HC Deb 22 May 1827 vol 17 cc974-9
Sir J. Wrottesley

said, he appeared in the performance of his duty, as Chairman of the Committee that had sat upon the Coventry Election, to bring in a bill to give to the Magistrates of the County of Warwick a concurrent jurisdiction with those of the city of Coventry, in regulating the affairs of the elections of representatives. In the present state of the magistrates of that city, the introduction of such a measure was absolutely necessary. It might be recollected, that some time ago, certain measures regarding the silk trade were brought forward in parliament; and, upon that occasion, Mr. Ellice made the greatest exertions in favour of that trade—exertions by which those who witnessed them, were induced to give him every credit for the furtherance of the interest of that trade. At that time, there existed an unfortunate difference between the masters and the men; in consequence of which, as one party patronized Messrs. Ellice and Moore, the others were hostile to them. Upon the arrival of Mr. Ellice in the city upon the Thursday night, he addressed the electors. Some confusion took place at that meeting; which he should only notice, because the mayor of Coventry was present at it. The feelings then manifested were such as to threaten future disturbance, and that anticipation was realised; for, in the end it appeared, that a regular system had been formed to annoy the voters for Messrs. Ellice and Moore, and to allow none but the voters for their opponents to get possession of the booths. That system was carried into effect; and the result was, that while the two new candidates polled very considerable numbers, Mr. Ellice was prevented from polling more than seven, and Mr. Moore in the same time obtained only four votes. Upon the Monday night Mr. Ellice, having found that he could not get his voters up to the poll, determined to take some step to protect them from annoyance, and to secure them the free exercise of their franchise. Accordingly, on the Tuesday morning he sent a requisition to the sheriff, desiring that that gentleman would afford protection to the voters as they went up to the poll. From that time the proceedings of the party opposed to Messrs. Moore and Ellice especially called for notice. In compliance with the requisition which had been addressed to him, the sheriff called upon the mayor, who, with the aldermen of the city, were especially bound to preserve the public peace, to take efficient measures for that purpose. On the mayor being thus called on, he sent round the city to collect the leet constables, who formed the only police of the place. These persons were armed with staves as long as themselves; and with these weapons they were well provided with means for the preservation of the peace. In addition to the regular constables, several of the most respectable inhabitants were appointed special constables; but they were not armed like the rest, having only white wands or osier twigs given them as emblems of their authority. They were besides kept at a distance from the booths, while the leet constables were placed near them, and in that position possessed every opportunity of gratifying their party spirit, by protecting or annoying the voters for the respective parties, as they came up to the poll. The hon. member here referred to the Report; from which he read extracts of the minutes of evidence, which went to show in what manner the petty constables had abused the powers they possessed. When a voter for Mr. Moore or Mr. Ellice came up to the poll, the petty constables struck him in such a manner as to force his hat over his face, and his eyes being then covered, he was drawn along a line of these constables, who amounted, perhaps, to two hundred, and who drove the unfortunate voter from one to another, until they had forced him to the end of the line. He wished particularly to call the attention of the House to the conduct of the mayor. In the city of Coventry there were many of the most intelligent men in the country; but it was not from among this class that the guardians of the public peace were chosen. There was too much reason to believe, that they were appointed with a view to parliamentary influence, or for the purpose of facilitating the return of favourite candidates. They had it in evidence that the mayor encouraged the petty constables, and discouraged the special constables; that the petty constables had even sometimes abused the special constables; and that voters were mal-treated under the eye of the mayor, and that he gave them no assistance—that he himself said to one, "You are a black Ellice, or something worse;" and to another who had complained to the sheriff without redress, and then to the mayor, "You are a d—d b——d sc——l." It would not be surprising, after what he had stated, if something had been said in the committee about committing this magistrate to Newgate. But the committee were anxious to proceed as mildly as was consistent with the discharge of their duty. The magistrate in question kept a nursery-ground and had other avocations, which might have rendered confinement in Newgate a punishment of severity. Besides, if the House would allow this bill to be brought in, it would itself prove a severe punish- ment; and, as it was of the last importance that such conduct, on the part of a magistrate should not be overlooked, he trusted that the House would take a step which would mark, with its serious displeasure, the proceedings of a man in office who had so misconducted himself. He concluded by moving that leave be given to bring in a bill to give to the magistrates of the county of Warwick a concurrent jurisdiction with the magistrates of Coventry.

Mr. Ward

said, he was the last person to interfere with corporate rights; but in this case he saw no alternative. He trusted that the House would accede to the motion of the hon. baronet.

Lord W. Russell

thought the measure hardly strong enough. He did not see why a step of a preventive nature should satisfy the House, instead of one which should afford a remedy to the persons aggrieved.

Mr. R. Heathcote

contended, that the hon. baronet had not laid any ground for the measure he had introduced. If it passed, sure he was, it would answer any object on earth but that which the hon. baronet had in view. If indeed the corporation of Coventry had been guilty of any of those disgraceful practices that had been brought under the notice of the House—if it had misapplied its funds for electioneering purposes—if it had exercised its powers in any illegal, partial, or oppressive manner, it might have been difficult to oppose the bill. But when no such case had been made out, why was the city of Coventry to be deprived of its ancient and undoubted rights, by so severe a measure as this? If, in the heat of a contested election, some coats had been torn, and some blows struck, surely that was no cause for visiting the whole body with a degrading punishment. The evidence was marked with palpable absurdity. If such facts would justify the interference of the House with privileges which had existed for many centuries, he knew not on what pretences fetters might not be rivetted on the freedom of election in every borough in the kingdom. There would be an end, not only to the charters, but to the liberty of the country. The attack on one corporation led to an attack upon another. The precedent of Nottingham was now to be followed by that of Coventry, on still slighter grounds. In this rage for petty legislation, the spirit of our corporate institution would b absolved and destroyed. There was only one precedent for this measure, and that, in his opinion, had better be torn from the Journals of the House. It was singular that the committee on the Coventry election had literally copied so much of the Nottingham report, as served the purpose of introducing this measure; though he was at a loss to find out by what process of reasoning they had discovered any similarity between the cases. Tearing clothes formed the gravamen in this instance. It was only a small portion of the charge in the other; and certainly not considered at all a justification for the measure in that case adopted, and now sought to be rendered a precedent. When the hon. baronet stated, that a great proportion of those who voted for Moore and Ellice had been so treated, he stated what was not the fact. The hon. baronet had said distinctly, that the voters for Moore and Ellice had been beaten and ill-treated. There were some instances of it, he allowed; but that was not thought much of in Coventry. He believed there were many coats in that city which had undergone the process of dissolution and re-union more than once. But this was the fate only of turn-coats and traitors, who must always expect some notice to be bestowed upon them in Coventry. So conflicting was the evidence, that if the same degree of credit had been given to the witnesses on each side, it would have been possible to have established a case either way. He maintained, that no election had been conducted with more tranquillity, or less personal violence. God forbid the day should ever come, when an election should be conducted with the decorum of a birthday drawing-room. As to the story of the midnight riot by torch-light, nothing could be more exaggerated. If Diogenes had been a Coventry man, he might as well have been indicted for wandering with his lamp on those perambulations, which had very nearly as unsatisfactory a result, as the attempts to criminate this respectable corporation. If the mayor or magistrates had done any thing illegally, let the House order the Attorney-general to prosecute them; but he besought them not to put a lasting stigma on thirty thousand electors, because two or three might have acted indiscreetly.

Mr. Fyler

declared unequivocally, and upon his honour, that he had not received one farthing from the corporation of Coventry, either during the election, or on account of the petition which followed. He thought it would be an act of the greatest injustice to punish the magistrates of Coventry, without giving them the means to defend themselves.

Mr. Peel

was not prepared to put a stop to all further inquiry, by putting a direct negative on the motion. He should vote, therefore, for the introduction of the bill; though he did not pledge himself to support it in its future stages. He could not help thinking that it would be a hardship on the corporation to visit it with a punishment amounting to disfranchisement. It should be recollected, that the House was acting judicially. He thought they were bound to hear evidence before they proceeded to pronounce a positive opinion on the merits of the case.

Mr. Secretary Bourne

could not concur in opinion, that to give to the magistrates of the county of Warwick a concurrent jurisdiction with those of the city of Coventry would amount to a forfeiture of the ancient charter of that city, or that such a measure would be one of the severest punishments that could be inflicted on it. On the contrary, he thought it one of the mildest invasions of their corporate rights that could be suggested. With respect to the hearing of evidence at the bar of the House, he entertained a different opinion from some hon. gentlemen; for, after the specimen that had been afforded the other night, of the manner in which assertions were made at its bar, he should not be in a hurry to recommend, that recourse should be had to a similar proceeding. Moreover, the House was already in possession of facts deposed to on oath, before the committee, and embodied in its report; and he should protest, as far as the protest of an individual could go, against discussing in that House, the decision of a committee acting under the solemn obligation of an oath.

Mr. Hudson Gurney

said, that however strongly the case might be made out for the necessity of some parliamentary interposition, the project for giving a concurrent jurisdiction to the magistrates of Warwickshire was not one which had the slightest tendency towards abridging the evils complained of.

Leave was accordingly given to bring in the bill.