HC Deb 29 June 1831 vol 4 cc460-5

Sir. Michael Shaw Stewart, on presenting Petitions in favour of Reform from several places in Renfrew, observed, that he took that opportunity of expressing his regret that he had not been present at the discussion on a former evening, relating to the disturbances in Scotland at the recent elections, particularly as far as the Sheriff of Lanark was concerned. He believed the Sheriff had acted to the best of his judgment, but he had committed two mistakes. The first was bringing the military into the immediate vicinity of Lanark, the second was the improper distribution of the constabulary force. The church, in which the election took place, was nearly filled by the lower orders of the people, yet not a single constable was placed there. Had they been on the spot, he was satisfied the scenes which occurred would not have been witnessed. All that he had seen and heard at the election, and all that he had heard and read since, had satisfied him that the civil force present would have been sufficient to have repressed riot had it been properly arranged. There would, in that case, have been no pretence for calling in the military, which ought to be resorted to only in cases of urgent necessity.

Mr. Charles Douglas

regretted that it was necessary for him to address the House, after what had already passed with respect to the disturbances at Lanark and other places in Scotland. He had before stated his unwillingness to enter into the subject, because, in his situation, his explanation might be attributed to personal feelings. The same motive prevented him from going into particulars at present, and that motive was strengthened by the statement of the Lord Advocate, that the subject was undergoing legal investigation. It was a serious matter to impeach the conduct of the Sheriff, nevertheless he abstained from entering into details, because they would necessarily excite discussion on a subject on account of which misguided persons were under trial. The Hon. Baronet had objected to the military having been brought too near the town of Lanark, in reply to which he would observe, presuming the Sheriff had received such information as might render their presence necessary, common prudence required them to be much nearer than twenty-five miles, which was the distance of the place where they were usually quartered. With respect to the employment of the constabulary force, the Sheriff had publicly declared, that of about 300 persons sworn in, only twenty or thirty answered his call, when they were wanted. He hoped all further discussion would be stopped, for it appeared extremely improper to make an attack upon a public officer in an incidental conversation.

Captain Stewart

felt it his duty to say a few words on the subject of the election for Lanark. He was anxious, that the House and the country should not be misled, and therefore he requested them to suspend their opinions until an authentic account of the whole transaction was laid before them. Proceedings were in progress by which public justice would be vindicated, and the conduct of the parties involved placed in its proper light. Having been present at the election, it was only justice to the people of Scotland to say, they had not been fairly and constitutionally dealt with on that occasion. He fully concurred with the observations of his hon. relative with respect to the constabulary force; had that been properly arranged, and had it performed its duty properly, it would have been quite sufficient to have preserved the public peace. He was aware of the difficulty and delicacy of the duties thrown upon the Sheriff', and was willing to make every allowance for that officer, but having been an eye-witness to his conduct, he could not exculpate him. Where the disturbances commenced, out of a body of 320 Constables, he had only twenty at his disposal; the Sheriffs object was to disperse a crowd of 300 or 400 persons, including women and boys, who had surrounded four or five freeholders after the election was over. This might have been accomplished by fifty Constables and when that was the case, it could not be said that the civil force was overpowered which alone could justify calling in the military. He appealed to the House whether the conduct described was correct on the part of the Magistrate. Cedant arma togœ was not the case on the present occasion. The Sheriff shewed his aptitude for both professions when he vaulted into the saddle and charged up the street with all the ease of a veteran soldier. He again intreated the House to listen to no partial statements, for he was persuaded that the result of the legal investigation would be the vindication of the character of the people, and that the conduct of a few miscreants would not be assumed to be a fair representation of the conduct of the whole nation.

Sir George Clerk

wished the hon. Member had himself followed the advice he had given, and refrained from provoking discussion upon a subject under judicial investigation. He regretted the hon. Member had not followed the prudent course of his hon. relative, instead of expressing himself in rather unqualified terms on the conduct of the Sheriff of Lanarkshire. The hon. Member accused the Sheriff of having unnecessarily called in a party of Dragoons to disperse a crowd after the election had taken place, but he appeared to have forgotten that the disturbances had commenced during the election, by an attack on the houses of the candidates and those connected with them. With reference to the observations of the hon. Member on the constabulary force, he must beg him to recollect that they had been brought from a distance and had been on duty from an early hour in the morning. The consequence was, that after the unpopular candidates had quitted the town, the Constables thought they were no longer wanted, and most of them returned home. After that time a numerous body of persons surrounded the Inn to which some of the supporters of the unpopular candidates had retired. The friends of the unsuccessful candidates also dined at the same Inn, and they were cheered by the mob, but the supporters of the unpopular candidates were prevented from leaving the Inn, were attacked by stones, and exposed to great personal danger; under these circumstances the Dragoons were employed by the Sheriff for the sole purpose of escorting the carriages of the freeholders who were confined in the Inn by the mob. In the execution of this duty the Sheriff was so seriously injured as to be confined to his bed for several days. The conduct of the mob was such as to fully justify the Sheriff: persons in the crowd openly expressed their determination to inflict some mark of their vengeance on the unpopular freeholders. Under these circumstances the hon. Member had made use of unjustifiably strong language in saying the Sheriff had acted unconstitutionally. He repeated, the military were called in, not to act against the people but to escort the carriages of the persons confined in the Inn. After what had fallen from the Lord Advocate, he was unwilling to enter into further detail. From the manner in which the learned Lord spoke, it was evident that he thought the transactions reflected great discredit on those engaged in them, and they would be found, he believed, of a more serious nature than the hon. Member imagined.

Sir William Rae

considered, that the hon. Baronet, after the long discussion on this subject yesterday, would have acted wisely in not bringing it again before the House. It was detrimental to the public service for Gentlemen to excuse such transactions as these which occurred at the Lanarkshire election. It mattered little, indeed, what Members said on the Opposition side of the House, but when Members connected with Government, whose words had weight in the country, appeared to excuse, 'the conduct of an election mob such proceedings were calculated to tempt the people to repeat their offences against the laws. He also thought it most unjust to attack an absent individual. The person whom the hon. Member had attacked, the Sheriff-Depute of Lanarkshire, was bound to keep the peace of Glasgow, a town containing 200,000 of the most disorderly inhabitants of Scotland, and it was most unfair to bring forward public charges against him when he had no opportunity of meeting them. He had been present at the election, and must doubt whether the hon. Member had really witnessed the circumstances which occasioned the military to be called in. There were at Lanark, as at other places in Scotland, two parties; the one which favoured Reform decorated themselves with green ribbands, bearing the device of "Reform." These persons dined after the election together, and while they were so engaged, the unfortunate individuals of the opposite party were blockaded in the Inn, and found it impossible to get out without being grievously assaulted. They were confined in this manner for hours after most of the constables had retired, and the Sheriff was left with about twenty only. The freeholders who were thus imprisoned, called on him for protection: under these circumstances, he was advised by a friend of the unsuccessful candidates, to send for the military; their aid was obtained and what was the consequence? Not one of the rioters received the least injury from the soldiers. The hon. Member had alluded to the Sheriff having mounted a dragoon's horse, but he had forgotten to explain, that the officer who commanded the troops, refused to stir without the presence of a Magistrate. What then was the Sheriff to do; was he to refuse the service of the soldiers from motives of personal fear? No, he determined to do his duty, and accompany the soldiers by the only method possible. Whilst so employed on horseback, he was struck with a constable's baton, much injured, and suffered great pain for several days. It was very hard, that an individual, whose impartial conduct was praised by the unsuccessful candidate, should be attacked in his absence, and he therefore thought that it was necessary to say these few words in his vindication. The whole question was in the hands of the Lord Advocate who would perform his duty correctly. He deprecated discussion at the present moment, but felt that he had only performed his duty in defending an individual whose proper conduct had met universal approbation.

Captain Stewart

begged to observe, he had made no attack on the Sheriff without giving him proper notice. At the time of the transaction he had told him, and he had since communicated with him by letter, that he was determined to bring his conduct before the House. With respect to the occurrences in the church, nothing could be more infamous than what there took place, but the evil acts of a few individuals were not sufficient to vilify the character of a whole assembly. There were only three or four missiles thrown in the church and the dignified conduct of his hon. friend opposite, upon that occasion he should never forget. The hon. and learned Gentleman who spoke last had defended the Sheriff for appearing on horseback, which might have been necessary, but it was not calculated to make a very salutary impression. The Sheriff added to his difficulties by that act, for he had to manage an unruly horse as well as an unruly multitude.

Mr. Robert Dundas

said, if the hon. Member was resolved to make such a determined attack upon a public officer, it would have been more becoming to have given notice of a motion, than thus to come forward with a sort of by-play and make an ex-parts statement. He felt sorrow at reflecting that the Sheriff had been censured by a Member of that House for having actively and conscientiously performed his duty.

Mr. Dixon

expressed a hope that the discussion would terminate, and that the House would suspend its judgment till the whole particulars of the transaction were before it.

An Hon. Member said, that the general tendency of the remarks made by the hon. Gentleman who spoke second, was to throw an increased measure of unpopularity on those whose principles were opposed to the Ministerial measure of Reform. Those persons were described as anti-Reformers; he denied the justice of that designation. He believed the people of Scotland were unanimously in favour of a well-considered Reform, though there were many who conscientiously opposed the child of Ministerial despair, the terror-stricken offspring of their fear to lose their beloved places The hon. Member charged somebody whom he hardly knew with calumniating the whole people of Scotland. For his part he was glad to know, that notwithstanding all the means taken to excite them, they had generally conducted themselves in a manner highly honorable to their character. With few exceptions they had maintained their reputations for obedience to the law.

Petition laid on the Table.

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