HC Deb 19 March 1819 vol 39 cc1077-90

On the order of the day for the second reading of this bill,

A Member, whose name we could not learn, contended, that the measure was much more likely to increase than remedy the evils at present existing. It would encourage poaching, the first step to crime and the first entrance into bad company. The scheme of making it lawful for the tenant of the soil to sell game, and thereby drive the poacher out of the market, was visionary. The price of game would be raised, and the inducements to poaching of course would be augmented. He did not mean to assert that the system now established was perfect; on the contrary it had many defects, but not one of them would be remedied by the bill upon the table.

Sir John Shelly

hoped, the House in this instance would legislate practically, not theoretically. The present bill was of the latter description, and the practice of legislating on theoretical principles for practical purposes, he totally disapproved of. From the most mature deliberation, he found himself imperatively called upon to oppose the bill. Although all the eloquence might be on the other side, yet he flattered himself that all the argument would be found on his side. The bill professed to detect and prevent poachers; in his opinion, it would tend to increase, rather than diminish them. The poacher would find a new stimulus to his nefarious pursuits, by the provisions of this bill, and whenever he got possession of game, he would know much easier how to get rid of it. To protect game by the provisions of this bill would be found in many instances impossible. As to any facilities in convicting offenders, it might be very easy in small covers to take poachers in the act; but in large woodlands, for instance, where often 500 acres and upwards in extent, it would be almost impossible to take them: the only method to be pursued would be either to take the game found on the poacher's person or in the carts of the country higglers, the persons who were generally employed by them. As to the principle of the reward, the offer was 5l. to those who were fortunate enough to take a poacher, who was to pay either that penalty, or submit to three months imprisonment. Now, to his own certain knowledge, for the last five years, it had been found impossible to recover the 5l. in most cases, so that the extension of that sum was no great object. He was himself as fond of country society and country sports as any one in that House; and he should be very sorry to find, on any occasion, that he could not entertain his friends with game; but even a circumstance of that nature should not induce him to support the present bill. He should therefore move, "That it be read a second time that day six months."

Sir John Stewart

seconded this motion, and condemned the principle and tendency of the bill.

Mr. Wilberforce

observed, that though no sportsman, he was as much alive as any man in that House, to the importance of keeping, by every possible inducement, the country gentlemen resident on their estates. He felt fully the value of such a custom, when he reflected on the exercise of those qualities which that class, the pride and honour of the kingdom were so conspicuous in cultivating, and to which might mainly be attributed the peculiar character this country had acquired. When he felt that result thus strongly, it could not be supposed that he would yield his support to any measure which tended to diminish so laudable an influence. But from the best views that he was enabled to give the proposed bill, combined with the opinions of others, on whose authority he could rely, he was persuaded that its effect would be to increase, not to diminish the quantity of game; while, on the other hand, it would produce amongst the population a growing indisposition to commit violations of the law. Even now, when the existing game laws, so opposite to every principle of personal liberty, so contrary to all our notions of private right, so injurious, so arbitrary in their operation, that the sense of the greater part of mankind was in determined hostility to them; even now, when these were in full force, a system of poaching prevailed to a greater extent than ever. But in his mind an object of far more vital importance arose out of this subject than those which concerned a love of gain, namely, a question of human punishments. They had good reason to believe, that by poachers, the greater part of the criminals who swelled the calenders of our country assizes were led into those shameful and dishonest practices, which ultimately brought them to the gallows. Such numbers came to an untimely end by poaching practices, they presented such a mass of criminality, and such a body of crime, as the House ought not to allow to continue. But as the hon. gentleman had contended, that yet greater facilities would be afforded to poaching, if people were allowed to have game in their possession without becoming liable to a penalty, he wished to ask him whether a clause to this effect might not be introduced, without injuring the principle of his bill, namely, that no person should be allowed to sell game who had not a licence for that purpose, such licence to be granted by the magistrates? He thought it would then become that person's interest, not to connect himself in any way with poachers: he would have a business to keep, and a character to preserve. There was now no such person; no one whose interest was in hostility to that of theirs; but if this system of licensing were to be pursued, there would be those persons whose business as it were, it would be to search for those who were themselves poachers, or who sold the game they procured. He presumed that nothing could be imagined more unlikely than that these two descriptions of persons should enter into any thing like a combination to sell game. While this subject had been pending, he had make it his business to make very minute inquiries relative to it, among the dealers in game; and the House could have but a faint idea of the immense amount of that traffic: when it considered that it was a luxury sought after not merely by the higher, but also very generally by the lower classes of life, it would readily ima- gine that its consumption must be immense. He could assure them, that many London dealers received sacks of game to the value of 100l. per week; a quantity so enormous, that he could not help considering the consumers in some sort accessory to the crime of poaching. Some remedy surely, ought to be applied to this growing evil; yet he could not help remarking, that of all the honourable members who had spoken before him, and among all the arguments they had made use of, not one had professed, that he himself believed it possible to correct the habits of society, An hon. gentleman on the bench above him had said, that the country gentleman ought as much to enjoy the advantages he possessed, as the monied man, who enjoyed his advantages at a cheaper rate also; and he had entered into a comparison of their relative situations. He thought, however, that nothing could have been more unfortunately put; for in point of fact, the country gentleman possessed a luxury which the other did not enjoy. The former, he was sure, would think it a great boon if he could people his neighbourhood with an honest peasantry; and be most grateful for the passing of this bill, or of any other measure that would tend to remedy the many evils which constituted a sort of system of poaching. He was well aware that, should they adopt the insertion he had recommended, they would be thought to have acted contrary to their own interests, and greatly to their prejudice: this was the very reason why he wished it should be introduced; for the present was one of those questions which they might possibly be considered to entertain with interested views only. Thus much was certain—that as the present game laws now stood, all the purchasers of game were the absolute encouragers of vice.

Lord Clive

said, that the objects of the present bill appeared to him to be two; the one to prevent poaching, and the other to secure the proprietors of estates. It was found, that the present game laws, strict as they were, could not preserve game. Now the present bill would take away all restriction whatever; and he never yet found that to take away a security tended to preserve a thing. As to the recommendation of granting licences, he could not see what good they would effect. Licenses were granted to various persons to sell tea, tobacco, or spirits, yet it had not-been found that those licences were sufficient to prevent smugglers from running their goods upon the coast, in defiance of them: so neither would licences prevent the poacher from trespassing, or the farmer from selling game. Seeing nothing in the bill to induce him to support it, but a great deal to induce him to be hostile to it, he should certainly vote against the second reading.

Mr. Long Wellesley

said, that, fond as he was of the sports of the field, he could not give his assent to the continuance of a system of laws vicious and tyrannical in principle, and which, in point of fact, could seldom or ever be put in execution. As a proof of this, it had been already stated, that the sale of game was carried on to an immense extent, in defiance of laws the most unjust and most odious to the public, ever passed. The legislature had certainly enacted some statutes on this head, contrary to the general spirit of our law, and to all our notions of liberty and equity. The act which was passed last session had excited throughout the country the greatest disgust; so much so, that no magistrate had ever put it in force, without the strongest feelings of reluctance and aversion. The recommendation of the hon. member he could by no j means assent to. It would certainly be j very curious to find parliament legalizing the sale of that which it had been for so many years endeavouring to prevent.

Mr. Coke

of Norfolk, said, he had always looked upon these laws as most odious ones. He was an old member of that House, and he remembered, about six and thirty years ago, that a bill was introduced, which gave to keepers and others a right to take up persons found walking about the grounds of their employers; which bill was afterwards withdrawn, on a prosecution having been commenced, by virtue of its enactments, against an individual, who took the opinion of the three most distinguished lawyers of their time upon the subject: they gave it as their opinion that game was, legally, private property: upon which the act was withdrawn. Those lawyers were lord Kenyon, Mr. Dunning, and Mr. Lee. He should hope that the framers of this bill, in bringing it in, had not merely the preservation of game in view, but the good of their country. As to the mere preservation of game, he thought an attention to farming, agriculture, or any other useful amusement or rational pursuit, infinitely more laudable. He was of opinion that every man had an inherent right to that which was on his property; nor could he think that he was sent to that House to legislate on one man's property to the detriment of another. It appeared to him, that a man with a single acre of land, had just as clear and natural a right to that which was on it, as he himself had to what was on his own. Why, then, should not he have also an equal power to destroy what was on his possessions, as the wealthy owner of preserves had to destroy what was on his? He had heard a great deal said by the gentlemen who owned preserves, about their interest and amusement; but for himself, he was not sent there to consider merely his own amusement and interest; if so, he should most likely have gone to the other side of the House, as he might have found his interest possibly in sitting there. He had to look to other and to more important interests; to the protection of those whom he represented, from, the operation of laws which were arbitrary, cruel and tyrannical, laws which were not to be endured. It was only at the close of the last shooting season in Norfolk, that a poor old woman in crossing a gentleman's plantation, was cruelly shot and desperately mangled. Her screams at length brought the keeper up to her; and all the consolation he offered was, to tell her, that she had only got a little wounded in the leg, whereas had she gone further up the plantation, she would certainly have been shot through the body and killed. Application was then made to the magistrate: and who did the magistrate prove to be? Why, the owner of the soil! The House would ask, what relief he extended to her? He gave her an order on the parish for the weekly payment of one shilling! He would again ask, were such things to be endured in a civilized and Christian country? Conceiving that the bill would not only tend to preserve the game, but that it would have a more extensive and beneficial operation, he should give it his decided support.

Mr. Bankes

adverting to the circumstance mentioned by the hon. member for Norfolk, observed that the injury sustained by the poor woman was the result not of the game laws, but of the wanton, or it might be accidental, act of the gamekeeper. What was there in the bill before the House which would prevent the recurrence of a similar event? He contended that the provisions of the bill were of a nature so heterogeneous, that he had scarcely ever seen so much contradictory matter amalgamated into four or five sheets of paper. If it were said, that the game laws were injurious and productive of vice and misery, let them be abolished. He did not advise such a proceeding; but such a proceeding would at least be a consistent one. But, with the large words, humanity and justice, and the liberty of the subject, to propose a bill which still more strongly affirmed the principles by which humanity and justice, and the liberty of the subject were said to be violated, was, indeed a most singular proceeding. The most severe laws in the statute book for the preservation of game were strictly preserved in the bill before the House, and yet the preamble of the bill called those laws unjust. Was this wise? Was the accusation true? "Unjust," that meant, to deprive a man of what was his due. Was it the due of every man to be allowed to kill partridges and other game? That might be called a natural right; but civil law in every society had superseded natural right. "But," said the supporters of the bill, "call the game private property, and that will be satisfactory to all." What! would the poacher be satisfied at being punished more heavily than before, because that which he took was called by the new name of property? But what did the bill in the way of making game the property of the person on whose land it was? If a poor man had a right to the game on his land, he had a right to kill that game. But a poor man might be no sportsman. He might be blind and not able to shoot; or if he shot, he might shoot so unskilfully that the game would fly over into his rich neighbour's estate. A little experience of this kind of failure would induce him to exchange his gunpowder for dexterity; his fowling piece for wires and nets. But then would the House believe that all those odious parts of the game laws, which applied punishment of the severest kind to the use of snares, were left untouched? Such a bill did not appear to him to be fit to be on the table. The hon. gentleman repeated what he stated on a former evening, of the great importance of attaching gentlemen to their country residences, and of the danger of doing any thing likely to disgust them. Perfectly agreeing in all that had been said by his hon. friend behind him, of the destructive nature of the prac- tice of poaching, and of the various crimes of which it was the fruitful parent, he maintained that the bill before the House was calculated to increase that evil, and to create a dozen poachers, where only one now existed. Poachers would become so numerous, that they would be extinct only with the extinction of the game itself; and then, although the vice of poaching would be got rid of, the taint would remain: the persons who had been employed in that practice would be let loose on property in general, and their evil habits would burst forth into acts of a more atrocious character even than those to which they had hitherto been accustomed. He was inclined to think that this crime was rather diminishing than increasing at present; as was also, he believed, the practice of selling game. Indeed, he did not think they could correct the sale of game, As to this bill, it made no sort of provision for it whatever; but, on the contrary, it put game and the power of buying and selling game, into every man's hands.

Colonel Wood

observed, that the hon. member for Corfe Castle had entirely misunderstood the nature of the accident which was described by the hon. member for Norfolk, as having happened to a woman in some cover or other. That woman had not been shot by a game-keeper, but by a spring-gun. [Mr. Coke observed, that he had certainly stated, that the woman had been shot by a game-keeper.] Colonel Wood apologized for his error. The bill before the House would, however, prevent even such accidents; for if game were made private property, that petty warfare between the higher and the lower orders, between the game-keeper and the poacher, would be at an end, and the ferocious practice of shooting, whether by spring-guns or otherwise, would be checked. Gentlemen set no spring-guns to protect their turnips or their poultry. He denied that the bill would increase the number of poachers, by assuring them of a market; for no man went out at present to poach, before he was assured of a market for the game he took; otherwise it would spoil before he could sell it. He believed that if the bill passed, although there would still be stealers of game, as well as there were now stealers of poultry, yet that the majority of those who dealt in game would be honest dealers. When a measure was sometime ago in the House on the subject, the poulterers of London, a very respectable body of men, told him that if they could obtain game for their customers through a legal channel, they would never have any thing to do with poachers. And if the present bill were to pass into a law, why should they? Did they now buy stolen chickens? Did butchers buy stolen sheep? The greater part of the arguments against the bill were directed, not against its principle, but against its provisions, and ought therefore to be postponed until it was committed. The question now for the House to determine was, whether the game laws should be allowed to exist in their present state? As to all that had been said of the danger to which great game preserves would be rendered liable, he begged to know whence the metropolis of London was at present supplied with game, if not from these preserves? Was it not notorious that, night after night, the mails were laden with the game of which those preserves were plundered? There was one argument urged against the bill, which, if valid, ought to have great weight. It was said, that the bill, by aiding in the destruction of game, would tend to induce gentlemen not to reside on their estates. He thought it would not have the effect of destroying game. And it ought to be recollected how comparatively few were the districts in which game was now found, and yet how general was the residence of country gentlemen. Besides, there were other field amusements much better than shooting. For instance, hunting; fox hunting in particular. And yet he believed that the preservers of pheasants were often the poisoners of foxes. One fox, too, amused hundreds of gentlemen, while hundreds of pheasants amused only one gentleman. The old-fashioned practice of gentlemen going out for a whole day to shoot in the country, was, he understood, becoming obsolete; and that the existing usage was for a gentleman who had got together in a neighbouring wood as many pheasants as he had barn-door fowls (and nearly as tame too), to turn into the wood with a dozen friends with guns, and a dozen clowns with poles, and then quietly to let fly at the alarmed birds, and to fancy himself shooting. In France, the mode of hunting was similar. The peasants surrounded a wood, and drove out the game, which the gentlemen standing in a row killed as it passed. This was, however, as different from English hunting as French gentlemen were from English gentlemen. He should certainly give the bill his cordial support.

Mr. Frankland Lewis

conceiving the system of the game laws objectionable in the highest degree, thought that when a measure to supersede that system was brought before the House, it was their duty to give it a fair consideration. The bill was called a bill for the amendment of the laws for the preservation of game; but it might fairly be called a bill for the better protection of game, and for the prevention of poaching. It had been said, that the bill was full of absurd contradictions; that among other things, it first declared that game was the property of certain persons, and then allowed those persons to remain subject to penalties for using that property. Was it absurd to say, that those who had the land should have a right to the game on it in preference to all others? Was it subversive of the right of property to say, that that property should be put under regulation? Were not fisheries put under regulation? Were not the proprietors of fisheries limited to fish only in particular seasons? And was it not well known, that by means of these regulations fish continued to be preserved notwithstanding the open sale of it in the markets by those who had the property of it? He wished to see game preserved, and better laws for that purpose than those which existed at present; by giving an interest in the game to those who had the greatest power of preserving it. Was not this object more likely to be accomplished than by the existing laws? With respect to the comments of the hon. gentleman on the floor, on what had fallen from the hon. mover of the bill as to natural rights, they were altogether founded in misconception. God forbid that any person should insist on natural rights in a state of society! As well might it be said that every man had a natural right to the land of a country, as that certain persons had a natural right to the game on that land. But did it follow that, because you made game the property of the person on whose land it was, you therefore said he had a natural right to it? Property of various kinds was put under restrictions in this country. It was necessary, for instance, to have a license to deal in horses. For the sake of the morals of the people, public-houses were put under restriction. But it was contended by the hon. gentleman, that licenses did not prevent smuggling—as notwithstanding the licensing of tea-dealers and spirit-dealers, smuggling still went on. But it was not the licensing the dealing in those articles which created the smuggling, but the amount of duty on them. They wished to distinguish between an honest mode of selling game and a dishonest mode. He would say, continue the severe laws against those who steal game, but not against those who sell the game which they come honestly by. It was not right to punish those things which were not crimes in nature. There was no person acquainted with the game laws who would not agree, that the present system of qualification was extremely absurd. He had no hesitation in saying, that the bill as it now stood was not drawn up as he thought it ought to be drawn up. He thought the qualification ought to be of the nature of a license. What the amount of that qualification should be, would be a fair subject for after consideration. The selling of game ought in like manner to be subjected to a license. Persons who had game in their possession ought to be bound to show that they came honestly by it; and it ought to be made penal, tremendously penal, to sell game dishonestly come by.

Mr. Cripps

said, he had heard objections made to several of the clauses, but there were none of them that might not, in his opinion, be got over, and, therefore, he should vote for the second reading of the bill. It was due to the hon. gentleman who introduced it, and to the committee who came to the resolution on which the bill was founded, to suffer it to proceed, and to see, whether, in its progress, they could not remove the objectionable parts. With respect to the objections of the hon. gentleman on the floor (Mr. Bankes), they did not strike him in the same point of view they did the hon. gentleman. He was not sorry to see those provisions retained to which the hon. gentleman urged his strongest objections. One of his observations was, however, correct. He had stated, that the number of criminals imprisoned for offences against the game laws, at present were less than they used to be. This, he believed was the fact; but the circumstance was owing to a bill introduced into that House by a near relative of the hon. gentleman. In one clause of that bill were was a very great, omission. Every person purchasing game, was, by that clause, subject to a penalty of 5l. to be levied on his goods and chattels—but, if he had no goods and chattels, no punishment followed. If this was a mere omission, it ought to be rectified; if it was intentional, it certainly defeated the object which the clause appeared to have in view.

Mr. Brand

said, he could not recollect that a single argument of any force had been adduced against the bill. The market, it was observed, could be as easily supplied with stolen game as with stolen turnips. But the market was not supplied with stolen turnips, ergo it would not be supplied with stolen game. It was also stated, as a proof that the present bill must fail, that all previous enactments had failed in preventing depredations on rabbit-warrens. He could have stated, àpriori, to the hon. member who made the observation, that no law could possibly prevent that species of offence, when persons possessing property in the neighbourhood of such warrens were absolutely interested in the destruction of those animals. Of this he was well convinced, that no legislative enactment, however severe, could prevent the supply of game to the metropolis. It was therefore, the duty of legislative wisdom to devise some means by which a regular supply of game might be afforded, without encouraging vice, or immorality. He had followed a resolution of the last parliament, which declared "that game ought to be the property of the owner of the soil." He contended that the exclusion of small proprietors was contrary to the principles of equity and of natural law. He was much mistaken by an hon. gentleman who fancied that he had confounded the doctrine of the law of nature, with that of the natural state of man—and he had argued to prove the fallacy of such an association. But, if the hon. gentleman reflected a little, he would not have supposed that he could be guilty of so extravagant a blunder. He must be aware that there were natural laws, anterior to those of a conventional description, and that the validity of the latter was supported by their coincidence with the former. From this he contended, that it was contrary to the law of nature and of equity to preclude a man from the use of that which was nurtured on his own soil—always considering game as the growth of the soil. He was astonished, when an hon. gentleman declared that, in this bill, he had described the former laws as unjust. This was not the fact. The preamble merely said, "that those laws were found inadequate to their object—that they were impolitic and inconvenient and, in many cases, oppressive and unjust." He did not say that they were generally oppressive and unjust, but that they were, in some instances, contrary to equity and natural law. The hon. gentleman said, "if individuals want game, let them purchase land." But this would not do; it would be necessary for them to purchase manors. And, as the system now existed, an individual with a manor of 100l. a year, and a qualification might shoot on the land of any person he pleased. Indeed, he believed that some persons had acquired qualifications, merely to carry on the business of poaching. There might be many clauses in the bill that required amendment. There were many interests, a variety of property which it was impossible for him, in the first instance, to protect or include in a measure of this kind. But he was convinced the more the House considered it, the more they would see the necessity of carrying it into effect. The greatest practical mischiefs flowed from the present system—one of the most prominent of which was, that the great body of the lower orders were opposed to the higher classes on this point, and the morals of the country were deteriorated to an alarming degree. In his view of the subject, this was the most important revision and amendment of the criminal law, that was likely to be submitted to parliament during the present session.

The question being put, "That the bill be now read a second time," the House divided: Ayes, 110. Noes 83. The bill was then read a second time.