HC Deb 15 August 1831 vol 6 cc13-20
Mr. Hume

presented a Petition, signed by 1,200 inhabitants of Bolton-le-Moors, for a remission of the sentence passed upon the Reverend Robert Taylor; and praying, that the House would take into consideration the inexpediency of inflicting punishment for religious opinions. The petitioners, who were the friends of free discussion, religious as well as political, expressed their alarm at the proceedings of the self-constituted body called "The Society for the Suppression of Vice." They thought, and he concurred with them, that such proceedings were not consistent with the free principles of this country. He put the individual, whose imprisonment was the cause of the petition, out of the question. That person was known to entertain opinions different from the established religion of the country. Why, a Jew, a Unitarian, a Mahommedan, a Hindoo, all held opinions different from those of the established religion; and if one was to be punished by fine and imprisonment, the others ought to be punished also. The consequence would be, the monopoly of opinion on the subject. This was a question, therefore, which was of the deepest interest to all men. He argued, that the Missionaries among the Mahommedans and Hindoos proceeded in the same way as that, for which Taylor had been punished, by attacking the religious opinions of the majority in the countries to which they went. Mr. Taylor was a person who had received, an education comprising all the advantages which those of the London Universities could bestow; or, as he was just informed by an hon. Member near him, Cambridge could bestow. He had taken a degree at that University, and afterwards entered into holy orders, and officiated as a clergyman of the Church of England. He (Mr. Hume) remembered he was Curate of Midhurst, where he had a liberal income, and lived in good society, as every clergyman might if he chose. When, therefore, this gentleman renounced the Thirty-nine Articles, and gave up his living and his hopes of preferment in the Church, it was impossible not to believe he had done so from conscientious motives. He surrendered his salary and his situation, and he had held a public meeting in a place which he called a church, to which he invited every man who pleased to come, and convince him of the error in the opinions he had been led to entertain. To this place, however, no person was permitted to go without paying a certain sum of money for his admittance. He accordingly protested against it as a monstrous thing, that a man should, in his private room, have his opinions taken down by hired informers. He wondered much that twelve men could be found in the country to convict Taylor on such evidence, and to condemn him for opinions uttered in his private room. He protested, likewise, against the sentence as tyrannical and unjust, and described it, first, as in fact solitary confinement for the space of two years, with the exception of his being permitted to see his friends through a grating for two hours each day; and, secondly, as solitary imprisonment for life, on account of the heavy recognizances to be entered into on his behalf at the end of the two years—recognizances which would pledge him never during his life to hold an opinion contrary to the Judge who tried him, or the majority of the people in this country. He observed also, that Taylor was deprived of all books except such as were approved of by the Chaplain or two Magistrates, and said, he was borne down at once by tyranny, mental and bodily. He detested the conduct of the Society for the Suppression of Vice in sending a spy into a man's private room to take down opinions expressed in public discussion. He disapproved of Mr. Taylor's proceedings, because he thought men owed that deference to society which should prevent them from attacking established opinions; but he considered there was no Inquisition in existence more tyrannical than the inquisition as regarded Mr. Taylor. If Taylor had delivered his opinions at Charing-cross, it would be quite right to punish him as a nuisance; but the case was very different when he confined himself to his private room. He again said, he wondered twelve men could have been found to convict Taylor on the evidence of hired informers, and to convict him of blasphemy; an offence which was not defined—though it was the same as that for which our Saviour suffered. He protested against a man's thus suffering for an undefined offence; for where definition was not precise, oppression must exist. The punishment, he maintained, was excessive. When tried in the King's Bench, upon a more heinous charge, he had been only sentenced to confinement for one year. He admitted, that the visiting Magistrates had relaxed the severity of Taylor's confinement; but he agreed with the petitioners in praying the House to interfere in that gentleman's behalf. If they considered Taylor's offence, they would see it was merely a difference of opinion; and he submitted to the House, whether it was consistent with Christianity or humanity to persecute a man for his opinions. He submitted to them, whether it was just to condemn a man, accustomed to literary and other elegant employments, to solitary confinement, because he happened to differ from the majority in opinion. He thought that no man should be attacked for his opinions, if he did not commit a nuisance in the State. Besides, this prosecution would add to infidelity. For all these reasons, he strenuously supported the prayer of the petition. He moved that it be brought up.

Mr. John Wood

seconded the Motion, and observed, that the fact of such respectable persons as the petitioners expressing sympathy for Taylor, was a strong proof of the inexpediency of the law under which this person had been convicted. He allowed, that Mr. Taylor set forth his opinions in a revolting way; but if persecution for opinion was suffered, no man would be safe. He looked upon Taylor as an object of pity rather than punishment.

Mr. Trevor

said, that it was a fact perfectly notorious, that Taylor had used all means to promulgate his opinions—that he had burlesqued the mysteries of our religion—and it was for this, and not for differing in opinion with other people, that he had been punished. Those who thought that his punishment was harsh, might perhaps be inclined to consider the maintenance of any system of morality or religion of no importance. As to all that the hon. member for Middlesex had said about Taylor's education and opportunities of mixing in good society, it was clearly an aggravation of the man's offence.

Mr. James E. Gordon rose to express his unqualified dissent from the sentiments of the hon. member for Middlesex. He did so, first, from an impression that they were erroneous; secondly, because he had made a most unjustifiable attack upon the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He felt it necessary, therefore, to say a few words. He thought that the country was under great obligations to that Society for its exertions in the suppression of blasphemy, and he denied, that there was any analogy between the proceedings of the Missionaries in foreign countries, and of Taylor here. He denied, also, that Taylor had contented himself with holding his opinions in private. He had sought to spread them as widely as he could, by tongue and pen. In addition to his labours as a lecturer, he was the editor of a weekly publication, called The Devil's Pulpit, in which infidel doctrines were maintained. He likewise declared, that the persons who provided the evidence against Taylor, were not hired informers, but gentlemen, and above the necessity of receiving hire.

Mr. O'Connell

stated, that he also had been requested to support the petition; and did so heartily, notwithstanding his abhorrence of the doctrines maintained by Mr. Taylor. Persecution would soon elevate the man into a martyr, as was evident from the fact of the petitioners sympathizing with him. And he believed, that if some steps were not taken to mitigate the severity of Mr. Taylor's sentence, the petition would be speedily followed by a subscription. As an instance of the impolicy of persecution, he remarked, that the hon. member for Dundalk had advertised a publication of Taylor's, The Devil's Pulpit, about which neither he, nor any hon. Member near him, had ever heard before. With respect to the Society for the Suppression of Vice, he declared it to be highly unconstitutional; because it was possible that it might chance to furnish from its members at once prosecutors, witnesses, Jury, and Judge.

Mr. Denison

said, an unfair attack had been made on the conduct of the Magistrates of Surrey, by whose kindness many indulgences had been extended to Taylor. He was in a comfortable room, eighteen feet by twenty-four; was allowed to provide his own dinner (wine and spirituous liquors being alone denied him); he had a free supply of books and newspapers, and he was permitted to walk in the open air to a certain time each day. No charge of harshness could possibly attach to the visiting Magistrates.

Mr. Briscoe

said, he agreed with the petitioners, that the greatest liberty ought to be allowed for the expression of opinion; but he believed that the petitioners were not aware of the nature of the offence for which Mr. Taylor was imprisoned. Mr. Taylor had advertised a lecture on astronomy, for the hearing of which money was paid at the door; but under this pretence the most offensive exhibition was offered to the eyes of the spectators, Mr. Taylor having dressed himself in full canonicals, and having addressed the assembly with a large cross hung before him. It was this which rendered the observations as to free discussion quite inapplicable to the present case. If there was any difference of treatment from that usually pursued towards misdemeanants, resorted to in the case of Taylor, he regretted it, and he thought, that there ought to be one general mode of treatment for all such persons in all the gaols in the kingdom. He was, individually, inclined to allow Taylor every indulgence consistent with the safe custody of the prisoner, and the general rules of the prison; but, at the same time, he thought that every class of misdemeanants ought to be treated in the same manner.

Mr. Paget

said, that persecution would never put down opinion; and the real offence imputed to Taylor appeared rather to be an offence against the Archbishop of Canterbury than against God or religion; for the worst part appeared to be, that Taylor had made a disgraceful exhibition, by appearing in a clerical dress, when he was uttering irreligious opinions. The right of entertaining and uttering such opinions did not seem to be denied him. A case in favour of Mr. Taylor had been made out by the hon. member for Surrey, who had shewn, that the sentence passed on Mr. Taylor was not only severe but very unusual. Under these circumstances, he did hope and trust that the whole of the sentence would undergo revision.

Mr. Hunt

supported the prayer of the petition, and said, that any severity not directed by the words of the sentence was against law. He had heard, that some of the Surrey Magistrates, and even some of the Jurors who tried Mr. Taylor, were members of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He contended, the Magistrates had no authority to prevent Mr. Taylor from seeing his friends, or drinking wine. The law only prohibited spirituous liquors in prisons. He knew nothing of Mr. Taylor; but thought prosecuting him for dressing himself like an Archbishop, or making use of a parcel of mummery, was absurd. In how many plays were such exhibitions introduced, and the actors were not punished. It had been acknowledged that the rules of the Surrey prisons were severe, and he therefore wished to have a copy of the regulations laid before the House. He protested against any discretionary power being left in the hands of Magistrates. The offence of Mr. Taylor was nothing but a piece of theatrical tom-foolery. The present petition was another proof of the evil effects produced by such prosecutions. Had the trial not taken place, the people of Bolton would probably never have heard of Mr. Taylor, or the harsh treatment he was said to have experienced in prison.

On the motion that the petition be read,

Mr. Briscoe

said, he did not believe that any of the Magistrates for Surrey, or any of the members of the Jury who tried Mr. Taylor, belonged to the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He was certain no Magistrate for Surrey would, for a moment, continue on the judicial bench in any cause to which he was a party concerned, and he believed no Juryman would serve when he would be trying his own cause. The statement, that Mr. Taylor had been put into solitary confinement, was not correct; for at first that individual had been confined with several other persons, convicted of misdemeanors, and he petitioned to be removed, which, in consequence had taken place: he now occupied a room by himself—but if there was any complaint of solitary confinement, the Magistrates were not liable to it.

Mr. James E. Gordon

regretted that the hon. member for Kerry persisted in making personal allusions to him, which caused him most reluctantly again to intrude upon the House. He had hitherto abstained from noticing insinuations and remarks which he utterly despised, but the accusation now made called upon him for some notice. He repelled with indignation the charge, that he wished to provoke persecution. The religion he professed, and the creed he advocated, alike forbade it; with respect to the publication called The Devil's Pulpit, it had before been mentioned in the House, and extracts read from it. He, therefore, could not be charged justly with bringing into notice such publications. At present they enjoyed a most extensive sale, and did incalculable injury. They were made the vehicles for attacking all that was venerable or respectable in the country, and he should certainly bring the subject before the House at a proper opportunity.

Mr. Denison

said, it was the object of his hon. colleague and himself to have every indulgence given to Mr. Taylor that his situation permitted. There was no restriction imposed upon him in particular. With regard to wine or spirits, he was expected only to conform to the rules of the prison. As a Magistrate of Surrey he knew nothing of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, nor was he in any manner connected with it, nor did he believe any of the Jury who tried Mr. Taylor were members of it.

Mr. O 'Connell

said, he was an enemy to religious persecutions of all kinds, and as the hon. member for Dundalk professed himself to be an Episcopalian, he must know how persons of that persuasion had been formerly dealt with in his own country, Scotland, where they were considered as Dissenters. This should teach him to be more tender how he interfered with the belief of others. He hoped such an enlightened country as England was not about to adopt persecutions, tending to increase the spread of opinions of a certain sect.

Petition read.

Mr. Hume,

in moving, that the petition be printed, said, that he hoped he had said enough to convince his Majesty's Ministers that the punishment inflicted upon Mr. Taylor was excessive, and the remainder of it ought to be remitted. The sentence was, that he be imprisoned for two years, and be fined 250l., and procure securities for good behaviour. It was obvious that Mr. Taylor would find the utmost difficulty in procuring bail, and the result might be his perpetual imprisonment. It was, therefore, much to the credit of the hon. members for Surrey that they had contributed to the amelioration of Mr. Taylor's condition, so far as in them lay. He hoped to be supported by Members in a motion he should make at an early opportunity, for a return of the list of the members of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. If prosecutions were to be instituted, they should be left to the Law Officers of the Crown, and not to the feelings of individuals. If the present law continued, it was reasonable, that the persons should be known who instituted such prosecutions. It had been admitted, that the regulations of the prison were harsh; they ought, therefore, to have been revised by the Magistrates, and thereby a gentleman like Mr. Taylor should have been prevented from suffering such unnecessary privations as he had experienced. On his committal he had been placed in the common room, with persons convicted of all sorts of crimes. He was obliged to attend chapel, to which he objected—received no other food than bread and water, and was wholly prevented from seeing his friends. Was that proper or decent treatment? After the interposition of his hon. friends with the Magistrates, they agreed to let him have newspapers, but he was prevented from having his own publication, The Devil's Pulpit. He was at length also allowed books, but none were permitted that treated upon theology, or controversial divinity. Now this was, probably, as hard as any part of the punishment. Suppose he should have the misfortune to be imprisoned, and that it should happen to be his taste to read nothing but parliamentary proceedings, how hard it would be for him if the Magistrates should order his gaoler to allow him no books with blue covers, nor any information relating to what was doing in that House. Surely it was too much for any set of men to take on themselves, at their own pleasure, thus to increase the severity of a sentence upon a person convicted of a misdemeanor.