HC Deb 11 July 1836 vol 35 cc89-91
Mr. Potter

said, he had a petition, to which he begged the attention of the House whilst he shortly stated its allegation. It was from a gentleman of the name of Robert Mortimer, a highly respectable solicitor, of Barnstaple, in the county of Devon. The prayer of the petition was for an alteration in the Act of the 5th of George 4th relating to vagrants, and that the House might alter that Act, and remove from it those vague and ambiguous clauses which relate to vagrancy. The petition stated that two boys (brothers), named Callaghan, one aged thirteen and the other only eight years old, were singing duets in a very superior style in the village of Pilton, near Barnstaple. Their songs were perfectly harmless, inoffensive, and of a popular kind. Whilst they were so employed in amusing the villagers, some of whom were so much pleased, that they invited the boys into their houses and gave them refreshments and small sums, they were taken into custody by order of a magistrate (Mr. Bencraft), one of the new magistrates of the borough of Barnstaple. The younger boy escaped, but the other, only thirteen years old, was taken before the magistrate, who, on his own view, committed him to the borough gaol of Barnstaple for fourteen days as "idle and disorderly." The petitioner went on to represent to the House the extreme hardship and cruelty of causing a boy of tender years to be incarcerated in a dungeon for gaining a livelihood by exercising a rare and pleasing natural endowment; and humbly represented that such interference with the harmless amusements of the people had a tendency to drive them to seek recreation in the pot-house or beer-shop, which not only degraded and debased them, but proved ruinous to their families. The petitioner further stated, that in those countries where music and harmless amusements were encouraged, drunkenness prevailed to a much less extent than in England, where the people have from time to time been deprived of nearly all the open places which were formerly appropriated to popular pastimes and games. The petitioner concluded by humbly hoping that the House would speedily cause such amendments to be made in the vagrant laws as would clearly define what may properly be considered as offences under them, and place it beyond the power of magistrates to avail themselves of general and ambiguous words as an excuse for inflicting imprisonment, and treating as common felons persons who exercised their talents for the innocent and rational amusement of the people. In the prayer of the petition he most cordially agreed, and if he could only procure the assistance of an hon. and learned Friend of his, he would next session endeavour to alter and soften the vagrant laws. This case had been brought before the town-council of Barnstaple, where the magistrate who had committed the boy had defended himself by stating the boys were begging. That was denied. They certainly received sometrifling sums; but these were given as rewards for their singing. This was not the first case by a very great number where the magistrates had imprisoned persons, and sent them on the tread-mill, for singing in the open air. They should not do so with impunity whilst he had a seat in Parliament. He remembered the period when ballad-singing was encouraged by the magistrates and others; that was at the commencement of the French Revolution, when the ballad-singers were employed to sing loyal songs, to put down what were then called French principles.

The petition to lie on the Table.

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