HC Deb 07 March 1817 vol 35 cc913-7
Lord Folkestone

said, he had a petition to present on this subject from Horsham, in Sussex. He was not acquainted with that borough, but he understood that it had been adopted at a most orderly meeting, which had been assembled by individuals, in consequence of the bailiff refusing to call a meeting.

The Petition was brought up and read. It complained of sinecures and unmerited pensions, of the evils arising from a fictitious paper currency, of the immense standing army in time of peace, and of the state of the representation; and prayed the House not to pass new acts, infringing the liberties of the subject, as the existing laws were, in their opinion, sufficient to preserve the peace.

Sir T. Shelley

bore testimony to the orderly character of the meeting, but he was authorized to say that the bailiff had not refused the use of the town hall on the occasion.

Mr. Hurst

said, it was true, that the persons who convened the meeting had applied for the town hall. The bailiff then requested that the requisition should be shown him in writing, and a requisition was accordingly shown him couched in general terms, whereupon he consented to grant the use of the hall. This having been done, the framers of the requisition published it with an addition to this effect —"We invite all labourers, mechanics, and apprentices to attend the meeting, as they are equally interested in its objects while they pay taxes on coals, candles, &c." On looking at the petition he found that there were from ten to twenty signatures in the same hand-writing. Whether that was an objection to receiving the petition he should not pretend to decide. As to the good order of the meeting, which had been praised, it was not very remarkable. A blue flag had been brought out of a public house; and when a gentleman present attempted to address the meeting, his voice was drowned in the clamour which often prevailed at such meetings. He was authorized by the magistrates, clergy, and the most respectable inhabitants of Horsham, to disavow their connexion with the petition, or the sentiments it contained.

The Speaker

said, that as to the point of order on which he was appealed to, all petitions presented to the House must be signed by the hands or marks of the petitioners themselves; and if they were not, it was contrary to the rules of the House to receive them.

Sir F. Burdett

said, the fancy of any hon. member as to the hand writing of signatures, could not, he conceived, be a sufficient ground for the rejection of a petition. As to the disorderly conduct of the meeting, what had it amounted to? A blue flag had been displayed which the hon. member stated to have created much noise. Without something more solid to support his allegation, the hon. member should not have brought it forward.

Lord Folkestone

said, there were many respectable signatures to the petition, though he had not thought it his duty to examine the whole of them. There were certainly many different hands, and if half a dozen names were written by one person, it would not certainly vitiate the whole. What had been said by the hon. member rendered the petition worthy of some consideration. He had said, that all the magistrates of that district were hostile to the petition. If the bill before the House had passed, no such meeting could have been held, and consequently no such petition could have come up to the House.

Sir C. Burrell

read an extract of a letter, by which he was informed that many names were affixed in the same hand-writing. He thought it rather singular that the people of Horsham should complain of the state of the representation, seeing that a burgess of Horsham, being a freeholder, had a right to vote for no less than six members of parliament—two for Horsham, two for the Rape of Bramber, and two for the county of Sussex.

Mr. Curwen

thought it would be hard on the petitioners to reject the petition because more than one name was in the same hand writing.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

thought it would be more advisable, as there were certainly many real signatures, to suffer the petition to lie on the table. The noble lord had referred to a bill before the House to prevent seditious meetings; but he was mistaken in the object of the bill. It would at any time be competent for seven householders to call a meeting; and consequently such a meeting as that at which the petition was adopted might have been held, even if that bill had passed into a law.

Sir James Graham

said, that in many petitions which had been presented to the House for reform, there had been a great many signatures in the same hand. As to the petition from Carlisle, out of 6 or 7,000 signatures, there were not more than 5 or 600 genuine ones. He believed that very few, if any, householders had signed it.

Mr. Curwen

said, he differed from his hon. colleague, as to the petition from Carlisle; though that petition was not entrusted to him, he was assured that there were a great number of very respectable names to it. The meeting had been extremely orderly, the promoters of it endeavoured to the utmost of their power to get it called by authority; and not having succeeded, they did every thing to give it the appearance of a regular meeting.

Sir J. Graham

said, that though the names of the most respectable persons in and about Carlisle were affixed to that petition, he was assured it was without their consent.

Mr. Serjeant Best

said, it was a gross abuse of the privilege of petitioning, and an insult on parliament, to send petitions signed by a pretended number of names really written by others. He thought it necessary to put a stop to the practice, for if the subject on which these petitions turned came to be discussed, the number of the petitions might be much relied on, and they might be told that petitions were signed by thousands or millions which were really signed by very few persons. He could not consent to receive a petition upon which such a practice was used. The proof did not rest on fancy; besides the similarity of hand, there was the testimony of the hon. baronet (sir C. Burrell). The only mode of checking such a practice, was by rejecting the petition.

Lord Castlcreagh

observed, that the gross abuse of the right of petitioning had gone a great way to lower the authority of this valuable privilege of the subject. On the other hand, he should be very sorry if, on account of a fraud practised by a few they were to reject a petition which was really signed by many persons. This, however, ought to be inculcated on the people, that there was nothing so fatal to their own right as an abuse of it.

Mr. Wynn

thought it highly proper to put an end to a practice which involved a violation of the privileges of the House, and might bring the right of petitioning itself into dispute. If the hon. baronet was certain of the facts of which he spoke, it was his duty to follow up the assertion which he had made, and if it could be proved against any individual that he had written the name of another without his consent, he should be brought up to receive condign punishment, in the utmost severity which it was in the power of the House to inflict.

Mr. Brougham

said, that the declaration of the noble lord, as to the petition before them, was very candid; but as to his argument to throw discredit on all petitions, from more than one name being in the same hand, he would put it to the good sense of the House, whether a petition containing 20 or 30,000 names was to be set down as of no weight, because one person (an enemy, he had a right to assume to the cause of the petition) had put a few names to it without authority? He did not approve altogether of the system which had been pursued with respect to petitions; he thought it would have been much wiser to let the people draw up their complaints in their own language; but he could not go the length of saying, that because they were couched in these terms, they were of no avail. As to many of the instances in which the signatures were in the same hand, he had no doubt that they perfectly expressed the wishes of those whose names were written. The signatures were frequently the names of persons who, though present and consenting, either could not write, or from being not much habituated to write, were not disposed to take the trouble. He spoke from having witnessed such scenes: while petitions were signing, he had seen persons apply to a man who was writing and was more expert than themselves, to sign for them: in very few cases indeed would it be found, that the names were written without the consent of those who bore them. As to the printed forms which were made use of, though he did not approve of them, they were not on that account to be supposed not to speak the sense of the people. He would put a case. Let the noble lord draw up a petition in favour of the gagging bill or the suspension of the Habeas Corpus, or in support of all his measures, and send them round the country, if he could obtain one tenth as many signatures as had been put to the petitions for reform, he would then agree that by such means the sense of the people could not be estimated.

Sir C. Burrell

said, he had no doubt the names put to the Horsham petition were those of persons who had given their consent to it. As to the transactions which had been said to have taken place at Carlisle, he thought the parties should be brought to the bar, and punished for their base fraud.

Mr. Bathurst

said, it might easily be conceived, that the persons who took the trouble to send round printed forms of petitions, would induce persons to express grievances which of themselves they would not discover. As to the form of petition recommended by the hon. and learned gentleman, it was not probable that it would be signed by many of the distressed population; but it would have the signatures of those who would reckon by weight if not by tale, viz. the magistracy, the clergy, and all those who suffer from the outrages liable to be committed by seditious meetings. He should not object to the petition lying on the table.

Mr. Sharp

supported the petition, and thought mere informality should not prevent the people's approach to that House.

The petition was ordered to lie on the table.