National Distress (Hansard 1842)


In the House of Lords on May 26 1842, when debating The Queen’s letter, the following statement regarding national distress was made by Lord Kinnaird:

Stockport, in Cheshire, is one of the principal seats of the cotton manufacture, and a large portion of its population is dependent on that manufacture for support. During the last three years many failures among the mill-owners have occurred; but distress among the working people did not assume a very aggravated form until within the last eight months; since that time a large number of the manufacturing workmen, accustomed to constant industry, have been reduced by the stoppage of mills to want of employment, and to a dependence on legal or voluntary alms.

Their privations have been borne by a population not accustomed to such dependence, with fortitude and resignation, and the virtues which they have exhibited under such severe trials, not less than the sufferings which they have endured, and are still enduring, entitle them to the sympathy and consideration of their fellow-countrymen.

Mr. Waddington, the secretary of the relief fund in Stockport, states that in the official report upon the distress in that town, that the great majority of the distressed families have no visible means of support; that for some weeks they had subsisted by credit; that when that failed their next resource was to sell their furniture, their wearing apparel, their bed and bedding, and in many instances women had been compelled even to part with their marriage rings; and that their dwellings were found literally stripped of every article of comfort. 

He subsequently proceeds to state, in reference to the district of which he acted as visitor. The greater proportion of the inhabitants of that district were in as lamentable a state of destitution as it is possible to imagine; I am convinced that the relief fund has been the cause of saving hundreds in the borough from a premature grave.

Severe distress prevails likewise extensively at Burnley, in Lancashire, and in the neighbouring district, owing to the same causes as the distress at Stockport. In this district less efficient assistance appears to have been afforded to the settled poor from the poor-rates, and, moreover, many destitute persons who had migrated thither from other parts of the country have been deterred from applying for parochial relief by the fear of removal in consequence of thus becoming chargeable.

The funds provided by law for the relief of ordinary destitution in England, however ample they may be, can scarcely be expected to suffice in the depressed state of Stockport and Burnley, inasmuch as the resources of the ratepayers themselves are diminished in nearly the same proportion in which the demands of the working classes upon those resources are increased.”

Since the month of July in last year the labouring population of Paisley has been suffering from distress, caused by the stagnation of trade, and the consequent failure of a large number of firms in that borough. This distress continued with great severity throughout the winter, and the spring has not brought that increased demand for goods which might have been expected. Some of the more skilful weavers have indeed procured employment, but a large portion of the population still remain dependent on charity.”

As many as 12,000 persons have been maintained for several months from the contributions collected in England and Scotland, and even in India. The Poor-law of Scotland as now administered, confers no effectual right to relief upon men who are able to work, or upon their families; at present, therefore, the legal provision for the relief of the destitute in Scotland is not applicable to this class of persons, and even if it had been so applicable, the pressure of so large a number of men without work must soon have absorbed a considerable proportion of the property in the borough.”

The subscriptions raised in this country, in the county of Renfrew, in the City of Edinburgh and other parts of Scotland, are all expended. Thus no legal mode of effectually relieving this mass of destitution exists, and the charitable feelings of those connected with the place have been taxed to the utmost. It may be added that these sufferings have for the most  part fallen on a class of workmen whose general earnings, even in prosperous times, are insufficient to allow of any provision for future difficulties, and that they have been borne with patience and fortitude.

If the Government deemed it right to proclaim to the world at large that the people of this country were in such a state of destitution as to make it a matter of necessity to appeal to the voluntary contributions of the wealthier classes for relief, that of itself he considered to be ample evidence of the serious nature of the distress that prevailed. And to what was this to be attributed? He believed that it was altogether owing to bad legislation, to the restrictive and monopolizing laws which were so pertinaciously maintained.

 

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