HC Deb 16 February 1836 vol 31 cc439-45
Mr. Thomas Attwood

said that he had an important petition to present to the House from the inhabitants of the town of Birmingham. It emanated from a meeting called by the Council of the Political Union, a society to which he felt it an honour to belong, and which had far different objects in view from those of the Orange Society, its objects being the maintenance of the liberties of the people, of the laws of the realm, and of the rights and privileges of the Crown. An effort had been made to misrepresent this meeting, as if it were not a regular town's meeting of Birmingham. It was one regularly convened, held in that town, and attended by thousands. They had no regular fixed authority in Birmingham for calling a meeting of the town. Their practice, during the last twenty-five years, was, that their town meetings were either called by the High Bailiff, or by the requisition of private individuals, and such a meeting, when so convened, was always considered as representing the inhabitants of Birmingham. This meeting had taken place in consequence of the efforts which the opposite party had been making for the last twelve months to agitate and disturb the country against the Reform Bill. Since the present Ministers had come into power, he had every reason to be satisfied with their proceedings, and he had felt no disposition to push them forward by the "pressure from without." But the opponents of Ministers would not rest quiet. They resorted to all modes of attack and annoyance—to the making of Conservative political unions and associations, and to the asserting and publishing all manner of falsehoods. He, in common with the rest of his neighbours, thought it fitting that those lies, and errors, and misrepresentations should be set right, and they conceived that they owed it as a duty to the Crown, to the Legislature, and to the people, to make it known that the mass of the people of Birmingham still retained a deeply-rooted love for Reform in Parliament. This petition had been signed by 20,000 persons, all volunteers, for not a single signature had been solicited—not a single person had been forced to sign it by lawyers, or parsons, or landlords. The petitioners were anxious for a further Reform in that House, and they were anxious, above all, for a Reform in the House of Lords. He looked upon such a Reform as absolutely necessary, in order to enable the House of Lords to legislate pari passu with that House for the good of the people. If such a Reform did not take place, there would be constant danger of collision between their Lordships and that House, and the result would be, that the House of Commons would be obliged to adopt measures which he would never recommend, unless a stern necessity called for their adoption. He hoped that the House of Lords, by means of a legal and peaceable reform, would be enabled to go hand-in hand with that House in promoting all improvements that the interests of liberty, humanity, and justice demanded. He (Mr. Attwood) had himself no plan of Reform to offer for that purpose, but he supposed that Government would come forward with some such plan, and that it would include the abolition of voting by proxy, and the relieving the archbishops and bishops from their temporal duties in the House of Lords. He thought that the sooner this subject was touched the better, for the Lords as well as the people. The petitioners also prayed the House to carry into full effect the principles of Corporation Reform. Several important popular principles, such as the doing away with the qualification, &c. which had been inserted in the Corporation Bill, as passed in the Commons, and which had been struck out by the Lords, should be restored to it. He-trusted, that under such circumstances, the Lords would not resist the will of the people of the United Kingdom. The petitioners also prayed for a Bill to reform the Irish Church. The subject had been noticed in his Majesty's speech; but he saw nothing about the appropriation clause there. He hoped that Ministers would not abandon that principle. Their abandonment of it would produce general dissatisfaction amongst the people of England. They should stand by it until it was the law of the land. Another subject to which the petitioners adverted was the necessity for introducing poor laws into Ireland. He was glad to see that a measure for that purpose was in progress, as he was convinced that there never would be peace, prosperity, or happiness in Ireland until a provision for the poor, founded on the same principle as that of the 43rd of Elizabeth, was introduced there. The hon. Member concluded by presenting the petition.

Mr. Scholefield

could bear testimony to the statements made by his hon. Colleague. Never were good order and unanimity more observable than upon the occasion when this petition was agreed to. There were three points which the petition embraced, but he would only call attention to one of them. There was only one opinion as to the necessity of Irish Corporate Reform, reform of the Irish Church, and as to the necessity of poor laws for Ireland; but there was a difference of opinion between him and his constituents with regard to a reform of the House of Lords. It was the desire of many of the people of Birmingham not to interfere with the privileges of the House of Lords, so long as they did not obstruct the progress of improvement.

Mr. Dugdale

had every reason to believe that when the nature of the petition was explained, the House would not attach so much importance to it as the hon. Member who presented it appeared to expect. The principal prayer of the petition was for an organic change in the House of Lords, by which was meant an utter destruction and violation of the rights and independence of that House as a branch of the Legislature. That object might appear desirable in the eyes of the hon. Member for Birmingham, and to a few persons there who were deluded and led away by the wily eloquence of the hon. Gentleman, but it was an object held in abhorrence, and repudiated by an immense majority in that great and important town. At the time of the meeting referred to by the hon. Member, a number of gentlemen of the highest respectability connected with Birmingham objected to the course pursued by a few persons in taking upon themselves to call a Town-meeting, and to represent the feelings and opinions of the inhabitants. These gentlemen drew up a protest against the proceedings of the requisitionists, which he begged to read to the House. It was as, follows:— Birmingham, Jan. 13, 1836. An advertisement and placard having been issued by certain persons calling themselves ' The Council of the Birmingham Political Union,' and pretending to act under an authority intrusted to them by the inhabitants of Birmingham on the 4th of September last, and these persons having taken upon themselves to convene a general meeting of the inhabitants for the purpose of passing an address to the King, and a petition to the House of Commons, We, the undersigned magistrates, clergy, gentry, bankers, merchants, manufacturers, tradesmen, and other inhabitants of Birmingham, publicly protest against the proceedings of this self-constituted body. We deny that either on the 4th of September last, or on any other occasion, 'the inhabitants of Birmingham intrusted' those persons with any power, authority, or right to represent them in any way whatever. We deny that they do, in fact, represent either the property, the respectability, or the opinions of this town, and we lake this step with a view to disabuse the public mind as to the nature and pretensions of the proposed meeting, and that the character of this town may be no longer compromised and its commercial interests injured by the proceedings of the Political Union. This protest was signed by 2,000 persons, all of whom were inhabitant householders of Birmingham—men of full age, and of the greatest respectability, including individuals of different political opinions: he believed the hon. Gentleman would find in the list of signatures the names of some of his own supporters. There were a few names in the list which had been placed in it by mistake, and which he had therefore scratched out. The protest included all the officers of the borough but the Low Bailiff. It contained the names of twenty-five clergymen, sixty attornies, forty physicians, 135 gentlemen, two bankers, and eighty merchants. The petition was said to come from the body called the Birmingham Political Union; but it was well known to every man in the House, that that body had been bled to death a long time ago, and he believed it was out of the power of the hon. Member for Birmingham, with all his eloquence, ingenuity, and ability, to bring it again into existence. In the first place, then, this petition came from a dead body. It was said that there were 20,000 signatures to the petition—a most formidable number indeed, and the document would be assuredly entitled to the consideration which the hon. Gentleman claimed for it at the hands of the House, if those were the signatures of living persons, of full age and sane minds. Were they so? That was exactly what he wished to know. Who were the petitioners? Were they men, women, or children? Were these the advanced guard of the host of 20,000,000 men which the hon. Member for Birmingham informed them were ready to march under his banners, and against whom a few thousand pitiful wretches called Tories could do nothing. He had received information from a friend residing at Birmingham of the manner in which some of those signatures had been obtained, and he was ready to prove at the Bar, if the House wished it, the truth of his statement. First, the petition had been sent to a vast number of pothouses of the lowest description in Birmingham, and persons were sent to guard it who were of the lowest character. People were stationed with it for a fortnight in all the public streets and thoroughfares of the town, and they were seen in the open streets to sign name after name to the petition without the authority or presence of any one. His informant stated that he saw tables in the streets surrounded by children of ten or twelve years of age, and one of them who could write, was writing the names of the rest, which were many of them ill spelt. Many of the sheets were covered with marks, purporting to be those of several persons. He would leave it to the House to say which they considered of most consequence—the protest he held in his hand, or the bulky petition that had been laid upon the Table.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that was exactly the question. Here were 20,000 signatures on the one hand—to be sure they were those of the rabble, according to the hon. Member for Warwickshire—a familiar name for Englishmen at present. On the other hand was the protest of the hon. Gentleman; among the 2,000 signatures to which, the hon. Member candidly admitted that there were some mistakes, which he had scratched out. Mistakes meant forgeries. Here were 20,000 signatures attached to a petition when nobody was by, and this happened, not in Potatoshire, but at Birmingham. The people ought not to be treated with ridicule such as the hon. Member had employed. Perhaps they asked for what the hon. Gentleman thought was unreasonable—a change in the House of Lords; but Englishmen had a right to ask for any organic change that they thought necessary for their liberty. If they thought that there ought to be no irresponsible power in the state, the people had a right to say so, and to petition the House on the subject, provided they expressed their sentiments in respectful language. The people of Birmingham were entitled to entertain their opinion, the hon. Member to retain his, as to the House of Lords or any other subject; but having himself been received with high honour at Birmingham, he felt bound to say that he saw 2,000 individuals at a meeting in that town who appeared to him to be quite as respectable (they could not be more so) as the hon. Member—as intelligent and as discriminating. Those persons could have had no reason for joining in sentiment with him, but that which arose out of a belief that they had a community of feeling as to the necessity of increasing the guarantees of British liberty. The day was gone by when the people could be safely sneered at in that House, because a voice representing the people would now be raised in their behalf whenever they were attacked or slighted. The hon. Gentleman might sneer at the eloquence of the hon. Member for Birmingham, but he did not know that the hon. Gentleman exceeded the hon. Member, except in brevity; and perhaps this was because the hon. Gentleman thought the less said about his cause the better; but he did not exceed the hon. Member for Birmingham in integrity, or in his exertions in the cause of reform, which owed much to the Member for Birmingham, but still more to the determination of the people of Birmingham. He believed that they would now be sitting in a rotten borough Parliament if the people of Birmingham had not expressed their opinion in as firm but peaceable a manner as they did. Ought not this petition of 20,000 people to be therefore treated with respect? He was sure that no Tory clique would venture to treat such a petition with contempt.

Mr. Scarlett

said, it had always been the practice of those persons who were discontented with the institutions of their country to collect together meetings of the working classes of society, who had not time to devote their attention to political considerations, and who were therefore easily deluded, and to endeavour to persuade them that they were ill governed, with a view to induce them to support or- ganic changes in the state. This House would consider with indulgence, and not too nicely criticise, the petitions of the people; but it deserved their serious consideration, whether petitions of this nature ought to be encouraged, proposing, as they did, to alter the most important guarantees of our national liberties. The best excuse for those who in former days had been indicted for high treason, because they agitated a question of reform in that House, consisted in the allegation that such a reform was only sought to be obtained by due course and process of law, and with the consent of the House itself, for the purpose of increasing whose power it was intended; but as no man could reasonably expect that the authority of the Lords was to be diminished by their own consent, or by any means short of actual force and revolution, he did not see how the proposition for effecting; such an organic change in the state differed from the case of treason. How could Members distinguish between this case and a demand for a reform in the monarchy? He could not understand the distinction, and in his opinion, those persons who demanded such organic changes were traitors to the state.

Petition laid on the Table.

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