HC Deb 20 May 1830 vol 24 cc907-18
Mr. Benson

said, that since he had given his notice upon this subject, a Petition had been presented by a noble Lord from Mr. Thomas Eyre Lee, praying to be heard at the Bar, in defence of his conduct. He had not the slightest feeling of hostility towards Mr. Lee—on the contrary, he was anxious that that gentleman should have every facility afforded him for explanation, and therefore, if the rules of the House would permit Mr. Lee to be heard at the Bar, he should certainly not object to it. The hon. Gentleman then proceeded shortly to state the circumstances of the case. In all great undertakings, like that of the London and Birmingham Canal, the usual course was, to convene the great landed proprietors who were interested in those undertakings, in order that they might make such arrangements as would be most beneficial to all the parties concerned. Of the project under notice, however, a single individual appeared to have been the main, if not the sole spring. Having originated the undertaking, and having promulgated a list of subscribers to it, some of the persons who were more immediately interested in the affair inquired into it, and discovered that of the individuals whose names were set down as subscribers, many were unable even to pay the deposit upon their shares. In the petition which had been presented by the noble Lord, Mr. Lee stated, that he was not aware of any charge of that nature against him until the petition of the complainants was presented on the 11th of March. Now the fact was, that he (Mr. Benson) had himself apprised Mr. Lee of the charge in the committee on the 22nd of February, and again on the 3rd of March. A more impudent attempt had never been made, to foist a list of fictitious subscribers on the House. In support of this statement the hon. Member quoted at considerable length the evidence in the Report from the committee on the petitions respecting the non-compliance with the Standing Orders relative to the Bill in question, by which, among other facts, it was proved that several of the alleged subscribers to the Bill were common porters at the Stock Exchange. Having thus shown the grounds of his Motion, the hon. Member concluded by moving in substance—"That Mr. Thomas Eyre Lee, the Solicitor to the London and Birmingham Junction Canal Bill, having given in a list of the subscribers to the undertaking, and having afterwards attested the truth of that list before the Committee on the Bill; and it appearing, by evidence taken before the Committee to whom the several Petitions complaining that the Standing Orders of the House had not been complied with respecting that Bill that the said list of subscribers was false and fictitious, and had been culpably deposited by the said Mr. Thomas Eyre Lee, that the said Mr. Thomas Eyre Lee had thereby been guilty of a breach of the privileges of the House, and that for that offence he should be called to the bar and reprimanded."

Mr. Speaker

suggested that, in the first instance the Order of the Day should be read for the further consideration of the Report of the Committee.

The Order of the Day was read accordingly.

Lord Clive

then rose, and said, that in deference to the opinion of those whom he had consulted on the subject, he would vary the terms of the Motion of which he had given notice, and instead of moving that Mr. Lee be heard by his Counsel, he would move that he be heard in person; and he would therefore now move, that Mr. Thomas Eyre Lee be called to the Bar for that purpose.

Motion agreed to; and on Mr. Lee's appearance at the Bar,

Mr. Speaker

informed him that the House had resolved he should be heard on the subject matter of his Petition.

[Mr. Lee expressed himself much indebted to the House for its indulgence. He proceded to read his Petition, represented the great advantages which the canal in question was calculated to produce, and maintained that the Standing Orders of the House had been complied with, as regarded delivering in an estimate of the expense, an account of the assets, and a list of the subscribers. He was sorry if it had turned out that some of the subscribers were unable to pay their subscriptions, but he contended that he was not responsible for that circumstance. The whole case against him rested on the evidence of a person of the name of Stokes, whom he had never seen, and who described in his evidence several subscribers as unable to pay their subscriptions who were highly respectable and substantial persons. As to any fictitious names, he (Mr. Lee) knew nothing of them; they had been made use of without his knowledge. If there had been any forgery or fraud on the subject, he was entirely innocent of it. The course which he had pursued was exactly that which it was usual for solicitors to pursue with respect to such bills. He was totally unaware of any act of his own, or of any connivance of his at the act of any other individual, the tendency of which was to violate the privileges of that House. If any such act had occurred, he was himself the dupe of the person by whom it had been committed. For himself, he had never put down the name of a single subscriber to the undertaking whom he did not know or believe to be capable of paying much more than the sum attached to his name.

Mr. Lee

having finished his defence, was ordered to withdraw.

Mr. Benson

contended, that nothing which Mr. Lee had said had altered the case, and he moved "That Thomas Eyre Lee, Solicitor of the London and Birmingham Canal, had deposited in the Private Bill-office of that House a list of subscribers to that Canal, and which list had been attested by him, and that the said list was false and culpably deposited; that Mr. Lee had therein been guilty of a breach of the privileges of this House, and that he be called to the bar of the House and reprimanded."

Lord Clive

contended, that the error of Mr. Lee had arisen from the laxity with which the Standing Orders of the House were attended to, and as a measure was to be brought forward, in order to prevent a recurrence of the practice, he did not see any necessity of pressing a vote of censure.

Colonel Peel

observed, that the committee, of which he was a member, was perfectly justified in the two first clauses of its Report, which stated that the subscription-list had been fraudulently made out and deposited. The question was, how far Mr. Lee was culpable. This list was attested by Mr. Lee on the 23rd of February. On the 9th of February Mr. Lee had been fully warned of the incorrectness of the List On the 10th of February Mr. Morgan had showed him that the names on the list were fraudulent; and on the 22nd of February, the day before he attested that list, he had said, "I shall soon ascertain whether the persons on that list are proper persons or not." Before the committee he had been warned by the hon. member for Stafford, that the list was not correct, and in spite of all this he would attest it. Mr. Lee was seeking by this Bill to interfere with the property of others. This Bill appointed no directors, no committee, nor any other manager than Mr. Lee, and yet he grounded his defence upon his ignorance of the list which he brought forward in order to obtain the Bill.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

maintained, that the question was of a serious nature, and concerned the character of the House and the interest as well as the morality of the public. Mr. Lee had made a defence upon the ground of his ignorance, and yet he was the person who introduced the question, and he came forward as a responsible person for a projected company which was to raise on the public 450,000l. He could not believe that Mr. Lee was not aware of the plan to raise money by fraudulent pretences. The broker for the Bill was connected in the transaction with Moses Levi, who had been transported about twelve years ago. He would not call this the most atrocious case of the sort, for he had known a hundred as bad, and had his motion been successful, he could have implicated in similar transactions some scores of Members of Parliament, who could not afterwards have kept their seats.

Mr. Harvey

said, it had been whispered, rather than stated, that he had shewn a more than usual degree of activity in the part he had taken in this committee, of which he had accidentally become a member. He appealed to the committee whether that insinuation were true, and whether he had exhibited an uncommon degree of recollection of what had passed on a previous occasion when Mr. Lee himself had been a petitioner to this House. The question before the House was, not whether this company was or was not a bubble company, but whether Mr. Lee was acquainted with the fact of its being so before the 11th of March. That was the question put by Mr. Lee himself, who denied that he knew before that time that any person in that list was either unable or unwilling to make up his subscription. Now, in answer to that, he (Mr. Harvey) thought he could show that Mr. Lee was conversant with the character of that list before the 20th of February. On the 10th of February, the active author of the company, Mr. Levi, was dead, and at that time, in consequence of being informed of that fact, Mr. Lee went to the house of a Mr. Robson, and then he was told that there were some names in the list of a character that would not bear scrutiny. On the 18th, Mr. Morgan, a gentleman of the highest respectability, and a broker on the Stock Exchange, stated to him, that there were no persons of known eminence in the city among the names on the list; and yet, on the 22nd, after all this had passed, Mr. Lee appeared before the committee, and authenticated the list.—Mr. Lee was admonished in the committee, that there were reasons to doubt the character of the list; yet, in defiance of that admonition, he testified to the character and fitness of the persons in the list. The list was, indeed, one which, in itself, ought to have awakened the suspicions of a man of business. There were, for instance, sixteen persons applying for 137 shares, all of whose letters were dated from one house—namely, No. 8, Capel court, Stock Exchange—where resided a dealer in oranges and oysters, who himself was a subscriber for shares of the value of 5,000l. After all these circumstances, he thought it was impossible to doubt that the question of knowledge, on which Mr. Lee had put the assertion of his innocence, must be decided against him, and that the House must believe him to have been guilty of a breach of a Standing Order in having given in and authenticated a list of persons who were in reality not able to discharge the liabilities they had undertaken.

Sir J. Wrottesley

said, that the voluminous evidence taken before the committee was more calculated to mislead than to enlighten the House, and putting the question on the same point as the hon. Member who had just sat down, he came to a directly opposite conclusion. The hon. Baronet read the evidence of a person named Kendall, who began by stating, that Mr. Lee had promised him the office of private secretary to the Company, and who then went on to speak to conversation between himself and Mr. Lee, which, he said, had occurred in the presence of Mr. Robson. Now, in the first place, Mr. Robson had not been called to confirm these statements, and in the next, Kendall's evidence was totally incredible, because he spoke of having been promised an office which never existed in a canal company, and if he meant by secretary, the official manager of the company, he spoke of an office which Mr. Lee intended to retain himself, and could never, therefore, have promised to give away to another. Such a mode of swearing was enough to destroy the testimony of any man. [Here a considerable interruption occurred, and the hon. Baronet, turning sharply round, demanded]—Whether Mr. Lee was to be attacked and not defended? Whether he was to be accused, and the answer to the accusation was not to be heard? He had hoped he was in the society of Gentlemen. He was happy to find, in the mass of trash presented by the evidence before the committee, the name of one individual at least who was universally admitted to be a man of honour. He alluded to Mr. Morgan. That gentleman, speaking of Mr. Levi, had said, that he himself, after Mr. Levi's death, had paid 90,000l. on his account—a fact which showed that, as far as he was concerned, he was not likely to have been a bubble shareholder. Mr. Morgan had then said, "nothing could be more fair than the conduct of Mr. Lee when I stated my disappointment at the names I saw in the list." Surely the conduct of a man who was fraudulently getting up a bubble company would not have deserved such a commendation. But now came a strong fact in favour of Mr. Lee. The list was deposited on the 19th of February, and Mr. Lee did not see Mr. Morgan, to become acquainted with his disappointment in the names it contained, till the 20th; and when Mr. Lee deposited the list, he produced all the letters on which shares had been demanded. Surely in doing so he had done enough. If the House now censured Mr. Lee, they must say that every solicitor must, in future, investigate the property and substance of every man who puts his name down to a list of this kind. That had not as yet been their practice. It was not their practice in 1825, when more than thirty bubble companies had been formed, and yet no one of the members, contrivers, or supporters of those companies had been brought before that House. But he could not call that a bubble company which had for its object to establish a communication between London and Liverpool, and which came recommended by the scientific knowledge of Mr. Telford. Mr. Lee might have been the dupe of others, but he had practised no fraud himself; he had received no scrip; he had done nothing which fas- tened the imputation of fraud on him. The House could hardly suppose, too, that that was a bubble company to which the noble Viscount opposite, and Sir Edw. Kynaston, had both allowed their names to be put down as members of the committee. With these observations he should leave in their hands the character of a man who, from his past life, was most unlikely to have been guilty of any act that would in the least degrade and dishonour him.

Mr. Slaney

said, the question really was, whether Mr. Eyre Lee had a guilty knowledge of these transactions which had been blamed by the Committee? He thought he had not, and he came to this conclusion after a detailed examination of the evidence, and particularly that of Mr. Kendal. He did not consider Mr. Kendal worthy of credit, and he remarked that he had been exasperated by Mr. Lee's refusing him 152. He admitted there was a want of caution in Mr. Lee, and something of even a culpable negligence, but he asked why this gentleman should be punished for an inadvertence as if it were a crime? He was decidedly of opinion that Mr. Lee did not deserve the reprimand of the House.

Mr. Fyler

concurred in the views and opinions of the hon. Member who had last spoken.

Sir Henry Parnell

contended, it was not right to treat this canal speculation as a bubble scheme; and that he did not think it was the intention of the committee to pass such a resolution as might induce the House to decide upon severely reprimanding Mr. E. Lee. The character of Mr. Lee was excellent, and he believed that he was negligent, but not criminal.

Mr. C. W. Wynn

said, Mr. Lee's conduct deserved the censure of the House, although it did not deserve many of the terms which were applied to it. If this gentleman possessed a guilty knowledge of the fallacious nature of this list, the censure of the House would be a poor and inadequate punishment. Offenders like him, were he guilty, should be committed to Newgate, and confined there for a considerable time. He must, however, acquit him of this guilty knowledge, and he considered his offence was not so much in depositing the original list, as in persisting in it after his attention had been drawn to the nature of it. He did not think Mr. Kendal's evidence wholly unworthy of credit, for it was corroborated by other evidence. The House was bound to watch over the correctness of testimony given before a committee, because evidence was frequently given very loosely before this House, where no oath was administered, which the deponents took an opportunity of amending before the other House.—Finally, he was of opinion, that this was a case which called for an admonition, but he was not prepared to say that the House would be justified in any proceeding of a nature more severe.

Mr. Brougham

said, that if there were anything in the evidence laid before them which could warrant the House in adopting the second resolution, then he had not the slightest difficulty in saying, that merely reprimanding Mr. Eyre Lee would be a very inadequate punishment; but as he was of opinion that the evidence did not justify the House in arriving at the conclusion set forth in that resolution, so he was not one of those who was prepared to say that any punishment beyond an admonition ought to be inflicted; and he was not quite sure that the House ought to go even that length. It should be remembered that the House had not seen any one of the witnesses upon whose testimony it was sought to establish the alleged delinquency of Mr. E. Lee. They must recollect the whole of this testimony was given to them at second hand. He did not mean to deny the power or the right of the House—it was fully supported by precedents—to decide upon evidence taken before another tribunal; but he would beseech of them to pause before they adopted a resolution condemnatory of a gentleman circumstanced as Mr. Eyre Lee was—before they robbed a hitherto respectable professional gentleman of his character, on evidence at least only second hand—not on evidence, but on minutes of evidence taken before a committee. It had frequently been said, that the proceedings in our civil-law courts were most unsatisfactory; and that mode of proceeding was found in Scotland so inconvenient, that it was proposed to adopt the jury system rather than continue the evil of having one court arrive at a decision founded upon testimony given in another. Now in this country it was Parliament alone that received evidence at second hand, and it was, therefore, that he thought Parliament was especially bound to exercise a caution beyond other courts. The resolution charged, that a false and fictitious list had been falsely and culpably deposited and attested by Mr. Eyre Lee. Was that any thing less than a charge of forgery? He thought than Mr. Eyre Lee might, upon no insufficient grounds, be charged with negligence—but of forgery, he believed that no man in that House would get up and deliberately accuse him; and yet no man who to-morrow read that vote, could doubt that it went to impute to him a crime nothing short of that. Forgery was one of the greatest offences he could commit, and the House ought to be prepared to take measures to secure the punishment of that offence; but he presumed even the worthy Alderman was not prepared to go that length. He had no knowledge of Mr. Eyre Lee, except having been employed once against him as counsel in a cause in which Mr. Eyre Lee was a party; but he had made inquiry respecting him in the profession, and from what he learned of him from gentlemen connected with the Midland Circuit, he was enabled to say, that he was a man of most excellent character; and those testimonials to his character were the less suspicious, as Mr. Eyre Lee was under accusation at the time. Now, where conduct was doubtful, character ought to have its due weight. His opinion was, that the conduct of Mr. Eyre Lee partook of negligence, but that he put in that list without any guilty knowledge. Had he known it to have been a false and fictitious list, he would have found that the delivery of it must have led to the destruction of the scheme, and he was interested in the success of the canal. Upon these grounds, he did not think that the conduct of this gentleman called for any severe censure, considering that all he could be justly charged with was mere negligence. As to the philippic pronounced by the worthy Alderman, and justly pronounced against bubble companies, it did not apply to the present case, for this was not a bubble company. He trusted, then, that the House, for the sake of its own credit, would not run down the character of a professional gentleman, where a sufficient case had not been made out against him.

Mr. John Williams

observed, there was no denying that the gentleman in question had been guilty of hasty, inadvertent, and improvident answering, and that was what the House could not overlook—yet, if the second resolution were true, the House should not content itself with a reprimand, but should direct the Attorney General to prosecute. He was far, however, from thinking that anything like that had been established, and therefore he should move, as an Amendment to that second Resolution, "That Thomas Eyre Lee be called to the bar of that House, and reprimanded for (after having been deliberately questioned and cautioned) undertaking to answer for the correctness of a list which turned out afterwards to be incorrect, and which he ought to have examined—that he had, therefore, been guilty of haste, inadvertence, and impropriety."

Mr. Lawley

supported the Motion.

Mr. O'Connell

did not consider that wilful falsehood had been established against Mr. Lee, but he thought him guilty of culpable neglect, not of innocent neglect. He said the list was a correct list, without knowing it to be so, when it was his business to possess that knowledge.

Sir Robert Peel

said, that though the neglect was culpable, yet, as the resolution coupled the neglect with falsehood, he should be averse from pronouncing a condemnation of that nature upon a gentleman against whom no falsehood had been proved. There seemed to be a general disposition to acquit Mr. Eyre Lee of the intended and wilful falsehood; and, therefore, he (Sir R. Peel) should acquiesce in the qualified censure, as not imputing guilty knowledge.

Colonel Davies

thought Mr. Eyre Lee ought to be severely reprimanded. He had connected himself with a person of notoriously bad character.

Mr. John Wood

said, a noble Lord, high in office, was in correspondence with that very individual who had been described of notoriously bad character to whom the last speaker alluded, and received from him several presents and wrote him friendly letters, three of which he (Mr. W.) then had in his possession; so that Mr. Eyre Lee was not the only person deceived in the character of Mr. Moses Levi. There were in this matter three degrees of guilt: first, the concoctors of the scheme; second, those by whom it was adopted when abandoned by its authors; third, but at a great distance, came Mr. Eyre Lee, who was imposed on by the other parties. It was originally not a bubble company—that was evident; and Mr. Eyre Lee, instead of a severe reprimand, might, he thought, be dismissed with an admonition, for others were more guilty than he was.

After considerable conversation, embracing a variety of verbal amendments, the following Resolutions were agreed to:—

"That it appears by the Minutes of Evidence before the Committee to which this subject was referred, that the subscription-list was a false and fictitious list.

"That Thomas Eyre Lee, though warned as to the suspicious character of the said list, did nevertheless, as agent to the Bill, attest its truth, without due inquiry into the circumstances to which his attention had been specially directed.

"That the said Thomas Eyre Lee, for the said offence, be called to the bar of this House, and reprimanded by Mr. Speaker."

[Mr. Thomas Eyre Lee was accordingly called to the bar, and having been reprimanded by the Speaker, was discharged.]

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