HC Deb 28 April 1834 vol 23 cc114-27
Mr. Hume

said, that he had several Petitions to present relative to the sentence recently passed upon the Dorchester prisoners. They had been in his possession above a month, and, as he was anxious that the House should know the real feeling of the working classes relative to the conduct pursued by the Government in respect to these prisoners, he should read the words of the petitioners to the House. The first petition was from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It stated, that the working classes were entitled to an equal degree of protection to the privileged orders, and that they were particularly entitled to mercy as they were ignorant of the law. He must say, that he thought that this part of the petition was entitled to the marked attention of the House. The petitioners went on to say, that the sentence passed upon the Dorchester prisoners was cruel and unjust, and ought to be remitted. The next petition which he had to present was from Dundee. Although it only remained for a few hours in Dundee after it was got up it was signed by many thousand persons. These petitioners said, that the sentence upon the poor fellows at Dorchester was a direct blow at the working classes, and that the conduct of the Jury in bringing in a verdict of guilty was a stain upon justice. He (Mr. Hume) deprecated this language, and he merely read it to show the state of excitement in which the working classes were in consequence of the circumstance in question. He need hardly repeat what he had often declared, however, that the working classes would always have a greater chance of having their complaints attended to by that House if they used temperate, but at the same time firm, language. The next petition was from the town of Belfast; these petitioners, after deprecating the severity of the punishment inflicted upon the Dorchester prisoners, called upon the House to institute a Committee to inquire into the objects of the Trades' Unions. He had a fourth petition from a place in Scotland the prayer of which, was similar to that from Dundee. He held, that the proceedings taken against the Dorchester labourers went upon a mistaken ground. The act upon which they were found guilty ought not to have been applied to their case, for that was passed against secret oaths taken in societies whose object was to disturb the public peace by acts of sedition. It was one of the gagging acts passed to put down discussion in the height of Mr. Pitt's power. If the House would refer to the debate which took place on this Act they would be convinced that it was meant merely to apply to political societies. He contended that the Judge was wrong in sentencing the Dorchester labourers under this Act. Punishment ought in all cases to be such as to lead to a persuasion in the minds of all men that it had been properly inflicted. When that was not the case, the effect was, to excite commiseration for the punished person. What he especially complained of was, that the law, which was not intended to apply to any but seditious societies, had been strained for the purpose of putting down an association for raising wages. It was true that, before the year 1824, when the Combination-laws were in force, any three men who met together for the purpose of considering bow they could raise their wages, even by the mildest and most peaceful and lawful means, were liable to punishment. But in that year all the Combination-laws which had been enacted from the time of Edward 3rd, were swept away; and the principle was recognized, that the labouring man had as much right to protect his property, which consisted in his own labour, and to carry it to whatever market he preferred as any other man had a right to protect and dispose of any other kind of property in the most advantageous manner. The Act of 1824 not only repealed these laws; it expressly gave permission to the working men to meet together, and to form associations, either to effect an increase or to prevent a decrease of wages, or to diminish the hours of labour, or to say that they would not work at all. The question, therefore, was, whether the intention of the men at Dorchester was not to carry one of those four objects into effect? Was it not evident that their object was, to procure an increase of wages? That was not illegal, in fact it had the direct sanction of the law, The conviction, therefore, was against the law. He considered the conduct of the Judge to have been erroneous. He did not like to say anything discourteous of Mr. Baron Williams, who was a private friend of his own, yet he thought that learned Judge had erred in his view of the law. That was not merely his own opinion, formed on the ground which he had stated; it was also the opinion of many legal men; and when doctors differed, surely even a humble man like him might be allowed to doubt. He thought, that the House ought to inquire into the rules and objects of the Trades' Unions, and how far the Act of 1824 gave them a right to associate. He believed that it did give them the right, and that even the oath was not illegal. He concurred, at any rate, with all the petitioners that the sentence was harsh and severe, and he condemned the Government for hurrying off the men with such unprecedented haste to prevent the general expression of public sympathy from having any effect in their favour. It had given rise to a very general, and he thought a very just, opinion, that the men were punished for one thing, which was not illegal, under the name of another, of which the illegality was very doubtful; and that they were sacrificed for the purpose of intimidating the Unions. Such a course was much to be condemned; because it was obvious that the punishment must fail in producing the effect desired.

Mr. Warburton

begged to say, in contradiction of what was said by the first Lord of the Admiralty on a former day, that he was informed by the Solicitor for the six labourers, that the learned Judge did state his doubts, in open Court, of the Act of Parliament being intended to apply to this case. At any rate, the country at large was not aware of the applicability of the Act, which was a sufficient reason for mitigating the severe punishment these men had received.

Colonel Evans

said, he was inclined to think that in strictness the sentence was legal; but there could be no doubt of its being more severe than the offence warranted. He regretted that the Trades' Unions had been misled in several parts of their conduct, of which he thought their marching through the streets some days back, under the idea, that it would help those unfortunate Dorchester labourers, was one of those parts. At the same time he was bound to bear testimony to their proper conduct on that occasion, which was distinguished by much more prudence than some others had been. In regretting, however, the manner in which the unionists were misled, and the mistaken views they took of their interests, it should never be forgotten, that they were driven into taking some measure for their own protection by the absolute insufficiency of food for their members. The labouring classes competed one with another for the work through which the limited supply of food allowed to the country by the Corn-laws must be obtained. It was this competition that reduced their wages, and the unionists wished to prevent that reduction by not competing against each other; in other words, by not working at low prices. He thought, that the true remedy for this distress was, to increase the quantity of food, and demand for their labour. If, therefore, they would apply their efforts to the abolition of the Corn-laws, they would do more to advance the commercial prosperity of the country and their own happiness and comfort, than any other course they could take. There were other Members representing large constituencies, and supposed to be popular Members, who entertained these opinions as well as himself; but instead of openly expressing them, and endeavouring to get the labouring classes out of the mistake into which they had fallen, they joined the inferior agitators (for they had agitators of all classes), who had misled them. The opinions he now expressed he had stated before many of the Unionists, and he regretted, that the popular Members to whom he alluded had, instead of adopting the same course, concealed their sentiments, and to get the temporary applause of a public meeting, fell in with what they found the humour of the moment, instead of stating what would really enable workmen to obtain an easy and comfortable living for themselves and families, as well as advance the prosperity of the whole country. He concluded by hoping, that Government would, after the lapse of a short time (perhaps it was out of their power immediately to do so), remit the punishment of the Dorchester labourers, so disproportionate to their offence.

Sir S. Whalley

said, the House of Commons had never yet turned a deaf ear to the voice of humanity; and he hoped they would not in the present instance. He trusted, therefore, that they would interpose to prevent the execution of a sentence so disproportionately heavy for an offence so light, if offence it were at all, especially when it was taken into consideration, that it was the consequence of the infringement of a law so obsolete that even the Judge himself scarcely recollected its existence. It would, he thought be also good policy of the House to interfere in the instance of these unfortunate men, at the same time holding out to the country the certainty of the law being carried into execution in case of any other transgressions of a similar nature. As to the Trades' Unions, he thought, while there was a great deal to admire there was also much to condemn in them. When they travelled out of their direct course, and attempted to cause an unnatural rise in the rate of wages—a state of things which would ultimately recoil upon themselves with the most fearful consequences—their conduct, to say the least of it, was very reprehensible. However, he was happy to perceive by their last manifesto, that they were again returning to a sense of their duty; and it was not too much to hope, that the really useful purposes of their institutions would be now solely attended to by them. With respect to the sentence passed on the unfortunate men, the subjects of the petition, and carried into execution with such extraordinary and indecent haste, he should only say, that it was most harsh and cruel. And it appeared beyond any doubt that these poor men were not punished for simply doing that which many hon. Members of that House had done, but for something far different—for being Trades' Unionists. Under all the circumstances of the case, he trusted that his Majesty's Government would not interpose to prevent the extension of the Royal mercy to these unfortunate men, whose crime, after all, was only that of binding themselves together by an oath to do the best they could for themselves.

Mr. Edward Lytton Bulwer

agreed in a great measure with what had fallen from the hon. and gallant member for Westminster, respecting Trades' Unions; and he had always endeavoured to impress opinions of a similar nature on such Members of them as he happened to come in contact with. However, he thought the punishment of the Dorchester labourers very much severer than the crime they had committed; and it looked to him as if the Government had some ulterior object in view in persevering so harshly in the course they had adopted towards them. If, however, as he believed, that object was the suppression of Trades' Unions, he would only point to the countless thousands who swept the streets of the metropolis in such orderly and formidable procession last Monday to prove how far they were from its attainment. He could not, therefore, avoid deprecating that course of conduct. Measures of such harshness, even when the subject was deserving of punishment, were always most dangerous in a free country; for they formed the grounds for an appeal to popular feeling and popular sympathy, the results of which were unregulated and very often dangerous.

Sir George Strickland

said, that the hon. members for Dublin and Middlesex disagreed about the legality of the sentence, the former asserting that it was legal, and the latter the contrary. He was inclined to adopt the opinion of the hon. member for Dublin; but he could not, at the same time that he did so, help expressing his doubts as to the propriety of carrying so severe a sentence into effect. The course adopted by his Majesty's Government in reference to these men, putting humanity out of the question, was, perhaps, not prudent, and the case was one which called for a fair investigation, and an extension of the royal mercy.

Mr. Godson

thought, that either the Law Officers of the Crown, or the noble Lord the Under-Secretary to the Home Office, ought to be in their places, to attend to this discussion. With respect to subjects referred to in these petitions, he believed that no Gentleman had yet pointed out the fact that, in the case of the King v. Marks, the Court of King's Bench had decided that, illegal oaths taken with respect to trade, were liable to be punished under the Act in question. [Mr. Feargus O'Connor: No!] If his hon. friend would send for a volume of East's Reports, he would find the case just as he represented it. That being the law, the Judge was obliged to give his opinion of it as it had been laid down by the full Court. With respect to the sentence passed upon these men, were they to be told, that the Judge must look to the political consequences of his sentence? He hoped that no Judge would ever be obliged to do that. As to the remission of the sentence, petitions with that object in view ought to have been presented to his Majesty, and not to that House. If the Trades' Unions confined themselves to the four points adverted to by the hon. member for Middlesex, there could be no real objection to them; but if these men were allowed to go on as at present, sending delegates from this and that body to this and that town, the whole frame of society would be destroyed, and, in a very few years, a republic must be the consequence. He contended, that upon the legal question the Judge was quite right in passing sentence, without taking into his consideration the political consequences of the law. He had no objection to an Address being presented to the Throne, praying that the sentence passed upon these men should be remitted.

Mr. Feargus O'Connor

begged to observe, in reply to the hon. member for Yorkshire, that although the hon. and learned member for Dublin had at first considered the conviction of the Dorchester prisoners legal, he had, after mature consideration, altered his opinion, and he now declared the sentence to be illegal. With respect to the King v. Marks, there was one ingredient in that case which was not in this, namely, that the meeting was seditious. It was generally believed, that the Act under which these men had been convicted, had died a natural death; and the consequence was, that the 52nd George 3rd was passed, and there was no evidence adduced in the case of the Dorchester prisoners to bring them within the meaning of the latter Act. But he would follow the example of the hon. member for Yorkshire, and put the law of the case altogether aside. All the objects of the Government would be obtained by the conviction, and the decision of the Judge that the two Acts of Parliament did apply to such associations; and that being obtained, the case was one in which the mercy of the Crown was especially called for. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had the other day, in the case of The Pilot Newspaper, pointed out the way in which a harsh law might be evaded; but surely if a harsh law could be evaded upon the recommendation of such an authority, it was not too much to ask for the mitigation of an excessive punishment for the unintentional violation of a harsh law. The only argument the noble Lord, the Under Secretary for the Home Department had used on a former occasion, was, that one of the six men was of bad character, and that two others of them, being Methodist preachers, must have been acquainted with the law. Now, he thought the latter part of the argument assumed a great deal too much, and surely, if one of the men was of bad character, the noble Lord would not say that the other five, who were of unblemished character, should suffer on his account. He trusted, that the Government would listen to the calm arguments which had been alleged by so many Gentlemen in that House, of different political opinions, and would yield to the almost universal prayer of the people to remit the sentence. The gallant member for Westminster had referred to the great and the little agitators—who addressed violent language to the meeting at which that gallant Colonel presided some few evenings since. He did not know in what class of agitators the gallant Colonel would include him—but he had addressed that meeting, and he denied that he used violent language; on the contrary, he told the people, that they would only be powerful so long as they were peaceable, and entrenched themselves within the law. But the gallant Colonel had forgotten to state, that he had offered to enrol himself as a member of the Trades' Unions. If the gallant Colonel did join the Union, he, as a member, would be very glad to see what digest of laws the gallant Colonel would draw up for their regulation. The gallant Colonel complained that the speeches at the Crown and Anchor were political; but the gallant Colonel's own speech on that occasion was political, and, amongst other things, he exhorted the Unions to direct all their energies to obtaining the repeal of the Corn-laws.

Mr. Finn

deprecated discussions in that House upon points of law. He disapproved of the associations, and thought that the agricultural labourers especially were misled when they united to persecute their employers, whom they must know to be unable to give them higher wages. But he thought, that now when the Government had shown its firmness in refusing to yield to the intimidation of the unionists and their procession, the Royal prerogative might be properly exercised in mitigating the sentence; and if there were any doubts, as there seemed to be, the prisoners ought to have the benefit of them.

Mr. Hardy

said, the Trades' Unions had other objects in view than those for which they declared themselves to be united. Such combinations he considered most dangerous to the community. He did not say there was any objection, as the law stood at present, for any number of men to unite to obtain an increase of wages, or to protect themselves against oppression; but experience had proved that such was not their object, but that it was not only to intimidate the masters and the Government, but also to compel other workmen who were industriously and peaceably disposed to adopt the same course of conduct and become subservient to their views. They compelled them to pay large contributions, by which only their committee-men and delegates were benefited, and whose illegal and mischievous objects those combinations were calculated to promote. If the oaths were only to enable the unionists to know one another by a snap of the finger, or any other sign, as the hon. member for Marylebone supposed, they would be harmless. On the estate in which he held a share, being the largest portion of his property, there was to be held that day a meeting of the Unions of the West Riding of York; and if hon. Members would only read the advertisement calling that meeting, or rather the postscript to it, they would see that those associations had other objects than merely to raise wages. He saw from the Leeds papers received that morning, that a master had received notice that if he did not dismiss certain workmen who did not belong to the Union, he would have a strike in his factory. This was not to be borne. The terror and alarm created by this system were not confined to persons in trade, for the gentleman who had sent him the placard about the meeting to be held in the West Riding of York that day, had intreated him not to let it be known by whom it was sent, for he should become the object, if not the victim, of vengeance. He was not, therefore, prepared to call upon the Government to mitigate the punishment of these Dorchester labourers.

Mr. Aglionby

doubted whether the Act of Parliament applied to the case of these men. The question, however, was a legal one, and it ought not to be decided by that House; it should be left to the opinion of the twelve Judges. All that now could be done was, to address the fountain of mercy for the mitigation of the sentence, and he earnestly hoped it would be attended with success.

Mr. Lloyd

observed, that as the law upon the case was very doubtful, that circumstance ought greatly to palliate the offence of which the men were convicted. It should be presumed, that while eminent authorities differed on it, labourers must have been ignorant of such a law existing. He did not impute anything to the learned Judge who tried those men, for he had been convinced that such was the law, and he was bound to pass the full sentence upon those who were convicted. He must, however, say, that he blamed his Majesty's Government for not showing some leniency towards those men. He was as much as any man opposed to Trades' Unions, still he would not stretch the law to put them down. Voluntary associations were perfectly justifiable; the employment by the Unions of coercion was the only principle that, to his mind, attached a criminal nature to their proceedings.

Mr. George F. Young

considered it advisable that the Trades' Unions should be made acquainted with the opinions of their friends in that House, on the nature and consequences of their proceedings. He should let no opportunity pass of deprecating the tyranny exercised by these bodies over their fellow men, which was intolerable in any civilized community.

Mr. O'Connell

agreed in what had been observed respecting the intolerableness of any tyranny used by the Unions towards fellow-workmen. The state of society in these kingdoms was quite unnatural. There was a surplus of labour in the market; and this being constantly kept up, enabled the manufacturer to employ labourers from Ireland, &c., at a minimum of wages, and to put the difference in their pockets as profits. It was a state of society from which evil results of a fearful nature might reasonably be expected to flow; but he had no such fears from Trades' Unions as hon. Members contemplated. If Trades' Unions kept within bounds of law, they certainly would possess a degree of moral force which might make them a source of uneasiness to evil doers; but if once they passed beyond these bounds, their connexion was but as a rope of sand, and their power but as a shadow, which would instantly pass away. It was absurd for any Government to fear, or affect to fear them. With respect to the case of the convicted Unionists, he begged to state his opinion. He believed, from the newspaper reports, as well as from the reports he had heard, that, if the indictments were properly framed, and sustained by proper evidence, the sentence was according to law. Whether these requisites had existed or not, he was at a loss to know; but the Government refused him in England, what was always granted in Ireland, a copy of the indictment; he, therefore, suspected the weakness of the case, and that it was not supported by facts. He did so more particularly, in consequence of a letter he had received from a gentleman at the bar, who was present at the trial. He read the following letter, having the permission of the writer to do so:— 21, Essex-street, London, April 21,1834. Sir,—Having been informed that you have given notice of a Motion in the House of Commons on the subject of the sentence passed on the Dorchester agricultural labourers, I take the liberty of mentioning to you some circumstances connected with their case. I was present during the whole trial except the summing up of the Judge. The case was entirely supported by the evidence of accomplices. This evidence was given in a very loose and indistinct manner, and varied very materially from the depositions of the same witnesses taken before the committing Magistrates. On the principal point, the taking of an oath, these witnesses stated that they could not recollect what was said. The Counsel for the prosecution in vain endeavoured to elicit such answers as would have supported the indictment; and such answers as were at last drawn from them, with great difficulty, were suggested to them in the form of leading questions, by the Judge reading from the depositions. After all this, they did not say that an oath, or anything like an oath, was taken; but that there was a book on the table, which looked something like a Bible or Testament; that something was read which sounded like the Scriptures; that something was said about wages, and keeping secrets; and that they were blindfolded, and told to kiss the book. A paper was admitted in evidence, and read, which purported to appertain to a friendly agricultural society. This paper had been found in the work-box of the wife of one of the prisoners, which box opened by a key found in the prisoner's pocket. This paper contained a series of rules and regulations, but no oath, nor anything that I am aware of of an illegal character. But it was not proved, that this paper was ever read at the meeting, or ever produced at the meeting. The witnesses expressly swore, that they did not know the meaning of what was read. And for anything that appeared, this paper might have contained the rules of another society. One of the rules of this paper (I think the last), which becomes important when viewed in conjunction with the defence of the prisoners, was, that this society 'will not countenance any violation of the laws.' Nothing can be more false than the statements which have appeared in the Government newspapers of the condition in life, and education of the prisoners, to the effect, that they were religious teachers or preachers. They were all of the poorest set of agricultural labourers. Their appearance and demeanour at the trial entirely supported their defence, which was, that they did not know that they were doing anything against the laws, that they united to support themselves and their wives and families, and to maintain them when out of work. I think all, but certainly most of them, received good characters as hardworking industrious men. If anything of importance occur to me before you make the Motion in the House of Commons, either respecting any additional facts, or any incorrectness in those which I have mentioned, I will trouble you with another communication. I will now only add my deliberate opinion; one in which I have reason to believe a vast majority of persons of all ranks and classes will, upon a knowledge of the facts, agree, that, supposing the conviction to be legal, the extreme punishment awarded in this case, was a most indiscreet and cruel application of the law. (The letter was signed B. EWETT.) Why, however, he would ask, resort to this Statute, on which it was admitted there existed some doubts? There was enough of punishment for such an offence as a misdemeanour. He had been requested by the Unions to become their Counsel, to which he had consented; but he was to give no opinion, except through the medium of a written communication made by a regular Solicitor. It should, however, be well borne in mind, that any attempt of the Unions to intimidate any workman by force, or injury to his person and property, from freely disposing of his labour, was not only a gross and tyrannical violation of that liberty which they claimed for themselves, but an act perfectly illegal, and which the law would justly and properly punish. The law was strong enough to prevent such conduct, and he should not complain of its execution; but he hoped it would mix mercy with justice. In this case there was abundant room for mercy, and he hoped it would be extended to these men by the King's Government.

Colonel Evans

regretted, that these opinions, which were so decided, had not been expressed at the Crown and Anchor meeting. But it seemed that the sound doctrines were kept for that House, while what would administer to popular feeling was uttered elsewhere. He again regretted that the Unions should attempt the adoption of any measures of intimidation.

Sir Henry Hardinge

begged to give his meed of praise to the gallant Colonel (Colonel Evans) for his manly and straightforward declaration of his opinions both in that House and at the public meeting at which he lately appeared. He (Sir Henry Hardinge) held in his hand a paper which showed what were the dispositions of the Trades' Unions. It was a copy of a notice which had been served upon most of the master tailors in London, on Saturday last, to the effect, that "none of the brothers shall be allowed to work for less than 6s. per day, or for more than ten hours per day, from the third week in April to the last week in August." For his part, he considered that notice clearly unlawful; and he had told his tailor that morning, that he would go out to dine in his shirt, rather than allow any master to submit to such coercion to provide him with a coat. He also condemned the Trades' Processions.

Mr. Hill

had no doubt of the legality of the conviction and sentence; but he thought, that there could be little doubt also, that the men committed the offence in ignorance of the law. Theirs was a case which called for the exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy. He thought it one of the greatest defects in the criminal judicature of this country, that although, in all civil actions, a man had the power of appeal against any supposed error in a decision to his prejudice, even where the matter in dispute was of no more than 5l. value, yet, where his character, his liberty, or his life was involved, in a criminal case he had no appeal. The law under which these men had been punished, had been directed against Unions, though it was originally intended to suppress mutiny. He did not object to the application of it to the suppression of Unions. The Trades' Unions, as long as they abstained from intimidation or interference with the labour of others, he did not consider to be illegal associations; but the moment they attempted to intimidate and to dictate, he had no hesitation in saying, that the law ought to be enforced against them. The slightest act of intimidation exercised against individuals, or bodies of trades, rendered the Unions illegal, and the law should take immediate notice of it. The taking of foolish oaths had, he was happy to hear, been given up. These drew the public attention to a wrong point, and caused it justly to be supposed that Unions, where secret oaths were administered, must be illegal. Certainly, it might well be presumed, that these convicted men were ignorant of the existence of such a law as that under which they had been indicted. He must say, and as a lawyer he was ashamed to say it, that he was ignorant of this Statute, at least, of its application to unlawful oaths of the nature alluded to in this indictment, until it had been called into activity. Indeed, if secret oaths were illegal, and punishable by this Statute, he was himself indictable, as he belonged to the Society of Odd Fellows, and had taken a secret oath in that Society, over which presided at the time, an eminent lawyer, now high in the administration of the law, and who actually administered the oath to him. The case of the Dorchester men was, in his opinion, one to which the mercy of the Crown should be extended, the punishment being above measure disproportioned to the offence, the more especially, as the existence of the law had been unknown. The verdict would have accomplished all which justice and the present state of society could require.

Petition to lie on the Table.

Back to