HC Deb 24 April 1823 vol 8 cc1253-60
Mr. Coke presented

the following petition:

"To the honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in Parliament assembled.

"The petition of the nobility, gentry, and others of the county of Norfolk, county meeting assembled, this 3rd day of January, 1823,

"Most humbly sheweth,

"That your petitioners have always been ready to make any sacrifices which were necessary to the defence of their country, and to the safety and dignity of their sovereign's throne; but that they are now impelled by their well-known, indescribable and unmerited sufferings, to approach your honourable house with an humble prayer, that you will be pleased to adopt the best means of relieving them from those sufferings:

"That, in proceeding to suggest those means, which they do, with the greatest respect and deference, your humble petitioners cannot disguise from themselves, and they will not disguise from your honourable House, that they entertain a fixed opinion, that this now unhappy country owes all its calamities to the predominance of certain particular families, who, since the passing of the Septennial act, have, by degrees, appropriated to themselves a large part of the property and revenue of the whole nation; and who have, at last, by taxes, debts and changes in the currency, involved themselves as well as the whole of this industrious community, in difficulties too great to be removed by the hand of time, or by any but the most vigorous measures of legislation:

"That, whether we look at the church, the army, the courts of law, the customs, the excise, the colonies, or the crown-lands, we see in each a channel of enormous emoluments to these particular families, for whose benefit and aggrandizement, more than for any thing else, the whole of these sources of riches would appear to exist. And that, therefore, though justice and necessity demand a reduction of the interest of the debt, and an equitable adjustment of all other contracts, your humble petitioners would deem such reduction an act of deep iniquity, and they deem such adjustment wholly impracticable, as long as these particular families enjoy those emoluments, and as long as they retain in the legislature that absolute sway which they have acquired through the means of the Septennial act, in conjunction with the notorious and scandalous abuses connected with the representation:

"That it is well known to your honourable House, that, for more than twenty years, the particular families received a large part of the above-mentioned emoluments out of the money borrowed from the fundholders; that, during that period, more than a million of money was taken out of the loans to be given to the church; and that, in fact, no inconsiderable part of the whole of the loans went into the pockets of these families; and, therefore, your petitioners will not suppose it possible for your honourable house to harbour an intention to take even a single shilling from the fundholders, so long as these families shall continue to receive those emoluments.

"Your petitioners, therefore, most humbly pray, that your honourable House will be pleased to pass an act for causing an efficient reform in the Commons House of parliament, in order that such parliament, may adopt the measures necessary to effect the following purposes:—1. An appropriation of apart of the public property, commonly called church-property, to the liquidation of the debt. 2. A reduction of the standing army, including staff, barracks and colleges, to a scale of expense as low as that of the army before the last war. 3. A total abolition of all sinecures, pensions, grants, and emoluments, not merited by public services. 4. A sale of the numerous public estates, commonly called crown lands, and an application of the money towards the liquidation of the debt. 5. An equitable adjustment with regard to the public debt, and also with regard to all debts and contracts between man and man.

"But, while your humble petitioners are aware, that, to reform the Commons House, and to effect the other purposes of justice and necessity, which they have here most respectfully pointed out, may require a lapse of months, they know, that your honourable House have the power, and they will not believe that you want the will, to afford them immediate protection against further ruin. They, therefore, seeing the pressing nature of their case, seeing the abject misery that hourly awaits them, pray, that your honourable House will be pleased, 1. To suspend, by law, for one year, all distraints for rent, and to cause distraints to be set aside where they have been begun. 2. To suspend all process for tithes, for the same period. 3. To suspend, for the same period, all processes arising out of mortgage, bond, annuity, or other contract affecting house or land. 4. To repeal the whole of the tax on malt, hops, leather, soap, and candles.

"These measures, so analogous to others, taken by your honourable House under circumstances far less imperious; these measures, so easily adopted, so free from the possibility of inflicting wrong, pad, at the same time, so necessary to relieve your petitioners from the daily alarm in which they live, so necessary to afford, them a hope of escaping from the pains and disgrace of the lowest pauperism and beggary; to believe that these measures, measures of bare protection from further wrong and ruin; to believe that these will be refused to your suffering pe- titioners, would be, to suppose the existence of that callousness of heart which your petitioners are far indeed from imputing to your honourable House.

"Having thus, with the most profound respect, submitted to your honourable House those which they deem the best means for relieving their distresses, your humble petitioners, though they are satisfied that evils so unusual and of such uncommon magnitude require remedies of a nature extensive and extraordinary, beg leave to assure your honourable House, that they venerate the constitution of their fathers, that they seek for no change in the form of the government, that they know how many ages of happiness and of glory their country enjoyed under a government of king, lords, and commons, that they fervently hope that this constitution may descend to their children; but that they are fully convinced, that, unless the present evils be speedily arrested and effectually cured, a convulsion must come, in which the whole of this ancient and venerable fabric will be crumbled into dust. And your petitioners will ever pray"

Mr. M. A. Taylor

said, he had only one word to offer upon this petition, which was one of the most extraordinary and unprecedented nature. Though he had been for many years, and still was, a steady advocate for parliamentary reform, he was sure that there was scarcely one gentleman in that House who would not consider such a petition adverse, instead of being; favourable to that great cause. He was therefore particularly sorry that such a petition should have been presented at all, and especially on that evening. Those who agreed in opinion with him, could only look upon the petition as a mockery and farce. A petition containing such a mass of absurdities such a tissue of false statements, and such a farrago of inconclusive reasoning could only be offered to the House by the firm and decided enemies of parliamentary reform. It went to a direct revolution in church and state; and on that account, though he had advocated the cause of reform from year to year, though he thought that the safety of the country would be certain if it were properly carried into elect, and that that safety would be at least problematical if it were not, he would still, if he thought the advocates of reform entertained opinions similar to those entertained in this petition, turn round and say, "Away with any reform for me: I will in future oppose it as strenuously as I have hitherto supported it steadily and sincerely" [Hear].

Mr. H Gurney

said, that though this petition was, in form, the petition of the county of Norfolk, it was, in point of fact, the petition of a very celebrated individual, who had lately done them the honour of becoming a Norfolk freeholder—Mr. William Cobbett.—The hon. member stated, that happening to pass at the time, he had been present at the county meeting as a spectator; that when be entered the Hall, Mr. Cobbett appeared to be speaking with the most violent gesticulations, from one end of the hustings; areverend gentleman was speaking apparently with equal energy from the other; and the under sheriff was reading from a large paper in the middle; whilst, from the unintermitted clamour of the circle that surrounded them, it appeared to him, that not one of them knew that the others were also holding forth.—The hon. member said, that he had been informed by a gentleman, who was on the hustings from the beginning, that about five hundred persons from the clubs in Norwich, had attended the meeting—about one hundred and fifty to support Mr. Cobbett, and about double the number to prevent his being heard. These opposing parties introduced themselves between the hustings and the body of freeholders in the hall—who were supposed to be five or six thousand—the most numerous and respectable assemblage he had ever witnessed; but who certainly heard not a syllable of the petition; who neither held up their hands for it, nor against it; but who, in fact, remained in total ignorance of any question having been put.—The hon. member said, that he saw Mr. Cobbett flourish a paper over his head, but had no conception, until he was told of it afterwards, that it was at that moment that his petition had been carried.

This, Mr. Gurney said, he was informed was effected by about five hundred hands near the hustings being held up in its favour, and about two hundred against it; the greater number of those who voted for it doing so by mistake, and one gentleman, a baronet, in his great zeal against Mr. Cobbett's petition, when the question was put in its favour, holding up both his hands. It was, however, a very good humoured meeting: every body was laughing. But though this was certainly not the petition of the county of Norfolk, Mr. Gurney said, he considered it peculiarly wor- thy the attention of the House. It came from one of the most acute and most powerful writers of the day—one who always catching the bearing of whatever he attacked, by the extreme clearness of his language and by his forcible manner of putting undeniable truths, mixing them up with the grossest exaggeration, and artfully keeping out of view every thing which might make against his argument,—had obtained an influence over a considerable mass of public opinion. Mr. Cobbett had long been proclaiming that he was the only individual in existence who could set this country free from its difficulties. He had hitherto abstained from informing us the manner in which he proposed to effect so desirable an end; and we now, at last, find by this petition; that, arriving at his conclusion—through statements of evils and abuses, none of them entirely to be denied—but piling exaggeration on exaggeration, and deducing fallacy from fallacy, Mr. Cobbett's grand remedy was, to put the laws in abeyance for one year, and during that interval, to elect a national convention, not only to re-model the state, and to settle all accounts between government and individuals, but to adjust every contract and every transaction between man and man. Seeing that the hon. member for Norfolk had not thought fit to do it, as the petition of that county—he would move that it be printed.

Ordered to lie on the table and to be printed.

Mr. Coke

said, he had now to present from the same county, petitions of a different description to that which the House had just heard, and the subscribers to which disowned all connection with what had been called the county petition. The hon. member then presented petitions from the hundreds of Launditch, North Greenhoe, Brothercross, and North Espingham calling for a reform of parliament, complaining of agricultural distress, and declaring their disapprobation of the sentiments contained in the county petition. On moving that they be laid on the table, the hon. member expressed his anxiety to say a few words. The meeting, at which Mr. Cobbett's petition was carried, was as respectable a meeting as any that he had ever attended; and the requisition on which it was called was most respectably signed by yeomanry of the county. He had attended the meeting because he felt it to be his duty to do so, from the situation which he occupied, as member for the county; but he had previously told the requisitionists that he was sorry that the subject of reform was to be brought under the consideration of the meeting. He agreed with the petition which the requisitionists proposed in every" point except one, and that was, the point relative to the fundholders. He then described the confusion of the meeting, and stated, that though he stood within two yards of Mr. Cobbett, and was most anxious to hear what that individual said, he could scarcely collect a word that he uttered: for as soon as that individual came forward, great uproar and tumult ensued. To obtain attention he cried out, "Here's immediate relief for you—this will indeed be reform—this will fill your bellies —this will prevent your beds from being taken from under you." These were very pleasant words no doubt; but he would ask, how was Mr. Cobbett to do that for the agriculturists of Norfolk which the agriculturists of Norfolk were not able to do for themselves? He contended that a very great majority of the county of Norfolk, disclaimed Mr. Cobbett's petition wholly and entirely, and, that being the case, he was sorry to see his hon. friend, the member for Durham, take the notice of this petition that he had done; for could he suppose that there was no probity in the county of Norfolk? It was because he knew the sentiments of the county to be in direct opposition to the petition, that he had not made a single remark in presenting it. In conclusion, he stated, that he fully agreed with his hon. friend, that Mr. Cobbett was one of the greatest enemies of all rational reform.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

said, that whatever quarter such a petition might come from, when it was presented to that House it could not be too strongly or too severely reprobated.

Mr. James

rose, to say, that in his opinion the county of Norfolk had clone itself high honour by agreeing to this petition. [a laugh]. He expected to be laughed at in that House for making such a declaration; but he knew that he should not be laughed at for it out of doors. If he had, wanted any proof of the honour which the county of Norfolk had done itself by supporting this, petition, he should have found, it in this singular fact—that, much as it had been scouted, laughed at, and abused, no man had yet been found who could contradict its allegations, or refute the reasoning by which they were supported.

Lord C. Townshend

censured the revolutionary principles contained in the Norfolk petition.

Mr. Hume

said, that though he disapproved of the paragraphs in the petition, relating to the funds and to the equitable adjustment of contracts, he must still maintain that the property of the church was public property, intended for the support of religion; and. that if a larger portion was bestowed upon the church than was necessary, the House had a right to abridge and reduce it: He did not mean to say that the church of England had a greater share of property than was necessary to its support. What he complained of was, the manner in which that property was distributed and appropriated. There was a wide difference, however, between the church of England and the church of Ireland. In the latter country, the church had certainly more property than it ought to have; but in England, he did not believe that it had more than was wanted to maintain its clergy.

Ordered to lie on the table: