HC Deb 22 June 1808 vol 11 cc993-5

Mr. Wharton brought up the report of the Oyster Fishery Bill.

Sir S. Romilly

opposed the bill. In the committee he had intended to propose, in lieu of the punishment of transportation for seven years, imprisonment for two; but the bill had passed through the committee, very unexpectedly to him, at an early hour this afternoon. His chief objection to the bill was, that the house was not sufficiently acquainted with the nature of the property which it was intended to secure. He deprecated the enactment of a new penal law, without having previously ascertained the precise extent of the crime, or without a complete conviction that it might not be committed in ignorance rather than with a malevolent design. He dwelt with considerable force on the dreadful depravation of mind to which the persons transported to Botany Bay were subjected, and contended, that it was of such a nature as to call loudly for the interference of the legislature.

The Solicitor General

defended the bill, as indispensable to the protection of private property. It was not the enactment of a new penal statute. It was already, in his opinion, a felony at common law; but from an inadvertency in wording the act, the protection of this property was not so complete as it was desirable it should be. All that the bill before the house professed, was to restore the common law. With respect to the punishment, it was not greater than what was annexed to similar offences,

Mr. Magens

explained the nature of the oyster-beds, and enlarged upon the various depredations that had taken place upon them. The people to whom they belonged were in general poor, and lived, as it were, from hand to mouth. It was, therefore, the mere necessary that their property should be protected, in the same manner as any other property equally exposed, such as bleach-fields, orchards, &c. This was not a matter of small amount; and some means ought to be taken to enable them to gain their livelihood by carrying on their trade. He approved of this bill, as affording that necessary protection.

Sir W. Curtis

observed, that undoubtedly the oyster-beds were a species of property &s deserving of protection as any other. His only objection to the bill was that it did not sufficiently mark out the property, insomuch that any person, like himself, fond of oysters, might innocently and ignorantly transgress upon these oyster-beds, should he happen to be passing near the spot where they lay. As it was a traffic which produced many good seamen, he should not object to its being properly protected, provided the property in question was so noted or marked out, as to prevent persons falling into error.

Mr. Sturges Bourne

said, he did not apprehend that this bill went to make any alteration in the description of the property or place where it lay, other than the former bill contained. It was evidently a property well worthy of protection. Doubts having existed whether the law at present deemed the offence of stealing these oysters a felony or a misdemeanor, it was therefore necessary to explain the law. Such was the object of this bill. It had always been deemed necessary to punish those offences that could be committed with great facility, with more severity than those of a contrary description. For instance, the crime of sheep-stealing was punished, upon all occasions, with death. Upon the same principle, oyster-beds well deserved protection, as being private property collected together with great labour.

Sir W. Elford

supported the measure, as he thought it was necessary to protect that species of property, by the severity of the punishment.

Mr. C. Wynne

said, that formerly a bill had been brought in for making the stealing of any species of fruit a felony; and although it was acknowledged by all, that that property was much exposed and required protection, yet the article was so tempting and the offence so easy of commission that boys might be induced to commit it, that the bill was rejected. He thought it highly necessary that the oyster-beds should be marked out so as to prevent persons totally ignorant of the law from committing the offence of taking oysters from thence. A captain of a ship, newly arrived from a distant climate, might innocently enough send out his boat, with men, to take oysters wherever they could get them. Was it just or reasonable that such persons should be deemed guilty of felony? He should wish to see some provision introduced, so as particularly to mark cut these beds to the public.

Mr. Villiers

thought it extremely important to declare what the law was upon the subject. The punishment proposed in the bill could not be objected to as being severe, as it was certainly the mildest kind inflicted for larceny.

Sir A. Piggott

thought, that if the law already declared this offence to be felony by the common law, there was no occasion for passing this bill. It was certainly important that the beds should be particularly marked out.

Mr. Spencer Stanhope

said, if he consented to this bill, he was consenting to innocent persons being punished as felons. A captain might return from the East Indies, and might choose to regale himself with oysters, and he could see no circumstance that could induce a jury to acquit any person who had committed the offence, even in the slightest degree. He had, however, no doubt there should be a law making this offence more penal than it at present seemed to be, although he certainly thought the oyster-beds that were private property ought to be particularly marked out.

Mr. Western

stated, that the object of the bill was merely to declare the law, upon which doubts had on various occasions arisen.

Mr. Burton

could see no objection against restoring the existing law, and explaining what it really was. The only difficulty was, to ascertain whether or not it was private property? He thought there ought to be words in the act descriptive of the property, and that it ought to be marked out with proper buoys.—The report was then agreed to, and the bill ordered to be read a third time to-morrow.