petition brought up in the House of Commons

On Tuesday 11th February 1817, a petition from Croppers in Leeds about the use of cloth-dressing machinery was debated in the House of  Commons:


Lord Lascelles said, he held in his hand a petition from a numerous body of people in Leeds, and the parts adjacent, who were cloth-dressers, and who complained that the introduction of machinery had thrown many of them out of employment. They prayed that some relief might be afforded them by the wisdom of parliament. He had explained to the petitioners themselves, that the question relative to machinery was a matter of deep consideration; nor did he flatter them that parliament could be able, considering the state of the woollen manufacture in other countries, to afford them any relief on this head. There was another prayer in the petition: these people entertained the impression, that if driven to emigrate to other countries, the existing laws threw obstructions in their way, as being manufacturers. The noble lord had told them, that considering the state of manufactures in other countries, neither could he give them much encouragement on this head: but at any rate their petition should be submitted to the consideration of parliament.

The Petition was then brought up and read, setting forth, "That the petitioners are employed in the dressing of woollen cloth, to which business they have served a long apprenticeship, and which heretofore enabled them to maintain themselves and their families, but which, in consequence of the extensive introduction of machinery into that department of the woollen trade, they are no longer able to do; they trust therefore for the indulgence of the House whilst they submit to their consideration the following facts; the petitioners beg leave to state, that, during the last session of parliament, they presented to the House, on behalf of themselves and their fellow workmen, a petition signed by 3,625 individuals, setting forth their grievances and praying for relief and redress, and they respectfully solicit the attention of the House to the allegations and prayer of that petition; it was stated in that petition that machinery for the dressing of woollen cloth had increased so rapidly within the last seven or eight years as to have produced very great distress among the persons employed in that department of the woollen manufacture, great numbers of them having been deprived of their accustomed employment and reduced to hopeles indigence and beggary; the petitioners have now to add to this statement the more specific information, that there was on the 17th of August 1816, totally out of employment 1,043 persons, in partial employment 1,380. in full employment 922; and on the 28th of October 1816 there were totally out of employment 1,166 persons, in partial employment 1,352, in full employment 860; and on the 3d day of February instant there were totally out of employment 1,170 persons, in partial employment 1,445, and in full employment 763, and the wages of those stated to be partially employed do not average more than from five to ten shillings a week; the petitioners also beg leave to state that it appears from the evidence taken before the House, that in the year 1806 there were only five gig mills, and not more than 100 pair of shears in the county of York wrought by machinery, but that the number of gig mills is now 72, and the number of shears is increased to 1,462, and that the consequence of this increase has been that great numbers of the petitioners and their fellow workmen have been reduced to absolute want; the petitioners also beg leave to submit to the House that they have a particular claim upon the attention of the legislature for protection and relief, inasmuch as they are prohibited by the laws from seeking employment in a foreign state; they would also submit to the House, that the pleas of necessity and expedience which have been pleaded in the behalf of the introduction of this species of machinery are unfounded, as there have always been a sufficient number of workmen to perform all the labour that was required: the petitioners also beg leave to state, that cloth is neither dressed better nor cheaper by machinery than by the old method of dressing it by the hand; on the contrary, the advantage in both these respects is decidedly in favour of dressing it by the hand, the large sums expended in the erection and in the maintenance of these establishments more than counterbalancing any saving in the price of dressing. In respect also to the manner in which the cloth is dressed, the petitioners confidently affirm that the cloth finished by machinery possesses no advantage whatever over the cloth dressed by hand; they are aware that it will be asserted that the unrestrained use of machinery is necessary to enable this country sufficiently to compete with foreigners: the petitioners in reply to this objection, beg leave to observe, that the universal adoption of gig mills and shearing frames would not in the least tend to lower the price of cloth, and would not be the means of causing a single additional piece of cloth to be sold either at home or in the foreign market; they would further observe, that though this species of machinery is thus impotent in promoting the prosperity of the woollen manufacture, it has been the fruitful source of much evil to the petitioners, and would, if carried further, be the means of depriving many thousands of persons of employment in the business to which they served a long and laborious apprenticeship, and indeed of all work whatever, as the present depressed state of trade precludes them from all chance of obtaining employment in any other business; the petitioners therefore hope, and humbly pray, that under these circumstances the House will be pleased to take their case into their immediate and serious consideration, and afford them such relief by restraining the use of this kind of machinery, or by such other means as may seem most meet to the wisdom of the House."

Mr. Brougham could not abstain from expressing his pleasure at seeing this petition brought forward so satisfactorily by the noble lord. This was the proper way in which the complaints of the people should be treated. In fact, all that had passed at public, meetings showed that the people were still sound at heart; that they still looked up to that House as their constitutional safeguard, and the grand source from which they were to expect relief. With regard to the prayer of the present petition, it must be obvious, that to adopt any measures to check the use of machinery, was as impolitic as it would be impracticable; but it was surely very hard on the petitioners that any impediments should be thrown in their way so as to prevent them from bettering their situation by emigration, if they were so disposed. This branch of the ancient policy of the country required the serious consideration of the House. Nothing could be more wicked than attempts to destroy machinery, such as the country had lately witnessed; yet at the same time the feeling which existed against machinery must be a ground of formidable alarm; for it showed that, instead of now being, as it lately was, a source of wealth, it was the cause of the most severe distress to a great body of the people, because the hands thrown out of work by the introduction of machines in one branch could not now find employment in other lines. This was a serious evil, well deserving the serious attention of parliament; but he should not dilate on it at present, because he should soon have occasion to bring the distressed state of the manufacturers under the consideration of the House. He might here be allowed to explain, that in the observations which fell from him last night, he did not mean to advert to any seizures of persons that had been made under the authority of the secret committee.

Lord Castlereagh entirely coincided with the hon. and learned gentlemen respecting the proper manner in which the petition just read had been drawn up. He wished the House to be assured he was as anxious as any individual could be to preserve the right of petitioning, as one of the most valuable blessings of the constitution, and he was confident, if the people were left to draw up their petitions themselves, they would do it in the best and most respectful manner. It was the means made use of to delude them by imposing on them manufactured petitions that excited his disapprobation and disgust. It was an insult to an Englishman, to suppose him incapable of stating his own grievances in a plain respectful manner.

The petition was ordered to lie on the table.

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