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Sunday Trading Bill—Bill 68

Volume 202: debated on Wednesday 6 July 1870

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Lords Second Reading

Order for Second Reading read.

said, he rose to move the second reading of this Bill, which had come down from the other House. He would remind hon. Members that two Committees of this House had decided that there ought to be legislation on the subject, that the late House of Commons read this Bill a second time on three occasions, that it was read a second time last Session, that it had been in Committee twice, and that a Committee of the other House had also recommended legislation on the subject. The state of the question had been altered materially during the last four or five years. In the metropolis Sunday trading was governed by the Act of Charles II., which for some years no attempt was made to enforce, because it was supposed that Parliament would pass an intelligible law on the subject. But on the failure of the measure last year, the Lord's Day Observance Society held that the Act of Charles H. was all that was needed, and that it could be enforced; and last winter accordingly they endeavoured to enforce it, but every magistrate before whom a case had been brought had protested against the jurisdiction being forced upon him, and had declared that the Act was obsolete, and that it ought to be superseded by a reasonable Act, stating what were the necessaries which people ought to be allowed to buy on the Sunday morning. While some magistrates had imposed the penalty of 5s. prescribed by the Act, Mr. Mansfield last week set the example of ignoring it and imposing a fine of 1d., with out giving costs. Soon after reading a report of this case he (Mr. T. Hughes) received one of the Lord's Day Observance Society's documents, which stated that the magistrates had met together and had virtually decided that the Act was sufficient, and was capable of being carried out. He believed that a more erroneous statement had never been made. He immediately wrote to a London magistrate, who replied that there had been no such consultation; that they could not refuse to enforce the Act so long as it was law; that the only thing would be to do it as mildly as possible; that he would do as Mr. Mansfield had done until it was decided by a superior Court that magistrates had no power to remit expenses; and that if he were in Parliament he would bring in a Bill to repeal the Act of Charles II., and to substitute a more rational enactment, laying down a clear and intelligible rule as to what was prohibited, and the hours within which it was prohibited. This was virtually what the 10th section of this Bill did as regarded the towns within its purview. It had become quite necessary with respect to a good many perishable articles that there should be facilities for obtaining them on the Sunday morning, and these the Bill allowed. If any objection should be taken to the hours limited they might be altered in Committee. The old Act prohibited the sale of anything but milk and bread; but within half a mile of that House there was held a great Sunday fair for the sale of rabbits, birds, dogs, clothes, ironmongery, and everything else. It was most dangerous to allow this to go on in known contravention of the law, because it weakened the old English reverence for law. The existing Act could not be worked; if it could, it would do substantial injustice; and therefore he proposed to modify it for the large towns. He would prefer to repeal it altogether, but he knew that there was a strong feeling in favour of it in Scotland, and, as he respected that feeling, he did not wish to provoke its opposition. As three successive Secretaries of State had admitted that something should be done, he trusted the House would assent to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—( Mr. Thomas Hughes.)

said, he rose to move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, and if it were in accordance with the forms of the House, he would say that day six years. The appearance of the Bill at the end of the Session might be compared to farce after comedy; but it was a harmless farce, for nothing ever came of it, and it was not supposed anything ever would. In the words of the Sunday Rest Association, many efforts at legislation had been frustrated by "a strange concatenation of circumstances;" the explanation of which was that there was a superficial and somewhat a fictitious agitation in the country, and Members consented to vote on the understanding that there would be no practical result. The fact was that Sunday trading was not on the increase, but was decreasing year after year. The evidence of Mr. Burcham, the magistrate for Southwark, on the Sale of Liquors Bill was that there was no need for legislation on the subject of Sunday trading. Indeed, the Sunday Rest Association admitted that there had been no increase of Sunday trading for 12 years. As for this Bill being a "very little one," that made it all the worse, for legislation should be based upon a principle applying equally to all classes. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Hughes) dared not bring in a great Bill, because he knew that it would cause a riot in Hyde Park in less than a week. He (Mr. P. A. Taylor) took objection to the Bill in limine. It was ill-legislating by the rich for the very poorest—by Dives for Lazarus, and the Bill did not give Lazarus the crumbs, but diminished his comforts and lessened his power of subsistence. The Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol acknowledged that the Bill must interfere with the means of livelihood of a great number of the poorer classes; and that was enough to make the House pause. There was a great distinction between this Bill and a Bill for putting a stop to artizan labour, for this Bill interfered, with that which did not involve wear and tear, but which was necessary, and was to some extent the amusement of the poor. Virtue in the shape of Sabbatarianism closed museums, libraries, and public gardens—the highest and purest amusement for the poor—on the Sunday; in the person of the hon. Member for Warrington (Mr. Rylands) it would stop the Sunday beer; by this Bill it would cut off shrimps, lollypops, oranges, and little luxuries, and when all this was done the hon. Baronet the Member for Carlisle (Sir Wilfrid Lawson) would come in and stereotype the Sunday restrictions for every day in the year. There was a special attack in the Bill upon costermongers. Beverages and newspapers were excepted in the Bill; but last year it was periodical publications. The barbers were attacked in the Bill of last year. They were to go free now; but if a man wanted a clean chin it must be within certain hours, or he must unlearn the lesson that cleanliness was next to godliness. The provisions of the Bill, he maintained, were characterized by recklessness, pettiness, and inconsistency—for example, they would allow a cabbage to be sold in the morning, and cherries in the afternoon, and while they closed the tobacco shop they would allow tobacco to be sold at the beer-house next door. He was at a loss to know what there was in a population of less than 10,000 persons that the law should not be applied to them. If the Bill was petty, the penalties were not, for they were cruel and cumulative. His hon. Friend had referred to the magistrates, and what did they think of the existing law? Why, a certain number of them practically ignored it, and declared they would not inflict a punishment under it. But, as far as he had read, they had said nothing in favour of passing a moderate measure, such as that proposed by his hon. Friend. In one case a man was told he might, under an Act passed in the reign of William IV., open his shop on a Sunday for the sale of cooked meat; but that if he bought the meat in a raw state and took it home to cook, he then brought himself within the penal provisions of the law. The existing law was bad in other respects, and Sir Richard Mayne stated before the Parliamentary Committee that a considerable number of policemen were taken from the important duties of protecting life and property to watch public-houses on a Sunday, and that in general they had to say and do things to mislead in order to prevent persons from suspecting their purpose. On the other hand, it was said that people evading the law employed "touts" to watch the policemen, and one magistrate in a country town expressed his belief that the police took bribes, and winked at evasions. Laws opposed to public opinion or common convenience were sure to be evaded, and if this Bill passed people would smuggle into their nouses articles they bought on Sunday, which would be taken from the shops, concealed under the buyers' garments. His hon. Friend said that he did not bring forward the Bill in a Sabbatarian spirit, but that he advocated it in the interest of the community, as it was desirable that all labour should, as far as possible, cease on a Sunday. They could sympathize with him in that feeling, but it was not possible that all should rest, and what was to be desired was that a few only should work in order that the great majority might rest. The greatest sinners, however, were the Members of that House, for probably there was not an hon. Member who did not employ two or three persons to minister to his own comfort on the Sunday. Those who sought to stop on Sundays the running of railway trains, to shut up post offices, and to pass the present Bill, were only seeking to relieve the few from labour on Sunday and to cast the greatest amount of sacrifice on the vast majority of the people. There was a sort of vicarious virtue for which he had little respect, and he opposed the Bill because, if the hon. Member for Frome and Lord Chelmsford were virtuous, that was no reason why the people should have no more "cakes and ale." Sunday trading was a necessity in the case of persons who were only paid their wages late on Saturday night, and who consequently had no opportunity except that afforded them on Sunday of purchasing provisions for themselves and families. He trusted that the House would throw out the Bill by a large majority. The hon. Member concluded by moving as an Amendment, that the Bill be read a second time upon this day three months.

said, he rose to second the Amendment of his hon. Friend the Member for Leicester (Mr. P. A. Taylor), in opposition to this Bill, although he must guard himself by saying that he did not sympathize with some of the opinions which he had expressed. He would yield to no one in a desire that the working classes should be secured a day of rest in the week in order that they might have an opportunity for relaxation and self-improvement, and if he thought the Bill would prove efficacious in that respect, he would certainly not be disposed to object to it; but he was not prepared to agree that the provisions of the Bill were wise or proper. No doubt everyone required a day of rest in the week, and ought to have it. His own experience of the work in that House led him to be glad—and he was sure hon. Members would agree with him—that they had two days in every week—Saturday and Sunday—as days of rest. Certainly, if they wished to secure the moral, religious, and intellectual improvement of the working classes, they must guard their one day of rest from unnecessary infringement. He did not believe that the present Bill was at all likely to prove satisfactory. Why was it brought forward? His hon. Friend the Member for Frome (Mr. Hughes) gave, as a principal reason, that former Bills of a similar character had been introduced into Parliament, and that was no doubt the fact; Bills had been introduced in 1832, 1845, 1850, 1855, 1860, 1866, 1867, 1868, and 1869, but as none of them had passed, that circumstance was of itself a strong reason why the House should regard with suspicion a proposition rejected by several previous Parliaments. No doubt it had been felt that the proposed legislation was of an objectionable and impractical character. He scarcely knew upon what ground the hon. Member for Frome supported his Bill. It was not on Sabbatarian grounds, because it violated the principle of Sabbatarianism by absolutely legalizing and sanctioning the carrying on of certain trades and employments during several hours on the Sunday. He had been especially requested by the Lord's Day Observance Society to oppose this Bill. And although he was not prepared fully to adopt the views of the members of that society, he very much respected the motives that actuated them, and if a Bill were brought into that House absolutely prohibiting all kinds of labour on the Sunday, they would at least understand the principle upon which it was based; but no one proposed by legislation to carry out the extreme views of Sabbath observance by making penal every kind of labour on Sunday. There was another peculiarity about the Bill before the House. It was only partial in its operation, and excluded from its provisions all towns having less than 10,000 inhabitants. His hon, Friend the Member for Leicester seemed at a loss to imagine the reason for that exclusion; but his hon. Friend knew the reason perfectly well—they all know the reason—it was because the borough of Frome happened to have less than 10,000 inhabitants. If, therefore, the policy of the hon. Member was the right one, it should be applied everywhere throughout the country. Apart from the Sabbatarian ground, was there any justification on other grounds for the House sanctioning the Bill? Was it necessary on the lower ground of police regulations? Were there evils of such magnitude proceeding from Sunday trading as to justify exceptional legislation and heavy penalties for the protection of society? There was a trade carried on on Sundays which endangered life and property, which led to crime, public disturbance, and gross immorality. But this trade was especially exempted from the operation of the Bill. They would fine a poor girl for selling oranges in the parks, but they would allow the gin palace to open its doors and lure its hundreds of victims into vice and immorality. The Bill, in fact, dealt with petty transactions, and evaded touching the great evils of Sunday trading It "strained at the gnat and swallowed the camel," and he would be ashamed of the House of Commons if it sanctioned such partial legislation. In considering the reasons for this Bill he had left out of view the fact that there was already an Act of Parliament in existence—an Act of Charles II.—which dealt with this question. The present Bill would leave the Act of Charles II. in operation over a great part of the country, and also partially in operation everywhere, and he believed the result would be great inconvenience in connection with magisterial decisions. The hon. Member said the Act of Charles II. was obsolete, and could not be enforced; but the fact was, it might be enforced if the magistrates were willing to carry it into execution; but no doubt they declined to enforce it in reference to offences which they did not think of importance. The Lord's Day Observance Society state that that Act "was still operative, and could be put in force with no greater exercise of effort than would be needed to enforce a law founded on the Sunday Trading Bill." His hon. Friend the Member for Frome spoke of that Act with much contempt; but why did he not propose its repeal? Simply because he knew that its repeal would give great offence to conscientious men in Scotland and elsewhere, who valued it as a declarative enactment on the part of the Legislature against any unnecessary labour on the Sabbath. He thought they might safely rest contented with that Act as it now stood. Lord Melbourne, when any difficult matter was submitted to him, used to say—"Cannot we let it alone?" And the same might be said in reference to that difficult and delicate subject of legislation. It appeared to him that they should try to check the evil complained of not by passing new Bills and imposing fresh penalties, but by spreading education, morality, and religion among the population.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."—( Mr. Taylor.)

said, that the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. P. A. Taylor) had stated that the evil which the present Bill was intended to remedy only existed in imagination. That was a strong statement. The hon. Member must have confined his walks to the fashionable portion of London. [Mr. P. A. TAYLOR explained that he said it had not increased.] No person acquainted with the condition of the poorer parts of London could doubt that Sunday trading existed to an enormous extent. Indeed, it was only necessary to walk over Westminster Bridge in order to see the traffic which was carried on during Sunday, and the same was the case in the neighbourhood of Bethnal Green. It was not merely shops for the sale of necessary articles that were kept open, but actual fairs were going on which would not be allowed on other days of the week. A statement appeared a short time back in The Times about the Sunday traffic in the neighbourhood of Shoreditch, and it was shown that at these fairs such "luxuries for the working classes" as birds, dogs, and mice were sold during the hours of Divine worship. What was sought to be done by the present Bill was to secure for the working classes in all great cities a day of rest, which everyone in that House desired to have for himself. He was not saying a word about the religious grounds on which that Bill might be supported. Enjoying, as he had done from childhood, the blessing of the day of rest, he felt pain at observing that numbers were debarred from its enjoyment. There was one class of persons most injuriously affected by the system of Sunday trading, and they were the servants of small traders, who worked early and late on every one of the six days of the week, toiling still later on Saturday evening than on other day; and who had, notwithstanding, to work till 2 or 3 o'clock on Sunday afternoon. On behalf of that suffering class he asked the House to pass the present moderate Bill. The hon. Member for Leicester had said that people bought their goods on a Sunday because wages were paid late on a Saturday; but did not the hon. Member know that wages were generally paid either on the Friday evening or on the Saturday afternoon? The fact was that some men spent in drink a great portion of their wages on Saturday night, and sent their wives to buy articles on the Sunday morning; so that, if Sunday traffic were put a stop to, the temptation to drink on Saturday night would be checked. Nothing could be worse than an Act of Parliament which magistrates cast a slur upon; and what was wanted was that the law should be put on a sensible basis, and that there should be means for enforcing it without vexatiously interfering with the wants of the people. The hon. Member for Warrington (Mr. Rylands) said that similar Bills had always been rejected by Parliament, but that was not a correct statement. The principle of the Bills had always been accepted by Parliament, and they were prevented from passing only on account of delays interposed by opponents. The hon. Member also stated that the promoters of the present Bill ought to have proposed to shut up gin palaces on the Sunday; but the Secretary of State for the Home Department knew very well what their fate would have been if they had attempted to deal with the licensing system; and the best answer to the combined opposition of the hon. Member for Warrington (Mr. Rylands) and the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. P. A. Taylor) who opposed this Bill on such very different grounds, was in medio tutissimus ibis. One great argument in favour of the Bill was that, under existing circumstances, the minority were able to oppress the majority; because, as some persons would not close their shops on a Sunday, others felt compelled to keep theirs open. So much so was this the case that, though the principals of three large clothing firms at Shoreditch were willing to allow their employés to rest on the Sunday, they could not be persuaded to close their shops on that day, because each was afraid of his neighbours. At length all the three firms bound themselves by a bond to close on Sunday, and severally pledged themselves to pay £100 to the vicar and churchwardens of the parish, to be distributed among the deserving poor of the parish if they broke the engagement. The signataries to the bond were two Jews and one Nonconformist. He believed that, if the House passed the Bill, an act of mere justice would thereby be done to a great number of the industrious classes.

said, he was opposed to the Bill because it contained so many exemptions that he was convinced it would not be possible to carry it into practical effect. Beyond this there were many exemptions which did not appear on the face of the Bill; they would be continually enlarged, and, in the end, would embrace so large a number of trades that their exemption would appear to be most unjust to the others. They could not prevent those who were deprived of a privilege which others possessed from agitating for its extension to themselves. Were they prepared to grant these exemptions from the operation of the statute? It had been said by the hon. Member for Frome that the metropolitan magistrates practically ignored the Act of Charles II. If that were so, the House might, when the Estimates came under consideration, take away a portion of their salaries, for their duty was to administer the law as they found it, and not to take upon themselves to repeal the law. He thought that the Bill, in the way he had indicated, would be productive of a great deal of evil; and, while he did not agree with the opinion of the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. P. A. Taylor), he was quite as much opposed to the passing of the Bill as he could be, although it might be from very different reasons.

said, he could understand the argument that there should be no distinction between Sunday and the other days of the week; but the opponents of the Bill did not venture to put that forward, though it was the conclusion to which their speeches pointed. The law ought not to be set aside by police magistrates. So far from the measure being opposed to the feeling of the people, he was in a position to state that in Marylebone Sunday trading was felt to be a great public grievance; and though he was prepared to admit that the proposal was defective, because it did not deal with public-houses, he should not oppose the second reading, but rather hoped they might have the opportunity of amending it in Committee. The Bill would protect those who could not protect themselves. The real desire of the community was for some legislation, and the House of Lords having sent down this measure, it was their duty to pass what he considered a moderate measure, by way of experiment, on the subject.

said, he looked upon the Bill as wholly inadequate for the purpose for which it was intended. If there was a necessity for dealing with the question at all, let the same law be applied to the luxuries of the rich as to the necessaries and comforts of the poor. He opposed the Bill because he thought it was unjust to the poor, and he believed it would be most injurious in its effects.

said, he was prepared to support the second reading, because he believed the principle of the Bill was in strict harmony with the public feeling on the matter. There could be no doubt that public feeling in this country was in favour of the decent observance of the Sabbath, and, at the same time, of giving reasonable facilities to the poor for obtaining that which was absolutely necessary. It was all very well to com- plain of magistrates not enforcing the present law, but an obsolete law not in harmony with the feeling of the country could not be practically enforced. This Bill, he thought, was a moderate one, in accordance with the public conviction, and supplied reasonable facilities for its enforcement. There were many large towns throughout England where there was no Sunday trading, and he did not see why there should be more difficulty in London than in other large communities in dispensing with it. He had received many deputations on the subject, and he was satisfied that the greater part of those who now broke the law would be very glad if it were so altered that there would be a reasonable chance of enforcing it. He believed that the form of bond which had been read by his hon. Friend opposite (Mr. J. G. Talbot) fairly represented the feeling of a vast number of persons in the metropolis who broke the law because their neighbours did so. For these reasons he should support this Bill, because he thought it would so amend the present law as to bring it in harmony with public feeling and conviction.

Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 109; Noes 64: Majority 45.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for To-morrow.