HC Deb 16 April 1834 vol 22 cc859-63
Mr. Hutt

had a Petition, signed by upwards of 7,000 members of the Grand National Trades' Union of Kingston-upon-Hull, imploring his Majesty's Government to remit the punishment inflicted upon the six labourers tried and convicted at the last Dorchester Assizes. He (Mr. Hutt) was not the advocate of the Trades' Unions. He thought them most mischievous in their operation, both towards society at large, and those who became members of such bodies. But that was entirely distinct from the question at present before them. The question was, whether his Majesty's Government, having inflicted the severest penalty the law allowed, for an offence which these people were ignorant they were committing, had not transgressed the bounds of justice and humanity? He had himself been a member of a secret society, and had taken a secret oath. He was aware at the time that he was infringing the law; but when he had heard that it had only been acted upon once in a period of forty years, he conceived that it was obsolete, and that a fine of sixpence would be a sufficient penalty for transgressing such a statute. He hoped it would be clearly understood, that these individuals had not been punished for taking a secret oath, but for having been members of the Trades' Unions. He deplored the conduct of his Majesty's Government towards these men, because there was every reason to hope that these Unions were falling to pieces, and would, if not for this step, ere now, have been totally annihilated. The law, he admitted, should be vindicated, but that vindication should have been tempered with justice, humanity, and discretion.

Mr. Feargus O'Connor

begged to offer a few observations upon the law of the case, although, in doing so, he might, perhaps, be charged with impertinence in placing his opinion in opposition to that of hon. Gentlemen who had yesterday alluded to the Act of Parliament under which these unfortunate men had been tried. It appeared that they had been tried under the 37th Geo. 3rd; and it appeared, also, by a reference to that Act, that it was directed against persons who might attempt to seduce sailors and soldiers from their allegiance. The 52nd Geo. 3rd had been passed for the purpose of explaining the Act, and it was injustice to those men to indict them antler the former, when the latter was in existence. He did not hesitate to say, that, if they had been indicted under the 52nd of Geo. 3rd, it could not have been made out that the law had been in the slightest degree infringed. It was plain, from the nature of the oath, and the punishment inflicted, that the crime of these unfortunate men had no reference to the Act under which they had been tried. The hon. and learned Gentleman, the member for Knaresborough, when he had alluded to the Act yesterday, had certainly not read or not considered it properly. These unfortunate men had been most unfairly dealt with. Who, he would ask, had brought forward these Unions, who should really be in their place at that moment? Those persons who had created and used them for their own purposes. It might not be the fashion to speak in that manner, or perhaps it might excite laughter; but he thought that Earl Grey, Lord Brougham, the noble Lord, the Paymaster of the Forces, and the right hon. the Secretary for the Colonies, should be on board the hulks in place of those unfortunate men, for they had been the prime movers and actors in all the transactions which had for their object the promotion of political change by means of unions of the working classes. They were, in short, accessories before the fact, as far as the Dorchester Unionists were concerned. With respect to the Trades' Unions, what was it, he would ask, which caused them to adopt the title of Political Unions? Why, nothing but the imbecile and truckling conduct of the present Whig Government. He was the last man in the world to commend the conduct of those who were guilty; but there could be no doubt, that the unfortunate Dorchester labourers had erred without a knowledge of the law; and such being the case, he considered the sentence a most severe, a most unjust one. Were the present Ministers determined, in spite of every thing they had seen and heard, still to stand between the people and the Throne, cutting off the royal clemency for those who had transgressed the law, because they were not acquainted with it? The Government were actually intimidated by that which had raised themselves into power, and thought themselves justified in pursuing so severe a course, for the purpose of putting an end to the very power they had themselves raised. Would the Government listen to reason? Would they still go on hurrying the people from their allegiance? If they did, all he could say was, their perverseness and folly would almost make rebellion a virtue. For his own part, he had no hesitation in saying, they would go on as long as they could find gentlemen to cheer them; but, if they did, they must remember that the cheer would soon be drowned by the condemnation of the people. That House was the place to which the people looked for relief, but relief could never be afforded as long as an imbecile and truckling Ministry sat on the other side of the House. He trusted the Government would adopt a different line of conduct, for they might be assured, if they did not, when convulsion came, they would be taught what it was to stand between his Majesty and his subjects.

Mr. Wason

had no doubt of the legality of the sentence passed on those unhappy men. The right hon. Baronet, the member for Cumberland, said, that two days had been spent in considering their case; but then the object of inquiry was not whether the sentence was severe, but upon a doubt raised by the counsel, whether the law applied to their case. Every one knew, that when it became the duty of a judge to pronounce sentence of transportation for any crime, it could not be for a less term than seven years; and he was sure, that if such a term as three years could be given to those men for a punishment, the learned judge would have willingly limited their sufferings to that period. Let no doubt be entertained, then, of the legality of the sentence. At the same time, he thought that the Government should have interposed its authority to mitigate the heavy sentence of those men, and make their punishment more proportionate to their crime.

Mr. Rotch

did not consider himself called upon to answer the observations of the hon. Member, as the Act upon which he had relied was an Act subsequent to the Act upon which those persons had been convicted. It was impossible, that the persons in question could have been indicted under the 52nd Geo. 3rd, for it did not apply to their case. He must leave the hon. and learned Member, therefore, to make out a better case. When he quoted this Act on which he (Mr. Rotch) had given his opinion, he would then meet him.

Mr. Feargus O'Connor

, in explanation, observed, that he had not plied upon the Act to which the hon. Member had alluded. What he had said was, that it was most unjust to indict a person under an Act, when there was a subsequent Act passed to explain it.

Colonel Evans

was of opinion, that the learned judge was not amenable to censure. The whole affair rested with his Majesty's Government. The question was one of great importance to the peace of the country; for it involved the Government as a conflicting party with all the workmen of the country. If the Under Secretary of the Home-Office were present to hear the statements, the noble Lord might, perhaps, give some satisfactory explanation, which was much needed. No person was more adverse than he was to Trades' Unions; he would not defend them, because he considered that industry was a description of property, which ought to be held the most sacred, and left the most free. He was most anxious to extend protection to every individual labourer; and such protection was quite inconsistent with any undue means of intimidation. He thought that his Majesty's Government were right in inflicting some punishment on those men, but it should have been a much lighter one.

The Petition to lie on the Table.

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