We are glad to find, from the speech of Mr. J. E. Bingham at the Chamber of Commerce meeting on Monday last, that the anomalies of our present laws and customs as to trade in silver plate, are at length entering into the manufacturers' souls. We, and others, have hammered at this matter for a good many years, and though we cannot congratulate the Chamber of Commerce on having shown that it possesses an adequate grasp of the subject, it is at any rate satisfactory to find that body discussing—even though impatiently and perfunctorily—some of the regulations under which the English silver trade is a declining industry. These regulations are so indefensible that the more they are brought under notice, the better for all concerned ; and though it might have given to the public a higher appreciation of the Chamber of Commerce if its members had shown some acquaintance with the evidence given in 1878, before the House of Commons' Select Committee on Gold and Silver Hall-Marking, it is a step in advance to get a discussion on any branch of the subject. It was the provincial manufacturers' grievance against the local Assay Office which chiefly occupied the attention of the Chamber the other day. At present, Mr. Bingham's complaint is limited to the personal or local inconvenience which he, as a manufacturer of silver ware, experiences through the Sheffield Assay Office charging higher fees than Goldsmiths' Hall, insisting on a higher standard, and causing delay by being open for work only two days a week. We are not without hope that as some, at least, of our manufacturers have begun to express, in public, the difficulties under which they thus suffer, they will be led on to take broad views of the whole question, and to see that these provincial disabilities are but parts of a wide system that can only be improved by sweeping remedies. For it is curious to find clear-sighted business men troubling themselves about the petty details of the Assay Offices—whose operations, however burdensome, they have borne with considerable complacency for a great many years—when there lies at the root of the entire matter, calling for immediate and vigorous measures, the distinct decay of the whole silver industry. Under a mischievous fiscal policy the English silver trade is becoming more and more decrepit. The protection to which it so fondly and so shortsightedly clings, is its bane. Like a timid valetudinarian, crouching over the fire, and shrinking from the vigorous buffetings of health-giving breezes, it is perishing through a mischievous system of effeminate coddling. Its existence as an active, growing art-life has already gone ; its existence as a remunerative industry is rapidly going. Artistically, its utmost achievements consist in a servile copying or an ignominious repetition of a debased past ; commercially its extent is a constantly diminishing quantity. In proof of the first assertion, we have only to refer to the silver work of America and of France, that has so utterly eclipsed the efforts of English competitors at International Exhibitions. In substantiation of the second, the figures which we publish in another column to-day bear emphatic witness. In 1855 duty was paid on 994,360 oz. of silver ; in 1875 duty was paid on only 880,493 oz. In 1859 the duty paid was on 801,680 oz. ; in 1879 this had become reduced, through a constantly decreasing series, to 740,239 oz. Still more striking are the figures showing the persistent falling off in " drawbacks "—which indicate the exports of silver. Suffice it here to say that whereas 156,440 oz. were exported in 1855, in 1879 there were exported only 85,121 oz. The double inference is an uncomfortable one, but it cannot be avoided. The duty on silver, with all its attendant impediments upon the free development of artistic manufacture, is strangling an old home trade, and has so encouraged lethargy, so stamped out enterprise that we are losing irretrievably our foreign markets. Complacently dwelling under the fatal blight of laws which preclude the sale in this country of foreign-made silver, our manufacturers have had none of the stimulus of competition—and they awake to find the Americans supplying themselves with goods with which, in artistic beauty and even manipulative finish, our own will not bear comparison. At home, notwithstanding the increased purchasing power of the country, the sale of silver goods steadily declines. Seduced by the miserable rebate they have had as the price of collecting the Government duty, enervated by the false protection accorded them against healthy competition, our manufacturers of silver-ware have become such veritable lotus-eaters, that it is a relief to find them rising even to so small a manifestation of vigour as is implied by a growl at the Assay Office regulations. The decay of their craft is the inevitable penalty attaching to the purchase of protection against rivalry from outside, and the submission to a blighting tax at home. Hide it as we may, by talk about the dire results that would follow the absence of a Government guarantee of the quality of silver, the manner in which the tax is levied, through the manufacturer by the device of hallmarking, is even more vicious than the tax itself. The returns we have quoted show that the English public resents the compact made between the dealers and the Government at its expense. From the inartistic productions of the silversmith and from the double-barrelled tax, collected in the most extravagant way, it takes refuge in the unrestricted competitions of the electro-plater ; or when the chance offers, buys direct from the American maker. And there is a curious Nemesis in the fact that this hall-marking system, taxing the English buyers of plate to shield its makers from foreign rivalry, does extensively, in the case of imported watches, actually protect the foreign against the English maker. All this, and many other of the absurdities and losses into which this method of the incidence of this suicidal tax has landed us, have been set forth over and over again in our columns. They came out with such power in the evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Commons, that the recommendation by that tribunal to abolish the obnoxious duty was inevitable. While declining to advocate the abandonment of compulsory hall-marking, the committee agreed that several changes in the practice of the Assay Offices are necessary, and it indicated some which, if carried into law, would reduce the list of Mr. Bingham's complaints. And this brings us to the practical issue of the questions involved. If Mr. Bingham and the Chamber of Commerce will look at the indisputable state of the silver trade—its relation to the Government on the one hand, and to its customers on the other, their line is clear. It is not to fiddle-faddle with little grievances about this Assay office or that ; it is to go boldly in support of the Parliamentary Committee's recommendation of the abolition of the tax on silver. Freed from this incubus, the English silversmith has yet a future before him. But so long as that lasts, it is useless to haggle about the fees charged at Sheffield as contrasted with those imposed in London ; to suggest improved methods of assaying, or to strive to get the Sheffield office opened an extra day per week. These lesser reforms will follow upon the carrying of the greater. The reasonable plan is to make this industry, like all others, free. It is to strike off its shackles, and to give it such chances of vigour as will bring to the Assay Office (if it must still exist) a rush of work that can only be accomplished by opening its doors not two or three, but six days a week.
Source: The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent - February 1880