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Chapter LV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7


Coal Trade - Employment of Children - Lord Ashley's Bill - Attempt of Francis on the Life of the Queen: he is Transported for Life - Similar Attempt by a Deformed Youth - Change in the Law respecting Attacks on the Sovereign - Lord Ashburton's Treaty with America - Oregon Boundary - Right of Search - Repudiation of Debts by Pennsylvania- Rev. Sydney Smith - Mr. Everett, Mr. Webster - War in Afghanistan - Earl of Ellenborough - General Pollock joins Brigadier Wild.
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The vast development of the coal trade, which contributed so materially to our national prosperity, occasioned the employment of a large number of persons at high rates of wages. Upwards of 118,000 people were working in coal mines. In the county of Durham there were more persons thus employed' under ground than in cultivating the surface. It was a kind of work at which women and children could earn money, and in some of the collieries their labour was made available to a very large extent. It may be supposed that this practice entailed upon the boys and girls so employed the most serious evils, physical and moral. When this state of things began to attract public attention, an extensive inquiry was instituted by the " Children's Employment Commission," which prepared three reports, presented to Parliament in 1842. The commissioners collected a large mass of evidence at the collieries which brought to light facts of the most astounding nature as to the cruelty and demoralisation connected with the employment of women and children in coal mines. It seemed almost incredible that such practices could have existed in a civilised country, and showed the extent to which the thirst for gain will carry men, under circumstances where they can count upon impunity, and evade the censure of public opinion. Lord Ashley took up the subject with his usual earnestness in all questions affecting the welfare of the working classes, and in the session of 1842 he brought in a bill founded upon the reports of the commission. The statement of facts with which he introduced the measure excited the astonishment and indignation of the House, and greatly shocked the moral sense of the country.

If it had been only the large owners of mines that were concerned, he said, there would have been no necessity for legislative interference. The health of those employed under ground depends, of course, upon the ventilation and drainage of the pits, which differ according to the depth of the seams of coal, and these vary from ten inches in some places to ten or twenty feet in others. In South Staffordshire, for instance, says Dr. Mitchel, the coal beds are sufficiently thick to allow abundance of room; the mines are warm and dry, and there is a supply of fresh air. The case is pretty much the same in Northumberland, Cumberland, and South Durham, with some exceptions in the last place and in North Durham. In Warwickshire and Lancashire the mines are damp, and the water in them is sometimes deep. In Derbyshire it was found that black damp very much abounded, and the ventilation in general was exceedingly imperfect. Hence fatal explosions frequently took place; the work-people were distressed by the quantity of carbonic acid gas which they were compelled to inhale, and the pits were so hot as to add greatly to the fatigue of their labour. Some pits were dry and comfortable, but many were so wet that the people had to work all day over their shoes in water, at the same time that the water dropped or "rained" upon them from the roof, so that in a short time their clothes were drenched, and in that condition they toiled on fourteen or sixteen hours out of the twenty-four, which were the regular hours of labour. It appeared that in the West Riding of Yorkshire there were very few collieries in which the main road exceeded a yard in height; in some it did not exceed twenty-eight inches, and in some it was less than twenty-two inches; so that in such places the youngest child could not pass along without great pain and in the most constrained posture. In East Scotland, where the side roads did not exceed from twenty- two to twenty-eight inches in height, the working places were sometimes from 100 to 200 yards distant from the main road, and through those passages females had to crawl backwards and forwards with their carts. The whole of those places were in a deplorable state as to ventilation, and the drainage was quite as bad. The same was reported of the roads in North and South Wales, where in most cases the ventilation was altogether neglected.

In these places, far down under the surface of the earth, the great majority of those employed were children, many of them almost infants. The report stated that in South Staffordshire, Shropshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and Cumberland, children began to work at seven years of age; about Halifax, Bradford, and Leeds, at six; in Derbyshire and South Durham, at five and six; in Lancashire, at five; and near Oldham, as early as four. Five or six was a common age in the east of Scotland; in the west of Scotland, eight; and in South Wales four was a very usual age. The report added that in the south of Ireland no children at all were employed, and that all the underground work which in England, Scotland, and Wales was done by young children, was done in Ireland by young persons between the ages of thirteen and eighteen; and in none of the collieries of that country was a single instance known of a female of any age being employed under ground. Referring to this fact, Lord Ashley said, " I have öfter: admired the generosity of the Irish people, and I must say that if this is to be taken as a specimen of their barbarism, I would not exchange it for all the refinement and polish of the most civilised nations of the globe."

The nature of the employment in which the children were engaged was calculated to brutalise them in every sense. They were obliged to crawl along the low passages with barely room for their persons in that posture, each dragging a load of coals in a cart by means of a chain which was fastened to a girdle borne round the waist, the chain passing between the legs. This they dragged through a passage often not as good as a common sewer, in an atmosphere almost stifling. One of the witnesses, Robert North, said, " I went into the pit at seven years of age; when I drew by the girdle and chain, the skin was broken, and the blood ran down. If we said anything, they would beat us. I have seen many draw at six. They must do it or be beat. They cannot straighten their backs during the day. I have sometimes pulled till my hips hurt me so that I have not known what to do with myself." At this sort of work girls were employed as well as boys, and they commonly worked quite naked down to the waist, the rest of the dress being a pair of loose trowsers, and in this condition they were obliged to serve adult colliers who worked without any clothing at all. A sub-commission remarked upon this practice: "Any sight more disgusting, indecent, and revolting, can scarcely be imagined than these girls at work." The grossest immorality was the natural consequence. Lord Ashley remarked that " nothing could be more graphic and touching than the evidence of many of these poor girls, insulted, oppressed, and even corrupted as they were. There exists in them oftentimes, nevertheless, a simplicity and kindness which render tenfold more heartrending that system which forces away these young people from the holier and purer duties which Providence appoints for them, to put them to occupations so unsuited, so harsh, so degrading. It appears that they drag these heavy weights, some 12,000, some 14,000, and some 16,000 yards daily. In some cases they carried burdens on their backs, varying from three quarters of a cwt. to 3 cwt." In Scotland a sub-commission found one little girl, six years of age, carrying an eight stone weight, fourteen times a day, a journey equal in distance to the height of St. Paul's Cathedral. The commissioner adds, "And it not unfrequently happens that the tugs break, and the load falls upon those females who are following, who are, of course, struck off the ladders. However incredible it may be, yet I have taken the evidence of fathers, who have ruptured themselves by straining to lift coals on to their children's backs."

There was much more in the evidence too revolting to be quoted. It is a dark chapter in our industrial history. But without those dark shades, no historical portraiture of British society would be a faithful delineation of all its aspects, or would exhibit the hideous contrasts between the highest refinement, the brightest. intelligence, and the purest Christianity, in conjunction with the most shocking inhumanity, barbarism, and moral debasement. The report of the commission was charged with exaggeration, but there was no denying the main facts. The bill of Lord Ashley was passed almost unanimously by the Commons. In the Lords it was subjected to considerable opposition, and some amendments were introduced. The amendments were adopted by the Commons, and on the 10th of August, 1842, the act was passed " to prohibit the employment of women and girls in mines and collieries, to regulate the employ ment of boys, and to make other provisions relating to persons working therein. The act prohibited the employment of any boys under ground, in a colliery, who were under the age of ten years."

The example of Oxford, who made an attempt on the life of the Queen, was followed by another crazy youth, named Francis, excited by a similar morbid passion for notoriety. On the 30th of May, 1842, the Queen and Prince Albert were returning to Buckingham Palace down Constitution Hill in a barouche and four, when a man who had been leaning against the wall of the palace garden went up to the carriage, drew a pistol from his pocket, and fired at the Queen. Her Majesty was untouched, and seemed unaware of the danger. The assassin was observed by Prince Albert, and pointed out by him to one of the outriders, who dismounted to pursue him; but he had been at once arrested by other persons. The carriage, which was driving at a rapid pace, no sooner arrived at the palace, than a messenger was sent to the Duchess of Kent, to announce the Queen's danger and her safety. The duchess hastened to the palace, and embracing her daughter, burst into a flood of tears, the Queen endeavouring to re-assure her with affectionate anxiety. The prisoner, John Francis, the son of a machinist or stage carpenter at Covent Garden Theatre, having been twice examined by the Privy Council, was committed to Newgate for trial at the next session of the Central Criminal Court on a charge of shooting at the Queen with a loaded pistol. He was only twenty years of age, rather good-looking, with a dark complexion, middle stature, and respectably dressed.

The Queen took her accustomed airing next day, taking the same route, in the same sort of carriage. A great multitude had assembled round the palace to express their congratulations, which they did by loud cheering, and the waving of hats and handkerchiefs, in acknowledgment of which the Queen and the Prince graciously bowed and smiled. Her carriage was followed by a number of gentlemen on horseback, and the drive was described as a triumphal progress. In the evening the Queen and Prince Albert went to the Italian Opera, when the audience broke forth into tumultuous applause, called for the National Anthem, and cheered at almost every line.

The trial of Francis took place on the 17th of June, before Chief Justice Tindal, Baron Gurney, and Justice Patteson. He looked dejected, and pleaded "Not Guilty" in a very feeble voice. The principal witness was Colonel Arbuthnot, one of the equerries who was riding close to the Queen when the shot was fired, and cried out to a policeman, " Secure him! " which was done. The report, he said, was sharp and loud; but he did not hear the whiz of a ball, in consequence of the noise made by the carriage. Colonel Wylde, another equerry, with several other witnesses, corroborated the testimony of Colonel Arbuthnot; and it appeared that Francis had on the previous day pointed a pistol at the Queen, though he did not fire. On the defence it was alleged that the attempt was the result of distress, and that the prisoner had no design to injure the Queen. The jury retired, and in about half an hour returned into court with a verdict of " Guilty," finding that the pistol was loaded with some destructive substance, besides the wadding and powder. Chief Justice Tindal immediately pronounced sentence of death for high treason, that he should be hanged, beheaded, and divided into four quarters. At the conclusion of the sentence the prisoner fainted, and fell into the arms of the gaolers. The sentence was not executed. It was commuted to transportation for life.

Even this example was not sufficient to protect Her Majesty from the criminal attempts of miscreants of this class. Another was made on the 3rd of July following, as the Queen was going from Buckingham Palace to the Chapel Royal, accompanied by Prince Albert and the

King of the Belgians. In the Mall, about half way between the palace and the stable-yard gate, a deformed youth waschen to present a pistol at the Queen's carriage by a person named Bassett, who seized him and brought him to the police; but they refused to take him in charge, treating the matter as a hoax. Bassett himself was subsequently arrested, and examined by the Privy Council. When the facts of the case were ascertained, the police hastened to repair the error of the morning, and sent to all the police-stations a description of the real offender. He was sixteen years of age, five feet six inches high, with a humpback, short neck, light hair, a long, sickly, pale face, his nose marked with a scar, or black patch, and his appearance altogether dirty. This tallied exactly with the description which a working jeweller named Bean had given to the police of his son, who had absconded a week or a fortnight before. This led to the apprehension of the lad, who was identified, examined, and committed to prison. His trial took place on the 25th of August, at the Central Criminal Court. The Attorney-General briefly related the facts of the case, and Lord Abinger, the presiding judge, having summed up, the jury returned a verdict of " Guilty," convicting the prisoner of presenting a pistol, loaded with powder and wadding, " in contempt of the Queen, and to the terror of divers liege subjects." The sentence of the court was - "Imprisonment in Millbank Penitentiary for eighteen calendar months."

The repetition of these infamous outrages excited great public indignation, and led to a general demand that something effectual should be done to put a stop to them by rendering the law more prompt and effective, and the punishment more disgraceful. In compliance with this demand, Sir Robert Peel brought in a bill upon the subject, which was unanimously accepted by both Houses, and which rapidly passed into law.

The state of the law relating to attacks upon the Sovereign in former times was calculated to stimulate the morbid vanity and love of notoriety which prompted persons of weak minds to the commission of such crimes. Trials for high treason, even where the object was not to take away the life of the Sovereign, or to change the form of Government, were surrounded with forms and solemnities that encumbered the proceedings and elevated the prisoner into a sort of hero, making him the centre of public interest, and the universal topic of conversation - just the thing he desired, while double the amount of evidence was required to secure a conviction than would be necessary in any other case. In the year 1800, after the attempt of Hatfield on the life of George III., an act was passed which, in cases of actual attacks upon the life of the Sovereign, abolished those encumbering forms and solemnities. Sir Robert Peel in his bill proposed to extend the provisions of that act to cases where the object was not compassing the life, but " compassing the wounding of the Sovereign." "I propose," he said, "that, after the passing of this act, if any person or persons shall wilfully discharge or attempt to discharge, or point, aim, or present at or near the person of the Queen any gun, pistol, or other description of fire-arms whatsoever, although the same shall not contain explosive or destructive substance or material, or shall discharge or attempt to discharge any explosive or destructive substance or material, or if any person shall strike, or attempt to strike the person of the Queen, with any offensive weapons, or in any manner whatever; or, if any persons shall throw or attempt to throw any substance whatever at or on the person of the Queen, with intent in any of the cases aforesaid to break the public peace, or to excite the alarm of the Queen," &c., that the punishment in all such cases should be the same as that in cases of larceny - namely, transportation for a term not exceeding seven years. But a more effective punishment was added, namely, public whipping, concerning which Sir Robert Peel remarked, " I think this punishment will make known to the miscreants capable of harbouring such designs, that, instead of exciting misplaced and stupid sympathy, their base and «malignant motives in depriving Her Majesty of that relaxation which she must naturally need after the cares and public anxieties of her station, will lead to a punishment proportioned to their detestable acts. What they had to guard against was not any traitorous attempt against the peace of the nation, by conspiring to take away the life of the Sovereign, but the folly or malignity of wretches guilty of acts prompted by motives which were scarcely assignable. The law, in its charity to human nature, he said, ha$ omitted to provide for the case of any being formed like a man who could find satisfaction in firing a pistol at a young lady, that lady a mother, and that mother the Queen of these realms. It never entered into the conception of former lawmakers, that anything so monstrous would arise, as that the Queen would not enjoy a degree of liberty granted to the meanest of her subjects."

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