British House of Commons Debate about British Watch and Clockmakers Company – 1843

These are from the direct notes taken from the House of Commons debate in 1843. It’s quite long-winded, but really worth a read, as it puts into perfect perspective people’s attitudes at the time. Considering it was 170 years ago most of the attitudes are surprisingly contemporary.

 

MAKING WATCHES BY MACHINERY

31 March 1843

 

Mr. Ward

said, that in moving the second reading of a private bill, it was seldom necessary for the mover to occupy the time of the House at any length; but the bill to incorporate the British Watch and Clockmakers’ Company had met with so much fierceness of opposition, that it was necessary for him, in moving this Order of the day, to say something to the House, for the purpose of removing the prejudices which might have been created by the strong allegations made to the House against the objects of the bill, and the motives of its promoters. He had no personal interest whatever in the bill. He would not pretend to deny that it proposed to do by machinery, what was at present effected by manual labour, neither would he pretend to deny, that the introduction of machinery in a trade in which it had not previously been employed, was at first productive of hardship to those who were engaged in such trade; but in the result the effect of the introduction of machinery had always proved beneficial to those engaged in the trade, as well as to the rest of the community. There was no trade to which machinery could be so usefully applied as that of watchmaking. In that trade the subdivision of labour had been carried perhaps to the greatest possible extent, for there were no less than 102 branches of watchmaking. At the close of the last century this country had, in some branches of the trade, such as case making, almost a monopoly; but now a great portion of the watches sold England were made in Geneva and other parts of Switzerland, which country was now our greatest rival in this department. So that the English artisan was obliged to keep down the quality of his work, in order to meet the competition of the Swiss, He believed, that in the trade of watchmaking, the principle of the division of labour, of which they had heard so much, was carried too far. Something like concentration of labour, he believed, was now necessary to produce those improvements which had been made elsewhere. Here was a new principle, which had been discovered, and which was now in operation. He was aware, that the invention was that of a Swiss mechanic, of the name of Ingold, who had been run down in the most unsparing terms. When it was said, that watches could not be made by machinery, he (Mr. Ward) denied if. Nothing was impossible to machinery in the present day. When they saw what had been accomplished by steam, how could it be asserted that anything was impossible to be affected by the ingenuity of man. He did not think it ought to be said, that they would not be able to fly in some years hence. His hon. Friend, who opposed this bill, had given his sanction to an Aeriel Transit Company. It was only by the adoption and application of new principles and improvements, that they could hope to maintain the pre-eminence of England. When the hon. Member for Finsbury talked of disturbing existing, interests, and interfering with his constituents of Clerkenwell, his hon. Friend would allow him as a director and proprietor of railroads, to turn round upon him and complain of the Aerial Transit Bill. Many hon. Members had seen the machinery for making watches. He had seen it with an unbiassed mind, or if he was biassed at all, it was against the scheme. But he saw what the machinery could do, and he compared its results with what could be accomplished by the hand. Two hundred watches could be made by this machinery for every thirty-six that could be made by the hand. The barrel could be turned in one minute by machinery, while it now took two hours. The lower plate a principal part of the watch, could be finished in twenty minutes, it took two days by the hand. That was declared to be impossible at the meeting from which the petition presented by the hon. Member for Finsbury, emanated. The wheel and balances could be made by hundreds, where by the hand they can only be made by dozens. The pivots, which now took a week, could be made by machinery in a quarter of an hour, with the most beautiful accuracy. Mr. Hewit, a gentleman who possessed the most accurate knowledge on the subject, which no one could dispute, and who carried off all the Admiralty prizes, stated, that so powerful was the machinery, that one set of machines would perform as much work per day as 300 men. The hon. Member for Finsbury would say, if the machinery was so effective, why was it not put into operation; but the fact was that the machinery was extremely extensive. The undertaking required, accordingly, a very large capital, and by the present law the patent could not be held by more than twelve persons. All they asked for was, to transfer the power of the patent to more than twelve persons. The object of the projector of this patent was, of course, the substitution of a cheaper process in watch-making, for that which now existed, to combine greater accuracy, greater dispatch, and greater cheapness, in the production of the article, than had hitherto been exhibited. He (Mr. Ward) for his part wished to see the trade in watches restored to this country, and the English artisan in possession of the foreign market. The principle which he was seeking to establish, was already partially in use in Switzerland; and the projector of this design, had brought the very highest testimonials from Paris, as to his uniform probity. If the House should think fit to refer the bill to a committee, they might modify the clauses in any way they pleased, all he entreated now was, that they could not without inquiry reject a proposal which he believed to be of great importance to a great branch of our national industry.

 

Mr. T. Duncombe

said, he could assure his hon. Friend that the opposition which he was about to offer to the bill did not proceed, on the part of his constituents living in Clerkenwell, from any such ground as his hon. Friend had stated. They did not object to the bill on account of any injury which it might cause to their own separate interests. If it could be shown that the bill would be beneficial to the country at large, they would be quite ready to forego their opposition. He thought, however, that he should make it clear to the House that of all the bubbles this was the greatest. His hon. Friend had made some omissions in his statement, which he would endeavour to supply from the prospectuses put forth by the promoters of the bill. They began with a scheme for raising a sum of 250,000l.—it was not to exceed 500,000l. In the first prospectus they stated:— That, by means of the plan now submitted to the public, and with the assistance of numerous artificers, every part of a watch may be manufactured in the same place, and under the same superintendence, and consequently cannot fail to be incomparably superior to any produced under the existing system. A first-rate watch may be completed in one week, which at present cannot be accomplished under six. It was in October or November that this prospectus was issued. But, notwithstanding- this great bait to the public, not a single share was applied for. Under these circumstances, the directors put forth another statement, to the effect that Mr. Ingold having devoted his attention for more than twenty years to the manufacture of watches, had succeeded in discovering an invention, by which an incredible number of watches, of every variety of size might be made in a day. Yet, notwithstanding that announcement, they were unable to persuade the public to take one of their shares. They then came to Parliament, and said that the public will surely buy parliamentary watches. There was no part of this bill more remarkable than the preamble—it was unlike the preamble of any any other bill that bad ever been Introduced. The preamble set forth that— Whereas the parties hereinafter named ware satisfied of the advantages to be derived from the application of this invention. The preamble of all other private bills set forth that the adoption of the proposed plan would be of great national advantage, and the country looked to the House to ascertain that such inventions would be of national advantage. The preamble then set forth that the machinery of Mr. Ingold was of so extensive and costly a nature that it would require a large capital to put it into operation. That meant that they were too poor to carry the scheme into effect. Their poverty was their misfortune, and certainly they had done all in their power to remedy that misfortune. The capital of the company was to be 500,000l. In the first prospectus it was stated that the deposit per snare was to be 5l. and in the bill it had been reduced to 2l. 10s.; and Mr. Ingold was to be one of the managing directors of the company. He was also to have 2,400 shares in the company, without paying any contribution, and also to have one-fifth of the net profits of the concern, in addition to being one of the managing directors of the company. In a previous printed prospectus it had been stated that the capital employed would be turned three or four times in the course of the year at least, with a certain profit of thirty pet cent., and if the capital were turned three times over in the course of a year, that would give a profit of ninety per cent. Now, the profits of Mr. Ingold, the simple-minded man, on his 2,400 shares would be 60,000l.; his fifth of the net profits would be 75,000l., which, added to his emoluments as one of the managing directors, and the other advantages secured to him by the bill, would give to Mr. Ingold, the simple-minded man, an annual income from this company of 129,000l. Now, was it possible, under these circumstances, that they could come before this Home and ask for its sanction? How they could have possibly deluded and deceived his hon. Friend he could not imagine. The specifications of the Aerial Transit Company were published and known to the world; but Mr. Ingold’s specifications were not out, and were not to be out till next May and who could tell whether there would be a patent, or any thing like a patent? Why not enrol his specifications, and let the public known at once what they were, before applying to Parliament for a Bill? He might rest his opposition to the measure upon that ground alone. This company, this cabinet council of Mr. Ingold’s, had refused to give their names to a deputation of respectable and scientific men engaged in the watch-making trade, or to show them this new machinery. Nothing was proposed to be done by the company that could not be better done by a common partnership. This they might do at any time, but the fact was there was nothing in it. It was a mere scheme to raise a certain sum of money. The scheme was tried at Versailles in 1815, and failed, and was tried again in Paris, in 1840, when the French government was imposed upon in the same way as his hon. Friend. In Paris, too, it failed, and alt the people who subscribed lost their money, and it would fail if it were tried here. Let these parties have the benefit of working their invention, if it were one, but let them carry on the work at their own expense. He intreated the House of Commons not to lend their sanction to that which, they might depend upon it, was one of the greatest bubbles that ever sought to he palmed upon Parliament. That we could undersell the Swiss was utterly impossible. Supposing there was anything in the invention, there was nothing to prevent the Swiss from copying it, and using the same machinery as we used. The Swiss were quite as ingenious as we, and the price of labour was so much lower with them that it was impossible for us to undersell them in commodities of this kind. He did not rest his opposition to the bill on the ground that it disturbed the interests of a portion of his constituency; but practically scientific men told them that this scheme was a delusion. He should, therefore, move that the bill be read this day six months.

 

Mr. Gladstone

expressed his reluctance to approach a question involving a discussion on a private bill. The question, however, was so peculiar, and bore so directly on an important branch of our national industry, and such urgent application had been made to the Board of Trade respecting it, that it bad been considered at that board, and he certainly had formed an opinion upon the question now before the House, namely, whether or not the bill ought to be read a second time; and it appeared to him to rest upon grounds so clear and decided that he felt it an obligation to state that opinion to the House for its consideration and judgment. He was sure the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down did not require to make any apology to the House upon the score that he was supposed to advocate the interest of his constituents. He admitted that the interests of those constituents, and of all parties engaged in the watchmaking trade, formed a most important element in the consideration of that question. At the same time, the hon. Gentleman would admit that it was scarcely possible to conceive anything more deplorable than the situation of the watchmaking trade at the present moment. [“Hear, hear.”] It might be well to raise cheers at the mention of displacing labour by machinery, but was it not true that our watchmakers were driven out of every foreign market in the world—that they were totally unable to maintain the interest of the trade, or secure the possession of the home markets; and that the protective duty was no better than a mockery. The effect of the reduction of the duty on the importation of foreign watches to five per cent, had been the means of causing an increase in the legal importation, but the evil of smuggling was not stopped by it, and now, having lost the foreign market, our watchmakers were day by day losing the home market. He did not say that was an argument for the passing of the bill, but it was one for giving serious attention to any scheme which bore upon its aspect a probability of improving that state of things. The question was not whether the expectations of the company were extravagant, or their prospectus ridiculous, but whether the scheme bore a sufficient appearance and probability to warrant the House, not in adopting it, but in sending it to a committee up stairs. It had been said by the opponents of the measure that no advantage could arise from the formation of the joint stock company. But it was alleged by a number of gentlemen that they required no less a sum than 40,000lto purchase one complete set of machinery, in order to make watches upon their principle, and that that sum of 40,000l. was to be sunk in machinery alone, irrespective of the capital required for the establishment, and of the floating capital required to support the business. Was that an amount which could be fairly held to be within private means? He thought not. They should remember that individuals who had capital would not be disposed to embark it all in an undertaking of that kind. It was said that much larger sums than 40,000l. were often sunk in business by private individuals; and that persons in the cotton-twist trade, for instance, had never come to Parliament for a bill because they required such a sum as 40,000l. for machinery. But let them look to the immense sums engaged, and to the immense profits made, in the cotton trade, and they would find a reason for the difference in the two cases. The watchmaking business was for the most part carried on by persons of small capital; and it might be very difficult to raise a sum of 40,000l. for machinery alone in that trade. The general rule adopted by the Legislature with respect to private undertakings was, that they should not incorporate a company for carrying on a business that might be carried on by individuals. But the House had in various instances adopted a contrary course, where that course might be supposed to be justified by peculiar circumstances. They had, for instances, incorporated the Ship Propeller Company, the White Lead Company, and the Patent Rolling and Compressing Iron Company, although large capitals had been already embarked in the business followed by some of those companies. It was said, however, that the present company had kept their specification a secret. If the parties applying for the bill succeeded in obtaining the assistance of the Legislature, there might be good reason for their keeping the specification secret. The great rival of this country in the manufacture of watches was Switzerland, in which country there was no such protection to inventions as existed in other countries, and there the invention might be pirated. It was also objected to the bill that the company did not pretend to make watches except upon a new construction. That was true. All they claimed was, that they had invented a better manner of making the parts of watches than that at present practised. That was expressly stated in their patent, which the hon. Member for Finsbury described as the greatest bubble in the world. Another objection to the bill was, that the scheme would never come to any good—that the intention of the promoters was only to apply an enormous capital to the trade, and to overpower individual competition. But there was one way in which the House could guard against that abuse, and that was to insert a clause to prevent the company from making watches in the ordinary manner. Another objection was that the project would injure the existing trade without any national benefit. Now, for his part, in supporting the bill, he had no motive whatever, except a wish for the national good; and, therefore, in looking at the number of persons and the extent of the trade which would be affected by it, he was of opinion that the bill ought to have a more exact, laborious, and accurate investigation, than was ordinarily given to private bills. For this reason, if the bill should obtain a second reading, he would recommend that it should not be referred to an ordinary private bill committee but to a select committee appointed by the House.

 

Mr. Labouchere

thought the House ought to be very careful, lest, by the course proposed, they should break through the common course pursued by Parliament. If they wanted no special privilege, no bill was required. He was not one who looked with unqualified admiration at the present law of partnership in this country. That law ought to operate equally and fairly upon all parties. The general principle which ought to be adopted was not to give any exclusive or particular advantages to any party conducting any ordinary branch of trade, unless that branch could not otherwise be conducted. It was not any important improvement in machinery which should call for that exclusive privilege. Suppose an important improvement should be made in machinery, and they were asked to give an exclusive privilege to the cotton trade or the silk trade, would they not scout the proposal? Would they not say that there was intelligence and capital enough in the country to carry out the improvement without giving any special advantage to a certain party or a certain trade? He had great doubts as to the propriety of referring this bill to a select committee. It would be going from an established rule, and if they did so in this case they would be unable to refuse doing so in any other. He should therefore oppose the second reading of the bill.

 

Mr. Wakley

had heard with surprise and deep regret, the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Vice-president of the Board of Trade. It had involved the right hon. Gentleman in the charge of inconsistency of conduct. Could the right hon. Gentleman ever in future vote against going into committee to inquire into the operation of the Corn-laws? Could he refuse to inquire into the effect that law had on the manufacturers of this country? Although so meagre, shabby, and paltry, a case had been made out, yet the right hon. Gentleman said it was a case of investigation before a committee. Why the right hon. Gentleman had forgotten his own principles. It was only during the present Session that the right hon. Gentleman had said that it would be impolitic to make any change in the corn-laws, after so recent a change. Why the right hon. Gentleman dealt with, the watchmakers last year. There had been a reduction in the protection to the watchmakers of 15 per cent. The watch makers did not complain of this, on the contrary, they approved it. They said, “let the right hon. Gentleman do us justice with respect to food, and we will not ask for one farthing of protection.” Look to the nature of the bill. It was set forth that 40,000l. would be required to carry oat the objects of the company. It was a mere bagatelle. The money market was glutted with capital, and money could be got for 2 per cent. A banker, a Member of that House, told him that he would discount good bills at 1½ per cent. And what was the statement put forward? Why, that there would be a profit on the speculation equal to 90 per cent. No person could believe that this was a sound, valid, just, and judicious proposition, or one that ought to be sanctioned by the House. They staled it to be impossible to make watches without manufactories, and that it would require great capital. The hon. Member for Sheffield said he had seen the thing with his own eyes. It would be rather curious if he had seen it with another person’s eyes. But he said the thing was clear, that it was demonstrated, that it was done. Then, if watches had been made without machinery, and without all this capital, why not proceed in the same way? What was the necessity of coming to Parliament, for, according to their own showing, machinery and capital were not necessary for the purpose? The object of the company was to grant licenses to others to carry on the trade; but how were others to get the ponderous machinery that was required? If their statement was true, they had no case before the House; if false, how could they trust them at all? Reference had been made to the Aerial Transit Company. He hoped the parties making this proposition would be the first to make an experiment in that invention—and make a trip to the moon, for such persons were not wanted here. Considering how trade would be disturbed if the bill passed, he hoped and trusted that the energy of the House would be brought to bear on the question, and that it would decide honestly and justly between those parties.

 

Mr. Williams

said, that he had heard the statement of the right hon. Gentleman the Vice-President of the Board of Trade, with the deepest regret, and if her Majesty’s Government sustained the doctrine he had laid down, it would strike terror and dismay into all the manufacturers of the kingdom. His principle was, that every schemer who came forward with a new invention was to have a joint-stock company to carry out their schemes, in opposition to the law which guided the commerce and manufactures of this country.How different was the conduct of the right hon. Gentleman in reference to free-trade? The right hon. Gentleman was entirely inconsistent. How differently Mr. Poulett Thomson acted when he was connected with the Board of Trade. A bill had been brought in to establish a company for the sale of medicines, on the ground—and a clear case was made out—that the medicines sold in the shops were impure; but Mr. P. Thomson said, on that occasion, that it was the policy and principle of the trade and commerce of the country not to establish monopolies which would be destructive of a large trade already existing in this country. This company said they wanted 40,000l. By the law of patents, twelve persons were joined together to carry out their objects. Did the right hon. Gentleman mean to say that twelve gentlemen connected with the watch trade were not capable of appreciating the merits of the invention, and of giving 40,000l. to promote it? He knew that they could advance a million of money if it were necessary; but he knew that the whole scheme was a perfect delusion, and it could only be successful by having a bill passed through that House, and annihilating the watchmaking trade of this country, and by throwing out of employment tens of thousands of industrious persons, and by depriving them of subsistence to carry out the plan of a Swiss adventurer. The whole of the trade was in confusion and uncertainty in consequence of the agitation of this bill. The hon. Member for Sheffield had said, that the effect of the measure would be to give employment to all the watchmakers of England who were now unemployed. There never was a greater fallacy than this. He could hardly believe that the hon. Member for Sheffield was in earnest when he said it. The scheme was tried in Paris seven years ago and failed, and now this Swiss came over here in the hope that he would be more successful in imposing the delusion upon the people of this country.

 

Dr. Bowring

said, he would give his support to the motion, because he was confident that it would be found upon examination, that there was in reality no invention peculiar to the promoter of this bill; but that the whole machinery had been for centuries in use upon both sides of Mount Jura. Some years ago, an inquiry was made in Paris into the causes of the depression of the watchmaking trade in that city, and it was then found that the real cause was the superior accuracy and cheapness with which all the parts of a watch could be made by means of the machinery in use in Switzerland, and which he believed to be the very same as that proposed to be protected by the bill. He was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Coventry speak contemptuously of the inventor, because he was a Swiss. Did not the hon. Member know, that it was to Frenchmen and Swiss this country owed the introduction of the silk trade?—and it was to the enterprise of those foreigners we owed the foundation of the manufacturing prosperity of this country.

 

Viscount Sandon

said, that his attention was turned to this subject because the town which he had the honour to represent was one of the three principally engaged in the watchmaking trade. He would not object to a commission of scientific men to inquire into the merits of the supposed invention, and the expediency of the bill, but he should oppose the present motion.

 

Mr. Muntz

hoped the House would allow an old manufactures to any a few words. He would only ask how could the House judge of the merits of an invention, or pretended invention, when there was no specification? He should oppose the bill.

 

Mr. C. Buller

said, that as this was a question of some importance, be wished to say a few words. He admired the straightforward and candid course taken by the right hon. Gentleman the Vice-President of the Board of Trade, and he was determined to give the bill his support. The Company only sought a fair protection from the House, and no monopoly or restrictive privilege whatsoever. On this subject a patent already existed, and all they sought was that the patent should be transferred to a larger number of persons.

 

Mr. Ward

in reply, said, that even if the Some refused to accede to the motion, the invention would not fall to the ground, for that, as the machinery had been completed, others would be found to perfect the invention.

 

Conclusion

The House divided on the question that the word “now” stand part of the question;——Ayes 77; Noes 154; Majority 77.

Bill put off for six months.

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