HC Deb 20 February 1821 vol 4 cc810-22
Mr. Creevey

rose for the purpose of submitting a motion, founded upon a petition from the freeholders of the county of Chester, which petition was presented to the House on the 9th instant. In the first place, he would move that that petition be read. [The petition was here read by the clerk.] He understood the case to be briefly this:—A meeting of the nobility, clergy, gentry, and freeholders of Cheshire was convened by the sheriff. At that meeting an address was submitted. An amendment to the address was moved and seconded by two noblemen, earl Grosvenor, and lord Crewe; the effect of which was to suggest another and a different address, deprecating the conduct of ministers, and requiring the restoration of her majesty's name to the Liturgy. Both addresses were equally loyal, but there was this material difference between them, that the one moved by lord Grosvenor entered into a little detail of facts and opinions, which it was thought right to submit to the consideration of his majesty, with regard to which the address on the other side was totally silent. The petitioners complained that the sheriff refused to put the address of lord Grosvenor at all, and also, that he would not allow the negative to be put upon the address of the other side, declaring on the first show of hands, that the majority of the meeting were in its favour, and immediately withdrawing himself from the chair. The petitioners further alleged, that the majority of the meeting were adverse to the original address, and decidedly for that of lord Grosvenor, as would have been testified had the sheriff put that address first, as they conceived it his duty, as that was an amendment upon the address originally proposed. If the allegations of the petitioners proved to be true, he apprehended that there could be no doubt, as to the propriety of some animadversion upon the conduct of the sheriff. When the allegations should be established in evidence, it would then be for the House to consider how a sheriff should be dealt with, who had thus interfered with the right of the people to petition. In the year 1680, the House bad come to a unanimous resolution, that any violation of the right of petitioning, by obstructing the people in the exercise of that right, or in any demand for the redress of grievances, was an unjustifiable act. There was also a precedent, which immediately followed, of a distinct censure pronounced by that House upon the conduct of sir George Jeffries, who, as recorder of London, had presumed to obstruct the citizens in the exercise of the right of petitioning. Here, then, were precedents directly applicable to the case to which this motion referred—the first containing an assertion of the right of the people to petition, the second the referring of a complaint upon the subject of this right to a committee of the House, and the third conveying a just animadversion upon an individual, by whom that right had been violated. Now, upon these precedents he proposed to act; and therefore, he should in the first instance, move for the reference to a select committee, of the petition presented to the House on the 9th instant, from certain freeholders of Cheshire, with power on the part of that committee to examine evidence touching the allegations of the petition, and with instructions to report thereupon. The precedents which he had quoted running, according to the common expression, on all fours with the case to which he had to call the attention of the House, he could not apprehend any objection to his motion. Whether the statement of the petitioners were well or ill-founded would appear from the examination and report of the committee; and upon that report being presented, it would be for the House to determine as to any subsequent proceeding. If the allegations of the petition were established in evidence, the House would decide how the sheriff should be dealt with. This, then, would be matter for consideration upon a future day. At present, the sheriff alluded to appeared to have been guilty of a gross violation of the right of petitioning, and therefore the House was particularly called upon to take cogni- zance of the charge against him. There was, indeed, in the circumstances of the present times, a very forcible reason why that House and the public should be peculiarly jealous of the right of petitioning. From the obnoxious acts which had not long since been passed, it was evident that ministers and their adherents, were peculiarly jealous of any expression of the public opinion. So, indeed, the noble lord (Castlereagh) manifestly was, when he solely and emphatically dwelt upon those addresses from corporations and clergymen which made such a figure in the London Gazette. But while corporations and clergymen were at liberty to express their opinions and to present their addresses, was it too much to desire that the same liberty should be possessed by the people at large? That the sentiments of the people were adverse to ministers was matter of notoriety. He would dare even the noble lord to dispute the fact. But how could those sentiments be expressed if a sheriff, who was one of the few persons at present authorized to convene a public meeting, were allowed to act as the sheriff of Chester was accused of having done in this case If such conduct were indeed overlooked, ministers having the appointment of the sheriffs, and possessing considerable influence in the appointment of most corporate officers, their wish to suppress the voice of the people might be gratified by very easy management. Let the corporations and the clergy declare any opinion they might entertain; but at the same time, such men as lords Grosvenor and Crewe, as well as the petitioners before the House, should have an opportunity also of expressing their opinions upon public affairs. If what were called the loyal addresses contained the foulest abuse upon the nation, was it to be endured, that the people should be prohibited, not only from addressing their sovereign, but from speaking even in their own defence? Let the House hear extracted from the London Gazette, the language of the loyal clergy and gentry of Chester. Here the hon. gentleman read the following extract "Now, when the disaffected are almost unfurling the standard of rebellion, when the blasphemer is aiming to overthrow the Altars of his God; we feel it to be the duty of all to come forward and defend our well-poised constitution, and our holy faith." There was an address, too from the members of the loyal Wellington club at Stockport. This club, instituted in honour of the great captain of the age, contributed freely to the columns of the Gazette their assumptions of peculiar loyalty, their abuse of their fellow-citizens, and their political horror of blasphemy. Earl Grosvenor and the great body of the county were therefore desirous of expressing their loyal sentiments; but the sheriff had not thought that they were entitled to this satisfaction. He begged to call the attention of the House to another address. It was from the corporation of Harwich represented in that House by the president of the board of control, and the chancellor of the exchequer. Harwich was a regular treasury borough, and would have as readily returned the two chiefs who had come to this country from New Zealand, as the two right hon. gentlemen opposite, provided there should be no suspension of the usual facilities between them and the treasury. "The name of your majesty's royal progenitor, (say these addressers) the many virtues which enriched and adorned his character, were but so many pledges that in his immediate successor, the first object of his anxious solicitude would be the preservation of external peace, and internal tranquillity. On the assumption of the regal character, your majesty openly manifested such desire, and the voice of gratulation, which on that occasion was first heard in the centre, struck upon the heart of every faithful subject, and was quickly reverberated from the remotest extremities of the empire." Pretty well this for oyster-sellers! "Lawless and designing men have, however, since availed themselves of extrinsic and adventitious circumstances, and with unceasing vituperation sought to disturb your majesty's repose, to deride your councils, to trample under foot our holiest institutions and to undermine the fabric of our happy constitution. Enlinked with blasphemy, disloyalty dares to rear a shameless front, and under the feigned terms of reform in parliament and amelioration of government, means only to level all orders among men, to dissolve the social compact, destroy the grand palladium of British freedom, and to institute in their stead a reign of terror and confusion."—This address was transmitted to the chancellor of the exchequer, who, from some feeling as to the eulogium it contained upon himself and his colleagues, might have declined to present it. But, notwithstanding the absurdities with which it teemed, he had no objection whatever that it should be framed and glazed, for the edification of ministers and their advocates. All he desired was that such men as lords Grosvenor and Crewe should be allowed to give public expression to their sentiments, as well as the loyal, rotten borough of Harwich. He knew nothing of the gentleman who was high sheriff of Chester. All he knew was, that if the petition was true, the sheriff had done wrong, and he hoped that the House would prevent the repetition of such wrong. The hon. gentleman then moved, "That the said petition, complaining of the conduct of the sheriff of the county of Chester, be referred to a Select Committee, to examine the matter thereof, and to report the same, with their opinion thereupon, to the House."

Mr. Davenport

said, that not having been present at the meeting referred to, he hoped he should be excused for offering a few observations. The sheriff was as independent in character and fortune as any man in the county, and if he had acted wrong it was only an error in judgment. He had never heard that he was a party man. Was it to be said that he was a party man because he was connected with a yeomanry corps? That yeomanry corps had been raised by a subscription at a county meeting convened for that purpose. A committee had then been appointed, not only for the management of the funds, but the nomination of officers. If it was a party corps, it was an extraordinary party, for whigs and torries had subscribed. The House should recollect, before they agreed to 6uch a motion, that it was no trifling matter to drag the high sheriff up to attend a committee of that House. The office of high sheriff was an arduous, and generally a thankless office.

Mr. Egerton

said, that as soon as the petition was known in the county, the high sheriff had written a letter explaining his conduct, which, with permission of the House, he would read. The letter was hastily written, as little time was left for explanation of the circumstances. [Hear the hon. member read the letter] The high sheriff admitted that he had acceded to earl Grosvenor's proposal to adjourn the meeting to the fields, believing the Salt-house to be too small: but that, on a representation by others that the place that might be fixed on would be previously occupied, he resolved to hold the meeting in the Salt-house, but in the mean time insisted on all persons, of whatever party, being removed out of it. Having exerted himself alike for each party, he regretted to say that he had been unsuccessful in obtaining them a hearing. He denied that he had refused to put the amendment. From his ignorance of the parliamentary manner of putting such questions, he had not been aware that the amendment ought first to be put, and he had therefore put the address. The address having been carried by a large majority, there was no room to put the amendment. He was not so presumptuous as to think that he had not erred; but he was sure that he had acted according to the best of his judgment. This was the statement of the high sheriff, and many who had been present at the meeting were ready to prove the same facts, if required to do so. It had been objected that "freeholders" had been substituted for "inhabitants" in the requisition. Mr. Potts, the under sheriff, had written an explanation of this matter. In the original requisition it had been "nobility, clergy, &c." The high sheriff, when he directed a meeting to be called, wrote to Mr. Potts—"You will take care that the &c's. be filled up in the usual way." Mr. Potts stated, that he had been many years in the habit of making up such documents, and had used always the same terms. If there was any blame it rested with him, not with the high sheriff.

Mr. Gipps

hoped the House would not think it necessary to notice the conduct of the high sheriff, unless something more serious were established against him. The case as it now appeared was, that lord Grosvenor and the petitioners had been outnumbered, and felt sore in consequence. If they did not like the manner in which the meeting was conducted, why could they not have withdrawn to some other place and voted counter-resolutions?

Mr. Philips

said, that the only object of his hon. friend was, to make some provision against the recurrence of such conduct as the petitioners complained of. As to the approbation of his conduct, upon which the high sheriff professed to rely, that approbation came only from one quarter. There was not a single individual on the other side whose appro- bation he had received. Under all the circumstances, he thought the motion should be acceded to.

Mr. Bootle Wilbraham

thought that this was not a matter in which the House could constitutionally interfere. In cases where the privileges of the House were concerned, they had the power of calling the party offending to the bar. The sheriff was undoubtedly amenable to the House in all cases of election, but he was not aware that the House could constitutionally exercise any control over the sheriff in other cases. It certainly did not appear from Black-stone, that the sheriff was subject to the control of this House in any matters except those connected with the election of knights of the shire. He begged not to be understood as wishing to abridge the privileges of the House; but the facts of the present case did not appear to him to justify their interposition. The sheriff was a gentleman whose impartiality and purity of conduct were unquestionable, He was persuaded that he went to the meeting with a firm determination to do his duty with impartiality. One of the charges against him was, that he did not summon the inhabitants, though required to do so; another, that he refused to put the amendment, Now, he did not know what law there was to compel a sheriff to put the amendment. As to the other charge, that he refused to divide the meeting, but contented himself with a shew of hands, the usual mode of taking the sense of a meeting was by a shew of hands, and the constitutional appeal from the sheriff's decision was to a poll; but this was a case which did not admit of a poll. He believed the fact was, that the room in which the meeting took place was so full, that it was next to impossible to divide. He certainly regretted that the sheriff had not allowed his noble friend to be heard; at the same time he must observe that some expressions which had been used by his noble friend were received with strong marks of disapprobation, and might account therefore for his not obtaining a hearing. He trusted the House would not yield to this motion, and by so doing afford a triumph to those tribunes of the people who had liberty in their mouths, but anarchy in their hearts.

Mr. Curwen

said, it was of the utmost importance, that the right of petitioning should not be violated, that the country might know whether the noble lord op- posite and his colleagues did or did not possess the confidence of the people. If it were in the power of the Sheriff to refuse to take the decision of a meeting, material injury would arise, both to the people and to this House, as it would prevent them from hearing the sentiments of their constituents. Had the object of this motion been to censure the conduct of the sheriff, he should not have been willing to go that length in the first instance; but, as it went merely to inquire into his conduct, he thought the motion ought to be acceded to.

Mr. Wynn

said, that the first point upon which the conduct of the sheriff was arraigned, was, that he had called a meeting of the nobility, gentry, and freeholders, and not of the freeholders and inhabitants. Now, he contended, that in so doing, the sheriff had only discharged his duty; for he believed the practice of summoning the inhabitants to county meetings was of very recent date. A county meeting, in the constitutional sense, was a meeting of the freeholders of the county, of those persons only who had a right to attend the county court. As to the charge, that the sheriff did not put the amendment, he really was not aware that the forms of that House, however excellent, were of such high authority, that every public meeting in the kingdom was bound to copy them. It appeared that an amendment to the original address had been proposed by lord Grosvenor, and that the sheriff, instead of putting the amendment in the first instance, had taken the sense of the meeting upon the original address. Now, he really could not see why the sense of the meeting might not be as fairly collected in this way as by following the forms of that House. There was another charge against the sheriff, that he had refused a division when it was called for. Now he had heard of a great many county meetings, but he had never heard of a division taking place at such a meeting. The objection was perfectly frivolous, and honourable members, who knew how much time a division occupied in that House, must be aware that the numbers at a county meeting could scarcely be counted on a winter's day. He thought the sheriff had exercised no more than a legal discretion, and that, whether legal or otherwise, his conduct ought not to become the subject of inquiry in that House.

Lord Belgrave

said, he was present at the meeting, and certainly there was a material difference between the terms of the requisition as it had been read by the hon. member for Cheshire, and the terms which were actually employed. The hon. gentleman had stated it to be a requisition for a loyal address to his majesty; but the words of the requisition were, "We, the undersigned, call upon you to eonvene a meeting, for the purpose of declaring to his majesty the sentiments of loyalty and attachment to the throne which animate the breasts of the inhabitants of this county." He was sorry to hear it denied by the sheriff, that he had refused to put the amendment; for the fact was, that he had distinctly said, "I take upon myself to refuse putting the amendment to the meeting.". He regretted that he was obliged to complain of the conduct of several gentlemen with whom he had the pleasure of being personally acquainted, but without entering into details, he would only observe, that so extraordinary was the behaviour of some of those gentlemen, and so great was the confusion, that though he was close to the chair, he could not hear the vote of thanks to the sheriff. The sheriff withdrew precipitately from the hall, and the whole transaction reflected disgrace upon the county to which he had the honour and the happiness to belong. The two important points were, that the sheriff had first refused to put the amendment, and next, that he had not allowed a division, though in truth there ought to have been little difference of sentiment, since the address and the amendment, rightly viewed, were hardly distinguishable. he was anxious that the authority of the sheriffs of counties should be supported, as he knew that it was as important to a county that its sheriffs should be looked up to with respect, as it was to the city of London that it should have a magnificent lord mayor. But, he wished the House to remember in what manner the sheriffs had formerly been chosen by the people, and he wished them to look carefully at any proceedings that went to make them act as the mere instruments of the Crown. Up to the 9th of Edward 2nd the sheriffs were always chosen by the people, as much as members of parliament were at present. He shewed how this right had fared in different parts of the kingdom. In the county of Westmor- land, it was vested in one noble individual, and a countess of Pembroke had actually sat as sheriff on the bench with the Judges. This might seem strange to Englishmen, but not so strange to foreigners. He was led to this conclusion, from having the other day accompanied a foreigner to the House of Lords, who on seeing the bench of bishops, had asked, "if they were not peeresses who sat there in there own right." If the sheriff complained of, had been in an error, his conduct ought to meet with reprehension. He thought the House ought to reprehend the conduct of the sheriff, and declare that the amendment ought to have been put, and the division called for granted.

Mr. Warre

was convinced that the sheriff of Chester had not acted with any intentional partiality, even if he had erred on a point of form. He must therefore oppose the motion.

Lord Castlereagh

felt that no case had been made out to impeach the conduct of the individual in question. No insinuation had been uttered against the intentions of the sheriff, and his letter bespoke a mind of the utmost candour and liberality. He protested against the doctrine, that whenever a charge was brought forward casting even the remotest doubt, an inquiry ought instantly to be commenced. If the House suffered itself to be dragged into such investigations, they must be interminable. He should be sorry indeed to see county meetings in any way discouraged, because from them the public sentiment was to be collected; but it was to he remembered that, by law, the sheriff was invested with a discretion whether he would or would not call them, and no more effectual mode could be adopted to induce him to decide against them, than to threaten that his conduct as president, however impartial, should be made the subject of complaint and inquiry, provided he were guilty of the slightest breach of the most insignificant forms. Besides, such a jurisdiction did not in fact belong to the House of Commons. If the conduct of sheriffs at county meetings was to be made the subject of the labour of committees, in what way were other assemblies whether convened by lords lieutenants, by magistrates, or in private rooms, to be excluded. The presidents of all these might in turn be brought before the House, whose functions were ill qualified for such a duty. With regard to relevancy, who was to decide what was or was not relevant? At a late meeting in Middlesex regarding the Queen, that great reformer, the veteran major, had introduced the topic of a change in the representation: and the subject of the Queen and parliamentary reform, to say the least of it, seemed quite as nearly allied as the original address moved in Cheshire and the amendment attempted to be substituted in its place.

Mr. A. Moore

thought it of the highest importance, that the House should inquire whether the sheriff in this instance had violated a public principle, or merely deviated from a formal rule. Contradictory statements had been submitted to them, and it therefore became necessary, in order to get at the facts, that the subject should be referred to a committee. That some further explanation was desirable, had, he thought, become obvious. An hon. member had observed, that he should have been more inclined to pay attention to this complaint, had the sheriff refused to convene the county. Now to him it appeared that a refusal to collect and to ascertain the sense of the county when it was assembled, called still more loudly for the notice of that House. It was far from his intention to dispute the respectability of the sheriff's character; indeed, that respectability added to the importance of not suffering his example to become a precedent. It had been urged that the practice of convening counties under the authority of the sheriff was but of recent dale. He agreed that they had no judicial power over such assemblies:—they were in a situation similar to that which they held in their county courts. In the latter case the jury, and in the former the freeholders, were the judges. The office, of sheriff was purely ministerial; when he refused, therefore, to put an amendment, he exercised a discretion with which he was not invested. The persons assembled, and not the sheriff, were to pronounce an opinion on the relevancy or non-relevancy of the proposition submitted to them. It was to that House alone that the people could look for redress of a grievance of this nature. A court of law could afford none; but the animadversion of the House, and a recorded statement of its opinion, could hardly fail to prevent a repetition of the abuse.

Mr. Creevey

then shortly replied. The object of his motion was the encouragement of county meetings. If a sheriff could refuse to put the question upon an amendment, he could not see what occasion he had to call the meeting at all. He regretted that an hon. gentleman (MY. Wynn) should have lent the sanction of his authority to this doctrine—a doctrine by which what was called a loyal address might be represented as containing the sentiments of the county, although it libelled two-thirds of the people, and charged them with the vilest blasphemy and sedition. The sheriff of Derby, and the sheriff of Oxford, had not acted under the guidance of this new light, but had considered it to be their duty to offer amendments to the meeting, those amendments having been regularly moved and seconded. In now pressing his motion he was actuated by no vindictive feeling towards the gentleman whose conduct was the subject of discussion; but he thought the House owed it to their constituents to uphold the sacred right of petition, and to express their disapprobation of the course adopted in this instance.

The House divided: Ayes 65; Noes 122. Majority 57.

List of the Minority.
Allen, J. H. Hutchinson, hon. C. H.
Althorp, lord
Becher, W. W. Lambton, J. G.
Bright, H. Lennard, T. B.
Bury, visct. Lushington, Dr.
Calvert, C. Maberly, J.
Campbell, hon. F. Macdonald, J.
Caulfield, hon. H. Marjoribanks, S.
Clifton, lord Martin, J.
Crespigny, sir W. Monck, J. B.
Davies, T. H. Moore, A.
Denison, W. J. Moore, P.
Duncannon, visct. Newport, sir J.
Ellice, E. O'Callaghan, J.
Farquharson, A. Ord, W.
Fergusson, sir R. Ossulston, lord
Graham, S. Palmer, C. F.
Grant, J P. Phillips, J. R.
Gordon, R. Price, R.
Griffiths, J. Ramsden, J. C.
Guise, sir W. Rice, G.
Hamilton, lord A. Robarts, A.
Harbord, hon. E. Robarts, G.
Heathcote, G. J. Robinson, sir G.
Hill, lord A. Rumbold, C.
Hobhouse, J. C. Sefton, earl of
Hony wood, W. P. Stanley, lord
Hornby, E. Taylor, M. A.
Howard, hon. W. Tennyson, C.
Hughes, W. L. Western; C. C.
Hume, J. Wharton, J.
Whitmore, W. W. TELLERS.
Wilson, sir R. Creevey, Thos.
Wood, ald. Philips, G.
Wyvill, M. PAIRED OFF.
Shelley, sir J.