HC Deb 03 June 1835 vol 28 cc478-84
Mr. Crompton

said, the Petition he now had to present related to a tithe-suit in the Spiritual Court at Litchfield. The petitioner, Mr. Thomas Harris, was a man of respectability, occupying a farm in the parish of Ham in Staffordshire, which farm was his (Mr. Crompton's) property. The rev. Bernard Port was rector of the same parish, and was entitled to the tithe of cabbages. In the year 1831, the petitioner planted one acre of land in a field in this farm with cabbages, the other part of the field was sown with grass seeds. The greatest part of these cabbages was tithed without producing any dispute. The cabbages were pulled at different times as the petitioner had occasion for them for the use of his cattle; the tithe was set out and was drawn on Mr. Port's account. One small part of the cabbages remained, and the dispute arose about the tithe of this last part. These cabbages were put by Harris's directions into ten equal heaps; each heap consisted of eight or nine cabbages, and notice was given to Mr. Port to send his man to tithe these heaps. Mr. Port's man came, but he refused to take the tithe, because he said the heaps were not equal. Harris then said Mr. Port's man might take any heap he chose. This did not please him, and he refused to take the tithe. The tithe, was therefore, left in the field. After the lapse of a week the petitioner removed the nine heaps of cabbages which were his property, but the rector's tithe still remained in the field. It had been already stated that a part of this field was in seeds; for some weeks three lambs had been depastured upon the seeds, and the rector having improperly left his tithe-cabbages in the field, the lambs ate some of them. By the refusal of the rector to remove his tithe cabbages out of the field, Harris was placed in a difficulty—if he removed his lambs out of the field, he lost the use of it and the pasturage it afforded; if he allowed his lambs to remain, there was a probability of that occurring which had occurred—that they would eat a part of the rector's tithe cabbages. What, then, was Harris to do? Had he no remedy? Yes: he had a remedy; he might bring an action against Mr. Port, to recover compensation on account of his allowing the tithe to remain in the field, and thereby depriving him of the use of it. But, supposing him to have brought an action, and that the jury gave a verdict in his favour, and that the court awarded him all the costs it had the power to give; even if he thus succeeded, he would still have to pay out of his own pocket a sum far exceeding the value of the object for which he had gone to law. It was a mockery of justice to say that Harris had a remedy by action. Mr. Port's cabbages, in number 8 or 9, having been wholly or partly consumed by the lambs, he demanded to be paid for them, and asked 7s. 6d. as their price; Harris refused to pay this sum; he considered the cabbages not to be worth more than 1d. each, and he offered to pay in this proportion; Mr. Port then commenced a suit in the Spiritual Court at Lichfield for 7s. 6d. which he stated to be the value of the cabbages, and Harris was served with a citation: he applied to me for advice what to do; I recommended him to submit, and he did submit; and he complains that on account of eight or nine cabbages, which he values at 8 or 9 pence and which Mr. Port values at 7s. 6d., he has been saddled with law expenses to the amount of 15l. 2s. 6d.; this sum including the value of the cabbages. He ( Mr. C. ) had not any intention of imputing to the clergy a wish to act oppressively; on the contrary, he felt that those with whom he was acquainted, had good feelings about them which would make them shrink from proceeding against their parishioners in the Spiritual Court, and he believed he might apply the same observation to the greatest part of that respectable body; but arbitrary laws must not be kept in existence in the hope and expectation that those who were invested with power will be restrained by moderation and by the sense of justice from putting them in force. He would call upon the House to interpose to grant protection to the farmers against the oppressions of the Spiritual Court, not merely against the Clergy, but against all the possessors of tithes. He himself had an interest in tithes: the sums which he received for tithe were much greater than those which he paid for tilhe; there were many tithe-owners besides the clergy. The question he would put was this; is it proper that a tithe proprietor should be invested with the arbitrary powers of the Spiritual Court, which he may use as an instrument of vengeance against any unfortunate farmer who may have incurred his displeasure. He would next say a few words in regard to the state of the law. He had already shown that if a farmer was aggrieved his only remedy was by action, and success in that was almost ruin to him. For the farmer there was no cheap justice. Let the situation of the farmer be compared with that of the tithe-owner: the tithe-owner had his remedy by action; and for all sums not exceeding ten pounds whether the tithes were great or small, he could bring his complaint before two Magistrates; they were required to do him justice they would give him all the money due for tithe, together with full costs. He complained that the farmer should be liable to a proceeding such as this in the Spiritual Courts for such a sum. The proctors who practised there were strangers to him; he knew nothing of the law as there administered, and he was unable to obtain any information from the professional men who live in his neighbourhood. "It is proper (concluded Mr. Crompton) that I should state that I myself have been involved, and am still involved, in a dispute with Mr. Port respecting a road; on this account I have carefully abstained from making any observations: I have confined myself to the facts of the case, and I have stated them as if both the parties concerned were strangers to me.

Mr. Arthur Trevor

said, that the rev. gentleman referred to had put a statement into his hands in justification of his conduct, and he would, therefore, briefly lay the details of it. before the House. He must say, that it appeared to him to signify little what was the value of the tithe in question. The simple question was, had the proceedings been according to law? This transaction had occurred four years ago. Mr. Port, he thought, justly asked why had not this petition been brought forward at an earlier period? He stated that his tithing-man, between whom and Mr. Harris the affair had been carried on, and whose evidence would be material upon the subject, was since dead, and that that might afford a clue to the late period at which the matter was introduced to the notice of Parliament. We lived in times when it was extremely easy to cast imputations upon the characters of clergymen of the Established Church, and equally easy, he was sorry to say, to gain for them credibility, and no small share of support, no matter whether they were founded on truth and justice, or the reverse. The question in the present case was, had Mr. Port transgressed or not the law of the case, and had he laid claim to that to which he was not entitled. Let them find fault with the law if they would, and endeavour to introduce other measures, but do not throw the odium of the existing law, if odium be attached to it, on Mr. Port, or other clergymen, who find themselves compelled by the obstinacy of tithe-payers to have recourse to it. Mr. Harris was, certainly, put to considerable expense in consequence of the citation. Justice cost dear to farmers, but they could not alone complain, for he believed that justice was a cheap article to no one. Mr. Port would not have caused the expense had he not been forced to do so in seeking to obtain what was his due. It had nothing to do with the question whether the value of the article was 9d. or 500l.; in both cases the point at issue was the same; and Mr. Port, or any other clergyman, had a right to make use of the means the law placed at his disposal. From the statement that had been placed in his hands it appeared that every species of annoyance was offered by Harris to Mr. Port. Letters had been received by Mr. Port from the petitioner couched in lan- guage as vulgar as it was insolent, and the petitioner had taken advantage of the defenceless situation of Mr. Port, as a clergyman, and had dared to do that which he would not otherwise do. The course pursued in regard to Mr. Port, he must say, was of a piece with the general conduct towards the clergy. Let any case in which a clergyman of the Established Church was concerned be brought before the House, and he was certain that there were many there who, from party spirit, would lake it up, and put the worst construction on the conduct of the clergyman, their sole object being, not to consider the justice of the case, but to assume that the individual was in the wrong, because he was a clergyman. This language might be thought to be strong and unfair; he wished it were so, but he did not believe it was. He would not go into detail of the disgusting ribaldry with which Mr. Port had been assailed. He would merely state one fact, that, on one occasion, while Mr. Port was administering the communion in the church, the petitioner and others got up a party at a public-house, and excited a brawl. The hon. Member concluded by again protesting against the course adopted towards Mr. Port.

Captain Pechell

certainly agreed with the hon. Member that these cases were all of a piece. He (Captain Pechell) had at this moment a relative of his suffering in the Court of Exchequer; and the only difference between the two cases was, that his relative had been carried thither on account of a small demand for turnips, and the present was respecting cabbages. In that case tithe was actually claimed for turnips that had been hoed up for the use of the cattle. If they had been carried off the land for sale, the clergyman might have been justified in making the demand; but, as it was, he had no right to make it. His relative was put, at this moment, to considerable expense by a suit in the Court of Exchequer on the subject. These monstrous cases occurred every day, and some remedy should be adopted to put an end to such vexatious proceedings.

Mr. Richards

expressed his deep regret that a system so odious and tyrannical, and so open to abuse, should be suffered any longer to exist. He regretted extremely that his Majesty's Ministers proposed to delay the Commutation of Tithes for another Session, perhaps sine die, and to suffer such abominable abuses as arose out of the present state of the law to exist.

Sir George Strickland

observed, that the most important point of the petition was, that for tithe of the value of 2s. an expense of 15l. was incurred in the Ecclesiastical courts: thus showing the vexatious nature of procedure of those tribunals. He trusted that no time would be lost in passing the Bill which had been already introduced for doing away with the jurisdiction of Ecclesiastical Courts in these matters.

Dr. Nicholl

observed, that if the late Government had not been dissolved, a measure for the Commutation of Tithes, and the Bill alluded to for abolishing the jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical Courts, would be now on their passage through Parliament. It did not come with a good grace from the other side of the House to regret the loss of measures which had been occasioned by the recent change of Government.

Mr. O'Dwyer

remarked, that the delay in passing these and other measures of reform was, in fact, attributable to the unfortunate change of Government in November last. Had the clergyman no other means of recovering his tithe in this instance except by expensive and oppressive proceedings in one of the superior courts? The hon. Member talked of there being Members in that House influenced by party spirit against the clergymen of the Established Church. [Mr. Trevor: No! I said in the country.] The hon. Member might not have meant to say so, but he had distinctly applied the terms to Members of that House, and, for his own part, he would as distinctly deny the justice of the application.

Sir John Y. Buller

bore strong testimony to the benevolent character of the reverend gentleman. He was sure, he said, that nothing but the most vexatious conduct on the part of the petitioner would have driven Mr. Port to the proceedings he had adopted. This man actually sent Mr. Port, when offering him his tithe in kind, one cabbage in one day, for which the tithe-man had to come two miles. Vexatious proceedings of this character justified the clergyman in making an example of one man for the peace and quiet of the parish, and he did not bring him into the Ecclesiastical Court until he had first brought him before the magistrates, but without any good effect.

Mr. Barnard

must say, for one Member of that House, that he was not influenced by party spirit against the established clergy. He was most willing to do them justice where they deserved it.

Mr. Wilson Patten

said, the petitioner had been heard to boast that he had good support in the back ground to sustain him in the law proceedings, and that he would put the clergyman to all the expense he could. This Mr. Harris had been always at the greatest pains to stir up ill feeling in the parish.

Mr. Edward Buller

also bore testimony to the general kind and benevolent disposition of the reverend gentleman, and expressed his opinion, that, if any disputes had arisen between him and his parishioners, they were attributable to the state of the law.

Mr. Crompton

said, it was owing to him that the petition had not been presented at an earlier period. It was sometime before Mr. Port's Bill of Costs was delivered to him; as he lived 100 miles from Ilam it was some time before he examined the circumstances of the case. An additional reason was, that there was a prospect that the tithes would have been commuted before this time. He now heard of the death of Mr. Port's tithing man for the first time. He must not omit to say, that, lamenting as he did, that differences should exist between a clergyman and his parishioners, he had called upon Mr. Port for the purpose of proposing that the tithes should be valued by an impartial person, and that a money payment should be made in lieu of tithe taken in kind. He had afterwards made the same offer through a professional Gentleman, whose name he would at anytime give, but Mr. Port thought fit to reject the offer. He did not know what where the insults of which Mr. Port complained, but he should be most happy for all the circumstances to be laid before a Committee of Gentlemen impartially chosen, who would say to which party blame attached. He made this proposal.

Petition to lie on the Table.

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