Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden
By Richard Cobden
The Speeches contained in these two volumes have been selected and edited at the instance of the Club which was established for the purpose of inculcating and extending those political principles which are permanently identified with Cobden’s career. They form an important part of the collective contribution to political science, which has conferred on their author a reputation, the endurance of which, it may be confidently predicted, is as secure as that of any among the men whose wisdom and prescience have promoted the civilization of the world…. [From the Preface by James E. Thorold Rogers]
James E. Thorold Rogers, ed.
First Pub. Date
London: T. Fisher Unwin
In two volumes. Collected speeches, 1841-1864. First published as a collection in 1870. 3rd edition. Includes biographical "Appreciations" by Goldwin Smith and J. E. Thorold Rogers.
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Richard Cobden: frontispiece of Cobden's Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, courtesy of Liberty Fund, Inc.
- Preface, by J. E. Thorold Rogers
- An Appreciation by Goldwin Smith
- An Appreciation by J. E. Thorold Rogers
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 1
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 2
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 3
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 4
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 5
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 6
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 7
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 8
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 9
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 10
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 11
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 12
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 13
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 14
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 15
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 16
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 17
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 18
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 19
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 20
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 21
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 22
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 23
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 24
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 25
- Vol. I, Letter from Mr. Cobden to the Tenant Farmers of England
- Vol. I, Finance, Speech 1
- Vol. I, Finance, Speech 2
- Vol. I, Finance, Speech 3
- Vol. I, Finance, Speech 4
- Vol. I, Finance, Speech 5
- Vol. I, Finance, Speech 6
- Vol. I, Finance, Speech 7
- Vol. II, Russian War, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Russian War, Speech 2
- Vol. II, Russian War, Speech 3
- Vol. II, American War, Speech 1
- Vol. II, American War, Speech 2
- Vol. II, China War, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 2
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 3
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 4
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 5
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 6
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 7
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 8
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 9
- Vol. II, India, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Peace, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Peace, Speech 2
- Vol. II, Policy of the Whig Government, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Parliamentary Reform, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Parliamentary Reform, Speech 2
- Vol. II, Parliamentary Reform, Speech 3
- Vol. II, Parliamentary Reform, Speech 4
- Vol. II, Parliamentary Reform, Speech 5
- Vol. II, Education, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Education, Speech 2
- Vol. II, Education, Speech 3
- Vol. II, Education, Speech 4
[On March 12, 1844, Mr. Cobden brought forward his motion for a Select Committee to inquire into the effects of Protective Duties on imports on the interest of the tenant-farmers and farm-labourers of the country. The debate is interesting, partly from the fact that the reply to Mr. Cobden on the part of Ministers was entrusted to Mr. Gladstone, partly because a considerable part of the debate was occupied with the question as to the proportion which rent bears to cost. The motion was rejected by 91 (133 to 224). Messrs. Cobden and Bright were the tellers.]
The motion which I have to make is one of a nature which I believe is not ordinarily refused; it is for a Select Committee to sit upstairs, to take evidence on a question that excites great controversy out of doors, and which I believe is likely to cause considerable discussion in this House. It may be thought that my motion might have been appropriately placed in other hands. I am of that opinion too. I think it might have been more properly brought forward by a Gentleman on the other side of the House, particularly by an honourable Member connected with the counties of Wiltshire or Dorsetshire. But, although not myself a county Member, that does not necessarily preclude me from taking a prominent part in a question affecting the interests of the tenant-farmers and farm-labourers of this country, for whom I feel as strong a sympathy as for any other class of my countrymen; nay, I stand here on this occasion as the advocate of what I conscientiously believe to be the interests of the agriculturists. We have instances of Committees being appointed to take evidence as to the importation of silk, the exportation of machinery, the navigation-laws, and on questions of similar importance. It must also be admitted that such Committees have been appointed without the parties more immediately concerned having in the first instance petitioned the House for their appointment. On the appointment of the Committee relative to the exportation of machinery the motion was granted, not at the instance of manufacturers who had a monopoly of the use of machinery, but by parties whose interests were concerned in the making and exporting of machinery. I do not therefore anticipate that my motion will be resisted on the ground that no petitions have been presented demanding it.
I shall now state what my views will be on entering the Committee. I shall be prepared to bring forward important evidence showing the effects of ‘protection,’ as it is called, on the agriculturists by the examination of farmers themselves. I will, in fact, not bring
forward a single witness before that Committee who shall not be a tenant-farmer or a landed proprietor, and they shall be persons eminent for their reputation as practical agriculturists. The opinion that I shall hold on entering the Committee is, that ‘protection,’ as it is called, instead of being beneficial, is delusive and injurious to the tenant-farmers; and that opinion I shall be prepared to sustain by the evidence of tenant-farmers themselves. I wish it to be understood I do not admit that what is called protection to agriculturists has ever been any protection at all to them; on the contrary, I hold that its only effect has been to mislead them. This has been denied both in this House and out of doors. I have recently read over again the evidence taken before the Committees which sat previous to the passing of the Corn-law of 1815, and I leave it to any man to say whether it was not contended at that time that sufficient protection could not be given to the agriculturists unless they got 80
s. a quarter for wheat. I wish to remind the hon. Member for Wiltshire (Mr. Bennett) that he gave it as his opinion before the Committee of 1814, that wheat could not be grown in this country unless the farmers got 96
s. a quarter, or 12
s. a bushel, for it, while now he is supporting a Minister who only proposes to give the farmers 56
s. a quarter, and confesses he cannot guarantee even that. It is denied that this House has ever promised to guarantee prices for their produce to the farmers. Now what was the custom of the country from the passing of the Corn-law in 1815? I will bring old men before the Committee who will state that farmers valued their farms from that time by a computation of wheat being at 80
s. a quarter. I can also prove that agricultural societies which met in 1821, passed resolutions declaring that they were deceived by the Act of 1815, that they had taken farms calculating upon selling wheat at 80
s., while, in fact, it had fallen to little more than 50
s. In the Committee which sat in 1836, witnesses stated that they had been deceived in the price of their corn; and I ask whether at the present moment rents are not fixed rather with reference to certain Acts that were passed than the intrinsic worth of farms? In consequence of the alteration that was made in the Corn-law of 1842. the rent of farms has been assessed on the ground of corn being 56
s. a quarter. I know an instance where a person occupying his own land was rated at a certain amount, viz. at the valuation of corn being 56
s. a quarter, while, in fact, it was selling at 47
s.; and, upon his asking why he had been so rated, he was told that the assessors had taken that mode of valuation in consequence of what the Prime Minister had stated was to be the price of corn. [‘Oh! oh!’] Hon. Gentlemen may cry ‘Oh! oh! but I will bring forward that very case, and prove what I have stated concerning it.
What I wish in going into Committee is, to convince the farmers of Great Britain that this House has not the power to regulate or sustain the price of their commodities. The right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir R. Peel) has confessed that he cannot regulate the wages of labour or the profits of trade. Now, the farmers are dependent for their prices upon the wages of the labourer and the profits of the trader and manufacturer; and if the Government cannot regulate these—if it cannot guarantee a certain amount of wages to the one, or a fixed profit to the other—how can it regulate the price of agricultural produce? The first point to which I should wish to make this Committee instrumental is to fix in the minds of the farmers the fact that this House exaggerates its power to sustain or enhance prices by direct acts of legislation. The farmer’s interest is that of the whole community, and is not a partial interest, and you cannot touch him more sensitively than when you injure the manufacturers, his customers.
I do not deny that you may regulate prices for awhile—for awhile you have regulated them by forcing an artificial
scarcity; but this is a principle which carries with it the seeds of self-destruction, for you are thereby undermining the prosperity of those consumers upon whom your permanent welfare depends. A war against nature must always end in the discomfiture of those who wage it. You may by your restrictive enactments increase pauperism and destroy trade; you may banish capital and check and expatriate your population; but is this, I will ask, a policy which can possibly work consistently with the interests of the farmers? These are the fundamental principles which I wish to bring out, and with this primary view it is that I ask for a Committee at your hands.
With regard to certain other fallacies with which the farmers have been beset, and latterly more so than ever, the farmer has been told that if there was a free trade in corn, wheat would be so cheap that he would not be able to carry on his farm. He is directed only to look at Dantzic, where corn, he is told, was once selling at 15
d. per quarter, and on this the Essex Protection Society put out their circulars stating that Dantzic wheat is but 15
d. per quarter, and how would the British farmer contend against this? Now, I maintain that these statements are not very creditable to the parties who propagate such nonsense, nor complimentary to the understandings of the farmers who listen to and believe them. It would be no argument against Free Trade, but quite the contrary, if wheat could be purchased regularly at Dantzic at that price; but the truth is, that in an average of years at that port it has cost much more than double; and the truth, I suppose, is what all men desire to arrive at. The farmer will be very easily disabused on this and other points if you will grant me the Committee I seek. We know what the price has been in the Channel Islands, where the trade is free. These islands send the corn of their own growth to this country whenever it is profitable to do so, and they receive foreign corn for their own consumption duty free. Sir, without pretending to look into futurity, I know of no better test of what the price of corn in this country would be in a state of free trade, than the prices in the island of Jersey afford, taken not, like the Essex Protection Society, for a single week or month, but for a number of years, comprising a cycle of high and low prices in this country. We know that the fluctuation of prices in this country embraces the fluctuation of the whole of Europe. We have papers on the table showing what the prices of corn were in Jersey in the ten years from 1832 to 1841 inclusive. The average price was in those ten years 48
d. What do you think was the average price in your own markets in those years? It was 56
d. Now, I have taken some pains to consult those who best understand this subject, and I find it to be their opinion, that a constant demand from England under a free trade would have raised the level of European prices 2
s. or 3
s. a quarter during the above period. If this be a fair estimate, it brings the price up to within 5
s. or 6
s. a quarter of our own average. Was this difference in price to throw land out of cultivation, annihilate rent, ruin the farmer, and pauperise the labourers? But in years of high prices the farmers do not receive the highest price for their corn. On the contrary, they sell their corn at the lowest prices, and the speculator sells his at the highest.
A short time ago I met a miller from near Winchester, who told me the prices which he paid every year for the corn which he purchased before the harvest and after the harvest during five years. That statement I beg to read to the House:—
Thus in these five years there had been a difference of 3
s. a load, or 15
s. a quarter, between the prices of wheat in July and August and in October and November in each year, showing, beyond dispute, that the farmer did not sell his corn at the highest, but at the lowest of the markets.
Now, Sir, there is another point upon which as much misrepresentation exists as upon the one I have just stated, namely, the price at which corn could be grown abroad. The price of wheat at Dantzic during those ten years to which I have referred averaged upwards of 40
s. a quarter; and if you add to it the freight, it will corroborate the statement I have made with regard to the price at which wheat has been sold at Jersey. Another point upon which misrepresentation has gone abroad, relates to the different items of expenditure in bringing wheat to this country. We have had consuls’ returns from various ports, of the charges for freight at various periods, but we have not had full accounts of the other items of expenditure. It would be important to elicit as much information as possible upon this subject, and the best means of arriving at it would be to examine practical men from the City before a Select Committee of the House as to the cost of transit. As far as I can obtain information from the books of merchants, the cost of transit from Dantzic, during an average of ten years, may be put down at 10
d. a quarter, including in this, freight, landing, loading, insurance, and other items of every kind. This is the natural protection enjoyed by the farmers of this country. I may be answered, that the farmers of this country have the cost of carriage to pay also, as, for instance, from Norfolk to Hull or London. But I beg to remind hon. Gentlemen that a very small portion of home-grown corn is carried coastwise at all. Accurate information upon this point might be got before a Select Committee of this House. From information which I have obtained, I am led to believe that not more than 1,000,000 of quarters are carried coastwise at all, or 5 per cent. of the yearly growth of the country; the rest is carried from the barn-door to the mill. This is an important consideration for those who say that there is no natural protection for the farmer, inasmuch as it gives a farmer here the constant protection of half-a-guinea.
But hon. Gentlemen ought to bear in mind that the corn which is brought from Dantzic is not grown on the quays there, any more than it is grown on the quay of Liverpool. On the contrary, it is brought at great expense from a very long distance in the interior. I have seen a statement made by an hon. Member from Scotland, who said that the rafts on which the corn was brought down the river to Dantzic were broken up and sold to pay the cost of transit. I have not been able to verify that statement in the course of my inquiries. These are points which might all be cleared up by practical men before the Committee; and thus, instead of resorting to prophecy, we should be able to judge from facts and past experience as to the ability of the English farmers to compete with foreigners.
Hon. Gentlemen would do well to consider what happened in the case of wool. Every prediction that is now uttered with regard to corn, was uttered by Gentlemen opposite with regard to wool. If hon. Gentlemen visited the British Museum, and explored that Herculaneum of buried pamphlets which were written in opposition to Mr. Huskisson’s plans for reducing the duty on wool twenty years ago, what arguments would they find in the future tense, and what predictions of may, might, could, would, should, ought, and shall! But what was the result? Did they lose all their sheep-walks? Had they no more mutton? Are their shepherds all consigned to the workhouse? Were there no more sheep-dogs? I have an account of the importation of wool and the price of wool, and the lesson I wish
to impress on Gentlemen opposite is this, that the price of commodities may spring from two causes—a temporary, fleeting, and retributive high price, produced by scarcity; or a permanent and natural high price, produced by prosperity. In the case of wool, you had a high price springing from the prosperity of the consumers. It so happens, in the case of this article of wool, that the price has been highest when the importation has been most considerable, and lowest in the years when the importation has been comparatively small. I beg to read a statement which illustrates this fact:—
From this statement it appears, that in every instance where the price has been highest, the English farmer has had the largest competition from foreign growers, and that the price was lowest where the competition was least.
Well, that is the principle which I wish to see applied in viewing this much-dreaded question of corn. You may have a high price of corn, through a prosperous community, and it may continue a high price; you may have a high price through a scarcity, and it is impossible in the very nature of things that it can be permanent.
Now, put this test of wool in the case of cattle and other things that have been imported since the passing of the Tariff. I want this matter to be cleared up. I do not want Gentlemen to find fault with the Prime Minister for doing what he did not do. I do not think his Tariff caused a reduction of one farthing in the price of articles of consumption. But I must say, with all deference to him, that I think he himself is to blame for having incurred that charge by the arguments which he brought forward in support of the Tariff; for assuredly he took the least comprehensive or statesmanlike view of his measures when he proposed to degrade prices, instead of aiming to sustain them by enlarging the circle of exchanges. It is said that the Tariff has caused distress among the farmers. I don’t believe there has been as much increase in the imports of cattle as would make one good breakfast for all the people. Did it never enter the minds of hon. Gentlemen who are interested in the sale of cattle, that their customers in large towns cannot be sinking into abject poverty and distress, without the evil ultimately reaching themselves in the price of their produce? I had occasion, a little time ago, to look at the falling-off in the consumption of cattle in the town of Stockport. I calculated the falling-off in Stockport alone, for three or four years, at more than all the increase in the importation of foreign cattle. It appears, therefore, that the distress of that town alone has done as much to reduce prices as all the importation under the Tariff. It has been estimated that in Manchester, 40 per cent. less of cattle was consumed in 1842 than in 1835; and it has also been estimated that the cotton trade was paying 7,000,000
l. less in wages per annum in 1842 than in 1836. How could you then expect the same consumption? If you would but look to your own interests as broadly and as wisely as manufacturers look to theirs, you would never fall into the error of supposing that you can ruin your customers, and yet, at the same time, prosper in your pursuits. I remember hearing Lord Kinnaird, whose property is near Dundee, state, that in 1835 and 1836, the dealers from that town used to come and bespeak his cattle three months in advance; but in 1842, when the linen trade shared the prostration of all the manufactures, he had to engage steam-boats three months in advance to bring his cattle to the London market. Hon. Members who live in Sussex and the southern counties, and who are in the habit of sneering at Manchester, should recollect that they are as much dependent upon the prosperity of Lancashire as those who live
in its immediate neighbourhood. If graziers, on looking at the
Price Current, find they can get a better price for their cattle in London than in Manchester and Stockport, will they not send their cattle up to London, to compete with the southern graziers?
The point, therefore, which I wish to make known is, that the Tariff has not caused any reduction in prices. There is nothing which I regret more than that the Corn-law or the Tariff should have been altered by the right hon. Baronet at all. Without this alteration, I feel confident we should have had prices as low at least as they are; our lesson would then have been complete, the landlords and tenants would have been taught how dependent they are on their customers, and they would then have united with the manufacturers in favour of Free Trade. But, if the late alterations in the Corn-law and Tariff are now to be made the bugbear for frightening the farmers from the path of Free Trade—if they are to be told that those measures have reduced their protection 30 per cent.,—then I think those political landlords who were returned to this House as ‘farmers’ friends,’ pledged to defend ‘protection’ as it stood, and who betrayed their trust, ought to do something more if they are sincere; they ought to reduce their rents in proportion to the amount of protection which they say they have withdrawn from the farmer—they ought to do this, not for one rent-day, but permanently; and they should do it with penitence and in sackcloth and ashes, instead of hallooing on the poor farmers upon a wrong scent, after the Anti-Corn-law League, as the cause of their sufferings.
Now, with regard to the low prices having been caused by the change in the Tariff, I do not know whether a noble Lord happens to be present who illustrated this very aptly, by stating that the farmers in the West of Scotland had been ruined by the reduction in the duty on cheese. There could be nothing more unfortunate than that statement, as there happens, in that respect, to have been no alteration; and yet, I believe, cheese fell in price as much as any other article. It is well known that whilst the price of cheese has fallen in the home market, the importation from abroad has been also considerably diminished. There is another subject upon which I must entreat hon. Members’ forbearance, for it is an exceedingly tender point, and one which is always heard with great sensitiveness in this House: I refer to the subject of rent. We have no tenant-farmers in this House. I wish we had, and I venture here to express a hope that the next dissolution will send up a
bonâ fide tenant-farmer. I know nothing more likely than that to unravel the perplexity of our terminology—nothing more likely to put us all in our right places and to make us speak each for himself on this subject. The landowners—I mean the political landowners, those who dress their labourers and their cattle in blue ribbons, and who treat this question entirely as a political one—they go to the tenant-farmers, and they tell them that it would be quite impossible for them to compete with foreigners, for, if they had their land rent-free, they could not sell their produce at the same price as they did. To bear out their statement, they give a calculation of the cost per acre of growing wheat, which they put down at 61. Now, the fallacy of that has been explained to me by an agriculturist in the Midland Counties, whom I should exceedingly like to see giving his evidence before the Committee for which I am moving. He writes me, in a letter which I have received to-day:—
‘You will be met by an assertion, that no alteration in rent can make up the difference to the tenant and labourer of diminished prices. They will quote the expense on a single crop of wheat, and say how small a proportion the rent bears to the whole expense, but that is not the fair way of putting it. Wheat is the farmer’s remunerating crop, but he cannot grow wheat more than one year in three. The expense, then, of the management of the whole farm should be compared with the rent, to estimate what portion of the price
of corn is received by the landlord. I have, for this purpose, analysed the expense of a farm of 400 acres—230 arable, 170 pasture.
‘The expenses are:—
Parish and county rates £90 Interest of capital 150 Labour 380 Tradesmen’s bills 80 Manure and lime 70 Wear of horses 20 790 Rent 800 £1,590
So that on this farm, which is very fairly cultivated, the rent is 800
l., the other expenses 790
l. Now, if it requires 55
s. per quarter in an average year, to enable the tenant to pay the rent and make 150
l. profit, it is obvious that without any rent he would be enabled to pay his labourers and tradesmen as well, and put the same amount of profit into his pocket, with a price of 30
s., supposing other produce to be reduced in the same proportion. But I do not anticipate that wheat will be reduced below 45
s., even by free trade, and meat, butter, and cheese will certainly not fall in the same proportion.’
This, then, is a very important statement from a competent authority, and the gentleman who makes it I should be very glad to have examined before the Committee, if the House grant one. I believe that the writer will have no objection to his name being published: he is Mr. Charles Paget, of Ruddington Grange, near Nottingham.
Allow me now to state the method by which I calculate the proportion which rent bears to the other outgoings on a farm. I ascertain first what amount of produce the farmer sells off his farm in the year, and next I inquire how much of the money brought home from market goes to the landlord for rent. I take no account in this money calculation of the seed-corn, stock manure, horse-keep, or other produce of the land used or consumed upon the farm, because these things are never converted into money, and cannot, therefore, be used in payment of rent, taxes, &c. Now I am prepared to prove before a Committee, by a Scotch farmer, that one-half of the disposable produce from a Lothian farm goes to the landlord for rent—that 26
s. out of every 52
s. for a quarter of wheat is rent; and that consequently, if they had their land rent free, and sold their wheat at 26
s. a quarter, they would do as well, pay as good wages, and everybody about the establishment be as well provided for as they are now, when paying rent and getting 52
s. for their wheat. With such a margin as this, I think we need not be in much fear of throwing land out of cultivation in Scotland!
I believe many hon. Gentlemen opposite have never made a calculation of what proportion of the whole of the saleable produce goes for rent. It must be borne in mind that every acre of a farm pays rent, although probably not more than one acre in three, and in the best farming not more than one in four, is in the same year devoted to the growth of wheat, whilst a part of the farm is generally in permanent pasture. My mode of calculation, then, is this: ascertain the money value of the whole produce of every kind sold in a year, find how many quarters of wheat it is equal to at the price of the year, and next divide the total number of quarters by the number of acres in the farm, and the result will give you the quantity of wheat sold off each acre in the year. I have made the calculation, and in doing so have had the opinions of those who have taken pains upon the subject; and these are the conclusions to which I have come:—I calculate that an arable farm, on an average, does not yield for sale, of every kind of produce, more than equivalent to ten bushels of wheat per acre; so that a farm of 500 acres would not dispose of more than what is equivalent to 5,000 bushels. In many parts I believe that this estimate is too high, and that the farmer does not dispose of more than one quarter per acre. And the result of the inquiry would show that in Scotland (where much of the labour on the farm is paid in kind) one-half of the produce taken to market goes to the landlord as
rent, whilst in England it will average more than 20
s. a quarter upon the present price of wheat. With regard to cheese, I am prepared to bring witnesses to prove that more than half of the produce goes to the landlord, owing to the fact of there being less paid in wages upon dairy farms. For every 5
d. received for cheese, more than 2½
d. is paid in rent; and upon grazing farms, also, for every 5
d. received for a pound of meat, at least 2½
d. is paid to the landlord. This is, after all, the important point in the consideration of this question, because, it being settled, the public would no longer labour under the apprehension, that if free trade were adopted the farmers would suffer, or that land would be thrown out of cultivation.
This is a point upon which I should not have entered, had not the investigation been challenged by my opponents. It must not be imputed to me that I entertain the opinion that free trade in corn would deprive the landowners of the whole of their rents. I have never said so—I have never even said that land would not have been as valuable as it is now, if no Corn-law had ever existed. But this I do mean to say, that if the landowners prefer to draw their rents from the distresses of the country, caused by their restrictive laws to create high prices through scarcity of food, instead of deriving an honourable income of possibly as great, or even greater amount, through the growing prosperity of the people under a free trade, then they have no right, in the face of such facts as I have stated, to attempt to cajole the farmer into the belief that rent forms an insignificant item in the cost of his wheat, or to frighten him into the notion that he could not compete with foreigners if he had his land rent free.
I shall now touch upon another and more important branch of this question, I mean the interests of the farm-labourer. We are told that he is benefited by a system of restriction which makes the first element of subsistence scarce. Do you think posterity will believe it? They will look back upon this doctrine, in less than twenty years, with as much amazement as we do now upon the conduct of our forefathers when they burnt old women for witchcraft! To talk of benefiting labourers by making one of the main articles of their consumption scarce! The agricultural labourers live by wages; what is it which regulates the wages of labour in every country? Why, the quantity of the necessaries and comforts of life which form the fund out of which labour is paid, and the proportion which they bear to the whole number of labourers to be maintained. Now, the agricultural labourer spends a larger proportion of his wages in food than any other class. And yet, in the face of this fact, do you go on maintaining a law which makes food scarce in order to benefit the agriculturist. I hold in my hand a volume which has been presented to the House relating to the state of the agricultural population of this country, and which, I think, ought to have been brought under the notice of the House, by some one competent to deal with the subject, long before now.
Last year a Commission was appointed to inquire into the state of women and children employed in agriculture. I beg to make a few observations before proceeding further upon the manner in which this inquiry has been conducted. Some years ago the House will recollect that a Commission was appointed on the condition of the handloom weavers. That Commission sat two years; its inquiries have since been directed to the state of other manufacturing interests, and it is still, I believe, in existence. The inquiry upon the state of the labourers employed in our manufactures, therefore, will have been very fully gone into. But when an application was made to a member of the Cabinet to allow the same Commission to institute a similar inquiry into the state of the labourers employed in husbandry, he refused to do so; but afterwards he agreed that an inquiry should be made by the Assistant Poor-law Commissioners, but that only thirty days could be
allowed for such inquiry. The volume which I hold in my hand is, therefore, the work of four gentlemen during only thirty days; one of these gentlemen, Mr. Austin, set forward on his task, and consumed two days in travelling. He had thus only twenty-eight days to inquire into the condition of the agricultural population in four counties in the south of England. We have, however, some facts elicited on that inquiry, which ought to have drawn forth remarks from hon. Gentlemen opposite as to the condition of their own constituents.
Before I allude to the condition of the agricultural labourers, I wish to state that, whatever may have been the animus which influenced others in investigating the condition of the manufacturing districts, I am actuated by no invidious feeling whatever towards the agriculturists; for bear in mind that my conduct has been throughout marked by consistency towards both. Had I ever concealed the wretched state of the manufacturing operatives, or shrunk from the exposure of their sufferings, my motives might have been open to suspicion in now bringing before your notice the still more depressed condition of the agricultural poor. But I was one of that numerous deputation from the North which, in the spring of 1839, knocked in vain at the door of this House for an inquiry at your bar into the state of the manufacturing population. I was one of the deputies who intruded ourselves (sometimes five hundred strong) into the presence of successive Prime Ministers, until our importunities became the subject of remark and complaint in this House. From that time to this we have continued without intermission to make public in every possible way the distress to which the manufacturers were exposed. We did more; we prescribed a remedy for that distress; and I do not hesitate to express my solemn belief that the reason why, in the disturbances which took place, there was no damage done to property in the manufacturing districts, was, that the people knew and felt that an inquiry was taking place, by active and competent men, into the cause of their distress, and from which they had hoped some efficient remedy would result. Now I would impress upon hon. Members opposite, as the result of my conviction, that if the labouring poor in their districts take a course as diabolical as it is insane—a course which I am sorry to see they have taken in many agricultural localities—of burning property to make known their sufferings—if I might make to those hon. Gentlemen a suggestion, it would be this—that if they had come forward to the House and the country as we, the manufacturers, have done, and made known the sufferings of the labouring population, and prescribed any remedy whatever—if that population had heard a voice proclaiming their distresses, and making known their sufferings—if they had seen the sympathies of the country appealed to—I believe it would have had such a humanising and consoling effect upon the minds of the poor and misguided people, that in the blindness of despair they would never have destroyed that property which it was their interest to protect. I have looked through this volume, which is the result of Mr. Austin’s twenty-eight days’ travels through the agricultural districts, and I find that during that period he visited Somersetshire, Devonshire, Wiltshire, and Dorsetshire. He has given the testimony of various respectable gentlemen in these several localities, as to the condition of the agricultural labourers. Some of these accounts are highly important. The first that I shall refer to is the evidence of the Rev. J. Guthrie, the vicar of Calne, in Wilts. He says (speaking of the agricultural labourers in that district):—
‘I never could make out how they can live with their present earnings.’
Dr. Greenup, M. D., Calne, says:—
‘In our union, the cost of each individual in the workhouse, taking the average of men, women, and children, is 1
week, for food only; and, buying by tender and in large quantity, we buy at least 10 per cent. cheaper than the labouring man can. But, without considering this advantage, apply the scale to the poor, industrious family. A man, his wife, and two children, will require, if properly fed, 6
s. weekly; their rent (at least 1
s.) and fuel will very nearly swallow up the remainder; but there are yet things to provide—soap and candles, clothes and shoes; shoes to a poor man are a serious expense, as he must have them strong, costing about 12
s. a pair, and he will need at least one pair in a year. When I reckon up these things in detail, I am always more and more astonished how the labourers contrive to live at all.’
Thomas King, Esq., surgeon, Calne, Wilts, says:—
‘If women and boys who labour in the field suffer in their health at all, it is not from the work they perform, but the want of food. The food they eat is not bad of its kind, but they have not enough of it; and more animal food would be most desirable, but with the present rate of wages it is impossible. Their low diet exposes them to certain kinds of diseases, more particularly to those of the stomach.’
Mr. Robert Bowman, farmer, and vice-chairman of the Board of Guardians, Calne Union, deposes:—
‘In the great majority of cases, the labourer has only the man’s wages (8
s. or [illegible digit—Econlib Ed.]
s. a week) to live on. On that, a man and his wife, and family of four, five, or six children, must live, though it is a mystery to me how they do live.’
This was the evidence of a farmer. Mrs. Britton, wife of a farm-labourer, says:—
‘We could eat much more bread, if we could get it.’
Mrs. Wiltshire, wife of a farm-labourer at Cherill, Wilts, in her own pathetic way, says:—
‘Our common drink is burnt-crust tea. We also buy about half-a-pound of sugar a week. We never know what it is to get enough to eat. At the end of the meal the children would always eat more. Of bread there is never enough; the children are always asking for more at every meal. I then say, “You don’t want your father to go to prison, do you?” ‘
That is a specimen of the evidence collected in the south of England, in the purely agricultural districts, by Mr. Austin. I have myself had the opportunity of making considerable observations in the agricultural districts, and I have come to this conviction, that the farther you travel from the much-maligned region of tall chimneys and smoke, the less you find the wages of labourers to be; the more I leave behind me Lancashire and the northern parts of England, the worse is the condition of the labourers, and the less is the quantity of food they have. Does not this, I will ask, answer the argument that the agricultural labourer derives protection from the Corn-laws? Now, what I wish to bring before the Committee is not merely that, in the abstract, and as a general principle, the working class can never be benefited by high prices occasioned by scarcity of food, but, that even during your casual high prices, caused by scarcity, the agricultural labourers always suffer. Pauperism increases as the price of food rises; and, in short, the price of the loaf is in a direct ratio proof of the increase of pauperism. An hon. Gentleman says ‘No, no.’ I hope I shall have him on the Committee, and, if he will only hear me out, I am sure I shall persuade him to vote for the Committee.
With regard to the condition of the agricultural labourer, I have taken some pains to ascertain what has been the relative progress of wages and rents in agricultural districts. I know that this is a very sore point indeed for hon. Members opposite; but I must tell them that in those very districts of Wilts and Dorset the wages of labour, as measured in food, are lower now than they were sixty years ago, while the rent of land has increased from two-and-a-half to threefold. Mind, I do not pretend to decide whether, with a free trade, rents might not have advanced even fivefold,
but I do contend that, under those circumstances, the increased value of land could have only followed the increased prosperity of every portion of the industrious community; and so long as you maintain a law for enhancing prices by scarcity, and raising artificial rents for a time, and by the most suicidal process, out of the privations of the consumers, you must not be surprised if you are called upon to show how the system works upon those for whose benefit you profess to uphold the law. I find that the following were the ordinary wages of the common agricultural day-labourers previous to the rise of prices after 1790, taken from the accounts of the respective counties drawn up for the Board of Agriculture; not including hay-time and harvest:—
|Average price of wheat||44
s. to 7
d. per week.
s. to 7
s. to 9
s. to 6
|(With wheat at 5
s. per bushel.)
s. to 10
s. per week.
Since that period, money wages have hardly increased in those districts; and wages, computed in food, have certainly declined, while rent has progressed from 200 to 250 per cent. I will mention another fact, illustrative of the relative progress of rents and wages. When lately attending a meeting at Gloucester, I heard a gentleman say publicly that he had recently sold an estate which had belonged to his great-grandfather, and which brought him ten times the price his ancestor had given for it. But what, in the same time, has been the course of wages? It is stated in a work attributed to Justice Hale, published in 1683, upon the condition of the working classes, that the wages of a farm-labourer in Gloucestershire were 10
s. a week; and he remarks:—
‘Unless the earnings of a family, consisting of the father, mother, and four children, amount to that sum, they must make it up, I suppose, by begging or stealing.’
Wheat was then 36
s. a quarter. Now that wheat is 40 per cent. higher, the average wages in Gloucestershire are only 8
s. to 9
s., and in many cases 7
s. and 6
s. And Mr. Hunt, a farmer in Gloucestershire, who is also a guardian of the poor, stated publicly at the same meeting, that in his district it was found, when relief was applied for, that in many instances families, who were endeavouring to exist on wages, were, taking the number of the family into account, only obtaining one-half the amount which their maintenance would cost in the workhouse. Mr. Hunt also stated that, directions having been received by the guardians of the union to keep the poor who were inmates of the workhouse upon as low a diet as the able-bodied labourer and his family could obtain out of it, they were, on inquiry, startled at the small quantity of food upon which, from the low rate of wages, the labouring population were forced to subsist; and upon referring the point to the medical officer of the union, he reported that it would not be safe to feed the able-bodied paupers upon the scale of food which they were getting out of the workhouse.
Hitherto I have spoken of the food of the agricultural population; and when we speak of food, it implies lodging, clothing—it implies morality, education, ay, and, I fear, religion, and everything pertaining to the social comforts and morals of the people. I have informed the House in what manner that population is fed; but there is another point in the volume before me which most especially calls for the attention of hon. Gentlemen opposite—I refer to the lodging of the agricultural poor. That is a point that more nearly concerns, if possible, the character of the landowner than, perhaps, the question of food. Mr. Austin, in the report from which I have before quoted, in reference to the four counties I have enumerated, says:—
The want of sufficient accommodation seems universal. At Stourpain, a village near Blandford, Dorset, I measured a bedroom
in a cottage. The room was 10 feet square, not reckoning the two small recesses by the side of the chimney, about 18 inches deep. The roof was the thatch, the middle of the chamber being about 7 feet high. Eleven persons slept in three beds in this room. The first bed was occupied by the father and mother, a little boy, Jeremiah, aged one year and a half, and an infant, aged four months; second bed was occupied by the three daughters—the two eldest, Sarah and Elizabeth, twins, aged twenty, and Mary, aged seven; third bed was occupied by the four sons—Silas, aged seventeen, John, aged fifteen, James, aged fourteen, and Elias, aged ten. There was no curtain or any kind of separation between the beds.’
Mr. Phelps, an agent of the Marquis of Lansdowne, says:—
‘I was engaged in taking the late census in Bremhill parish; and in one case, in Studley, I found twenty-nine people living under one roof; amongst them were married men and women, and young people of nearly all ages. In Studley it is not at all uncommon for a whole family to sleep in the same room. The number of bastards in that place is very great.’
The Hon. and Rev. S. Godolphin Osborne, rector of Bryanston, Dorset, says:—
‘Within this last year I saw in a room about 13 feet square, three beds: on the first lay the mother, a widow, dying of consumption; on the second two unmarried daughters, one eighteen years of age, the other twelve; on the third a young married couple, whom I myself had married two days before. A married woman, of thorough good character, told me a few weeks ago that on her confinement, so crowded with children is her one room they are obliged to put her on the floor in the middle of the room that they may pay her the requisite attention; she spoke of this as to her the most painful part of that, her hour of trial.’
Mr. Thomas Fox, solicitor, Beaminster, Dorset, in his evidence to Mr. Austin, says:—
‘I regret that I cannot take you to the parish of Hook (near here), the whole parish belonging to the Duke of Cleveland, occupied by a tenant of the name of Rawlins, where the residences of the labourers are as bad as it is possible you can conceive; many of them without chambers, earth floors, not ceiled or plastered; and the consequence is, that the inhabitants are the poorest—the worst off in the country.’
He is asked:—
‘Are you of opinion that such a want of proper accommodation for sleeping must tend very much to demoralize the families of the labouring population?—There can be no doubt of it; and the worst of consequences have arisen from it.’
Mr. Malachi Fisher, of Blandford, Dorset, says:—
‘That in Milton Abbas, on the average of the late census, there were thirty-six persons in each house. It is not an uncommon thing for two families, who are near neighbours, to place all the females in one cottage, and the males in another.’
And Mr. Austin, in his report, says:—
‘The sleeping of boys and girls, young men and young women, in the same room, in beds almost touching one another, must have the effect of breaking down the great barriers between the sexes; the sense of modesty and decency on the part of women, and respect for the other sex on the part of the men. The consequences of the want of proper accommodation for sleeping in the cottages are seen in the early licentiousness of the rural districts—licentiousness which has not always respected the family relationship.’
I am by no means desirous of using excitable language or harsh terms in anything I may have to address to the House upon this subject; but I should not do justice to my own feelings if I failed to express my strong indignation at the conduct of those owners of land who permit men, bred on the soil, born on their territory, to remain in the condition in which the labouring population of Dorsetshire appear, not occasionally, but habitually to exist. [Lord Ashley: ‘Hear!’] I am glad to hear that cheer from the noble Lord; I should have expected as much. You talk to us about the crowding together of the labouring
population in the manufacturing towns, and charge that upon the manufacturer and the mill-owner, forgetting that the crowding together in towns cannot come under the cognisance of particular individuals or employers; but in the agricultural districts we find the large proprietors of land, who will not allow any other person to erect a stick or a stone, or to build up a cottage on their estates, nevertheless permitting men, for whose welfare they are responsible, to herd in this beastly state in dwellings worse than the wigwams of the American Indians. When we see these things, I repeat, that the persons by whom they are permitted to continue, deserve to be visited with the most unqualified reprobation of this House. It was well said by the late Mr. Drummond, ‘that property has its duties as well as its rights,’ but these duties are grossly neglected when a Commissioner from the Government can find people living in such pigsties—or worse than pigsties—as have been described.
I have alluded to the evidence of the Rev. Godolphin Osborne. I have not the honour to be acquainted with that gentleman, and I have no doubt that in political matters we differ ‘wide as the poles,’ but I cannot but admire him or any other man who will come forward and express his opinion, and make public the state of a population so degraded. That gentleman, in a letter lately written, says:—
‘Our poor live on the borders of destitution…From one year’s end to another, there are many labouring families that scarcely touch, in the way of food, anything but bread and potatoes, with now and then some bacon. Bread is in almost every cottage the chief food of the children, and, when I know of what that bread is often made. I am not surprised at the great prevalence amongst the children of the labourers, of diseases known to proceed from an improper or too stinted diet….The wages paid by farmers I do not find exceeding 8
s., except, perhaps, in the case of the shepherd or carter. In many parishes only 7
s. a week are paid… A clergymen in this union states to me, that he hart lately had four blankets sent to him to dispose of. In making inquiry for the most proper objects, he found in fifteen families in his parish, consisting of eighty-four individuals, there were only thirty-three beds and thirty-five blankets, being about three persons to one bed, with one blanket. Of the thirty-five blankets, ten were in good condition, having been given them within the last four years, the other twenty-five were mere patched rags.’
Bear in mind that I am describing no sudden crisis of distress, such as occasionally takes place in the manufacturing districts, but the ordinary condition of the people. The strikes and tumults of which you hear so much in those districts, are the struggles of the operatives against being reduced from their comparatively comfortable earnings to the deplorable condition in which the agricultural population have sunk unconsciously, and, I am afraid to think, contentedly. Speaking of the union of Tarrant Hinton, the same rev. gentleman says:—
‘In Tarrant Hinton parish, a father, mother, married daughter and her husband, an infant, a blind boy of sixteen, and two girls, occupying one bed-room; next door, a father, mother, and six children, the eldest boy sixteen years of age, in one bed-room; two doors below, a mother, a daughter with two bastards, another daughter, her husband and two children, another daughter and her husband, one bedroom and a sort of landing, the house in a most dilapidated state! It is not one property or one parish alone, on or in which such cases exist; the crowded state of the cottages generally is a thing known to every one who has occasion to go amongst the poor. In one or two cases whole villages might be gone through, and every other house at least would tell the same tale; and I know this to be true out of this union as well as in it; and in some of these worst localities, a rent of from 3
l. to 5
l. yearly is charged for a house with only one room below and one above. It may serve to corroborate what I have stated of the crowding of the villages to add, that I have now a list before me of forty families belonging to other parishes in the union, who are now actually residing in the town of Blandford.’
Now, mark! the progress of the evil is this. The landowner refuses to build up new cottages, and permits the old cottages to fall down; and I speak advisedly when I say, that this is the course adopted systematically in Dorsetshire, and the people are driven to Blandford and other towns. And what a population they are thus sending to the manufacturing districts ! And what are these villages but normal schools of prostitution and vice? Oh, do not then blame the manufacturers for the state of the population in their towns, while you rear such a people in the country, and drive them there for shelter, when the hovels in which they have dwelt fall down about them.
I wish to be understood, that in speaking of the condition of the agricultural labourer, and of the wages he receives, I do not intend to cast imputations upon any individual. I attack not individuals, but the system. Although I hold the proprietor to be responsible for the state of lodging on his own land, I do not hold him responsible for the rate of wages in his district. I never held the farmers responsible for the want of employment or the price of labour, although it has been foolishly said of me that I did so. I challenge the Argus-eyed opponent I have to deal with to show that I have ever done so. But, so far from that being the case, I have, in every agricultural district which I have visited, told the labourers, ‘that the farmers cannot give what wages they please—wages are not to be looked upon as charity—the farmers are in no way responsible for low wages—it is the system.’ I have thus spoken of the food and lodging of the agricultural labourers, and shall content myself with one extract from Mr. Austin’s description of their clothing:—
‘A change of clothes seems to be out of the question, although necessary not only for cleanliness, but saving of time. It not unfrequently happens, that a woman on returning home from work is obliged to go to bed for an hour or two, to allow her clothes to be dried. It is also by no means uncommon for her, if she should not do this, to put them on again next morning nearly as wet as when she took them off.’
Now, what kind of home customers do hon. Gentlemen opposite think these people are to the manufacturers? This is the population, who, according to those hon. Gentlemen, are our best customers. I should be glad for a moment to call the attention of the right hon. the Home Secretary to the present working of the New Poor Law in Wilts. I have observed in a Wiltshire paper a statement which I will read to the House:—
‘In Potterne, an extensive parish on the south-west side of Devizes, in which reside two country gentlemen, who are magistrates, considerable landowners, and staunch advocates of the Corn-laws, besides other gentlemen of station and of wealth, this plan of billeting the labourers has been adopted; and the following are the prices which are put on those poor fellows who cannot get work at the average rate of 7
s. a week, and of whom, we understand, there are, or lately were, about forty:—Able-bodied single men, 2
d. a week; ditto married men, 4
s.; ditto with two or three children, 5
s.; ditto with large families, 6
s. a week. At these rates then—fixed with reference to the number of mouths to be fed, and not according to the ability of the parties as workmen, the object clearly being to reduce the poor’s rate—may any person in the parish, or out of it either, we presume, command the services of any of these forty unfortunates. We say command, for these independent labourers, “bold peasantry, their country’s pride,” have no voice in the matter; they have not even the option of going into the Union-house while any one can be found willing to use up their sinews and their bones at this starvation price.’
I have seen this in the Independent Wiltshire newspaper, and have taken it down, and had the names of the parties sent to me corroborating it. And is not this, I will ask, quite inconsistent with what is the understood principle of the Poor Law? Here is a sliding tariff of wages beginning at 2
d., and ending at 6
s., the men who are the victims of
the system having no more voice in the matter than the negro slaves of Louisiana!
Now, I put it to you who are the supporters of the Corn-law—Can you, in the face of facts like these, persist in upholding such a system? I would not, were I in your position, be a party to such a course—no, nothing on earth should bribe me to it—with such evidence at your doors of the mischiefs you are inflicting. I have alluded to the condition of the people in four of the southern counties of England—in Wiltshire, Dorsetshire, Somersetshire, and Devonshire; and what I have stated in regard to those places would apply, I fear, to all the purely rural counties in the kingdom, unless you go northward, where the demand for labour in the manufacturing districts raises the rate of wages on the land in the neighbourhood.
The hon. and gallant Member for Lincoln says ‘No;’ and I will concede to the hon. and gallant Member, for I have no wish to excite his temper by contradicting him, that it is not so in Lincolnshire; I admit there is an exception to the general rule in regard to that county—there, I believe, both the labourers and farmers are in a much better condition than in the south. But I am referring to the condition of the agricultural population generally; and when we look at the orderly conduct of that population, at the patience exhibited by them under their own sufferings and privations—fortified, as it were, by endurance so much, that we scarcely hear a complaint from them, I am sure such a population will meet with the sympathies of this House, and that the noble Lord, the Member for Dorset (Lord Ashley), whom I see opposite, and whose humane interference on behalf of the factory labourers is the theme of admiration, will extend to the agricultural population that sympathy which has been so beneficial in ameliorating the condition of a large portion of the labouring people. But where are the Scotch county Members, that they have nothing to say ? In that country there is an agricultural population, that, as far as their conduct is concerned, would do honour to any country. Yet I find the following description of the diet of these labourers in a Scotch paper:—
‘In East Lothian, the bread used by hinds and other agricultural labourers is a mixture of barley, peas, and beans, ground into meal; and you will understand its appearance when we inform you that it is very like the rape and oil cakes used for feeding cattle and manuring the fields; and it is very indigestible, coarse food.’
And I have received from a trustworthy person a letter, giving me the subjoined account of the peasantry of the county of Forfar:—
‘In this county (Forfarshire), the mode of engaging farm-servants is from Whitsunday to Whitsunday; in some cases the period of engagement is only for half a year. The present average rate of wages is 11
l. per annum, or a fraction more than 4
s. per week, with the addition of two pecks or 16lbs. of oatmeal, and seven Scotch pints of milk weekly. The amount of wages may be stated thus:—
s. d. Money 4 0 Oatmeal, two pecks at 10
1 8 Seven pints of milk at 2
1 2 Total weekly wages 6 10
That is the current weekly wages of an able-bodied agricultural labourer. An old man—that is, a man a little beyond the prime of life—if employed at all, his wages are considerably lower. The universal food of the agricultural labourers in Forfarshire is what is locally called “brose,” which is merely a mixture of oatmeal and boiling water; the meal is not boiled, only the boiling water poured on it. There is no variation in this mode of living; butcher’s meat, wheaten bread, sugar, tea, or coffee, they never taste. The outhouses they live in are called “bothies,” and more wretched hovels than these bothies are not to be found among the wigwams of the uncivilised Africans.’
It really would appear, from the slight notice taken here of the state of suffering in the rural districts, that the County
Members were sent up to this House to conceal rather than to disclose the condition of the people they left behind them. Then there is the case of Wales. There can be no excuse for ignorance as to the state of the Welsh people, for during the time of the recent disturbances we had the accounts given by the
Times’ reporter, corroborated by persons living in the locality, showing clearly what was the condition of both the farmer and the labourer in that country. In one of those accounts it was stated:—
‘The main cause, however, of the disturbances, is beyond question the abject poverty of the people. The small farmer here breakfasts on oatmeal and water boiled, called “duffrey” or “flummery,” or on a few mashed potatoes left from the previous night’s supper. He dines on potatoes and buttermilk, with sometimes a little white Welsh.cheese and barley bread, and, as an occasional treat, has a salt herring. Fresh meat is never seen on the farmer’s table. He sups on mashed potatoes. His butter he never tastes; he sells it to pay his rent. The pigs he feeds are sold to pay his rent. As for beef or mutton, they are quite out of the question—they never form the farmer’s food.’
Then as to the labourer:—
‘The condition of the labourers, from inability in the farmers to give them constant employment, is deplorable. They live entirely on potatoes, and have seldom enough of them, having only one meal a-day! Being half starved, they are constantly upon the parish. They live in mud huts, with only one room for sleeping, cooking, and living—different ages and sexes herding together. Their cottages have no windows, but a hole through the mud wall to admit the air and light, into which a bundle of rags or turf is thrust at night to stop it up. The thinly-thatched roofs are seldom drop-dry, and the mud floor becomes consequently damp and wet, and dirty almost as the road; and, to complete the wretched picture, huddled in a corner are the rags and straw of which their beds are composed.’
I have now glanced at the condition of the agricultural population in England, Scotland, and Wales. You have too recently heard the tales of its suffering to require that I should go across the Channel to the sister island with its two millions and a half of paupers; yet bear in mind (for we are apt to forget it), in that country there is a duty this day of 18
s. a quarter upon the import of foreign wheat. Will it be believed in future ages, that in a country periodically on the point of actual famine—at a time when its inhabitants subsisted on the lowest food, the very roots of the earth—there was a law in existence which virtually prohibited the importation of bread! I have given you some idea of the ordinary condition of the agricultural labourers when at home: I have alluded to their forced migration from the agricultural districts to the towns; and I will now quote from the report of the London Fever Hospital, a description of the state in which they they reach the metropolis:—
‘Dr. Southwood Smith has just given his annual report upon the state of the London Fever Hospital during the past year, from which it appears that the admissions during the period were 1,462, being an excess of 418 above that of any preceding year. A large portion of the inmates were agricultural labourers, or provincial mechanics, who had come to London in search of employment, and who were seized with the malady either on the road or soon after their arrival, evincing the close connexion between fever and destitution. These poor creatures ascribed their illness, some of them to the sleeping by the sides of hedges, and others to a want of clothing, many of them being without stockings, shirts, shoes, or any apparel capable of defending them from the inclemency of the weather; while the larger number attributed it to want of food, being driven by hunger to eat raw vegetables, turnips, and rotten apples. Their disease was attended with such extreme prostration as generally to require the administration of an unusually large proportion of wine, brandy, ammonia, and other stimulants. The gross mortality was 15½ per cent. An unprecedented number of nurses and other servants of the hospital were attacked with fever, namely, twenty-nine, of whom six died.’
‘Marlborough Street.—The Mendicity Society constables and the police have brought a considerable number of beggars to this court recently. The majority of these persons are country labourers, and their excuse for vagrancy has been of the same character—inability to get work from the farmers, and impossibility of supporting themselves and families on the wages offered them when employment is to be had. It is impossible to describe the wretched appearance of these men, most of whom are able-bodied labourers, capable of performing a hard day’s work, and, according to their own statements, willing to do so, provided they could get anything to do. A great many of these vagrant agricultural labourers have neither stockings nor shoes on their feet, and their ragged and famished appearance exceeds in wretchedness that of the Irish peasantry who find their way to this metropolis. The magistrates, in almost every instance, found themselves obliged to send these destitute persons to prison for a short period, as the only means of temporarily rescuing them from starvation. Several individuals belonging to this class of beggars were yesterday committed.’
You have here the condition of the agricultural labourers when they fly to the towns. You have already heard what was their condition in the country, and now I appeal to honourable Members opposite, whether theirs is a case with which to come before the country to justify the maintenance of the Corn-laws? You are nonsuited, and put out of court; you have not a word to say. If you could show in the agricultural labourers a blooming and healthy population, well clothed and well fed, and living in houses fit for men to live in—if this could be shown as the effects of the Corn-laws, there might be some ground for appealing to the feelings of the House to permit an injustice to continue while they knew that they were benefiting a large portion of their fellow-countrymen. But when we know, and can prove from the facts before us, that the greatest scarcity of food is to be found in the midst of the agricultural population, and that protection does not, as its advocates allege, benefit the farmer or the labourer, you have not a solitary pretext remaining, and I recommend you at once to give up the system, which you can no longer stand before the country and maintain.
The facts I have stated are capable of corroboration. Before a Select Committee we can obtain as much evidence as we want to show the state of the agricultural population. We may get that evidence in less time and more satisfactorily before a Select Committee than through a Commission. Though I by no means wish to undervalue inquiries conducted by Commissions, which in many cases are very useful, I am of opinion that an inquiry such as I propose would be carried on with more satisfaction and with less loss of time by a Select Committee than by a Commission. There is no tribunal so fair as a Select Committee; Members of both sides are upon it, witnesses are examined and cross-examined, doubts and difficulties are removed, and the real facts are arrived at. Besides the facts I have stated, if you appoint a Committee, the landlords may obtain evidence which will go far to help them out of their own difficulty—viz. the means of giving employment to the people. The great want is employment, and if it is not found, where do you suppose will present evils end, when you consider the rapid way in which the population is increasing ? You may in a Committee receive valuable suggestions from practical agriculturists—suggestions which may assist you in devising means for providing employment. There may be men examined more capable of giving an opinion, and more competent to help you out of this dilemma, than any you could have had some years ago. You may now have the evidence of men who have given their attention as to what can be done with the soil. Drain-tiles are beginning to show themselves on the surface of the land in many counties. Why should they not always be placed under the surface, and why
should not such improvements give employment to labourers?
You do not want Acts of Parliament to protect the farmer—you want improvements, outlays, bargains, leases, fresh terms. A farmer before my Committee will tell you that you may employ more labourers by breaking up land which has lain for hundreds of years in grass, or rather in moss, to please some eccentric landowner, who prefers a piece of green turf to seeing the plough turning up its furrows. This coxcombry of some landlords would disappear before the good sense of the Earl of Ducie. You may derive advantage from examining men who look upon land as we manufacturers do upon the raw material of the fabrics which we make—who will not look upon it with that superstitious veneration and that abhorrence of change with which landlords have been taught to regard their acres, but as something on which to give employment to the people, and which, by the application to it of increased intelligence, energy, and capital, may produce increased returns of wealth.
But we shall have another advantage from my Committee. Recollect that hitherto you have never heard the two sides of the question in the Committees which have sat to inquire into agricultural subjects; and I impress this fact on the notice of the right hon. Baronet opposite as a strong appeal to him. I have looked back upon the evidence taken before these Committees, and I find that in none of them were both sides of the question fairly stated. All the witnesses examined were protectionists—all the members of all the Committees were protectionists. We have never yet heard an enlightened agriculturist plead the opposite side of the question. It is upon these grounds that I press this motion upon hon. Gentlemen opposite. I want to have further evidence. I do not want a man to be examined who is not a farmer or landowner. I would respectfully ask the Earl of Ducie and Earl Spencer to be examined first; and then hon. Gentlemen could send for the Dukes of Buckingham and Richmond. I should like nothing better than that—nothing better than to submit these four noblemen to a cross-examination. I would take your two witnesses and you would take mine, and the country should decide between us. Nothing would so much tend to diffuse sound views as such an examination. But you have even Members on your own side who will help me to make out my case. There is the hon. Member for Berkshire (Mr. Pusey); he knows of what land is capable—he knows what land wants, and he knows well that in the districts where the most unskilful farming prevails, there does pauperism exist to the greatest extent. What does he say to you? He advises that—
‘More drains may be cut; more chalk be laid on the downs, the wolds, and the clays; marl on the sand, clay on the fens and heaths, lime on the moors—many of which should be broken up. That old ploughs be cast away, the number of horses reduced, good breeds of cattle extended, stock fattened where it has hitherto been starved, root-crops drilled and better dunged; new kinds of those crops cultivated, and artificial manures of ascertained usefulness purchased.’
It almost appears from the testimony of your own side, that you are doing nothing right. There is nothing about your agriculture that does not want improving. Suppose that you could show that we are wrong in all our manufacturing processes—suppose the theorist could come to my business, which is manufacturing garments, and which, I take it, is almost as necessary, and why not as honourable, in a civilised country and with a climate like ours, as manufacturing food; suppose, I say, a theoretical chemist, book in hand, should come to me, and say, ‘You must bring indigo from India, madder from France, gum from Africa, and cotton from America, and you must compound and work them scientifically, so as to make your gown-pieces to be sold for 3
s. each garment.’ My answer would be, ‘We do it already.’ We require no theorist
to tell us how to perform our labour. If we could not do this, how could we carry on the competition which we do with other nations? But you are condemned by your own witnesses; you have the materials for the amelioration of your soils at your own doors: you have the chalk and clay, and marl and sand, which ought to be intermingled, and yet you must have people writing books to tell you how to do it.
We may make a great advance if we get this Committee. You may have the majority of its Members protectionists, if you will; I am quite willing that such should be the arrangement. I know it is understood—at least, there is a sort of etiquette—that the mover for a Committee should, in the event of its being granted, preside over it as chairman. I waive all pretensions of the sort—I give up all claims—I only ask to be present as an individual Member.
What objections there can be to the Committee I cannot understand. Areyou afraid that to grant it will increase agitation? I ask the hon. Baronet the Member for Essex (Sir J. Tyrell), whether he thinks the agitation is going down in his part of the country? I rather think there is a good deal of agitation going on there now. Do you really think that the appointment of a dozen Gentlemen, to sit in a quiet room up-stairs and hear evidence, will add to the excitement out of doors? Why, by granting my Committee you will be withdrawing me from the agitation for one. But I tell you that you will raise excitement still higher than it is, if you allow me to go down to your constituents—your vote against the Committee in my hand—and allow me to say to them, ‘I only asked for inquiry; I offered the landlords a majority of their own party; I offered them to go into Committee, not as a Chairman, but as an individual Member; I offered them all possible advantages, and yet they would not—they dared not grant a Committee of inquiry into your condition.’ I repeat to you, I desire no advantages. Let us have the Committee. Let us set to work, attempting to elicit sound information, and to benefit our common country. I believe that much good may be done by adopting the course which I propose.
I tell you that your boasted system is not protection but destruction to agriculture. Let us see if we cannot counteract some of the foolishness—I will not call it by a harsher name—of the doings of those who, under the pretence of protecting native industry, are inviting the farmer not to depend upon his own energy and skill and capital, but to come here and look for the protection of an Act of Parliment. Let us have a Committee, and see if we cannot elicit facts which may counteract the folly of those who are persuading the farmer to prefer Acts of Parliament to draining and subsoiling, and to be looking to the laws of this House when he should be studying the laws of nature.
I cannot imagine anything more demoralising—yes, that is the word—more demoralising, than for you to tell the farmers that they cannot compete with foreigners. You bring long rows of figures, of delusive accounts, showing that the cultivation of an acre of wheat costs 6
l. or 8
l. per year. You put every impediment in the way of the farmers trying to do what they ought to do. And can you think that this is the way to make people succeed? How should we manufacturers get on, if, when we got a pattern as a specimen of the productions of the rival manufacturer, we brought all our people together and said, ‘It is quite clear that we cannot compete with this foreigner; it is quite useless our attempting to compete with Germany or America; why, we cannot produce goods at the price at which they do.’ But how do we act in reality? We call our men together, and say, ‘So-and-so is producing goods at such a price; but we are Englishmen, and what America or Germany can do, we can do also.’ I repeat, that the opposite system, which you go upon, is demoralising the farmers. Nor have you any right to call out, with the noble Lord the Member for North Lancashire—you have no right to
go down occasionally to your constituencies and tell the farmers, ‘You must not plod on as your grandfathers did before you; you must not put your hands behind your backs, and drag one foot after the other, in the old-fashioned style of going to work.’ I say you have no right to hold such language to the farmer. Who makes them plod on like their grandfathers? Who makes them put their hands behind their backs? Why, the men who go to Lancashire and talk of the danger of pouring in of foreign corn from a certain province in Russia, which shall be nameless—the men who tell the farmers to look to this House for protective Acts, instead of their own energies—instead of to those capabilities which, were they properly brought out, would make the English farmer equal to—perhaps superior to—any in the world.
Because I believe that the existing system is worse for the farmer than for the manufacturer—because I believe that great good to both would result from an inquiry—because I believe that the present system robs the earth of its fertility and the labourer of his hire, deprives the people of subsistence, and the farmers of feelings of honest independence—I hope, Sir, that the House will accede to my motion for—
‘A Select Committee to inquire into the effects of protective duties on imports upon the interests of the tenant-farmers and farm-labourers of this country.’