Wednesday 9 November 2016

9th November 1816: 'Observator' writes to the Leeds Mercury advocating the taxation of machinery


SIR—I rely upon your well-known for the insertion in your widely extended paper of the following remarks on the general distress of the country, with the subjoined hints, calculated to relieve the community from the enormous burthen of poor rates and taxes.

The employment of so great portion of our population to carry on the late eventual war so drained us of men, that, to enable us the carry on our trade at the same time, which increased to an enormous extent, in consequence of our naval superiority, factories were filled with machinery, to perform the work that had before been done by hand; and the Agriculturalist following the examples of the trader, establishing the thrashing-machine, &c. &c. Whilst we, as it were, held the world in subjection by blockading the ports of our enemies, and engrossed to ourselves not only the trade of Europe, but nearly of the whole world, these inventions added sinews to our country, at the same time that they enabled the traders to acquire immense fortunes. But since peace has been restored, those Powers who were compelled to use goods of our making, now make for themselves, consequently our trade has diminished; but the number of labourers increased by the return of thousands from the army and navy: thus, the necessity of machinery is done away by the diminution of trade and the increase of labourers: still the machine continues to be worked while the labourer is unemployed and in a state of distress.

As the gentleman of landed interest is obliged to support the pauper, it would seem wise to employ him to thrash out his corn: and as the factories do not employ our poor, or support them when unemployed, and as they do not increase our revenue by import or export duties, it would seem expedient that the machines used in them should be done away, or that the articles made by them should be subject to a tax, so as to put manual labour on a footing with machinery.

The observations that follow will, I believe, apply to all the various concerns conducted by machinery, but, as the clothing trade is more familiar to me than any other. I shall confine my remarks to that only. Whoever will take the trouble to trace the progress of machinery in this business from its introduction to the present time, and its effect upon the landed interest, will find that just in proportion as labour has been done away by its employment, so has the land been burthened to support the poor, although it was not so severely felt whilst we had nearly trade of the whole world, and the war demand enabled the Agriculturalist to obtain his own price for the produce of his land. About thirty years ago the carding-engine and spinning-jenny were introduced: this was the first serious encroachment on the labourer; up to this period the whole female population of a manufacturing district was constantly employed spinning, &c. and the male cultivated the land: there was not a cottage within twenty miles of a manufacturing town whose inhabitants were not furnished with labour, and consequently with bread. A reference to the parish books would enable any gentleman to trace its effect on the poor-rates. The next step of innovation that lessened labour was the use of the scribbling engine; this branch of the trade employing fewer persons, chiefly men and boys, and being introduced during the war, was less felt; then followed the various machines used to dressing cloths, called gigs and shearing frames, whose operation collectively has transferred the labour of the country to an immense pile of building called a Factory; the machinery of which is worked by water or steam, and managed by a few persons only, instead of giving employment and support to thousands, who would, in their turn, by the wages arising from labour, be enabled to purchase the produce of the land, and other articles of support which yield a tax, and thereby contribute to take the burthen from the landed interest. It is, I believe, a political axiom not disputed, that the strength of a country consists in the number and industry of its inhabitants: if this be true, I begin to suspect, that unless some employment be found for the labourer, we must in the next war fight our battles with machinery, or become an easy prey to some daring invader, when emigration and starvation have depopulated our country. In an overgrown factory, one or even two hundred cloths are made a week by the employment of a few persons only; so that if we could retain the trade of the whole world, and combinations of persons continue to extend mechanical influence to the exclusion of manual labour, the population of the country must be in a state of starvation, and would demand support from the landed interest: furnish the poor with employment instead of using machines, and there will immediately follow a decrease of poor-rates, for then none will require parochial relief but the orphan, the aged, and infirm.

With one quarter part of our trade, conducted without machinery, there would be no want of employment for the poor, and instead of a company of three or four persons, with an overgrown capital, engrossing the trade of a populous district, it would be divided amongst the many, and the industrious man with a small capital would be enabled to bring his goods to market on equal terms with this opulent neighbour. The introduction of machinery has enabled the facturer to glut the market in a few weeks, let the demand be what it may: so that even the persons employed in these factories, some of whom get great wages, when at work, are sometimes revelling in drunkenness or debauchery, or starving for want of employ. The introduction of machinery has contributed also to debase the morals of society, by huddling the sexes together, in these factories, beyond the conception of persons not acquainted with its effect.

The charitable donations of the opulent, (which operate as a tax on the landed interest) can at best afford only temporary relief; and if it could be continued, would not fail to convert our hardy industrious labourer into a cringing servile beggar. If the gentlemen of landed interest, who must support the starving poor, do not enact some salutary law on this subject, these Trading Companies will ruin the country ruined the country to enrich themselves; and while they assume a style of splendour that eclipses and astonishes the country gentleman, their poor neighbours starve.

Tax machinery and you will give the poor employment: you will make them independent, and will make them happy.


This is from the Leeds Mercury of 9th November 1816.

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