HC Deb 09 February 1821 vol 4 cc554-62
Lord Belgrave

said, he rose to present a petition, complaining of the conduct of the high-sheriff of the county of Chester, at a late public meeting, which had been signed by 300 freeholders in the course of two days. As it would not be in his power to be present at the discussion of the motion relative to the conduct of sheriffs, which the hon. member for Northumberland meant to introduce on Wednesday next, he would take that opportunity of stating his opinion on the subject. Notwithstanding it was a question intimately connected with the rights of the subject, which appeared to him on some late occasions to have been materially invaded, he would not have troubled the House with his sentiments on it, if he had not deemed it to be his imperative duty, fearlessly, however feebly, to declare openly what his opinions were. The facts of the case were these—In consequence of a requisition, most respectably signed, the high-sheriff of Cheshire called a meeting at Northwich, on the 11th of Jan. last, of the nobility, gentry, clergy, and freeholders of the county, for the purpose of addressing his majesty. He would here observe, that the requisition desired that a meeting of the "inhabitants" of the county might be called, which term the high sheriff took upon himself to convert into the "freeholders." Now, although the high sheriff held the roll of the freeholders names, it was monstrous that the loyalty of any county should be supposed to be confined to the freeholders. The population of Cheshire was computed at 200,000, of which only about 2,000 were freeholders: so that a meeting of the freeholders alone was certainly an unjustifiably exclusive meeting. At the meeting an address, simply expressive of loyalty and attachment to the king and to the constitution, was moved and seconded. During the speeches of the mover and seconder, the utmost silence prevailed, except a trifling interruption at something having been said which was considered inimical to the liberty of the press. A noble relation of his (earl Grosvenor) then thought it his duty to come forward and propose an amendment. His noble relation was averse to any meeting at that time, but as one had been convened, he thought himself bound to attend. The moment of his noble relation's rising seemed to be the signal for general confusion. He was glad to see an hon. member for Cheshire present, as he would answer for the facts which he was now stating. That hon. member knew that he spoke only the truth when he said, that at the moment to which he alluded a scene of confusion instantly took place, such as no eye had seen, no ear heard, and no tongue could adequately tell. He spoke advisedly when he declared, that that confusion commenced by persons whose talents, property, rank, and consideration in the country, might have warranted the expectation of better things from them. He would not pursue that part of the subject further than by expressing his regret, that gentlemen of their character should have so demeaned themselves. The most violent abuse and outrage that could be conceived followed. And what was the nature of the amendment proposed by his noble relation, and which occasioned all this tumult? It began with expressions of loyalty to the king, and love for the constitution, went on with a detail of the grievous calamities under which the people suffered, proceeded to recommend the dismissal of his majesty's present advisers, and concluded with a hope that her majesty would be restored to all her just rights. Was not that true loyalty? Were not those fit subjects to lay before a public meeting? Was it not a loyal prayer to implore his majesty to attend to the almost unanimous wishes of a free and loyal people? The Queen, whatever might have been her conduct, had stood her trial, and the people of England thought she ought to have the benefit of her acquittal. Like Elizabeth, her predecessor, who, although he must call her the vilest of women, was one of the greatest of queens, her majesty had always exhibited her courage and constancy in situations of danger; and he trusted she would continue to do so. Many were the attempts which had been made to poison the royal ear on this subject. It had been represented to his majesty, that he was on the brink of a precipice—that he stood on a volcano—that he reigned over a band of conspirators. What could be more dangerous—what more injurious to the country, than such mis-statements? The people were rebels, or they were not. If they were rebels, inflict the blow before the culprits suspected its approach. If they were not rebels, why load a brave and generous nation with gross and unfounded I calumny? To goon, however, with the proceedings of the meeting. The amendment having been read, the high sheriff did not choose to put it. On being asked, if he would put to the meeting the relevancy of the amendment, he declined that also, taking on himself to judge of that relevancy. After a few other speeches, made amidst the greatest noise, the high sheriff put the question to the meeting on the original address. A number of persons certainly did hold up their hands in its favour; but many of those did so, conceiving that it was the amendment that was put; and the high sheriff, although there were many present who supported the amendment, refused to put the negative on the original motion, or to grant a division. He was not sufficiently acquainted with the individual who was the present high sheriff of the county of Cheshire, to know what were his political sen- timents. He understood, however, that he was a captain in a new yeomanry corps of cavalry, raised by Mr. Cholmondeley, who, it was said, expected to be made a peer. He hoped, however, that the House would consider the importance of the question, and the danger of allowing a high sheriff to follow the dictates of his own inclination on such occasions. In our happy and legal constitution, every thing was strictly laid down and defined. Where discretion in a public officer began, law, and the liberty and safety of the people ended. The power of a high sheriff, though indefinite, was not indefinable. No law or privilege could give to a high sheriff, or to any other man in the kingdom, a right to infringe the rights of others. The Bill of lights declared that it was the right of every Englishman to address and petition the king. That right had been materially obstructed in the present instance; and the people had in consequence been prevented from conveying their petition and sentiments to the royal ear. A great additional power had been placed in the hands of high sheriffs by the bills lately passed. He denied, however, that a high sheriff had a greater right to preside at a county meeting than any other individual. The very circumstance of his being called to the chair was a proof that he was not entitled to it as a matter of right. When he did sit there, however, he sat merely in a ministerial capacity. His duty was, not to act on his own opinion, but solely to collect the real opinion of the meeting. If such conduct as that of the high sheriff of Cheshire were tolerated, those who intended to make motions, or any remarks at a county meeting, would be obliged to send them over to the high sheriff for his approbation and signature. This was the more to be deprecated, because gentlemen knew there was such a thing as "a pocket sheriff;" but that was illegal. When a sheriff was appointed, it was always during the king's pleasure; and no sheriff retained his situation longer than until the appointment of a successor. It was true, that the usage was, to make a regular arrangement on the subject every year; but still the House would feel the importance of having the duties of a high sheriff distinctly defined. They all knew well that a corrupt government (he did not speak of the gentlemen opposite, but made the observation generally) always attempted to acquire a power proportioned to their deficiency of virtue. A corrupt sheriff and a corrupt ministry might coexist; and then, unless the duties of a sheriff were distinctly defined, the right of the people at public meetings to complain of their grievances would be entirely cut off; because the sheriff would not put any proposition which had not previously received his signature; and because he would refuse to affix his signature to any proposition complaining of grievances, since that would be to impugn his friends. He sincerely thanked the House for the indulgence with which they had listened to him, and begged leave to bring up the petition.

Mr. Egerton

said, that although he was present at the meeting, he was not sufficiently near the high sheriff to hear all the proceedings. He was sorry to observe, that those proceedings were not so quiet as it could have been wished they had been. At the same time, if any thing illegal had occurred, he thought the proper mode of redress would have been to appeal to the laws. He could answer for the independence of the present high sheriff of Cheshire, and that he would not be swayed in the discharge of his duty by any party feeling. That gentleman exerted himself as much as possible to keep order at the meeting, but in vain. With respect to the amendment which had been proposed by a noble earl, and to the consequent proceedings, he repeated, that he was not near enough to the chair to form an accurate opinion.

Mr. Bright

declared, that of all the rights possessed by the people, the right of addressing the Crown and of petitioning parliament was the most valuable; and that while he had a seat in that House, he would never allow an attempt to be made to infringe that right without reprobation. Some years ago, certain bills had passed with reference to the subject of public meetings, which were considered by the majority of that House to be necessary for the tranquillity of the country. At that period he had not the honour of a seat in parliament, or he should have expressed his opinion in hostility to those bills—They had considerably limited the right of petitioning; for they left to the high sheriff, the lord lieutenant, or other constituted authorities, to call meetings of the people. He would not now ask if a high sheriff was bound to call a meeting, on a requisition to that effect being presented to him? He allowed that legally he might, perhaps, not be so. But this he would unequivocally say, that if the high sheriff did actually call a meeting, and such meeting were assembled, it was his bounden duty to discharge his office with fidelity and impartiality. The high sheriff was bound to collect the sentiments of the meeting over which he presided. Was it to be endured, that a sheriff should fraudulently dispossess the people of one of their most valuable constitutional rights, by calling them together, and then, when placed in the chair, refusing to ascertain their real sentiments? The hon. gentleman had recommended leaving the subject to law. To what law? When was that law to be administered? When the people had been deluded in so gross a manner, were they quietly to wait until the judges went the circuit? And even then there might be no law, or only a law applying constructively to the subject. The true remedy for the people was an application to that House. Here, then, had been a public meeting called—an individual had placed himself in a situation to guide the proceedings of that assembly—and instead of honestly discharging his duty, he had deprived the people of one of their most valuable rights. Was not that a topic for that House to discuss? Ought not the high sheriff to be called to their bar to account for his conduct? If there was any one privilege for which our ancestors had fought and bled, and which he trusted neither we nor our posterity would tamely surrender, greater and more valuable than any other, it was the right of the people to represent their grievances by petition. It was a right which ought to be most carefully watched, for it was the very life-blood of the country. He begged to apologise for having expressed himself so warmly; but the result of all his constitutional reading was, to impress him with the highest veneration for this most invaluable privilege of the people: of England.

Mr. Bootle Wilbraham

, while he allowed that it was the bounden duty of that House carefully to watch over the sacred right of petitioning, denied that the present was a case which called for its interference. What were the facts of the case? The high sheriff of Cheshire, in: compliance with a requisition made to him, had called a meeting of the county, it which he himself presided, as he had a right to do; for he was surprised to hear the noble lord term the sheriff's being called to the chair a matter of courtesy; it being a notorious fact, that in all public meetings at which a sheriff was present, he invariably took the chair. The case at issue between the noble lord and himself, however, was simply this: if the high sheriff had acted harshly and with intentional partiality, then, undoubtedly, he was deserving of censure. But where was the proof of this? The noble lord had allowed that he did not know what were the political feelings of the present high sheriff of Cheshire, but appeared rather curiously to infer that he must be inclined to support the present administration from the fact that he was a captain in a corps of yeomanry. Would he say, that lord Fitzwilliam, or lord Spencer, or any other noblemen and gentlemen who held commissions in corps of a similar nature, must therefore be concluded favourable to the present administration? [Lord Belgrave observed, across the table, that it was a newly raised corps.] He was at a loss to understand what difference that made. He was not acquainted with the high sheriff; but he understood that he was a young man of independent character and fortune; and that he had never publicly committed himself on any political question. The noble lord and others thought that that gentleman's conduct had been incorrect. Although he (Mr. W.) was not present at the meeting, he had received an account of the proceedings from persons whom he had examined and cross-examined, and the result left no doubt on his mind, that the conduct of the high sheriff had been perfectly impartial. It was too much to impose on a high sheriff the responsibility of answering for the conduct of every person at a public meeting. The truth was, that at all public meetings there was occasional excess and riot. This sometimes took place among those who ought to know better. He had heard of a great public assembly of high character, some of the members of which, on its separation, degraded themselves by noise and hissing, and other symptoms of riot [cries of Hear, hear! from both sides of the House]. He was glad some hon. gentlemen seemed to take the hint, and he trusted they were by this time ashamed of their conduct. With respect to the question before the House, he could not consent to take any step upon it. All that the House knew was on one side; and he was persuaded they would not proceed on an ex parte statement.

Mr. Creevey

said, the sheriff having been requested to call a meeting, and having complied with that request, and an amendment being proposed at the meeting by earl Grosvenor, the matter for consideration was, did he refuse to put that amendment, or did he put it in the negative? If he did, there certainly was no law to punish him, and the only course was to call him to the bar of the House—a proposition which, if the noble lord, or some other member, did not introduce, he would himself submit to the House. The hon. gentleman had alluded to a scene which took place in that House at the close of the last session. He had stated that hisses were resorted to on that occasion. Now, he was present, and could affirm that there were no hisses. With respect to other demonstrations of feeling, such as cries of "Hear! hear!" and "Shame! shame!" he was happy to be recorded as one of those who used them; because, never was there a scene so injurious to the dignity of the Crown, so disgraceful to the character of the administration that sanctioned it, or so insulting to the members of that House.

Mr. Philips

observed, that from what he had heard of the conduct of the meeting, the high sheriff had acted with partiality, and the parties who were the cause of the uproar which prevented a noble earl from being heard, had acted in a manner extremely disgraceful to themselves. He hoped the House would vindicate its privileges, and order the high sheriff to attend at the bar.

Sir. J. Newport

was of opinion that the House had a right to interfere in a case of this nature. If sheriffs were to be permitted to invest themselves with this authority over county meetings, and to refuse, on the ground of their own will and caprice, to put any reasonable proposition which might be offered to them by those who were duly qualified to attend, there would at once be an end to those privileges, the exercise of which was reserved to the people by the first principles of the constitution. It would be idle to talk of the right of petition, if such proceedings were permitted to pass without receiving the censure of the House.

Mr Stuart Worthy

, although he did not think that the privileges of the House were endangered on this occasion, must fairly say, that he condemned the recent conduct of several high sheriffs. Those, gentlemen could not do any thing more detrimental, or more contrary to constitutional principles, than to refuse to call a county meeting on a requisition properly signed, and when there were no circumstances which could induce them to consider such a meeting as likely to be attended by consequences dangerous to the public peace. He trusted that it would be a lesson to sheriffs, whatever might be their political opinions, not to endeavour to prevent the people from exercising one of their most valuable privileges.

Lord Belgrave

explained, that the high sheriff had the command of a corps of Yeomanry embodied soon after the 16th of August, 1819. He merely mentioned this because, at the period to which he alluded, the same care was taken in making these appointments that was now! taken among the professors of exclusive loyalty in keeping every thing for themselves. To the high sheriff of Chester he had imputed no motives, but merely related a plain fact. His conduct had led to a protest on the part of several gentlemen who were present.

Ordered to lie on the table, and to be printed.