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History of Free Trade page 3


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The grievances glanced at in this remarkable financial statement chiefly related, however, to restrictions from exercising certain trades and branches of commerce. The public statutes against free trade in labour generally were far more serious infringements upon liberty, and hindrances to the national development. These appear - as far as the nominally free labourers were concerned - to have had their origin in the famous Statute of Labourers, passed in 1349; though, indeed, this statute of Edward III. was preceded by ordinances of a similar character made by him, which had partially failed in their application. The Commons had complained that no attention was paid to the ordinance for regulating the wages of labourers. This statute was therefore passed in order to enforce obedience by corporal punishments and pecuniary fines. It states that, since the pestilence, no person would serve, unless he was paid double the usual wages allowed five years before, to the great detriment of the Lords and Commons. It was therefore enacted that, in future, carters, ploughmen, plough-drivers, shepherds, swineherds, and other servants, should be content with such liveries and wages as they received in the twentieth year of the King's reign, and two or three years before; and that, in districts where they had severally been paid in wheat, they should receive wheat, or money, at the rate of 10d. a bushel, at the option of their employers. They were to be hired for a year, and other accustomed periods, and not by the day. "Weeders and haymakers were to be paid at the rate of Id. a day; mowers, 5d. a day, or 5d. the acre; and reapers, during the first week in August, 2d. a day; and from that time till the end of the month 3d. a day, without diet or any other perquisite. Labourers of the above description were enjoined to carry their implements of husbandry openly in their hands to market towns, and to apply for hire in a public quarter of the town. The wages of threshing were also regulated. A man, for threshing a quarter of wheat or rye, was allowed 2½d.; for threshing a quarter of barley, oats, beans, and pease, 1½d.; or a certain number of sheaves or bushels in places where it had been customary to pay in kind. No person was to quit his own village, in order to obtain work in summer, if he could get employment at the above wages, except the people of Staffordshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Craven in Yorkshire, and the marches of Scotland and Wales, and other parts, who - for what reason does not appear - were permitted to leave their own county. Labourers were to be sworn twice a year to observe these regulations, and offenders were punishable with three or more days' imprisonment in the stocks. Offenders were liable to imprisonment, till they could find sureties, to serve for the accustomed wages, or to sell their goods in the usual way. The excess above the common wages allowed to labourers might be sued for by the master. Labourers, artificers, and servants, flying from one county to another in consequence of these regulations, were to be imprisoned till the next sessions. There is also a statute of this arbitrary Sovereign issued, with the advice of his prelates, nobles, and learned men, which is noted in the preamble of the Statute of Labourers, by which it was enacted that every able-bodied person under sixty years of age, not having competent means of support, should be bound to serve, if required to do so, in the employment he was most fitted for, at the wages usually given. A subsequent section, in order to compel able men to labour for the necessaries of life, imposed the penalty of imprisonment on all persons who, giving alms through pretence of piety or charity, should encourage the idleness of sturdy labourers.

In 1380 the Statute of Labourers was confirmed by Parliament, and the observance of it enforced under penalty of imprisonment for fifteen days, and branding in the forehead with an iron, for offenders who absented themselves from their work, or quitted their place of abode; and magistrates were directed, in case they fled into towns, to deliver them up, under penalty of 10 to the king, and 5 to the masters who should reclaim them. In order to prevent combinations among artificers, it was declared " that all alliances of masons and carpenters, and congregations, chapters, ordinances, and oaths betwixt them made, should be thenceforth void and wholly annulled." the object of this statute was, of course, to benefit the master, by fixing a maximum for wages; and although it pointed out a mode by which its provisions might be avoided, by making it lawful " to every lord, or other, to make bargain and covenant of their work in gross with such labourers and artificers when it please them, so that they perform such works well and lawfully, according to the bargain or covenant with them thereof made," it is believed to have been only optional in the master to adopt this mode of hiring; and it is supposed that the labourer could be compelled to work for the statute wages by the day or the year, unless his employer could persuade him to work by the piece for less.

Having ineffectually endeavoured to control the wages of industry, the Legislature attempted, by statutes equally impracticable, to restrict the labourer in the disposition of his slender earnings; and, accordingly, several acts were passed for the regulation of the food and other remuneration of the labourer, directing that the servants, both of lords, and artificers, and tradesmen, should be served once a day with meat or fish, and the offal of other victuals, such as milk and cheese, according to their station; and that they should wear cloth of which the whole piece did not cost more than two marks - that is, scarcely 12d. a yard. Tradesmen, artificers, and yeomen were forbidden to buy cloth foi- their own wear of more than 2 the piece, which is about Is. 6d. a yard. Carters, ploughmen, plough-drivers, ox-herds, neat-herds, shepherds, pig-drivers, and all other attendants on cattle, threshers, and other labourers employed in husbandry, and others not worth 40s. in money or in goods, were to use no other cloth than what was called blanket and russet, of the value of 12d. the yard. Clothiers were directed to make suitable quantities of cloth of the different prices, and mercers and shopkeepers to provide a sufficient assortment of each, in order that the law might be duly observed. To carry these laws into effect, it was enacted that clothiers should make their cloth conformably to the prices appointed by the statute.. However, it appears from a subsequent regulation of the Legislature, that, not being allowed to raise their price, they had contrived to indemnify themselves by shortening the length of a piece of cloth.

Of course, a limitation of the wages of labour to the ancient rate, whilst the price of all the necessaries of life, but more particularly of corn, the principal article of subsistence in these times, was continually varying, compelled the people to practise every species of evasion. If the wages fixed by statute were adhered to, the pay of a labourer or artificer must have been unchanged throughout a period during which the price of wheat varied from 2s. to 1 6s. 8d. " The rate of wages," as Sir F. Eden remarks, "if it was intended for the benefit of labourers, ought to have varied with every variation of the price of provisions. An attempt of this nature would, I confess, be no less absurd than the other. It, in fact, presumes that the Legislature are the best judges how much individuals can afford to give for the work they want, and that a master with capital is at the mercy of a needy workman without one. However, it would have been at least consistent in the Legislature, whilst they were telling a serving man what he should eat, to specify what he should pay for his food, and to have regulated the price of the essential articles of subsistence, instead of busying themselves in a frivolous statute to secure a cheap supply of hens, pullets, capons, and geese to great men's tables. The regulation of wages was a device confessedly framed by the upper classes for their own advantage, and, if not intended to produce that result, certainly tended to cramp the exertions of industry. Great proprietors, who, in their zeal to participate in the conveniences and elegancies offered them by commerce, had gradually relinquished their arbitrary rights over the persons of their dependents for a pecuniary equivalent, which enabled them to exchange the riotous hospitality of a castle for the splendour of the Court and the capital, soon discovered that a man acquired, if not additional bodily strength, at least an additional spur to industry from emancipation: they saw the strong inducements held out, both by commerce and manufacture, to the idle occupiers of their manors, and felt that the various pretexts for enfranchisement, supported by the subtleties of the courts of justice, would in the end, had they not been resisted, lead to the utter extinction of villeinage. The new system of working for hire, which was gradually making its way, was more profitable to them, and more conducive to national prosperity, than the labour of slaves; but it is doubtful whether the great political truth that the labour of free hands is more productive to the employer than the service of slaves was, in that unenlightened period, understood, or voluntarily practised, by great proprietors. They probably could not comprehend the beneficial effects of this important revolution, and thus they endeavoured to preserve some affinity between the new class of labourers and the old class of villeins, by limiting their earnings, as they had before controlled their persons. All the restrictions of the Legislature on personal industry" - adds Sir F. Eden, from whose work on the " State of the Poor" this account of the legislation affecting industry in the fourteenth century is derived - " evince a disposition of this kind. The various statutes to regulate wages, dress, and apparel seemed to have been framed with the same view - namely, to curb the aspiring exertions of industry and independency."

The Statute of Labourers was rigorously enforced, and, notwithstanding the many inconveniences arising from its provisions, it was confirmed by several subsequent Acts of Parliament. But the Commons made great complaints that masters were obliged to give their servants and labourers great wages to prevent their running away, and that the encouragement which they received in these evil practices often induced them, upon the slightest cause of disgust, to quit their masters; that they wandered thus from country to country, and that many of the runaways turned beggars, and led idle lives in cities and boroughs, although they had sufficient bodily strength to gain a livelihood, if they pleased to work. Many wandered in parties of two, three, and four, from village to village; but the greater number turned out " sturdy rogues," and infested the kingdom with frequent robberies. To remedy these evils, the Commons proposed that no relief should be given to those who were able to work, within boroughs or in the country; that vagrant beggars should be imprisoned till they consented to return home to work; and that whoever harboured any runaway servant in his service should be liable to a penalty of 10. It does not appear from the Rolls that the King assented to the above bill, but it appears to have been the groundwork of a subsequent statute, and shows us the early opinions of Parliament on the subject of mendicity, which was, of course, greatly increased by these mischievous laws. Soon afterwards the Commons complained that the statutes of labourers were not attended to, but that persons employed in husbandry fled into cities, and became artificers, mariners, or clerks (that is, priests), to the great detriment of agriculture; and, in consequence of these absurd complaints, it was enacted that the statutes passed in the preceding reign should be carried into execution. Justices were accordingly enjoined to take security of vagrants for their good behaviour. In the year 1388, the statutes relative to artificers, labourers, servants, and victuallers were confirmed; and it was further directed that no servant or labourer should depart from one part of the country to another, to serve, or to reside elsewhere, or under pretence of going a pilgrimage, without a letter patent, specifying the cause of his departure, and the time of his return, which might be granted at the discretion of a justice of the peace. Every vagrant who could not produce a letter patent was to be taken up, put into the stocks, and imprisoned until he found surety to return to his former master. Servants travelling on the business of their masters were exempt from the penalties of the act; but apprentices in trades, where they were not much wanted, might be compelled to assist in getting in the harvest. In the same sessions the wages of labourers in husbandry were again regulated. The people were restrained, by pecuniary penalties, from giving or receiving more than the statute allowed. For the first offence, both the giver and taker were to forfeit whatever was given above the regulation; for the second offence, double; and for the third offence, treble; and if the receiver of excessive wages was unable to pay the penalty, he was to be imprisoned for forty days. By the same statute, those who had served in any agricultural occupation till they were twelve years of age, were restrained from being put to any trade, on penalty of the covenant of apprenticeship being void. In the following year, in consequence of an application of the Commons that the Statute of Labourers should be enforced, it was enacted, that " forasmuch as a man cannot put the price of corn, and other victuals, in certain, the justices should, at Easter and Michaelmas, according to the price of provisions, make proclamation how much every mason, carpenter, and other workman, and labourers should receive by the day, as well in harvest as at other times of the year, with or without meat and drink."

This was a slight improvement, and, as an approach towards liberty, may be compared to that sliding-scale for the artificial regulation of the supplies of corn which Sir Robert Peel adopted to prepare the nation for his great free-trade measures. But reform, in this respect, bad made little progress even at the beginning of the present century. In the matter of the personal liberty of the workman, so essential to the development of free trade, the laws of the land were, till a late period, scarcely less arbitrary, vexatious, and oppressive. A great variety of statutes for regulating labour were passed even during the reign of George III. Some of them, indeed - though false in spirit, and really mischievous in their operation - were not inhumane in their objects; but the bulk of them were unjustifiable interferences with the natural operations of the labour market. Workmen were, by these comparatively recent laws, forbidden to enter into any agreement among themselves, whether in writing or not, for obtaining an advance of wages, or lessening or even altering their usual hours or time of working. To meet together to consider the condition and prospects of their trade, with a view to these objects, and even to be present at such a meeting, though not one of the trade, was punishable with imprisonment and hard labour. To contribute money towards the maintenance of such refractory workmen was equally illegal. There were statutes in force regulating what kind of workmen masters should employ in particular trades; but by the 39 & 40 Geo. III. such masters were empowered to apply to the magistrates for a licence to infringe these rules, which licence the magistrate was required to grant when any qualified workman usually employed in such trade should " refuse to work therein for reasonable wages," or to work for any particular person, or to refuse to work for any other cause. By another act of the reign of George III., it was provided that the time of working for journeymen paper-makers at the vat, if the master should so require, should be half an hour about each part of fine-wove and plate papers, twenty of which were to make a day's work. Every day-worker was, by legislative enactment, compelled to work twelve hours per day, allowing one hour thereout for refreshment. The wages of journeymen weavers in London and Middlesex were ordered, by 13 Geo. III., cap. 68, to be settled by the Lord Mayor and justices at the General Quarte:. Sessions, who were directed to publish the rates, when requested, in the daily newspapers. Any master weaver who should give more or less to any of his journeymen than the prices so settled, should, on the oath of one witness, forfeit 50.

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