HC Deb 20 March 1838 vol 41 cc1108-12
Mr. Langdale

, in rising to bring forward the motion of which he had given notice, assured the noble Lord, the Secretary for the Home Department, that he was not actuated by the slightest hostility to the New Poor-laws, his object simply being that the 19th clause should be carried into effect, so as to secure religious freedom in the workhouse by allowing the poor, who had the means within their reach, to attend their own places of worship on the Sabbath day. It was chiefly with respect to those who agreed with him in religious opinions, who could not conscientiously join in the worship of those of another communion, being bound under pain of incurring moral guilt to attend mass on Sunday,—it was chiefly with reference to Roman Catholics that he had been induced to bring the matter forward. In most cases he was ready to admit, especially in the metropolis, and generally in large towns, no ground for objection existed—Dissenters being allowed to attend their own places of worship. But some exceptions existed, and he feared they might be drawn into cases of persecution. In St. Martin's parish, Westminster, he believed full permission was given to the Members of different religious persuasions to attend what place of worship they pleased; but the same permission was not extended to Cheltenham. The Roman Catholic inmates of the workhouse there, had repeatedly made application to be allowed to attend their own chapel, but their application had continually been refused although the chapel was situate within five minutes' walk of the workhouse. He could not conceive what possible reason there could be for imposing such a restriction on the poor of that well-conducted town. There was another case he would mention amounting to direct religious persecution. In the town of Hull the children were separated from their parents; indeed they were confined in two different houses. Two Catholic children were taken to their own place of worship; the Poor-law Commissioners objected, declaring it to be a direct violation of the law. A respectable wine merchant offered to conduct them to mass and take them back to the workhouse in the afternoon; but the governor refused, stating that he himself took the children in the morning to the Established Church, in the afternoon to the Methodist chapel, and those who did not choose to go there must stay within the walls. Thus the poor Catholic children, while their companions were at church, had been subjected to a species of solitary confinement. This was a direct instance of religious persecution. He did not object to the adoption of rules to insure regularity in the workhouse, but he hoped they were not prepared to add this most severe of all conceivable tests, that a man on entering the workhouse must sacrifice the practice of his religion. With a view of obtaining some practical recommendation on this subject he begged to move, "That it be an instruction to the Poor-law Committee to inquire how far the regulations of the Poor-law Commissioners have been compatible with the inmates of workhouses attending their respective places of worship on the Sabbath-day, and to inquire and report how provision may be made for securing to all such inmates the power of attending divine service according to their respective creeds."

Mr. C. Lushington

seconded the motion.

Lord John Russell

said, that this was a question which had been partially inquired into by the Committee which sat last year for the purpose of examining into the operation of the new Poor-law, and which occupied the attention of the Committee now sitting on the same subject. He believed that in the last Session of Parliament there were laid on the table the rules issued by the Poor-law Commissioners to the guardians of the different unions, stating, that persons should be allowed to leave the workhouse on Sundays for the purpose of going to their respective places of religious worship, and he further believed, that those rules still continued in operation in all cases, except where the paupers, having been guilty of misconduct, had been deprived of that privilege. He had no hesitation in declaring it to be his opinion that there ought to be no difficulty thrown in the way of individuals actually intending to go to a place of religious worship, no matter whether that place be a church, a Dissenting chapel, or a Roman Catholic chapel. He was aware, however, that there were many cases in which the inmates of workhouses having been let out, under the pretence that they were going to chapel, had gone to public-houses and beer-houses, where they had got drunk, and had entered the plantations of gentlemen for the purpose of destroying or purloining the young trees they found in them. In consequence of the frequent recurrence of these disorders, the indulgence, which was at first granted to those individuals, was afterwards refused. Such was the sort of rule on which the Poor-law Commissioners had acted in several unions. He thought that the rule which they had laid down should be made more general, so that no instance of any abuse of power should hereafter occur. With respect to the motion of the hon. Member, he had only to submit to the House that the question which it involved was one of the questions referred to the consideration of the Poor-law Committee in their general instructions. There was no more necessity for making it an instruction to that Committee to take into consideration this question, than there was to make it an instruction to them to take into consideration the workhouse dietaries, or any other restriction to which the inmates of workhouses were of necessity obliged to submit. He suggested to the hon. Member, therefore, the propriety of withdrawing his motion, as unnecessary.

Mr. O'Connell

thought, that every person who was unfortunately obliged to become the inmate of a workhouse ought to be entitled as a matter of right to attend at the place of religious worship of the sect to which he belonged. If the pauper abused that right, then it might be taken away from him; but if he did not, he ought to have the right clearly and distinctly defined. He considered it to be a matter of great importance, that among the inmates of our workhouses a religious feeling should be encouraged. He submitted to the House whether it would not be advisable, if this instruction were unnecessary, to add the name of Mr. Langdale to the Poor-law Committee, in order that this subject be fully investigated.

Lord John Russell

said, that there were at present three Gentlemen on the Poor-law Committee who never attended any of its sittings. If the hon. Member for Knaresborough would consent to serve, he should readily propose to put his name upon the Committee.

Mr. G. Knight

said, that from his experience of a very large workhouse, he believed that the noble Lord was perfectly justified in apprehending that mischief would arise from granting a general permission to the inmates of workhouses to leave them on Sundays, under the pretence that they wished to go to their different places of religious worship.

Mr. Langdale

, in reply, stated, that the instances which he had cited had been given to him by Roman Catholic clergymen, and he had no doubt that they were correct. He had looked through the reports of the Poor-law Committee, and he did not find that this subject had been much inquired into until the last report. In that report, he found that the hon. Member for Leeds had asked Mr. Power, the Assistant-Commissioner, "Do you let the paupers go out of the workhouse on Sundays, to their respective places of worship?" And the answer was, "Sometimes we do; sometimes we do not." He was then specifically asked, "Do you let the Roman Catholic paupers leave the workhouse on a Sunday, to go to their chapels?" and the answer was, "I have always thought that this question, as to the Roman Catholics, was a difficult question, and that it would some time or other arise." He (Mr. Langdale) said, "the sooner it arose the better." All that he wanted was, that it should not be left in the breast of any workhouse governor, or of any guardian, to debar the paupers from going to their respective places of religious worship. He was perfectly satisfied with what had fallen from the noble Secretary for the Home Department; and he would, with the permission of the House, withdraw his motion.

Motion withdrawn.