HC Deb 12 December 1837 vol 39 cc1011-22
Mr. Andrew White

rose, in pursuance of his notice, to call the attention of the House to certain proceedings of the board of guardians of the Sunderland union. In a recent debate in that House on the manner in which the new poor-law had been administered in the Sunderland district, the hon. Member for North Durham stated, that in Sunderland 200 unhappy children had been left destitute, in consequence of parochial relief having been withdrawn from them. When the report of these observations reached Sunderland it excited the utmost indignation, and the board of guardians of the Sunderland Union immediately met, and agreed to the following resolutions: — At a special meeting of the board of guardians of the Sunderland union, holden at the commission-room in the Exchange, in Sunder- land, on Friday, the 1st day of December 1837, the attention of the board having been drawn to a speech reported (in The Morning Chronicle and other London newspapers) to have been delivered in the House of Commons by the honourable Henry Thomas Liddell, on Monday last, on the subject of the new poor law, wherein he is represented to have made statements to the effect that 'in Sunderland relief had been withdrawn from 200 unhappy children, who were thus left destitute; and that dark rumours were afterwards abroad about children being found dead; and that although no cases of child murder had been brought home to any parties, it had been more than suspected that many of them had been deserted by their mothers to starvation'— It was unanimously resolved, That the board do give the most unqualified contradiction to the above statement, which they have seen with feelings of surprise and indignation; and that Mr. Liddell should immediately be requested to give up the name of his informant, in order that this atrocious and unfounded imputation may be properly investigated. It was also resolved, That the clerks do immediately communicate the above resolution to Lord J. Russell (her Majesty's Secretary of State for the Home Department), to the Poor-law Commissioners, to Sir John Walsham, bart., the assistant commissioner for this district, to the Members for this borough, to Mr. Hedworth Lambton, to Mr. Hume, and to Mr. Liddell; and that the same be advertised in The Sunderland Herald, The Newcastle Courant, The Durham Chronicle, and in The Morning Chronicle and Times London newspapers. It was also resolved, That the vice-chairman do sign the above resolutions on behalf of the board. (Signed) "THOMAS REED, jun., Vice-Chairman, Sunderland Union. For himself he could distinctly deny that since 1834, when the vestry of Sunderland came to a resolution not to afford relief to bastard children, a single child had been left in a state of destitution. He stated this on his own experience in the first instance, he himself being chairman of the board of guardians of the Sunderland union; and he also stated it on the authority of a letter which he had received on the subject from the vice-chairman of the union. With respect to that part of the speech of the hon. Member for North Durham respecting dark rumours of children being found dead, he could also give it an unqualified contradiction. In Sunderland, containing a population of 60,000 persons, there had been only one inquest on a case of infanticide during three years. In consequence of what had fallen from the hon. Member for North Durham, he should feel himself called upon to move that there be laid before the House a copy of the correspondence between the board of guardians of the Sunderland union and the Poor-law Commissioners in London.

Mr. Lambton

seconded the motion.

Mr. Liddell

said, that, called upon as he had been by what had just fallen from the hon. Member, he must beg leave for a short time to request from the House that indulgence which he had never known them refuse to any one under such circumstances. He thanked the hon. Member for having brought forward this subject, and he had no fault to find with the manner in which the hon. Member had done it. Nor had he any difficulty in saying, that if the observations which he had really made had been such as had been attributed to him, the hon. Member would have had a perfect right to call upon him to make an explanation on the subject. The hon. Member had read to the House some resolutions which had recently been agreed to by the board of Guardians at Sunderland. Although he was far from complaining of any general inaccuracy on the part of the newspaper press, and waved all reference to privilege in this particular instance, yet he must observe that persons ought to be condemned on what they had actually said, and not on that which they were only reported to have said. The resolutions of the board of guardians at Sunderland alluded to his speech as reported in The Morning Chronicle and other London newspapers. As The Morning Chronicle, however, was specifically mentioned, he (Mr. Liddell) had thought it right to turn to its pages to see what sort of a report had been given of his speech in that paper. He was perfectly confident, that if his speech had been correctly and fairly given the misunderstanding which prevailed would not have occurred. The observations which he had made in that speech were not directed against any individuals whatever, least of all were they directed against the board of guardians of the Sunderland union. As to the circumstance to which he had alluded, it had occurred in 1834, which was before any commissioner came down to Sunderland, before any union was incorporated, and, therefore, before a board of guardians was in existence. This fact completely exo- nerated him from having thrown any imputation upon this ground on the board of guardians of the Sunderland union. But he would say that that board had shown a very impatient anxiety to set themselves right with the public; and to do so had passed the strong and exciting resolutions which had been read by the hon. Member for Sunderland, which resolutions they had advertised in the provincial and London papers, and had transmitted copies of them to the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, the Poor-law Commissioners, and others. And all this they had done on the faith of a report of his speech, which, he was bound to say, was as incorrect as any report that had ever been given of any speech uttered in that House. However painful it was to him to trespass upon the time of the House, he felt himself called upon, in the presence of those who had heard the speech in question, and who, therefore, would have the power of criticising the observations he should make, to remind the House of what ha actually did say. In speaking of the Poor-law Amendment Act, and on its introduction into the northern counties, and in stating his opinions as to its applicability to that country, he had divided his observations under two heads—the principle and the practice; and while he objected to the principle of the law, he distinctly declared (and he was sure the noble Lord would do him the justice to confirm him in this statement) that no complaint had reached him with regard to the practice of it; but, on the contrary, that he was satisfied that under the direction of that able Commissioner, Sir John Walsham, the law had been administered in practice, in the most humane, discreet, and efficient manner. Now, if that statement of his had been fully and fairly reported, the board of guardians of the Sunderland union would not have taken the offence which they had taken. He had certainly read a letter, which showed from the returns on the subject that the workhouse system in some places had not been carried into practice with the discretion and humanity which might have accompanied it; and he had also said, as he could prove, that the workhouse principle was not necessary in the counties of the north of England, that he trusted Government would not carry that principle into a county in which it had occa- sioned much disgust. He had then gone on to speak of the bastardy clauses; and had said that in principle they were equally objectionable, and that he trusted he should live to see the day when those clauses would, if not repealed, be greatly modified. He had then said that great dissatisfaction had been felt in the north with respect to those clauses; and that in the borough of Sunderland alone two hundred infant children had been deprived of parochial relief; but he had said nothing of their being left in a state of destitution. Now it was not denied (and he held in his hand a certified copy of the vestry minutes to that effect) that on the 11th of December, 1834, the vestry of the parish of Sunderland had agreed to fourteen resolutions, one of which was, "that no relief should be granted to any bastard child after that week, and that that rule should be universal in its application." This rule being universal, applied to widows with one child, and in all other cases he (Mr. Liddell) certainly did not believe that the statement of nearly 200 children having been deprived of relief was at all an exaggerated one. At all events he could only give the statement as he had received it; and when he recollected that the population to which the resolution of the vestry applied amounted to between 50,000 and 60,000 persons, he must repeat that he did not think the estimate extravagant. He sincerely believed that when the returns in the report of the Committee of which he had the honour to be a Member, came to be laid before the House, it would not appear that there was any great discrepancy between the fact and his statement. He now came to what he had said on the occasion in question respecting dark rumours. Let it be remembered that he had alluded to them merely as rumours, not as facts. He certainly had heard such rumours; and certainly, if the severe enactment to which he had alluded had been followed by any acts of harshness on the part of the Sunderland magistrates, it was no wonder that such dark rumours should be spread. Having made these explanations (and he felt great pleasure in having an opportunity of making them) he was willing to undergo any infliction for having stated what he considered to be facts; and, to show whether they were so or not, he was quite ready to move that the necessary papers be submitted to the Committee to which he had already al- luded. He would now conclude by expressing his thanks to the House for the attention with which he had been listened to, and his hope that he should not again suffer from being misreported.

Mr. Lambton

declared he must say that he thought the hon. Member for North Durham had been highly culpable in making the assertions which he had made a few days ago before he had inquired into the case. Before the hon. Gentleman had stated that 200 children had been deprived of relief, he ought to have applied to every quarter from which he might have expected to obtain accurate information. A statement so calculated to excite the feelings of every man who heard it ought not to have been made but upon the best authority. But the hon. Member had made it on the authority of a letter, and when asked the name of the writer of that letter, the hon. Member had not dared to give it.

The Speaker

observed that the hon. Member ought not to use the word "dare."

Mr. Lambton

had the hon. Member for North Durham made the necessary inquiries? He ought, before he made such a statement as that in the House, to have written to the vice-chairman of the board of guardians of the Sunderland union on the subject. He would then have received the unanswerable statement that, notwithstanding the vestry minutes of 1834, no parochial relief had been refused in Sunderland in the cases alluded to. He would ask the House was it probable were the circumstances described by his hon. colleague true, that he should not have heard of it? He resided near Sunderland; he was in constant communication with all classes, high and low, rich and poor, in that town; and he had not heard a word about two hundred children having been left without parochial assistance. It was a remarkable fact with reference to the New Poor-law, that in the Sunderland district at the late general election, the candidates who declared themselves in favour of that law were in a decided majority. With regard to his statements respecting dark rumours the hon. Member had entirely backed out of them. Really some hon. Gentlemen appeared to be particularly sensitive. What had induced the hon. Gentleman to make this explanation seemed to be the resolutions which had been agreed to by the board of guardians. But he had refused to give up the authority on which he had made his original statement, and had refused to state in what provincial papers the statement had appeared. The hon. Member would do neither the one nor the other. He must therefore again say that the hon. Member was most decidedly culpable. He was glad the subject had been brought under discussion, for the inhabitants of Sunderland would now have the satisfaction of knowing that the House did not believe the statements of the hon. Member, and that those statements had only brought upon the hon. Member censure and ridicule.

Mr. Ingham

, although he could not assent to what had fallen from the hon. Member who had just spoken, felt obliged to the hon. Member for Sunderland for giving the hon. Member for North Durham the opportunity of making an explanation. He begged to state that there was a union at South Shields, the population of which place was nearly equal to that of Sunderland, and that making all due allowance for the imperfections which must naturally accompany the commencement of a new system, that system had given great satisfaction, not only to the ratepayers, but to those who were the subjects of relief under it. It was with the board of guardians at South Shields a secondary consideration whether the rates were increased or diminished: their first consideration was to provide comforts for the destitute, and to maintain the independence of the labourer. It now appeared that the unfortunate declaration respecting the Sunderland union related to a circumstance which took place before the present system came into operation, and it afforded a fair specimen of what could be done under the old law.

Mr. Alderman Thompson

wished to say a few words, being one of the Representatives for Sunderland. He was not in the House when the hon. Member for North Durham made the statement which had occasioned so much discussion. If he had been, knowing the state of things in the borough of Sunderland, he should have immediately believed that the hon. Member had been imposed upon. For although the Poor-law Bill had not been particularly well received in Sunderland, and although its principles were not particularly well liked in that place, it had been carried into practice with a kindness and forbear- ance towards the poor which he was convinced had not been exceeded in any part of the kingdom. He had never heard the slighest imputation on the conduct of the board of guardians of the Sunderland union. He could also state from his own observation that the resolution of the vestry in 1834 had never been carried into effect; and that he knew no place in which there were more kindness and consideration manifested towards the poor, or a greater disposition evinced to afford relief to the sick and the suffering. He was sure that the explanation of the hon. Member for North Durham would mitigate the pain and anxiety which had been created in Sunderland; and he had thought it right to state what he had stated in confirmation of what had fallen from his hon. colleague.

Mr. Wilberforce

would not have risen but for the general eulogium which some hon. Members had passed upon the new Poor-law. As he represented a constituency in a part of the kingdom in which it was not so great a favourite, he felt it his duty to say so, nor did he think that he should act fairly by the House if he were not to do so. Those who had spoken in favour of the Bill as operating in some places, must allow him to enter his protest against its operation elsewhere. It had been said, that he had ridden into Parliament on the popularity which he had acquired by opposing the Poor-law Bill. He should be ashamed of himself if he had been influenced in his opposition to the Bill by any such motive. But he must fairly say that he did object to the principle of the Bill, if he understood it; and he was persuaded that the measure would be tolerated only in places in which the leniency of its execution would defeat its own principle. In the borough which he represented a large majority of the guardians of the poor had accepted the office for the express purpose of counteracting the provisions of the Act.

Lord John Russell

said, that, whatever might be the merits of the Poor-law Act, it was very unfortunate, with respect to a measure on which so much difference of opinion existed, that a misstatement should go forth calculated to excite, not merely disapprobation, but horror. He gave every credit to the ton. Member for North Durham for his intentions; but it was hardly fair, on that hon. Gentleman's part, to state rumours on no authority, or on authority which he was not disposed to give. He (Lord John Russell) hoped that what had taken place would make hon. Members cautious when placed in similar circumstances.

Mr. Hume

observed, that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Liddell) had rather varied his statement as compared with that which he made the other evening. He begged to remind the hon. Gentleman of his former statement. It appeared that the Gentlemen who in that House, as well as elsewhere, took upon themselves to denounce the Poor-law Bill, and to attribute circumstances to its operation which would reflect disgrace not only upon the framers of that Bill, but upon society generally, were unwilling, now that the opportunity was afforded to them of testing a fact, to enter into any inquiry or to hear any explanation upon the subject. He should not then have risen if he had not received a letter from the chairman of the board to which allusion had been made, assuring him that no such facts had taken place as those alleged by the hon. Member (Mr. Liddell). As to the misrepresentation of which the hon. Member complained, he (Mr. Hume) would briefly state what occurred. On the morning after the discussion took place, the hon. Gentleman called upon him (Mr. Hume) with a newspaper in his hand, and asked him whether he (Mr. Hume) thought that that which was reported of them both was correct. He (Mr. Hume), having looked at the report, stated that which he should then repeat, that as far as he could recollect the report appeared to him to be correct. The words were these:—"In Sunderland alone, immediately after the Act coming into operation, parochial relief was suddenly withdrawn from no less than 200 unhappy children, and dark rumours went abroad of the mysterious disappearance of many of these innocents." These were the words reported; and, as far as he could recollect, they were the words used. At all events they were words so strong as to give rise to an immediate expression of feeling from all parts of the House. He immediately rose and called upon the hon. Gentleman before he left the House to give the Government such information on the subject as might enable them to take the necessary steps to ascertain the accuracy of the rumours in question, and to prevent such occurrences for the future, if true. But when he (Mr. Hume) sat down the hon. Gentleman repeated his statement, and observed that "with regard to the fact of two hundred children having been deprived of parochial relief in Sunderland, he happened fortunately to be fortified in his statement by the written statement of a Gentleman, who, he believed, was better aware of the state of affairs in Sunderland than any one else." If that were so, then he (Mr. Hume) called upon the hon. Member, in justice to those who had supported the measure, and in justice to the guardians of the union whose conduct he arraigned, to name the gentleman from whom he derived his information. That was a duty from which no hon. Member of the House could shrink. He confessed he was surprised to hear any hon. Member call the explanation which had been offered by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Liddell) that evening a candid explanation. He called upon the hon. Gentleman to give up the authority upon whose written statement he founded his charge. Unless the hon. Gentleman did so every man in the House must draw his own conclusions as to the accuracy of the statement. If the hon. Gentleman were in possession of a written document upon the subject, he was bound to produce it. In spite of the cries of "Name!" which prevailed in every part of the House when the hon. Gentleman intimated that he had an authority for what he was stating, he went on to observe "that rumours had been afloat as to the finding of infant children deserted by their mothers, and found dead, or in a state of starvation. These rumours, he begged to repeat, certainly did prevail, and they were mentioned in the papers at the time, though he was not aware that any cases had been brought to proof." The hon. Gentleman had certainly most completely failed to adduce any proof in support of the disgraceful rumours to which he alluded; and he must observe that he had never heard any one of these charges against the Poor-law Bill which, when traced to its source, did not turn out to be a pure and unmixed fabrication. The hon. Gentleman stood now in the position of the author of an alleged calumny; and as a Member of the Committee up stairs he must beg of him, if there were any real foundation for the charge, to lose no time in declaring it. The hon. Gentleman's own character and own honour required that he should do so. At present the hon. Gentleman's explanation was anything but satisfactory. The cause of truth and of justice required that the hon. Gentleman should either declare that he had been misinformed, or bring forward such facts as should satisfy the House that his statement was well founded.

Mr. Liddell

declared, that the hon. Member for Kilkenny had begun, continued, and ended his speech in misrepresentation. When the hon. Gentleman said that he (Mr. Liddell) had called upon the Government not to extend the act to that part of the country with which he was connected, the hon. Gentleman said that which had no foundation. He only asked the Government not to press the application of that most obnoxious part of the bill which established the workhouse system. As to the authority upon which he (Mr. Liddell) had made his statement, he had only again to repeat that he would not give it up. Rather than give up his authority he would share in any responsibility to which the statement might give rise. As the best proof he could offer of the accuracy of his statement, he should feel it to be his duty to move that there be laid before the Committee the vestry books containing an account of the number of children receiving parochial relief in the borough of Sunderland in the month of February, 1834; and the number to whom relief was extended three months afterwards.

Mr. George F. Young

rose to mention a case which came within his own knowledge. A poor woman of decent and highly respectable character, under circumstances that excited universal commiseration and sympathy in the whole board of guardians, applied for some small allowance towards the support of her bastard child. Every one of the guardians felt that the poor woman was a proper object of relief; but, under the rules and regulations laid down by the commissioners, they felt that they were compelled to refuse any assistance except upon the condition of her entering the workhouse with her child. The poor woman, in his presence, indignantly refused to comply with the terms offered to her, and exclaimed that she would rather starve first. This feeling, he believed, was very general, and it therefore appeared to him to be high time that some distinct understanding should be come to as to whether the board of guardians were to be permitted to exercise the sound discretion which, he was glad to find, they had done at Sunderland, or whether they were to be compelled to administer the law in the harsh and cruel manner which, he was sorry to say, he, with others, were obliged to do in the instance to which he had referred.

Motion agreed to.