HC Deb 11 May 1819 vol 40 cc303-9
Sir Francis Burdett

said, he rose to draw the attention of the House to a petition of a person of the name of George Crook, late a seaman on board one of his majesty's ships, complaining of severe oppression. The allegations contained in the petition called into question the conduct of a very gallant officer in the naval service, and, at the same time, disclosed circumstances which were of infinite importance to the rights and interests of every man in the navy—since all those who were connected with that service, were liable to receive the same description of treatment as that of which the petitioner complained unless he procured redress. He had the petition for some time in his hands, and would have presented it much sooner, but he was desirous, in the first instance, to have some conversation with sir William Hoste, the gallant officer to whom it referred—but he understood that he was out of the kingdom, and was not expected to return for some time. The statement of the petitioner lay in a very narrow compass, although the points which it contained were of the most important nature. He conceived it right to state, that having had much conversation with the petitioner, the impression on his mind was, that he was not a person of bad character—a conclusion which was borne out by the certificates of several respectable individuals, under some of whom he had served in the navy, who spoke of him as a correct and well-behaved man; but, whatever the character of the individual might be, whether good or bad, it had nothing to do with the justice of the case. He stated, that, without any charge being exhibited against him, he was confined on board the Mutine, the ship in which he was serving, for five or six weeks; and that, when the vessel touched at Malta, he was ordered to receive six dozen of lashes by sir W. Hoste, without any court martial having been held on him. After this, he and another man were put ashore, and left to shift for themselves as they could. It was worthy of consideration, that the petitioner was a pressed man; and, having served for a considerable time, pay and prize money were due to him, to the amount of 550l. when he was forcibly driven from the ship, and marked in the books as a deserter, which destroyed his claim to that which he had fairly earned. Immediately after that occurrence, he had been taken into the service of an English gentleman travelling on the continent, of the name of Dowdswell, and since that period, of several others, all of whom were ready to bear testimony to the goodness of his conduct. Whatever his fault might have been, it was extremely hard that he should be deprived of his wages. He understood it was a general rule, where a seaman deserted from the service, to stop his pay and prize-money. It appeared to him to be a very severe rule, that a man, who had been forced into the service, and had remained there for many years, should be deprived of the money he had earned, because he left his ship without leave. The petitioner, however, stated that he did not desert, but was sent from the ship. On what ground, then, could his pay and prize-money be withheld, as it was at the present moment? He hoped steps would be taken, in the proper department, to explain this transaction, or he should -be obliged to institute some proceedings on the subject. He should now move "That this petition be brought up." He had a second petition, signed by many respectable persons, who knew the petitioner, commiserated his situation, and called on the House to attend to his statement and grant him relief.

Sir Isaac Coffin

said, that this petition had been put into his hands, a few days ago, by an honourable alderman, but he refused to have any thing to do with it, because he understood that the petitioner had been detected in some improper practices with a person of the name of Grimaldi, when on board the Mutine, which occasioned his desertion. Seventeen years had elapsed since the conduct he now complained of had taken place, and, during that long period, this man had never laid his case before the admiralty. Doubtless he had considered himself well off not to have been hanged for the offence he had committed.

Mr. Alderman Wood

said, it was very true the petition had been placed in his hands, but he did not think he was justified in presenting it. He made many inquiries on the subject from the gallant officer opposite, and from him he understood that a correspondence had passed between the admiralty and different officers under whom the petitioner had served, and also that sir W. Hoste was likely to return to England very speedily. As he knew that the petitioner could bring his action against sir William, when he returned to this country—as his petition was in the hands of a respectable solicitor who would do every thing in his power to serve him—and as the man with whom the petitioner went away stood in a very suspicious situation—he conceived it better to give up the petition, as he did not think he could render the petitioner any service.

Sir I. Coffin

observed, that the subsequent testimonies to this man's character, which the hon. baronet alluded to, had nothing to do with the antecedent offence.

Sir G. Cockburn

said, the practice regularly adopted in the navy was this:—the ship's company were mustered in the presence of the officers once in every week; the names of those who did not appear were dotted;—and, if three dots were affixed to a sailor's name, it was distinguished by the letter R., signifying that he had run from the ship. After this, he would not be paid his wages without an order from the Admiralty, and his prize-money became the property of Chelsea hospital. That hospital having a vested right in such prize-money, it would be the height of injustice in the Admiralty to attempt to take it away. Now, it was must extraordinary that the petitioner, who was described to be a needy man, having this large sum due to him, never applied to the Admiralty from the year 1801 until 1817. The hon. baronet endeavoured to account for this delay, by stating that he was travelling on the continent with his master. It was not, however, to be supposed that he had been travelling for sixteen years. When he applied at the Admiralty to have the R. removed from his name in the year 1817, captain Hoste was referred to. Captain Hoste's answer, which he then held in his hand, was couched in these terms:—"I have to acquaint you, that I perfectly remember Crook's desertion from the ship at Naples or Malta, and I recollect also the desertion of the other man who was found in the hammock with him." The petitioner stated, that this man had received his wages. In consequence, the Admiralty caused inquiries to be made at the navy board, and they discovered that Grimaldi had also run—that he had not received his wages—and that, in fact, he had not applied for them. Crook, finding he could make nothing of this proceeding in 1817, waited till sir W. Hoste was out of the way, and made the present application to the House. He had, it appeared got the lieutenant to say that he did not run, but was turned out of the ship. Captain Hoste, however, would, he had no doubt, persist in his statement that he had deserted. Unfortunately the other 16 signing officers were dead. Looking to all the circumstances, he was inclined to attach more credit to the statement of the captain than to that of the lieutenant. The circumstances, taken together, made strongly against the petitioner; and, after considering them, it would be for the House to say, whether the petition should or should not be brought up.

Mr. Bennet

inquired whether any proof of a criminality had been adduced against the petitioner. If there was not, it was not right that he should be deprived of his wages.

Sir G. Cockburn

answered, that the officer who had been applied to, said the petitioner was found in an indecent situation with another man, and had in consequence been turned ashore. The argument seemed to be, that he must have his wages, although his character could not be restored.

Sir F. Burdett

said, the petitioner's statement was, that a drunken man came to his hammock in the night, swearing that it was his own. The petitioner resisted, and the intruder cut him down, by which he was severely wounded in the head. There never was a charge of the kind now insinuated brought against him; much less was any inquiry instituted with respect to it. Added to this, many persons came forward to give him a good character, amongst whom were several officers under whom he had served. He did not think the gallant admiral was treating the petition with fairness or candour, when he met it with an unsupported allegation of this kind. It was a base insinuation to throw out against any man; and such a course of proceeding rendered it more particularly necessary for the House to examine the merits of the case. The lieutenant said, the petitioner was put on shore—that he was compelled to quit the service. If he had committed any crime, that was not the mode which ought to have been pursued with respect to him. He should have been punished, instead of being forcibly obliged to leave the ship in a state of distress and indigence. Afterwards, in order to cover an act improper in every point of view, the letter R. was affixed to his name. The memory of capt. Hoste, whom he respected as a gallant officer, did not, at all times, appear to be equally clear on this subject, He had seen letters of his, written to the petitioner in 1816, in which he did not speak positively, but said, "if you have been marked R. on the books of the Mutine as you say, I presume it is so." This was at best a doubtful evidence as to the fact of the petitioner's having deserted.

Sir G. Cockburn

said, the accusation against the petitioner did not rest on mere surmise. The letter said, that Grimaldi was seen coming out of the petitioner's hammock. There was no mention made of the hammock having been cut down. Though an officer might, at a considerable distance of time, suppose that the petitioner was sent out of the ship, the probabilities were, putting all the circumstances together, that he had deserted.

Mr. Lyttelton

said, he knew not from what source the hon. baronet had drawn he expression of indignation which he had directed towards his hon. friend and kinsman, because he stood forward to rebut the serious charge that had been brought against a gallant officer. He did not know that gallant officer; but he certainly felt very strong indignation, when he beheld the character of an honourable man attacked on the slight and unsupported surmises of an infamous person, for such he considered the petitioner to be. The hon. baronet complained, that the petitioner had not been brought to trial; now, as the petitioner had deserted, what opportunity was there for trying him? But, in a case of this kind, was it not more prudent in the commander of one of his majesty's ships to punish the individual, and not to notice the fact farther, instead of proclaiming it to all the world? If the petitioner had not been conscious that he was charged with some offence too scandalous to bear the light, would he not have brought the matter to issue, in some way or other, during a period of sixteen years? Now, the circumstance was brought forward, when, of necessity, the best evidence that could be adduced must be defective. The worthy alderman, to whom the petition was first intrusted, appeared to have formed a proper estimate of it, and had acted very properly in rejecting it. It would much better become the hon. baronet, if, before he presented petitions, he would inquire into the verity of the facts they contained, instead of coining down at once, without the smallest particle of conclusive evidence, and indulging in declamatory statements about justice, when there was no proof whatever that any injustice had been committed.

Mr. Croker

said, the accusation levelled at the petitioner's character was not gratuitously introduced. It was stated by sir William Hoste, that this man, to whom a large sum of money was said to be due, had run away. It was asked, "Why did he desert—it is not likely he would do so, when so much wages and prize-money were due to him?" The answer was, because he was detected in indecent practices. It was necessary to sir W. Hoste's case that he should show some paramount and overwhelming reason in the case of this man, to account for his conduct. He could not agree that this petition should be received. It was not in the power of the House to grant to the petitioner his wages. He had his action at law; he might bring an action against sir W. Hoste for having cast scandalous imputations on his character, or for improperly causing the letter R. to be affixed to his name, by which he had lost his wages. Unless by law he established his character, or showed that the R. was improperly placed against his name, he could not get the money which he claimed. When the courts of justice were open to him, to them the petitioner ought to apply. It would be a bad precedent to receive such a petition as the present.

Mr. Ommanney

defended the conduct of sir W. Hoste.

Sir F. Burdelt

wished to mention two or three of the testimonials to the character of Crook [A cry of spoke! spoke!]. If the House were in such a state of impatience as to prevent it from doing mere justice to an oppressed man, he was quite willing to drop this and every other subject. Admiral Hardy bore testimony to the good conduct of the petitioner while on board the Mutine, and this was confirmed by the lieutenant; independent of which, the surgeon spoke to the propriety and regularity of his general deportment. The real question was, whether the House was not bound to inquire into the abuses of power by naval officers of high rank? The subject could no where be taken into consideration so well as before a committee: if it was there discerned that the petitioner had no claim, the decision would be satisfactory to the country; but at present the House had no information on which it could act in putting a negative upon the demand.

Dr. Phillimore

said, it was most extraordinary, that the hon. baronet, in the different interviews he had had with the petitioner, should never think it necessary to ask him why he had suffered 17 years to elapse before he made his complaint? The hon. baronet had produced testimonials in favour of the petitioner's character, dated in 1797, 1798, and 1801. Was it OR evidence such as this that the House were to be called on to assail the character of sir W. Hoste? The silence of the petitioner for the last 17 years was evidence that his claim was not a just one. Were he alone in the division, he would oppose the reception of a petition, assailing on such grounds the character of such an officer as sir W. Hoste.

Colonel Wodehouse

said, that every one knew sir W. Hoste's public achievements; and he would add, that of all men with whom he ever had had the slightest intimacy, that gallant officer appeared to him to be the most unlikely to commit an arbitrary act of power.

The House then divided; For receiving the Petition, 2; Against it 206: Majority 204.

List of the Minority.
Palmer, C. F. TELLERS.
Pryse, Pryse. Burdett, sir F.
Harvey, D. W.