HC Deb 18 March 1807 vol 9 cc150-9

On the motion of lord H. Petty, the house went into the further consideration of Mr. Paull's Petition respecting the Westminster Election.

Mr. Sheridan rose

and said, that he was aware that standing in the situation he did, he was entitled to comment upon, and to sum up all the evidence that had been adduced in support of the allegations contained in the petition now before the house. He should, however, wave that right; the evidence was in the hands of every member of that house, and he was not anxious, if he could do so, to add to the impression testimony of such a nature must have already produced; he would content himself with one remark, which was, that that evidence, weak and futile as it was, did not say more to its own confusion than would have been proved by witnesses unimpeachable, which he (Mr. Sheridan), had the house thought it necessary, was ready to bring forward. As an instance, he should mention merely Mr. Weatherhead himself. When an inquiry was made as to his services in the navy, he confessed himself not quite satisfied with the return of the navy office. A noble lord (Folkestone) was equally dissatisfied, but upon different grounds. The noble lord seemed to think that this Mr. Weatherhead had been calumniated, and accordingly the noble lord moved for a return at once more exact and comprehensive. What had been the issue of this attempt to rescue the character of Mr Weatherhead from this supposed slander? Why, in truth, no more than this: that he, Mr. Weatherhead, had not served in one ship only, but in twelve or thirteen, that he had continued in one ship a year, in another three months, in a third a month, in a fourth three weeks, and in a fifth five days; running, as it were, the gauntlet of the British navy; for it appeared that he had been actually guilty of desertion from each ship, though in the first return it appeared that he had deserted but once. But it was not more difficult to fix the station of this naval officer to a certain ship, than to fix his birth to a certain place; he had the singular good fortune to be born at a number of different places; he was born first at Newcastle, next at Morpeth, and after some other births he was finally brought forth in London (a laugh). But there was another slight ground of objection to the character of this witness; in the month of Sept. 1803, he Petitioned to be examined for a lieutenancy, and to the recommendatory certificates of the different captains under whom he served, there was but one objection, namely, that they were all discovered to be forgeries. He was not anxious to press upon the house the gross and flagrant contradictions and absurdities in the evidence they had heard; he did not wish to expose the miserable wretches to the just rigour of the honest indignation they had so universally excited; but he would put it to the feelings of that house, whether it was not necessary to inquire how far those wretches had been the tools of a conspiracy; how far it was the duty of any agent or agents to inquire into the nature of the testimony and the character of the witnesses, more especially in a case where this evidence went directly to affect the seat of a member of parliament, to mention nothing of the danger of propagating groundless slander against a privy counsellor. It was for the house to consider how far the agents are responsible for employing wretches as substantial evidence, whose character they might have learned (had they been ignorant of it) in the neighbourhood of Bow street, Hatton-garden, and Newgate; but he should abstain; he would keep his word with the house, and not enter into any remarks upon the evidence. He had an idea of submitting some motion for the purpose of investigating the charge of conspiracy; he should, however, in compliance with the suggestions of those hon. friends, whose superior judgement was with him decisive, give way, and should now, through a motive of delicacy, retire, leaving his cause with confidence to the house, assured as he was, that the house would with becoming dignity assert its own character and honour, and in doing so preserve his.—Mr. Sheridan immediately withdrew.

Mr. M. A. Taylor rose

and said:—Sir; when this question first came before the house, it certainly did not assume the serious aspect which it has taken this moment. I have read with considerable attention, the minutes of the evidence, which have been taken at your bar in short hand; and I must say, that I differ from the right hon. gent. who has just spoken, as to the course of procedure which ought to be adopted. I may venture to say, that a more flagrant conspiracy never before presented itself to this house. It is not only injurious to the character of the house, but it is, in my opinion, a new mode of attacking Mr. Grenville's bill. It is, I aver, an attempt to make this house a channel of injustice, and the vehicle of malice. On looking over the whole business, although the house may not be of opinion that it is a case requiring us to request his majesty to instruct the attorney general to prosecute criminally; yet, I submit that it is one in which it may be necessary to punish some of the witnesses for gross prevarication. It is well known that the house is always zealous in hearing every thing respecting the rights of individuals that can be offered; and such has been the case in the present instance; but I am still of opinion, that the person who signed that petition, had no reason to be alarmed that any witnesses had been bribed, otherwise he or his solicitor must have inquired into their characters. The apparent motive has been, that such a proceeding might find its way to the hearts of men, so as to prejudge the previous petition, which is in dependence. I must do Mr. Paull the justice to say, that I believe he never would have signed the petition, had he really inquired into or been informed of the real characters of those who were to support it. But those who have acted for him, seem to have used unfair means, merely for the purpose of exciting suspicion. The letter in the custody of Harris appears, from the evidence, to be a forged one. There has evidently been a conspiracy in the present instance. Reasoning upon the principles of justice and morality, is not a conspiracy an attempt to fasten upon a man a wrong which he never did, a crime which he never committed? Take that definition along with you, and look at the character of Drake, one of the witnesses. He appeared before you, he said, as a wounded officer who had fought the battles of his country. He alledged that he had been several times wounded in the service; by the return which has been made, however, he never received his pension for any wound he received in the back; but, that he fell from the mast head of a vessel, and broke his leg, which was afterwards amputated. Nor has this Mr. Drake been able to state, with truth, where he was born. After stating various places in England, he afterwards says, that, when in company with Homan, he boasted he could drink six bottles of claret, because he was an Irishman. Here the hon. member stated various inconsistencies in the evidence of this witness, in which he said, there did not appear a word of truth. Both Drake and Weatherhead were persons who ought, said the hon gent., in my opinion, to receive your utmost censure; and you ought even to adopt the most rigorous measures. For my part, I should humbly submit, that a prosecution ought to be commenced by the crown, against both of them, for a conspiracy; but although you should not think it proper to punish for a conspiracy, yet surely you will punish any man who comes with lies and falsehoods in his mouth to the bar! I may still go further, and say that from the evidence of the other witnesses, it appears, that a conspiracy has been running through the whole of them. If the house do not think that there is enough to entitle them to commit for prevarication, I should be inclined to think, that Mr. Sheridan himself would be fully justified in bringing the question under the cognizance of a civil court. The house, perhaps, would rather wish that Mr. Paull should have the advantage of the witnesses being previously examined upon their oath, before a select committee, as it is not in the power of the commons to make inquiries before them upon oath. All that the house can judge of is the inconsistency. In my opinion, the petition of Mr. Paull ought to be declared false, scandalous, and malicious. This I say appears from the evidence; and I may state that I form this opinion from that alone, not having been in any way connected with the election, nor did I ever see Mr. Paull, till I saw him at the bar of the house; but I feel it my duty, as a member of the house, to support its character, its privileges, its justice, and its probity. Upon these grounds, I cannot submit to pass unnoticed, a petition that would make this house a channel of injustice, for I feel a deep interest in supporting Mr. Grenville's act, as it is one that characterizes the virtue of the house of commons. I never will sit by, tamely, and see, by a new mode and under false pretexts, the security and ends of its justice defeated or sapped in the very foundation. With the leave of the house, therefore, I shall submit a motion, which, when agreed to, I shall follow up with another respecting Mr. Drake, whose prevarications have been most eminently conspicuous. The hon. gent. then concluded with moving, "That the allegations contained in the said petition are false and scandalous."

Lord Folkestone

said, he had all along acted in this business from a sense of justice and propriety, and a firm belief that the witnesses to be adduced in support of the allegations in the petition, would have clearly and consistently proved them; and though he would not say that the whole of the witnesses had been consistent, or had given their testimony without some difference, yet he thought enough had been proved, by consistent testimony, to sustain the allegations in the petition, in such a manner as to vindicate Mr. Paull, and the agents who acted confidentially for him, against the charge of conspiracy alledged by the hon. member who last spoke Of the character or testimony of Weatherhead, he did not wish to say much; but he thought hat a weak cause, the defence of which rested upon no other ground than that of impeaching the characters of those who came forward to give testimony against it. If, however, it could be shewn, from the evidence itself, that there was in it no such inconsistency as that now alledged, he hoped that it would be admitted, that the arguments of the hon. gent. must, in a great measure, fall to the ground. Laying no stress at all on the testimony of Weatherhead, he yet was of opinion, that the evidence of Drake was consistent with itself, in all its parts. He was examined and cross-examined at the bar of that house, by men of the first talents in the country: and, except in a point or two of no importance, he could find no inconsistency in his evidence. The hon. gent. who last spoke, had assumed in the first instance, that the letter which had been mentioned as written by Mr. Sheridan, and in the hands of Emanuel Harris, was a forgery. This however, did not appear from any evidence before the house. If it really was a forgery, certainly Drake must be guilty of the most criminal conduct: but was it possible, if that were the case, that he should be so anxious for the production of a letter which must have furnished evidence against himself? The hon. gent. too, had endeavoured to implicate Mr. Powell, and the other agents of Mr. Paull, in a charge of conspiracy, by joining with Drake, in the endeavour to obtain from Emanuel Harris the letter in question; whereas it was the obvious interest of Mr. Paull and his agents, that the letter should remain in the hands of Harris, to be produced in evidence when necessary. It had been asserted, that Drake was not authorized by Mr. Sheridan to offer 30l. to Harris, for the letter; but Drake's evidence stated, that he was authorized to procure the letter, either for money, or by any other means in his power; and he saw no reason to doubt, that, in consequence of the conversations Drake had with Mr. Sheridan, and the anxiety expressed by that gentleman to obtain the letter in question, Drake was extremely desirous to obtain it from Harris, with a view, perhaps, to turn it to his own emolument, by surrendering it to Mr. Sheridan for a sum of money. Adding to this, the frequent interviews Drake had with Mr. Sheridan, both at the house of Mr. Homan and elsewhere—the alledged wish of Mr. Sheridan to have Drake taken up—yet instead of so doing, advising him to get out of the way; and the various instances of frequent and confidential intercourse with Mr. Sheridan, all which Drake had alledged, and which were not disproved, were circumstances that in his mind cast a very strange mystery over the business: but, for his own part, he conceived the evidence of Drake so consistent upon the main points of the case, that he felt no disposition to doubt his testimony upon others. The hon. gent. had stated also, in order to inculpate Mr. Paull and his agents, that before they accepted the evidence of Drake, they ought to have enquired his character at the navy office and elsewhere; but such an enquiry could not be necessary to justify them in considering Drake to have been some time in the confidence of Mr. Sheridan, when it was notorious that he was married to a natural daughter of that gentleman by her father's consent; that he was constantly admitted upon a familiar footing of intercourse at Mr. Sheridan's house; allowed to wait for him in the same room with other company; and that, at one time, Mr. Sheridan had left a party in which he was engaged, in order to converse with Drake; that the latter had frequently negociated bills drawn or accepted by Mr. Sheridan; and, in fact, was known to be on such a footing with him, as to obviate all doubt that he had been in Mr. Sheridan's confidence, and that the evidence he could give would be useful to them. Upon the whole, the noble lord was of opinion, that sufficient evidence had been adduced to sustain the allegations of the petition, to which petition it was to be remembered Mr. Paull had not resorted precipitately, or without the advice of his counsel.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

assured the noble lord he had no idea whatever of charging either Mr. Paull or Mr. Powell, with being engaged in the conspiracy, but confined the charge solely to the witnesses produced at the bar of the house.

Mr. Whitbread

said, he had heard with surprize the declaration made by the noble lord at the outset, and with still greater surprize, the expressions with which he had closed. He would not travel out of the evidence before the house, but from that alone he would prove the falsehood of the witnesses adduced in support of the petition, and establish their infamy out of their own mouths. The allegations of the petition were, that the sitting member had by himself and by other persons offered money to suppress or corrupt the evidence to be offered before the committee, which was to try his right to his seat. Was there any proof that Mr. Sheridan had taken any pains to get Mr. Drake out of the way, who was the principal witness to prove these charges? The noble lord said, Mr. Sheridan had strove to get the letter from Harris. Was there any proof of that? And if there was any proof that any person whomsoever in Mr. Sheridan's interest did in any one instance utter a word like tampering (as he believed there was not), what proof was there that such person was Mr. Sheridan's agent any more than Mr. Paull's. If it was proved that some of the allegations of the petition were absolutely false, and there was no proof that the others were true, was it not to be naturally concluded that the whole were false? In answer to the first question asked him at the bar of the house, who he was, Drake answered he was an acting lieutenant of the navy. That was proved by the Returns of the Navy Office to be false. He said, he lost his leg in the battle of Camperdown; it was proved he lost it long after that battle, in consequence of a fall from the mast, which rendered amputation necessary. He said he had ten or twelve different pensions from the king, in consequence of wounds he had received. It was proved he had only one pension from the Chest at Greenwich. Let the noble lord, if he could, make out a consistent evidence for this man, after these falsehoods. The noble lord wished to give up Weatherhead. But as the petitioner had called him, and the petitioner's counsel had dwelt on his deposition in his summing up, he must make use of him. Drake said, he was directed by Mr. Sheridan, to get the letter from Harris. He said that the first letter preceded the second only two or three days. Harris said, it had been in his possession a full month before the 2d. and long before the dissolution of parliament. Then the noble lord contended, that if the first letter had been a forgery, Drake would naturally have endeavoured to conceal every thing respecting it. But the noble lord forgot that Drake told the house he had burned it, and consequently that he could not incur any penalty from it. He would not allow the noble lord to exclude Weatherhead's evidence, however convenient it might be for his case. Drake said, he had written all the letter, with the letters M. P. to which Mr. Sheridan prefixed his name. Weatherhead said, Mr. Sheridan wrote M. P. as well as his name. Drake said Mr. Sheridan signed the letter in the Shakespeare Coffee-house, just as he was going out to the election, and that there was an immense crowd before the door. Harris proved he had the letter a month before the election, when the Shakespeare Coffee-house was not open. If the noble lord had examined these matters, and judged of them as he did, he would not have attempted to uphold a testimony so invalidated. With regard to the second letter, Drake said first, that he was present when it was signed; and afterwards, that it was written not in his presence but in an adjoining room. Weatherhead said he wrote it, but that Harris objected to the M. P. there being then no parliament, and wished the addition of Treasurer of the Navy, and Mr. Sheridan's residence. He says he wrote those additions all in one line, and that Mr. Sheridan prefixed his name on that line. But he had seen the letter here alluded to, and he pledged himself that Richard Brinsley Sheridan was one line, Somerset-house a second, and the third was Treasurer, Navy. The copy before the house was exactly similar, except that the third line was treasurer of the navy, instead of treasurer, navy, as in the original. What inference could be drawn from such evidence as this, except that the allegations that were founded upon it were false? Drake said at first, he went by authority of Mr. Sheridan to buy up the letter from Harris, and he avowed that, at that very time, he intended to make use of the letter against Mr. S.: but this he afterwards retracted, and said, he formed the determination of using the letter against Mr. S., on some subsequent provocation. But Harris before that time had returned from Portsmouth, and had given Mr. S. a copy of the letter, and was advised by Mr. S. to deliver up the original to the messenger of that house, or to Mr. Paull's agents. But Harris was unwilling to part with the letter till he should produce it before the committee of the house, according to his summons. If, after this, there could be a doubt, that the allegations in the petition, so contrary to these facts, were false, it was impossible that any inference could be deduced from internal evidence. The charges with respect to the tampering by agents, were equally unfounded. Only one person was liable in the slightest degree that the most forced constructions could exaggerate into any thing like tampering; and that person, who had not thought it necessary to defend himself either personally or by counsel against such an accuser, could not be said to be an agent of Mr. Sheridan. He did not wish to implicate Mr. Powell: but Richardson who, by the bye, had answered yes and no at different times to the same question, confessed, that he went to Mr. Burgess to tempt him to offer him money, with the intention to betray that offer. But Mr. Burgess, like a wise and honourable man, would not listen to any such proposition. This same Mr. Richardson confessed, that he wrote a letter to Mr. T. Sheridan, in which he threatened to go over to the other party, unless he got money. And he likewise went to Mr. Burgess, and offered to betray to him copies of the whole of the proceedings of Mr. Paull's committee: but this offer also Mr. Burgess, like an honourable man, refused. He should be sorry to accuse Mr. Paull or Mr. Powell of being concerned in a conspiracy; but he thought that if they could not have taken care to prevent such acts, they should have at least more maturely weighed the evidence of such persons, before they founded such charges upon it. He acquitted the counsel of any improper intention in what they had offered to the house; but they should consistently with their usual diligence, have sifted more minutely the false and scandalous evidence by which the false and scandalous allegations in the petition were supported. He agreed in the propriety of the motions proposed by his hon. friend.—The motion was then agreed to, lord Folkestone alone having faintly said "no."

Mr. M. A. Taylor

then moved, that William Drake, in giving his evidence, was guilty of wilful falsehood and gross prevarication. Agreed to.—Mr T. also moved that William Drake, for the said offence, be committed to his majesty's gaol of Newgate, and that the Speaker do issue his warrant accordingly. Ordered.

Mr. Whitbread

observed, that though the other witnesses for the petitioner had grossly misconducted themselves, he did not think it necessary to have recourse to any further severity, and therefore would propose no motion with respect to them.