HC Deb 09 June 1817 vol 36 cc921-8

Colonel Wood moved the second reading of the bill for legalizing the sale of game. He said he was aware that many persons were decidedly adverse to the measure, but he protested that he was actuated solely by a sincere wish to put a stop to the destructive practice of poaching, which was the forerunner of every description of vice. He agreed in the propriety of making game private property; and contended, that it would be so recognized were it not for the act prohibiting its sale. In support of this opinion, he quoted the authorities of lords Holt and Kenyon to show, that if a hare was caught in the ground in which it started, it belonged to the owner of the ground; but if in the ground of another person, it belonged to the hunter. The poachers at present were the causes of great mischief. For the game which they obtained they found a ready market. It was collected by receivers in the country, and conveyed to salesmen in the metropolis, who disposed of it to poulterers, by whom it was sold to the public. This last class, the poulterers, were placed in a hard situation by the existing law, which imposed a heavy penalty on the sellers, but not on the buyers of game. The poulterers were obliged to sell game, or they would have no customers for their poultry. He had authority for saying that they were not at all anxious to sell it, but they were very anxious not to be exposed to heavy penalties for doing so, while the purchasers escaped with impunity. It would not be easy, however, for the legislature to impose heavy penalties on the purchasers of game; and it followed, therefore, that the only way of remedying the partiality and grievance would be at once to legalize the sale of game, and thus give the public a lawful supply of it. It had been urged that if the sale of game were legalised, it would be difficult to detect the poacher. To this he replied, that he intended to propose a clause in the bill, imposing a penalty on any person having game in his possession, who would not declare from whom he obtained it. It had also been said, that it would be discreditable for gentlemen to sell their game. For his part, he was at a loss to discover why it should be more discreditable for gentlemen to sell their pheasants, than it was for them to sell their sheep, their pigs, or their horses. He had the authority of a noble lord, not of the most penurious character—the Marquis of Anglesea—to say, that if this bill passed into a law, he was determined to transmit his game to the metropolis, in order that it might be supplied legally, instead of illegally, by poachers. That noble lord's amusement was in shooting game, and he had no wish to withold from the public a luxury which their money entitled them to command. He contended in opposition to a contradictory statement, that the poacher would be completely undersold, if the bill were agreed to; and dwelt on the great advantage that would be obtained by the removal of that continued cause of irritation which at present annoyed those most valuable individuals—the resident country gentlemen. As a proof of the great evil of the game laws, it was only necessary to mention, that in the last year between 900 and 1,000 individuals were imprisoned for offences against them. He hoped the House would allow the bill to go into the committee, in which it might receive any modifications that should appear desirable.

Lord Deerhurst

was astonished that a bill, which ought to have been crushed at its first formation, should have been allowed to proceed so far. It should not, however, proceed farther without his warning voice being raised against its very injurious tendency. The object of the bill, as appeared from the correspondence of the honourable colonel who had just spoken, with another honourable colonel, a member of the House, was to give country gentlemen an opportunity of selling their game; and a noble marquis was named as prepared to avail himself of the Jaw, if passed; yet the country gentlemen would be constantly undersold by poachers. The case would be similar to that of two broom-makers, who sold their brooms in adjoining stalls. The one sold so as to have the very smallest profit; the other sold a halfpenny cheaper. The former, who was conscious that he himself stole the materials of which the brooms were made, asked the other, with astonishment, how he could sell so cheap? Why, replied the latter, because I steal my brooms ready made. Just so the poacher could get his game ready made. The difficulty of effecting a sale was the great means of entrapping poachers. Let them not cut up the goose for the sake of the golden egg. The history of the sale of game at present was thus: a person bought game of the poacher at 7s. the brace, and sold them to the poulterer in London for 15s: he again sold them to the consumer for two guineas. If sale were legalized, a door would be opened to game keepers and others to poach and sell without risk of detection or fear of punishment. If citizens, who had much money, must have game, let them get it on the same terms with country gentlemen. They had it at present for one-fourth the expense of rearing game. If this bill passed, in two years there would be no game in the country. The House should be very cautious how it listened to such a proposal. From small beginnings mighty consequences often proceeded, Hœ nugœ seria ducunt in mala. This was not a time to disgust resident gentlemen. He concluded by moving, "That the bill be read a second time this day six months."

Mr. Curwen

said:—I heartily concur with those who oppose the further progress of the bill. As it is desirable to hold out every inducement to tempt the residence of gentlemen in the country, the protection of game is, in this view, of considerable consequence. Agreeing in this point, I would ask, if the tyranny of the game laws has produced, or is likely to produce, this effect. From all quarters we hear complaints of an increase of poaching. It is fair, therefore, to suppose that there must be some radical defect in the system. It would be well for sportsmen to consider whether this does not arise from the manifest injustice that characterizes the whole code. The right of game is, by an arbitrary act of the legislature, taken from every land-holder possessed of less than 100l. per annum. He feeds, he shelters it, but must not appropriate any part of it to his own use. The punishment of offences against the game laws rests solely in the hands of the monopolists; nor are punishments defined, but left to the will of the party—it rests on his mercy. Offences that have not a shade of difference are punished by a fine of 5l. or up to 80l. In one case the fine may be paid by the poor man by the sacrifice of his little property, in the other by imprisonment for life. There is something so monstrous in this, that it is not to be wondered a general abhorrence prevails against the game laws. Who are the protectors of game?—a few individuals. Who are their enemies?—almost, the whole collective body of the people. By a breach of such laws no moral turpitude can be possibly attached; whilst odium and ill will attends the rigorous protection of game. It is the interest of the sportsman, as well as the people, that all the odious laws, relative to game, should be swept from our statute books. It is high time a new system should be devised, founded on justice. Restore to every proprietor his right, and you will have every proprietor united in the protection of game. No country possesses so much game as France and yet it is to be purchased in every market town. It is contended the poacher can undersell the gentleman, as the cost of preserving game is so great; very true, and it is so at present; but I do not apprehend that would be the case was game put on a different footing, and made private property. Gentlemen lay out of their consideration, in estimating the cost at which the poacher procures game, the risk of his liberty. Is the danger of being confined for life nothing? The returns before the House present a most revolting picture of the state of the country; above one thousand persons languishing in different prisons from breaches of the game laws. This alone furnishes a ground that imperiously demands of this House seriously to review the state of these laws. Gentlemen doubt whether the Marquis of Anglesea can meet the poacher in the market. It is a libel on that noble personage to suppose him actuated by any sordid view;—it is to prevent crime—it is to take away the temptation to the poor man's forfeiting his own liberty and destroying the happiness of his family. These are the motives, and such as I hope and believe would have a very general influence in bringing game to the market. In condemning the acts of outrage and violence that have occurred from poaching, will they justify the means resorted to for the protection of game? Can the setting of traps, or other destructive implements, whereby a human being may be made miserable for life, be reconciled to any principles of humanity? A deviation from what is right on one side produces it on the other. Better the whole race of game was extinct than it should owe its preservation to such cruel expedients. I recommend my hon. friend to withdraw his bill, and in a future session, to move for a committee to take the subject into serious attention. I should hope a plan might be devised for the protection of game, bottomed in a just regard to the rights of proprietors, and the convenience and accommodation of the public. The infraction of such a system would attach reprobation and disgrace equally with the purloining of any other property. Before we can hope to command obedience to laws, they must be framed so as to entitle them to the respect of mankind. Whilst they remain at variance with every principle of justice no severity we can inflict will produce the effect; on the contrary they will only serve to multiply the evil.

Sir C. Burrell

said, that a clause in the bill vested the power of granting licences for the sale of game in the hands of a justice of peace. These licences would be granted with an unsparing hand, and tippling and drinking of all kinds would be carried on where they were conferred; so that if the poacher changed his habits from one vicious tone, he would be only transferring them to another equally bad. He was therefore averse to the bill.

Mr. Wilberforce

was sorry that the bill was likely to meet the reception which awaited it, particularly when he considered that the system which it went to remedy, vitiated the morals of that large class of the community—he meant the peasantry, who were generally virtuous, and whose habits were of quite a different class from those observable in the populous classes of large towns. There was something peculiar in the feeling relative to these laws. It was, he understood, not considered any crime to purchase this sort of luxury for a gentleman's table, for which the poor wretch who purloined it would suffer with the loss of his liberty, and perhaps be ultimately led to the gallows. He could not, like the hon. baronet who spoke last, anticipate the abuse of the power intrusted to justices of the peace in this case; on the contrary, he thought it would be fairly exercised and properly enforced. An hon. friend of his (Mr. Gurney) had received information on this subject from France, by which it appeared, that formerly when severe penalties—even in some cases death—were attached to poaching, game was nevertheless insecure, but that since a different system had been pursued, and game had been made private property, poaching was no longer a trade in that country. Mr. Wilberforce highly complimented the ability exhibited by lord Deerhurst, but expressed his persuasion that a little more consideration of the subject would lead that noble lord to feel all the evils of the existing system. He hoped either that the bill would be allowed to go into a committee, or that a committee would be appointed to investigate the subject, and see if some other remedy could not be applied.

Mr. George Bankes

thought that the sale of game, as was now proposed, was utterly incompatible with the present system of the game laws. He hoped that the purchaser of game would be rendered liable to some penalty, but the present measure was so objectionable in its principle, that he could not agree to it under any modification.

Mr. Preston

spoke in favour of going into the committee.

Sir John Sebright

was of opinion, that the best course would be, to make game private property, and therefore he should oppose the present bill, or any measure that went short of that object.

Mr. Gurney

said, that he conceived the country peculiarly obliged to the hon. colonel for his persevering endeavours to get rid of the abomination of the game laws, though he was sorry he could not congratulate him on the success which had hitherto attended his efforts.—The only legislative enactment that had sprung from his committee having been the precious bill for transporting poachers, of the last session, which, with so much merited reprobation, had been repealed, this. He was however still happy to augur favourably of the ultimate issue of his labours, as whatever objections hon. gentlemen had to offer to the mode of altering the system, the principle of the existing game laws,—but one member was found bold enough to defend.

Mr. Gurney

stated, that he had made inquiries as to how far their new regulations, which appeared extremely analogous to those proposed by the hon. colonel had been found to answer their purpose in France; and he begged leave to produce the reply of a gentleman who had occupied very confidential situations in the foreign department in that country; he states, that the game is the property of the owner of the soil; that a port d'armes, subject to a slight impost, is granted to almost any body who applies for it; but that the land-holder has a right to prosecute any one who may appear on his soil with a gun.—That the penalties incurred, are 30 franks to the proprietor of the soil, and 15 franks to the commune, if the land be not inclosed; and 40 franks, and 20 franks, if it be.—That the penalty may be doubled or trebled by the court, if there be circumstances of aggravation; and that in case of non-payment, sentence of imprisonment may be pronounced, from one day to three months, should the culprit be an old offender.—Before the revolution the laws against poaching had been increasing in severity, till Henry 4th made its punishment the gallies; and poaching went on, almost unchecked, though the gallies were thronged with poachers. On the revolution all law ceased, and the game was nearly all destroyed; every man taking his revenge on it. Since the present laws have been acted on, the game has increased rapidly, every land-owner becoming his own game-keeper as well as game-keeper to his neighbour. And, with the sole exception of attacking the pheasants in the royal forests, where the gamekeepers are understood to be the poachers, the trade of poaching has ceased in France.

Mr. Gurney

observed, that the violences so much complained of had been tempted almost of inevitable consequence by the game preservers. That while sporting was sporting in England, they had been little heard of. When wild ani- mals were chased over a wild country by wilder men; but that when in the march of cultivation, every man's space was circumscribed; and when to game, which was game, succeeded the feeding, and rearing, and driving, a valuable, half tame, and exotic bird, not felt to be any one's property, but guarded in its covert by legions of game-keepers,—what had followed, might have been expected to follow, that bands of marauders would turn out, and attack both the pheasants and their defenders.—The evils of such a system, which made men as it were of necessity, the hunters of men, were glaringly obvious. The returns which had been laid on the table showed that the captives made in this miserable, domestic warfare, were becoming so numerous, that if it were allowed to connue, the gaols would hardly contain them. He therefore most earnestly hoped that the hon. colonel would carry his bill. For if things went as they were going, they would have to keep up instead of dismantling, the Norman-cross, and Dartmoor establishments, as depots for their prisoners of peace.

Mr. Goulburn

miantained, that in those countries where game was considered private property, poaching had increased and game disappeared. He denied that that law which was applicable to the character and usages of the French people, would be equally applicable to the character and usages of the English.

Colonel Wood

said, he believed it would be the most prudent way not to press his motion for the second reading of the bill to a division. He thought it would be best to defer any further proceeding, and see if at a future period a more acceptable measure could be devised by a committee.

The amendment was accordingly agreed to.