HC Deb 08 June 1827 vol 17 cc1191-5

The House went into a Committee on this bill. The counsel, Mr. Harrison and Mr. Taunton, were heard against the bill. After they had withdrawn,

Mr. R. Heathcote

opposed the bill, as nothing less than the partial disfranchisement of an ancient and loyal city. The measure was the result of an erroneous impression, unfounded in fact and in direct opposition to the principles of justice. If some of the electors of Coventry had violated the laws, they were amenable to the ordinary tribunals of the country, and might be punished; but it was most unjust to inflict a punishment, such as this bill would inflict, on the whole community of Coventry, and to confound the innocent with the guilty.

Mr. Hudson Gurney

said, the two questions for the House were—first, whether such a case had been nude out, as justified legislative interference; and secondly, whether the provisions of the present bill were such as went to remedy the evils complained of. Now, he must fairly own, that he thought the degree of rioting which took place at the last election, regarded as an isolated case, presented rather a weak one; whilst the provisions proposed by the present bill had not the slightest tendency towards making better arrangement for the future. They had heard much from the honourable members for Coventry, and from the learned Counsel at the bar, against the projected violation of the ancient chartered rights of that city. They had quoted the charters of Edward 3rd, and Richard 2nd, as if now in operation; but the fact was, that the last charter of James 1st had deprived the citizens of Coventry of their ancient franchises, under the pretext of increasing their privileges—had changed the qualification of the electors, and rendered the corporation a close body—and the measure which he should rather suggest would be, not to infringe on the ancient charters but to restore them—According to Browne Willis, the electors of Coventry, under the charters of Edward the 3rd and Richard the 2nd, were citizens paying scot and lot. Henry 6th, in 1451, granteda new charter; taking in a large district previously in the county of Warwick, and including it in the jurisdiction of the city and county of Coventry, giving the writ to the sheriffs of Coventry, instead of to the sheriff of Warwick, "the Mayor and Bailiffs of the said city to be for ever elected, in the same manner and form, as they had used to be in the reign of king Edward 3rd." By the charter of James 1st in 1622, all this appears to have been changed. The mayor, bailiffs, and other officers, were to beyearly elected on their last day, by thirty-one persons nominated of those who have formerly borne the principal offices of the city, and the right of election for members of Parliament became vested in such persons alone as have served seven years apprenticeship within the city to one trade. The civil wars and the Protectorate following, a higher game was playing than who should be members for Coventry; but from the Restoration we have a singular series of documents, shewing how the charter of James 1st has worked.—"In 1660," Dugdale says, "there was great contention about choosing of burgesses." By the Journals of the House there appears to have been petitions; 1678, for partiality of sheriffs; 1701, riots, sheriffs committed; 1706, great riots, election voided; 1707, 1709, 1710, petitions; 1713, riots; 1715, petition; 1722, notorious and outrageous riots, member committed, and eight others; 1737, great riot, election voided; 1780, riots, sheriffs committed; 1802, riots, though no petition; that being the era of the invention of that pleasant dance, of which we have heard from the witnesses, called "Jefferies and Barlow." 1820 and 1826, riots.—Now, M. Gurney said, the only legislative measure, which it appeared to him at all adapted to meet this case, would be, to restore the elective franchise, of which they had been unjustly deprived, to the freeholders of the county and city of Coventry, giving them votes in conjunction with those free by apprenticeship, and to put a check in these outrageous proceedings, by the introduction of a more respectable class of electors, instead of giving concurrent jurisdiction to Warwickshire magistrates, which would be merely adding another, element of dissension and confusion to those which existed already.

Mr. Fyler

admired the impartiality of hon. members, who could shut their eyes to cases of corruption "as clear as the sun at noon-day," and direct their vengeance against Coventry. He was not behind any man, in or out of the House, in his hatred of corruption; but he would never, in a moment of intemperate innovation, lacerate the sound and healthy parts of the system. He contended, that the principle of the bill was unwise, unconstitutional, and unjust. If the House waited until the bill, which was now in progress, for the better regulation of taking polls at elections should pass into law, the evils which were said to exist would be removed. The proposed bill, instead of being a remedy for those evils, was calculated to increase them. He hoped never to see the spirit of elections destroyed by legislative interference. Nothing was offered to the electors of Coventry by the bill, in lieu of that of which it was intended to deprive them. They were not to have a quid pro quo. This could not be treating them justly. There was as much independence in Coventry, he insisted, as in any other borough, and as little noise and confusion; which, at an election, might be considered the safety valve of the state, to carry off bad feeling. The bill was proposed by modern reformers, who wished to take away the spirit of elections, and make men with their own materials. Every one of these reformers was a modern Prometheus. The bill was an infringement of the charter of Coventry, and it would punish persons contrary to the spirit of the law. Lord Coke, Judge Blackstone, and Mr. Burke declared, that offences committed by corporate officers should be subject to courts of justice, and that the offences of individuals ought not to affect the vested rights of corporations. The poll at the last election at Coventry was never stopped at any time. More voters were polled than at any other time, in so short a period. There were no serious injuries sustained. Two magistrates were daily sitting, and it was frequently announced, that if any persons had complaints to prefer, they might proceed to the police-office. The hon. member quoted sir Walter Scott's account of the revels of the "good men of Coventry," in the reign of Elizabeth, and the approbation bestowed by that queen upon their pageants. He went on to state, that there was less crime committed in the city of Coventry than in any city of the same size and population in the kingdom; and referred to the address of the learned judge to the grand jury, at the last assizes, in confirmation of that assertion.

Mr. C. Wood,

as one of the committee, defended the report, and read extracts from the evidence, to prove the disgraceful scenes of rioting which had taken place, with the countenance of the magistrates. He was convinced that the magistracy of Coventry were not fit to be intrusted with the preservation of peace, during the continuance of an election; and he therefore felt bound to give his cordial support to the bill.

Lord Rancliffe

thought the hill an invasion of the rights of corporations, and expressed his determination to oppose it.

Sir C. Wetherell

observed, that, until the Nottingham case occurred, there was no instance of the interference of the House, in the way in which it was now proposed that it should interfere. In the Nottingham case, Mr. Fox opposed that measure, in a speech of great eloquence, and contended, that that House ought not to interfere where a remedy was provided, by the ordinary process of law in the tribunals of the country. There was no analogy between the Nottingham case and the present. Whoever was of that opinion would find himself greatly mistaken. In short, it would be absurd to adopt the Nottingham case, as a ground of proceeding in the present. His opposition to the bill was an independent and conscientious one. He opposed it, uninfluenced by a knowledge of either the winning or losing candidate, or any local circumstance whatever. The House ought rather to exercise a conservative power, for the preservation of charters, than lend itself to the uncalled-for confiscation of them.

Mr. S. Rice

contended that the bill would, by no means, have the effect of disfranchisement. The case made out against Coventry was much stronger than that of Nottingham; and even if such a measure was not adopted in the case of Nottingham, it ought to be adopted in the present. For the last fifty years, there had not been an election at Coventry at which riots had not taken place.

Mr. Goulburn

argued against the principle of the bill, which, he contended, was destructive of chartered rights.

Sir J. Wrottesley

warmly defended the bill.

The committee then divided: Ayes 51; Noes 29.