HC Deb 06 June 1827 vol 17 cc1133-5

A bill "to declare void an alleged marriage between Ellen Turner, an infant, and Edward Gibbon Wakefield" being brought from the Lords,

Mr. Peel

said, he rose to move the first reading of a bill which had come down to that House from the Lords, the object of which was, to afford a very unusual remedy for a wrong of, he was happy to say, very rare occurrence. The object of the bill was, to declare null an alleged marriage between Miss Turner and Edward Gibbon Wakefield. The circumstances of this case were so notorious, that it would be unnecessary to enter into a detail of the arts, the fraud, the forgery, and the villainy, which had been practised; and, in consequence of which, the peace of a most respectable family had been, for a time, disturbed. This, it was well-known to most who heard him, had not been done to gratify any other passion than avarice—to gratify the basest avarice by the basest means. The chief agent in this detestable offence, was then enduring a punishment by no way adequate — entirely disproportioned—to his offence. The sentence which had been pronounced on him was a strong proof of the imperfection of human legislation. Three years imprisonment fell very short indeed of the punishment which ought to follow such a crime. Hundreds of delinquents, much less guilty than Wakefield—without the advantages of education which he possessed—had been convicted of capital felonies, and had forfeited their lives. The object of the measure sent down by the Lords was, to prevent further injury from being sustained by that family which had already so cruelly suffered; and he was persuaded there would not be the slightest hesitation on the part of the House in assisting to make the only reparation which the injured parties could receive, by clearing up all doubts on the subject at issue. In point of fact, the circumstances of the case were such, that nothing but a legislative proceeding could fully relieve them. Miss Turner could not appear in an Ecclesiastical court; because she could not be allowed to give the evidence necessary for the establishment of her suit. On the trial of Wakefield her evidence was admissible; because that trial was a criminal, proceed- ing on the part of the Crown. But, in an Ecclesiastical court, Miss Turner would be considered as a witness who had an important interest in the result of the trial, and the court would not receive her evidence. Under these circumstances, the House would not hesitate in giving her that relief, which a court of law could not give. But he would own that, if Miss Turner were not competent, after the injury she had sustained, he, for one, would not hesitate to supply this extraordinary remedy to such a case of extraordinary injustice. He begged the House to consider that the young lady had attained only the age of sixteen; and he would ask, what gentleman would turn round and bid her apply to Ecclesiastical courts for that assistance, for which she now applied to the House of Commons? If that were to be the answer, she would find herself, in the first instance, compelled to apply to the Consistory court. From this an appeal would lie to the Court of Arches; and thence the applicant might be obliged to resort to the Court of Delegates. The conduct of Wakefield was a sufficient proof that the detestable avarice which had induced him to perpetrate the crime would prompt him to avail himself of these dilatory proceedings, to postpone to the utmost the termination of the transaction. He might be able to do this for three years. In the interim, he would take advantage of any accident that might arise, to harass the suitor, or benefit himself. The circumstances of the case were, in every respect, so extraordinary, that it would be unjust to expose the party to any risk of having the most perfect justice denied or delayed. Independently of the personal interests of the party, there were circumstances which were well worthy the consideration of the legislature. He alluded to the state of the law of Scotland with respect to marriages. In the course of the trial of Wakefield, it was held by the sheriff depute, that, notwithstanding the gross fraud practised upon Miss Turner—notwithstanding the fact that if the marriage had been completed in England, Wakefield would have been exposed to capital punishment —still the contract was valid according to the Scotch law. That witness went so far as to say, that in Scotland no fraud in either of the contracting parties would warrant the Scotch courts to set aside a marriage. If this were so, it did appear to him that some effectual remedy should be speedily provided. But that was a matter of consideration to be reserved to a future opportunity. He trusted that the House would give to the injured party the remedy she asked for. There was a direct precedent for such an act. He was happy to say it was so remote as one hundred and forty years' standing; in 1690, there was a precedent of an act, which dissolved the marriage of Miss Wharton with the brother of the duke of Argyle, under circumstances not altogether dissimilar. In that precedent alluded to, the act had originated in the Commons; and being passed by the Lords, the marriage was set aside. It was nearly fifteen months since the crime of Wakefield had been perpetrated; and it was desirable that the sufferings of the injured parties should be relieved. The expenses of Mr. Turner, in bringing the parties to trial had been little short of 10,000l. The expense, however, was the lightest part of the consideration. The dreadful anxiety to which he had been exposed was more to be commiserated. The House would bear these things in mind; and would reflect how much the evils would be aggravated, if, by a refusal of relief, they sent the case to be argued for three years in a court of law. They would surely give this young lady redress, rather than let the villainy of Wakefield triumph.

The bill was read a first time.