HC Deb 29 April 1825 vol 13 cc300-8
Mr. Stuart Wortley

moved the order of the day for the third reading of this bill.

Sir John Shelley

said, he thought that this subject had not been very fairly treated on former occasions, either by his hon. friend who had introduced the bill, or the right hon. Secretary of State for the Home Department, who had spoken upon it. The argument which was urged in support of this bill seemed to be two-fold: first, that the existing game laws filled our gaols with criminals; and secondly, that the paining of the bill would do away entirely, or very nearly, with the crimes for which persons offending against such existing laws were now so frequently committed. This he did not believe to be the case. The greatest number confined under the existing laws was 1,200. That was in the years 1818, 1819, and 1820. In his opinion, this was owing, not to the actual system of game laws, but because, at the period alluded to, agriculture was at the lowest state of depression, and many who could not procure employment betook themselves to poaching. The number of those imprisoned for this offence was now reduced to 520. This striking fact enabled him to deny that these laws were impolitic, and had filled the gaols. He objected to the clause in the bill which gave the lords of free warrens and chases a property in them, and enabled them to let or demise these privileges to others. From this and other features in it, he could not help looking at this bill, which professed to be for the advantage of the many against the present restrictions of the few—this popular, this democratic bill, as he might almost term it—as a bill which, in effect, was more ultra-aristocratical than any of the existing game statutes. He would therefore move, by way of amendment, that the bill be read a second time that day six months.

Sir John Brydges

said, that, having so fully expressed his opinion of this bill, he should now detain the House with only a few observations. None of the alterations in its clauses had operated on his mind to make the measure more palatable; and he continued as much opposed to the principle as ever. And as to the details of the bill, he was sure, if it passed, they would be inoperative. Honourable members argued, that the game laws were productive of much demoralization, and therefore it was requisite that an alteration should be made in them. He had no objection to emend, where amendment was required but he did object to destroying them; that was, to alter them, so as to make them of a different nature. If a house wanted repairing, he was ready to repair it: if imputation of a limb was necessary, it should be accomplished; but to bring about this object, it was not requisite to destroy the body. He did not mean to say that the hon. member who had brought in this bill was not actuated by the best; motives, and was not, in every respect, qualified for the task he had undertaken; but he thought, that though a liberal policy upon all occasions was desirable, yet that we were going too far in attacking institutions, so as fundamentally to destroy them, instead of, by judicious reforms, to improve them. He considered this radical remedy as a relic of the French revolution, the principles of which, upon all occasions, went rather to abolish old institutions altogether, than, by proper amendments, to ameliorate them. He must think that this bill, as it was now offered to the House, was not borne out in its title: that, instead of being denominated "a bill to amend the Laws for the preservation of Game," it should he entitled" a bill to disfranchise a certain order in the state of privileges which they have immemorially possessed, and at the same time to aid the destruction of Game." Believing, then, that this measure was wrong in principle; but, even if it was not so, that it would increase rather than diminish poaching; and thus add to the demoralization of the lower orders, he should give it his decided negative.

Mr. Cripps

supported the bill. The complaint made against one of its clauses, requiring the Poacher to give security for his good conduct before he was liberated from prison was unfounded. It would have the effect of diminishing the number of those who would expose themselves to such a difficulty.

Mr. J. Douglas

said, he felt an entire confidence that this bill would not pass through parliament; if it did, it would inevitably carry with it the gradual abolition of all sporting.

Mr. H. Sumner

opposed the bill. By its provisions, the House would only change the denomination of the crime. They would, if the measure succeeded, have the gaols filled with as many thieves as they were previously filled with poachers. He therefore trusted that the bill would be thrown out by a large majority.

Mr. B. Colborne

observed, that the provisions of the bill diminished, or rather entirely removed, the danger of detection, and provided a certain market for the poacher. As the law at present stood, it favoured an interchange of civilities between the landlord and his tenant: if the latter preserved the game, the former was in the constant habit of presenting him with it in return. But, if this bill should pass, there would be an end to these civilities. His view of the question was, he knew, unpopular; but that circumstance should not deter him from stating it openly. If the measure now introduced would do away with poaching, then he would say, agree to it by all means; but, as he conceived that it would have no such effect, and at the same time that it was calculated to produce various evils, he would oppose it.

Mr. Tennyson

said, that although he thought it would be more discreet to proceed to the proposed result by a series of measures, whereby the habits and prejudices of the country would be gradually prepared for and accommodated to the projected change of system, yet he was decidedly friendly to that change, and approved the general character of this bill. He entertained objections to some of its provisions, and had urged them in the committee, but they were not such as to prevent his voting for it. The bill proceeded upon just and wholesome principles; it recognized game as a profitable produce of land, and established it as the equal property of the landowner. The hon. gentleman who had just sat down seemed to fear, that by legalizing the sale of game, a wider field would be opened to poachers than at present existed. Now the anxiety which he (Mr. T.) felt on behalf of this measure, was grounded on the conviction that an opposite effect would be produced. He did not know whether the hon. gentleman had perused the evidence taken before the game committee two years ago; if he had, he thought it must have appeared to him, that it was no longer a question whether game should be saleable or not. The efforts made for two or three centuries to prevent the sale of it, had utterly failed. It was at present sold in quantities beyond all former example, and the only question now to be discussed was, whether it should continue to be sold exclusively by the poacher, or whether the law should again sanction the sale by the legal possessor of game, and thus supersede the vocation of a body of men, whom the existing laws had rendered indispensable, as it were, to the wants of the country, who would increase with its increasing wealth, and who, furnishing the supply in breach of the law, were almost necessarily drawn from that class of society, which must likewise obtain it in breach of the law. The sale of game was not an innovation on the law of England. It had been saleable at Common law until the Statute 32 Hen. 8th, but since the prohibition which that statute effected, experience had fully shewn, that, although you may make the sale of game illegal, you cannot prevent the sale where there is an anxious demand on the part of the rich, and the means of supply within reach of the poor. The consequence of so unnatural a law had been, that the lower classes were seduced into habits from which the most mischievous and criminal results had ensued. The object now was, to get rid of the poachers, and as you cannot stifle the demand for game, you must endeavour to supersede him by furnishing the supply from another quarter. For this end, you must not only repeal the laws prohibiting the sale of game, but you must restore the means of obtaining it to the ordinary land-owner, who supplied the market before the prohibition existed. A succession of laws, equally unwise and unreasonable, since the Stat. of Hen. 8th, had gradually deprived him of those means. The right of sporting was now confined chiefly to persons who had 100l. a year in land, and they could not employ their servants to kill game for their use upon their own estates. Formerly, all land-owners, and subsequently, all qualified land-owners, had, in common with lords of manors, the right to employ their servants to kill game upon their own land. But the stat. 22 and 23 Charles 2nd having had the effect of preventing all persons, whether lords of manors or simple land-owners, from the exercise of this power, a parliament of queen Anne afterwards restored it, most unjustly, to lords of manors alone, in terms which enabled the lord to qualify his servant even on lands within the manor which did not belong to him, while the owner of those lands could not employ his own servant to shoot there, or do so himself, if he were not qualified under the statute. It was necessary to remove this distinction and not only to empower every land-owner to sport upon his own estate, but to employ his servant to sport there for his use. This was all he should have been disposed to do at present on that branch of the subject. But the bill did more—it removed all disqualification whatsoever. This was one of his objections to it. He had failed in his amendment on this point in the committee, but although he still thought so great a change at once was unnecessary, and by opening the way for idle people to sport on districts unprotected by the owners, was likely to produce considerable inconvenience to the country for some time, until the habit of considering and dealing with game distinctly as property, should gradually displace the loose notions with regard to it which now prevailed, still, he would not on that account, vote against a measure calculated to accomplish so much good in other respects. There was, indeed, no part of the game laws which required more amendment, than that which related to qualification, and independently of any view to the legal sale of game, common sense required that the present inequality amongst land-owners, as to the power of obtaining it, should be immediately removed. Even the qualified owner could obtain no game from his property beyond what he could himself kill. But in a great majority of cases he was under circumstances of disability to obtain any in that way, and thus it was utterly lost to him and became a prey to the lawless, against whom it was not worth his while to protect it. This was the case where the owner was a minor, or a woman, or an aged person, or a person engaged in business, or living at a distance from his property, or no sportsman, or if a sportsman, had no skill as a shooter;— and this must so remain until the owner should be authorized to employ some person to shoot for him, which he had no power to do at present unless he had the manor, whatever might be the extent of his property within it; while, on the other hand, the lord of the manor, who possessed that power, had in many cases little or no property within its boundary. To remedy this particular inconvenience he had introduced a bill three or four years ago, which had been read a second time, and which the more extended projects of immediate emendation in the game laws, opened by other gentlemen at a period when he was unable to attend parliament had alone prevented him from persisting in, as a separate measure. The remedy, however, would be included in the provisions of the bill now before the House. In this bill, too much was perhaps attempted at once, and it might hereafter require correction, but it legalized the sale of game, and re-established the salutary principle of equality as to the power of obtaining and selling it. These objects were consistent with wisdom and justice, and it was important to secure them. If the bill, like one before introduced, had simply engrafted the sale of game on the present system, as the right hon. Secretary for the Home Department had recommended, he mast have opposed it, as calculated to vest an odious monopoly in the hands of lords of manors, who were the only persons able to obtain any quantity of game. Besides, the supply of the market would have been deficient, and the aid of the poacher would still have been required, for the nobility and chief gentry of the country would not readily fall into the habit of considering that as matter of profit, which they and their ancestors valued merely as furnishing the means of manly exercise, gentleman-like courtesy, and country hospitality. He had rather the system should remain as it was, than see it so altered. It would be monstrous to recognize game as a saleable and profitable property, and then to confine the profit and sale to the upper class of landowners. He had on that ground opposed the bill introduced by lord Cranbourne two years ago, but the measure now before the House was right in principle, and looking to some corrections in a future session, he should cordially vote for the third reading.

Sir G. Chelwynd

said, he had taken considerable pains in looking at the statutes on this subject, and he really could not find what acts were and what were not repealed. The indefinite and anomalous character of the measure would, in his view, prevent its ever being carried into effect. He was particularly hostile to the clause, by which, if a warrant were left at the residence of an individual, that individual was to be proceeded against as if he had been personally served, and was taken to be in custody.

Sir H. Vivian

expressed his hostility to the bill, the provisions of which, he thought, would tend to increase, and not to diminish, the evil. He admitted that it was unjust that a man who possessed 5,000l. a year, of a particular species of property, should not be allowed to shoot, while that privilege was granted to a man who owned a freehold of comparatively insignificant value. That part of the system he wished to see corrected: but he could not allow all the existing barriers to be thrown down, and every man admitted to shoot game as he pleased. If it were not for the existing laws, every head of game in Cornwall would be destroyed. There were but few keepers in that county, and the game could not be preserved, if unqualified persons were not rigorously prevented from shooting. The great argument in favour of this bill was, that it would prevent poaching. But those who used it seemed to entertain strong doubts on the subject. If they did not, why should mail-coachmen and guards (who were at present the great agents of the poachers) be prevented under this bill from dealing in game? Suppose a salesman contracted with a farmer for twenty head of partridges per week, might not that farmer send his servants to go poaching all round the neighbourhood of his residence? Flow could the salesman know where the farmer procured the game? But he called on the House to look particularly at the effect which this bill was likely to have on country gentlemen, who frequently visited their estates for the purpose of sporting. It would put an end to fox-hunting, a sport, of which he was fond, and the enjoyment of which drew many gentlemen to the country. Fox-hunting was not so useless an amusement as some persons imagined. The great officer who had raised the military glory of this country to so high a pinnacle of fame, had declared, that he never knew a man who had been in the habit of riding after the foxes in his neighbourhood, who, when placed in the army, did not make an active and useful soldier. When it had fallen to his (sit H. Vivian's) lot to appoint an officer to command in a situation of difficulty, he always selected a man who he knew had been in the habit of crossing the country. Those who were attached to hunting he had always found to be good soldiers.

Mr. Stuart Wortley,

in reply, observed, that all the evils mentioned as likely to flow from this bill, were precisely those which he had most anxiously endeavoured to guard against. Many of the objections now urged, particularly those of the hon. baronet, the member for Stafford, ought rather to have been advanced in the committee. With respect to the objection which that hon. member had advanced against the service of a warrant in the first instance, that provision might, even now, be altered. He had no objection to the substitution of a summons, if it were deemed preferable. His great object was to introduce a law which would protect game, without creating all the evils which manifestly attended the present system. Whether, under this measure, there would be a little more, or a little less game, was, he conceived, a matter of minor importance. The law, as it now stood, occasioned most men to look upon a poacher as one who ought not to be condemned, but to be pitied; and he knew no way of removing that feeling, except by altering the legal denomination of game, and making it property. It had been said by the gallant general, that stolen game might be sold to the salesman. That was very true; but it was equally true with respect to the poultry. He hoped if this bill passed, that ultimately measures would be taken for permitting the sale of game just like any other commodity. With respect to the interference of this measure with fox-hunting (which, after all, appeared to be the great objection against it, in the minds of several hon. members), he never could treat the argument seriously. He was a fox-hunter himself, and he respected fox-hunters, and therefore would do nothing to destroy that sport. But, he must say, that it did not depend on the preservation of game, but on the fitness of the country for it, and on the estimation in which a gentleman was held. He had heard no argument to induce him to change the opinion he entertained relative to the game laws; and he declared, that if his bill were lost, he would, so long as the law continued to be the intolerable nuisance which it was, labour strenuously to have it removed.

The House then divided: For the third reading 94; Against it 69; Majority 25. The bill was then read a third time.