HC Deb 14 May 1819 vol 40 cc374-84
Mr. Brand

having moved the order of the day for farther considering the report on this bill,

Sir John Shelley

said, that he could not give his vote for this bill, because the effect of it would be to put guns into the hands of every person, and would sanction the indiscriminate slaughter of game. He did not think that the great landed proprietors would feel all the ill effects of this bill at first; and as the good it was to do was at all events speculative, he thought it much better to leave the law as it now stood. If such a theoretical measure were adopted, the sports of the field, by which the bold and manly qualities of the higher orders of the people were cherished and invigorated, would be entirely annihilated, and the country would indeed dwindle into that which it had been contemptuously asserted by Buonaparté to be—a nation of shopkeepers. He would therefore move as an amendment, that the report be taken into farther consideration on that day six months.

Sir John Sebright

contended, that the principle of the bill must be respected in every country where property was respected. The principle was this—that where a man had property he should have power and control over it. The game laws, as they now stood, were perfectly nugatory; they gave to persons warranted to kill game, powers which no man had a right to possess; they gave to persons so warranted the power of going into a gentleman's plantations and destroying his game; they gave that power for once—if the offence was repeated, then the person was liable to be punished. But for what?—not for killing game, but for trespassing. Nor was it a trifling injury to the game of a gentleman, that adventurers had the right of so entering on his plantations, even for the first time. The hon. baronet who last sat down, knew that a trespass of that kind ruined the shooting for the rest of the season. Besides, it should be recollected, as an intolerable grievance, that persons from distant places, whose names could not, in many instances, be learned, were not contented with thus trespassing on private property—trespass he would call it, though the law did not—but they also outraged the feelings of the proprietor if he attempted to protect his property from injury and intrusion. The property of men of moderate fortune should be equally protected with that of those rich and influencial men, who procured laws to punish offences which their monopoly created. Copyhold holders of land could have no game, unless by having a qualified keeper; and was it to be tolerated that such distinction should be still continued? There was no difficulty in selling game, however contrary to law, so inefficiently did it operate. Why, then, should it be longer continued? The feelings of the people were hostile to the principle of the game laws; and laws opposed to the common sense of justice and of right should not be continued. Poor men were imprisoned for killing game; and though convicted, as if of crime, their neighbours and the country still held them wholly innocent. He valued the possession of game, and had as much of it as most men; but he would still contend, that with the increase of game poaching increased, and that the whole system was only protected by force of arms. He should therefore be ashamed to stand up in his place and support a system, so demoralising and so destructive in its consequences. The present should not be taken up as a sporting question. It was well worthy of the consideration of his majesty's ministers, and if its evils were not removed, a great portion of the people would gradually degenerate into gangs of banditti [Loud cheers].

Mr. Long Wellesley

also supported the bill, and maintained that those gentlemen to whom the kingdom was most indebted as magistrates, did not reside in the country only because they could enjoy the diversion of shooting, but because they delighted in making themselves useful as well as in the amusements of rural retirement. There was no danger that the English gentry would forsake their properties, because their neighbours as well as themselves had a right to shoot. The existing laws were both absurd and odious; at least, absurd and odious in many of their provisions; and the object of the measure before the House was to repeal what was objectionable, while it retained all that could be of advantage. No man enjoyed fox-hunting more than himself; he pursued it with the utmost ardour; but it was undeniable that that very ardour was the occasion of the destruction of much valuable property belonging to those who could ill afford the loss. The effect of this bill would be, to make game a marketable commodity, and it was ridiculous to argue that it would thereby become scarce. Were there not plenty of rabbits and wild fowl in the country, although every poulterer might buy and sell them in any quantity? One third of the property of this country was in the hands of persons who had no means of obtaining game but by purchase; and while this was the case, all laws prohibiting the sale were vain, and could only lead to the practice of poaching. Poaching, as was well known, was the parent of all crimes. Would they, then, by the continuance of a system which necessarily led to poaching, place the poor of this country in a state of degradation still lower than they were now in?

Mr. E. Douglas

contended, that the question was not whether there were evils under the present system, but whether those evils would not be increased by the present bill. It was well known what a number of disputes arose at present, from attempts to decoy game from one property to another. But the present bill would produce twenty persons desirous of preserving game in place of one; and a person would be more anxious to preserve his game in proportion as his property was small. He thought game ought to be left in those hands in which it could be with most safety placed. This was the only way of preventing those irregular habits which attended a people of sportsmen. The present bill would give to the yeomanry of this country the habits, and character of sportsmen; and would take from them that respectful submission and manly dependence on the laws, which at present characterized them. With respect to poaching, he could not see how the hill would put a stop to it. It was said that it would diminish the profits of the poacher, and reduce him to abandon that pursuit; but profit had comparatively little to do with the motives, which determined a poacher to prefer that pursuit to all others; it was the indolence of his life, and the daring and adventurous character of the pursuit which were, its great attractions to him. But the diminution of profit would be counterbalanced by the greater facility of concealment which be would obtain, it was thought game would be better preserved when many were interested in it; but there was an old proverb, that what was every body's duty was nobody's duty; and game would be more effectually preserved by one active gamekeeper, than by a number of other persons who had a variety of occupations to attend to. On every view of the injurious effects of the bill, he felt bound to oppose it. The happiness and morality of the people was the first thing to be considered; but he thought both would decidedly be risked by the adoption of the proposed measure.

The Marquis of Tavistock

could not allow this question to go to a division, without giving his cordial assent to the principle of the bill. He really could not see what there was objectionable in that principle. It was impossible for gentlemen to disguise from themselves, that the present game laws were an intolerable grievance. That the increase of poaching had been their only effect, he held in his hand some returns, which, if the House would permit him to read, would strongly demonstrate. They were returns of the number of committals in Bedford, the small county which he had the honour to represent, for offences against the game laws during the last ten years. In 1809, there were four; in 1810 two; in 1811 four; in 1812 five; in 1813 five; in 1814 thirteen; in 1815 twenty-four; in 1816 thirty-three; in 1817 sixty-one; and in 1818 eighty. He particularly called the attention of the House to the growing and enormous increase of the four last, years. Notwithstanding all he had heard, he thought none would be tempted to purchase game from the poacher, but those who were equally disposed to rob a hen-roost. An hon. gentleman had talked of the desperate character of poachers: he would remind his hon. friend, that some years ago, when the ancient sanguinary enactments against it were in full force, deer-stealing was thought of, by the people of the country, more as a matter of good sport than of serious crime; it was viewed by them in the same light as poaching, under the same laws, was now. The ancient law, however, was altered; deer was permitted to be sold; and the consequence was, that persons were now as little liable to steal a deer as to steal a sheep. The gentlemen of England would not, surely, think of leaving their estates, because their game might probably be lessened. He thought the game laws unjust and improper, and he should therefore give his hearty approbation to the bill of his hon. friend.

Mr. George Bankes

rose, he said, with great hesitation to express his opinion on this bill. It must have occurred to every one, that it was from its nature impossible to put game under the same ascertained regulations and laws as other property. The honourable gentleman discussed the policy of the bill, which he thought not merely questionable, but in direct opposition to the interests of those whom they were called upon to protect: in particular, adverting to some of the clauses against the extreme severity of which he protested, he observed, that an hon. member who had most considered the subject, and was remarkable for his general character of humanity and feeling, had confessed, that if they erased those clauses, although thus severe, he could not carry his object into execution. If this bill passed into a law, all the enjoyment of sporting would be considerably cramped and diminished; its effect would be, that at no distant period game would become incredibly scarce; and one consequence of thus distinctly recognizing it as private property would be, that the clergy would claim their tithes upon it. Certainly they would claim every tenth pheasant and partridge. Strenuously as he opposed this bill however, if the principle of it could be so modified as to promote cordiality and good-will between the farmer and the landlord, it should not want his support.

Mr. Wilberforce

said, that whatever might be the views which he had taken of the subject, he had been satisfied of one thing—that his hon. young friend who had just sat down, had exhibited very great sagacity and much talent in the way in which he had considered the question. He only wished that he had spoken in a better cause. It was a well-known process of persuasion which the mind employed with itself, to shut itself against all the arguments on one side of a question, and to receive all those on the other side. His hon. friend had quite overlooked the fact, that there were in this country a very great number of persons who would have game on their tables, by some means or other; therefore they must either provide those persons with the means of obtaining that game, or they must leave the public exposed to the operation of all the crime and guilt by which it was at present procured. He well remembered that Dr. Franklin could not, it was said, look upon sugar without reflecting on the blood, the cruelty, and the anguish by which it was prepared, and with which its preparation was accompanied; now the same idea struck him, and he thought must strike every person, at the sight of game on the tables of those, who were, by consuming it, encouraging, perhaps unconsciously, the criminal practices of the poacher. It was manifest to him, that with the increasing wealth of the country, there must be an increased temptation to commit this offence. The House should recollect also, that in legislating on this subject, they might be considered as contending for their own interests, and against the interests of the community. He sincerely hoped that some change would be made in the present system of game laws, a change that would permit the fair indulgence of hospitality, and be less injurious to the practice of morality.

Mr. Henry Bankes

complained, that the principal points in his son's argument had been overlooked, or left unanswered, in the speech of his hon. friend. The operation of the bill now before the House would be to increase poaching in a tenfold degree. He could see nothing in the provision respecting licenses that would in the slightest degree tend to repress it. His hon. friend had contended that the prevalence of poaching was a reason for altering the law; but he must express his surprise at the quarter from which this argument proceeded. Was the practice of vice any reason for abolishing its punishment; and were not all offences against positive law to be regarded as criminal? If this bill were to pass, the work of poaching would go on, till, at the end of about four or five years, all the game would be destroyed, and the poacher be then induced to commit hardier crimes for his support. As to what had been said about the general law of Europe, he would take leave to say, that that general law was founded on the Roman law, by which no property was recognized in animals of a wild or unclaimable nature. In the year 1793, when new doctrines about the rights of man began to be promulgated, the French legislature passed a decree abolishing seignoral jurisdictions, manorial rights, &c. To celebrate this event, Te Deumwas ordered to be sung, and the monarch was invited to assist at its performance. The words of the new law were these:—"The right of taking and destroying game is free to all men on their own territories." The present bill would establish the same principle; but with this difference in its application—that whereas the French legislators provided that it should be allowed to the peasantry to take game by any means except fire-arms, the hon. gentleman had provided that fire-arms should be the only means of pursuing the occupation. The bill, he was confident, would be productive of the most dangerous consequences, although it was a sufficient ground for opposing it, that it introduced, without any prospect of advantage, a material alteration of the existing law.

Mr. Marryatt, Mr. Scarlett, and a new member (lord Clifton), rose together. Mr. Marryatt had first caught the Speaker's eye, but there was a general cry for the new member. A member suggested, that it was a matter of courtesy that a new member should be first heard. The Speaker observed, that the hon. gentleman was mistaken as to the practice of the House. In the first session of a parliament every member was a new member. Mr. Marryatt then proceeded amidst loud coughing, and cries of "Question," so that we could only collect that he supported the bill.

Lord Clifton

said, he was of opinion, that the thanks of the House and the country were due to the hon. mover of this bill, for his indefatigable zeal in bringing to light the evils of a system as pregnant with danger to the constitution as any that existed. It was a system in which the seeds of immorality were deeply laid, and flourished with a rank luxuriance. If game should be preserved and increase under the operation of this bill, as in his opinion it would, a certain advantage would be gained; but if, as some appeared to think, it would gradually decline, poaching must decline with it, and he preferred this latter result to a continuance of the present system. With regard to the effects of the late act, he would mention one circumstance indicative of its operation, which had come to his own knowledge. A poacher was prosecuted for a penalty of 25l. and immediately went to those who had bought the game of him, and threatened to lay informations against them if they did not reimburse him for his expenses. By this means he raised 40l., and was convicted in the penalty of 25l.

General Grosvenor

said, that this was a bill, not so much to amend the game laws, as to make game of the constitution. He was astonished that certain gentlemen on the other side bad kept their seats so long, instead of rising to give their opinions on this measure. This was any thing but a game bill, or a moral bill—it was a bill of a most dangerous tendency, as it went to put arms into the hands of all classes of people in the country. Such a measure ought to be looked to with great jealousy, and he was surprised not to have heard the opinions of his majesty's grave and learned counsel upon it. If this bill were carried, it would be necessary to keep up an additional force of 12,000 men, to provide against the danger to which it would subject the country.

The Marquis of Titchfield

thought the game laws, as they now stood, were nothing less than an oppression of the poor for the convenience and comfort of the rich. He trusted those statutes would not long hold out against the increasing liberality of the times. He fully concurred with the principle of the bill then before the House; but there was one clause in it to which he had a decided objection—it was that which went to legalise the sale of game. If this clause were altered, he would support the bill; but, as he understood it was considered essentially necessary, he felt himself bound to support the amendment.

Mr. Scarlett

said, that at that late hour he should not trouble the House at much length; but he thought it his duty briefly to state the grounds on which he should support the bill. They were all agreed that poaching was one of the greatest evils with which the country could be afflicted, and that it ought to be suppressed by all possible means. If he thought the present bill tended to encourage that in the slightest degree, he should certainly oppose it; but because he believed that the effect of it would be directly the reverse, he should support it. The measure went to give the tenant of the land some interest in the preservation of the game, which he considered to be the best moans of putting an end to poaching. All his experience on the subject showed him, that the tenant was at present an enemy to the preservation of the game on the land he occupied, because both the animals themselves, and the pursuit of them by strangers, injured his own crops and marred his labours. It was no profit to him, but, on the contrary, a continual source of annoyance and damage; accordingly, he rather winked at poaching than exerted himself to suppress it. It had come within his own knowledge that farmers, when wages were low, partly paid their labourers by allowing them to poach on their land at night. By the measure proposed, every tenant on a gentleman's estate would be made a game keeper. The game was, in effect, by this bill, made the property of the owner of the soil; as it vested the property in the occupier, with a power to the landlord to make an exception of it in the lease. The indifference of the people as to obeying or enforcing obedience to the existing game laws, proceeded from the opinion that it was common property: with this impression on his mind, the poor man felt that it was as just to impose penalties on the consumption of water or air as on the taking of game: he thought that what was the property of all was the peculiar property of none, and consequently looked on the game laws with no sort of respect. But if game was once made property, the people of England would look on it with the same eyes as on every other species of property. He did not mean to say that he did not think some parts of the bill objectionable; but whatever there was of that description might be removed in the committee. The principle of the bill was most excellent. He took it to be this— that it destroyed the qualification, and made game property—that it enabled every proprietor of land to secure the right of it to himself. A man that rented 500 acres, and paid 1,000l. a year to his landlord, was, by the present law, liable to every species of depredation from game, and in quest of game, and could not destroy it himself if he wanted a qualification. He could not believe that the sale of any article would have the effect of diminishing the quantity of it. He did not see that the sale of horses or cows produced that consequence; on the contrary, he was of opinion, that rendering the sale of game legal, would cause an increase to meet the increased demand. If this bill should pass into a law, his conviction was, that in the course of time the mass of the people would renounce the opinion they entertained of the severity and oppression of the game laws, and that they would learn to respect property in game.

Mr. Alderman Heygate

said, it was pretended that this bill tended to increase, rather than diminish game, a proposition which he could not assent to, because the bill went to increase the number of destroyers. He thought the morals of the people would be injured rather than improved by it. He conceived their morals would be better improved by the residence of gentlemen of property on their estates in the country, to which the exclusive privilege of destroying game was a principal inducement.

Mr. H. Sumner

opposed the bill. The learned gentleman opposite had defended the principle of the bill, by arguing, that poachers did not at present look on game as private property, and that if it were once understood to be property, it would be as much respected as poultry and pigs. He differed entirely in opinion from the learned gentleman. In that part of the country where he had the honour to act as a magistrate, whenever he had found a man robbing a hen-roost or a pig-sty, he had always discovered that that man was a notorious poacher. If poachers were conscious that game was as much property as any thing else, a moral feeling would not restrain them from committing depredations on it.

Mr. Brand

rose to reply. He said, that most of the objections he had heard had been directed against particular clauses; but he had heard none of any weight against the principle of the bill. There was one objection which he had heard with no small surprise, as it seemed to imply that the gentlemen of England returned into the country, not to cultivate the affections of their tenants, but for the trifling and contemptible object of enjoying the amusement of killing game. It had been justly remarked by Madame De Stael, that the influence of individuals in this country depended not on the splendor in which they lived in the metropolis, but on the influence which they possessed in the country. It was this, and not the trifling amusement (he ought, perhaps, to call it by a harsher name) of shooting game, that gave weight to the character of an English gentleman; and be hoped he should never more hear this argument urged. He was aware of the force of the objection which had been founded on the inordinate power which the bill gave to search for game'; and he had nothing to place against it but the moral feeling which he hoped to excite by the bill. The argument of the hon. gentleman who had so warmly opposed the measure, had produced in his mind no conviction as to the principle of the bill, although the hon. gentleman had displayed great ingenuity in attempting to shake it to pieces by attacking its details. The ruin of many of the most spirited and most promising young men in the country could be traced to the rigorous prohibition of the sale of game. One of the best labourers he had ever known had been executed for a most atrocious murder in consequence of this very evil. He had, while attempting to take lacks in a net, caught some game: he did not know where to dispose of it till he was directed by an acquaintance to a set of poachers, who, having thus obtained a power of informing against him, induced him by menaces and invitations to adopt a course of life which terminated in his execution at the last assizes in Chelmsford, for a most atrocious murder. All this had taken place in the course of three years. It was with a view to prevent the recurrence of such afflicting cases, that he had brought forward the present measure.

The question being put, that the words "bill be re-committed" stand part of the question, the House divided: Ayes, 59; Noes, 119. The bill was consequently lost.