HC Deb 30 April 1839 vol 47 cc684-98
Mr. Baines

rose, and said he was about to bring under the consideration of the House, a case in which the liberty of the subject was deeply involved—the case of Mr. John Thorogood, an inhabitant of Chelmsford, who was confined in the gaol of that place for his refusal to pay Church-rates. He did not know that he could in any way better explain the subject he had to submit to the consideration of the House, than by stating shortly the particulars of the petition which had been presented to that House some time ago. That petition he had had the honour to present on the 28th of February, and in it it was stated that the petitioner had for twenty-three years resided in Chelmsford; that he was a dissenter; that in the month of September, he was summoned to appear before the magistrates of the county of Essex to answer for neglect in not having paid the sum of 5s. 6d. for Chinch—rates; that he appeared, according to the summons, before the magistrates, and was asked why he had not paid, and that his answer to the inquiry was, that he declined to make the payment, in the first place, because he entertained an opinion that it was not consistent with the nature of his religious obligations to pay a compulsory rate for the support of religion; and in the next place he said, he really believed the rate to be an improper one, inasmuch as no proper estimates had been laid before the vestry meeting at which the rate was agreed to; and he further observed, that the rate was unequal, and therefore unjust. Upon this, the magistrates dismissed the complaint, refusing to adjudicate upon the case, and in November last the petitioner received a citation from the consistorial court of the Bishop of London, requiring him to appear before the court, and answer for subtraction of Church-rates from the churchwardens. The petitioner declined to answer to this citation, and the reason he gave for declining to attend was, that he was of opinion that he should not receive justice in the court before which he was summoned, and he said further, that he was not in circumstances to encounter the expenses that were likely to arise from such a proceeding. The matter continued in that state until the month of January last, and he believed that on the 16th day of that month this parishioner of Chelmsford was seized by the officers, taken to prison, lodged in the gaol of his native place, and there he had remained ever since, and there he was now confined. The petitioner had conscientious objections to the payment of Church-rates, and not only this, but he believed that compulsory payment for the purposes of religion was inconsistent with the divine Scriptures; it was, therefore, not for the amount that he contended, but he conceived that in paying this rate he would be violating a law which he held to be of more importance than any human law, and the petitioner concluded by praying, first, that Church-rates might he extinguished; secondly that ecclesiastical courts might be abolished; and thirdly, that such relief might be afforded in his case as the House in its wisdom should think fit. He thought that the case of this tradesman was such as ought to excite the sympathy of the House. He found, on inquiry, that this poor man was confined for eighteen hours out of the twenty-four; he meant that he was confined strictly and severely during eighteen hours, for, of course, he was in prison during the whole twenty-four. During these eighteen hours daily he was debarred of all intercourse with his friends, and indeed was only allowed to communicate with his friends between the hours of ten in the morning and four in the afternoon, and this he felt to be a very great privation. There was also another privation of which he complained very grievously. He was not allowed to receive from his religious teacher any of that religious consolation and advice of which he stood so much in need in his present situation. And he further stated that he was not allowed to see his wife or family on Sunday, although this was almost the only day of the week on which they could have an opportunity of communicating with him, seeing that his wife was engaged in endeavouring to keep together the little that remained of a business which had been almost destroyed by the harsh proceeding's that had been commenced against him. It had been frequently doubted whether the allegations in petitions respecting conscientious objections to Church-rates were well founded, and whether such objections did not in reality arise from a wish to save money. He thought that the present case proved as clearly as demonstration could establish it, that this was not the case with this unfortunate man. What was his situation? He had now been confined in gaol for nearly four months, his business had been suffered to go to decay, he had suffered imprisonment during an inclement season of the year, and was forbidden that intercourse that was necessary for the comfort of any man who was accustomed to the intercourse of a family, and he was also forbidden the enjoyment of that religious advice and consolation which was so necessary to him. He thought that after having made these statements he should not be required to show that there was anything on the part of this parishioner of Chelmsford like the appearance of cupidity. For his conscience, this poor tradesman had made a sacrifice which he believed very few Gentlemen in that House, or in another assembly, would be disposed to make. But this was not the only parishioner of Chelmsford that was treated with great hardship, although not with equal hardship to that endured by the petitioner. He held in his hand a paper, from which it appeared that not fewer than forty inhabitants of Chelmsford had had their goods seized and sold, some for two, three, four, and even five times the amount claimed—those goods, too, belonging to men in a small line of business, who could not afford to be deprived of the little emoluments derived from thence, and have them applied to the purpose of paying Church-rates. This was a proof, if proof were wanting, that the conscientious scruples of those persons were sincere, for what other motive could they have for suffering their goods to be thus seized, and themselves thus deprived of three or four times more than was due, but that they felt a conscientious and sincere objection to the payment of these rates, and therefore it was, that this petitioner prayed that Church-rates might be extinguished? But there was another reason why these rates should be extinguished. Did not the petitioner and the people of Chelmsford know well, that in Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, and other great towns of the kingdom, Church-rates were not only refused, but were not enforced; There was about these ecclesiastical courts great courage. They seized hold of the man that was weak, and enforced their claim; but when they came to a place where they were bearded by a whole community, they had not the courage or manliness to attack them in front. What was the case at Manchester? The people there were called together for the purpose of making a Church-rate. What did they do? A person in the meeting proposed a certain rate, when some other person rose, and proposed that the meeting should adjourn for twelve months. The meeting accordingly adjourned without making a rate, and the rate had never been enforced. In Chelmsford and other minor places poor tradesmen were seized upon and made victims; there the Church-rate was imposed, but in large towns the imposition was not called for. In some towns for the last twenty years Church-rates were treated with derision. Was not this a reason why these petitioners should pray for the extinction of Church-rates? They said, and very reasonably, if Church-rates were equitable and fair, why not enforce them throughout the kingdom? Why neglect to enforce them in large towns, and enforce them with such severity against the smaller places? It was said that in order to render the rate valid it was necessary, in the first place, that it should be consented to by the parish, and that if it were not so consented to it could not be enforced. The consequence of this was, that the law was held in utter derision in populous parishes, and could only be enforced against small communities. It was high time that such a law should be terminated. A very honourable and sincere attempt was made in that House to put an end to the law by her Majesty's Ministers. That attempt unfortunately, he thought, for the Church as well as for the dissenters, was defeated, and at present no fewer than ten counties of England were resisting the payment of Church-rates. They had an agitation spreading against Church-rates, as if there were not sufficient grounds for agitation on other subjects. That agitation had spread through Devonshire, Wilts, Essex and the whole of the principality of Wales. He did not mean throughout every parish, but he thought after the exhibition of the other night of the situation in which the parish of Llanon was placed, there could be no doubt but that great agitation existed in that country, when he found that a man was put in prison because he did not provide the elements of the Lord's Supper, when it was out of his power to provide them. That was in reality the true case, and this poor man was put in prison in order to enforce a Church-rate—a paltry tax, too contemptible to be collected, and yet, in order to irritate the Protestant dissenters, and to keep up a bad feeling both in that House and out of it, the people were harassed with church-rates year after year. He, therefore, thought that it was not an unreasonable prayer to pray that a matter which disturbed the peace of society to so great an extent, which did great violence to religion, which was in reality a source of bitter complaint and hostility among different religious communities, should be terminated. The next prayer was for the abolition of ecclesiastical courts, and perhaps; after the exposition they had had the other night from one of the highest authorities of the realm, as to the state of those courts, and as to the utter unfitness of their judges to administer justice, there could be little doubt but that it was high time that these courts should be abolished. But there were other reasons, and much more powerful ones, why those courts should be abolished. In those courts the officers were clergymen, and as they were necessarily unacquainted with law, their administration of justice was in some cases most partial and unjust. Would it be believed, and really he said it with diffidence, that there was no one of the judges of the ecclesiastical courts who did not himself live in open violation of the ecclesiastical law? Yes, the whole of the clergy in this kingdom, 17,000 in number, lived in open violation of those canons which it was their duty to enforce. Having made this observation, he would refer to some evidence in order to show that he had not used strong expressions without being able to substantiate the facts. He believed it was known to the House that the 50th canon of the Church required every clergyman to read the Litany every Wednesday and Friday, and not of Lent only, but throughout the whole year. Now, it was known to many gentlemen whom he had the honor to address, that this canon was violated every week in the year, in every parish in England and Wales, but no person was thrown into prison for being guilty of such violation. The ecclesiastical courts were very indulgent towards great offenders, but they were extremely severe, and well disposed to show the weight of their power, towards those who had not the means of resisting their severity. Again, by the 29th canon of the Church, it appeared that persons were forbidden from performing the office of godfather or godmother without having previously received the sacrament of the Lord's supper. Was it not notorious that no person was ever asked whether he had received the sacrament or not? It was a matter of fact that not one person in ten, who took the obligation, ever received the sacrament, that it was passed over with perfect impunity, and that no punishment was inflicted upon those who were guilty of the violation of the canon. The 59th canon required that every clergyman before evening prayer should examine and instruct youth for half an hour at least before the service. Would any Gentleman say that the clergy of England discharged that duty. He was sure he knew many who did not do so [a laugh]. He did not know how to construe that laugh. If it were meant to say, that it was the practice of the clergy of the English Church throughout England to discharge that duly regularly, he begged leave to say that he thought that upon inquiry it would be found to be by no means a universal practice. It might prevail in some parishes; but it was the exception, and not the rule. And what was the punishment awarded for offenders? For the first offence they were to be severely reprimanded, and for the second offence suspended. He asked those Gentlemen who were anxious to show that they were cognizant of the clergy having performed their duty, whether they were cognizant of any clergyman having been severely reprimanded or suspended for neglecting these obligations? He was not surprised at receiving no answer. Another canon, the 57th, prohibited the clergy from frequenting taverns or playing at cards or dice, under pain of ecclesiastical censure. Now, he believed that clergymen were much like other persons, and that when they were so inclined they frequented taverns; and he did not hesitate to say, not wishing to cast any reproach upon the clergy generally, that they might sometimes play at cards or dice, but he had not heard of any censure of the Church having been passed upon clergymen who had been guilty of these practices. By the 112th and 113th canons it appeared that clergymen were required to present to the bishop once a-year all persons who lived in immorality or neglected to attend the Church. Now, in this great city of London, where the Consistorial Court was in active operation. [Mr. Goulburn said, the hon. Member does not cite the canons correctly.] He had read them shortly, but not incorrectly. He was afraid it would not be very desirable to read them at length, but in substance these canons required, that the ministers should present to the bishop once a year at least, all persons within the parish who should live immorally, or who should neglect to attend Church, and also all non-communicants at Easter. Was this done? There were judges sitting in judgment—and in great severity of judgment—against humble individuals; but against people in higher places they heard of no prosecutions. He believed, that many men in London did not attend Church, or receive the sacrament at Easter; but they were not presented. Did he quote these canons to cast reproach upon the clergy? He said no. Others might choose to put such a construction upon it if they pleased, but he cited these cases to show, that those persons who had the administration of the ecclesiastical law did not administer it in justice and equity—that they punished those persons who transgressed against the law who were in humble circumstances, and of an inferior rank in life, but that they did not punish those who were opulent and of high rank—large and important places which were capable of controlling their operation they let go free, and small places they compelled to pay rate—and lastly, that the judges of those courts were themselves persons on whom punishment would fall, if the canons, of the Church were strictly obeyed. He thought he had made out a case to prove, that John Thorogood had not done wrong when he petitioned for the abolition of the Ecclesiastical Courts. Could hon. Gentlemen think, that the present state of things ought to be suffered to exist? He was sure that when he appealed to the judgment and candour of hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House, they would say, that such a state of things ought not to exist, as that a man should be immured in a prison, deprived of all the consolation and gratification which he ought to enjoy from communication with society, for a trivial matter of this kind. Hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House had reproached her Majesty's Ministers with hostility to the Church, but let him tell them that no ministers could have ever rendered a greater service to the Church than those who would abolish Church-rates, except those who would abolish Ecclesiastical Courts. He hoped, that both objects would, without loss of time, be effected. The last prayer of the petition was one with which he was very reluctant to weary the House. It prayed the House to grant such relief to the petitioner as in their wisdom they should deem fit. It might be said, that this person had offended against the law. But the House should recollect how many offenders there were against these laws, that those who ought to administer the laws were offenders, and they would then, he was sure, think, that this person might very fairly claim clemency on the part of the House, and, perhaps, even of the court that had put him in prison. There was another ground also, on which the petitioner might rest his conscientious scruples to pay Church-rates. By the 6th and 7th of George 3d, it was declared, that Quakers should not be liable to suffer in person for their refusal to pay Church-rates, because they had a conscientious objection to such payments. Now, if Quakers were exempted from answering in their persons, why not make the law applicable to all other Dissenters upon the same grounds. He thought it high time, that this law, this most anomalous and unjust law, should be amended. He thought, therefore, that this petitioner very fairly made out a case for bringing this petition under the consideration of the House; and whether he considered the subject of Church-rates, or the Ecclesiastical Courts, or the case of the petitioner himself, he was of opinion—and he hoped the House would be of opinion—that the time had come when they ought to remove from the law the obloquy that rested upon it. He would, therefore, move, "that there be laid before the House a copy of the decree issued against John Thorogood by the Consistorial Court of the Bishop of London, at the suit of the churchwardens of Chelmsford for the recovery of Church-rates in 1838, and a copy of the warrant by which he was committed to the gaol of Chelmsford in January, 1839, under the authority of which he was still confined in that prison."

Dr. Nichol

wished to know, whether the hon. Member had any objection to add the name of the judge that passed sentence?

Mr. Baines

said, he had no objection to that or any other amendment that should be deemed necessary.

Mr. Easthope

said, in rising to second the proposal of his hon. Friend, it was not his intention to make any accusation against the clergy, or to mix up anything in the discussion of an acrimonious or offensive nature. If there was any subject that should be approached in the opposite feeling, he thought this was that one. He would not believe but that every friend of the Church—at least every real friend of the Church—must feel, that it was high time that some provision should be made to prevent the recurrence of cases of this sort. He could not imagine it possible, that any gentleman could be so deluded as to believe, that these committals for non-payment of Church-rates could have any other influence than that of injuring the Church, and of spreading a spirit the very opposite of that which the Church was intended to promote, which it ought always to promote, and which it must promote in proportion as it exhibited the spirit of Christianity. It was probable, that this question might be met by its being stated, that this unfortunate man had been committed to his present imprisonment for contempt of court, in not appearing against the proceedings that were taken against him. He knew, also, that it would be stated, that this individual had been committed by a gentleman of the most liberal opinions, one of the most intelligent men in that House, an ornament to his profession, and one who felt as much as any gentleman could feel for those who were oppressed and wretched under the operation and exaction of these penalties. He knew it would be stated, that this unfortunate individual, the petitioner, had been committed under the authority and by virtue of the immediate warrant of the right hon. Gentleman, the Member for the Tower Hamlets. But what had that to do with the case? It only aggravated the case. There was a law in existence by which this poor man—he would admit an ignorant, a very ignorant man if they pleased—but a very conscientious man, for he would not have endured imprisonment of this kind, if he were not under very strong feelings of conscience; and he would ask, was there a Gentleman in that House who wished for the continuance of laws which operated to impose very severe penalties for the exercise of conscience? His hon. Friend had very well put the case, when he asked why there should exist a law that more severely operated against Protestant Dissenters than against Quakers? Was it not found that the operation of the law and the exaction of penalties from Quakers was inexpedient and indefensible. Yes, not only unjust, but inexpedient for the interests of the Church? The exemption from personal imprisonment was enacted on behalf of the Quakers, and was still inflicted on Protestant Dissenters. He submitted, whether those Gentlemen opposite, who deplored these individual cases, could not contrive some method, until an alteration was made in the law, by which this individual could be relieved from this extreme punishment. Every friend of the Church must feel that such cases, so far from benefitting the Church, were just precisely what the greatest enemy of the Church would wish. He lamented to say, that by that day's post he had received a letter detailing an exactly twin case to the unfortunate case before the House. The letter came from an individual for whose veracity he would not hesitate to pledge himself. It was from the Mayor of Worcester, and was as follows:— There were some poor Dissenters at the Broadway in Worcester, who had demurred to the payment of Easter dues, and proceedings had been taken against them in the spiritual court by a gentleman whose name he (Mr. Easthope) would not mention; but who was a clergyman. One poor man, named Israel Brown, having a wife and six children, had been cited for three years' dues, at the rate of 4d. a-year, and the expense of the citation was 3l. 3s. This money was paid by the co-operation of the man's neighbours, in order to prevent his going to prison. From this statement, it appeared, that but for the benevolent interposition of his neighbours, this poor man, having a wife and six children, would have been cast into prison for a claim for Easter dues, amounting to one shilling. It was probable, that the poor man conceived that in law he was not bound to pay this demand. For how many Gentlemen were there in that House who thought what were called Easter offerings were voluntary contributions, and yet it was true that they were a compulsory payment! In the present case, their payment had been enforced; and but for the co-operation of some benevolent neighbours, this poor man, having a wife and six children, would have been cast into prison for a claim of three fourpences. He thought that the time was indeed come when some provision should be made against the infliction of penalties so severe, and mischiefs to religion so serious, as those which must inevitably result from this sort of proceeding. He hoped that these discussions would quicken her Majesty's Government to provide a remedy for these lamentable and oppressive evils; and he hoped, also, that when the subject was brought on, it would be treated, not as a party or sectarian question, but with an earnest and honest desire on all sides to secure the rights of conscience and emancipate the national religion from the charge of injustice and oppression.

Mr. G. H. Vernon

said, that he must admit that the speech of the hon. Member who had last spoken, had been characterised by a much better spirit than that of the hon. Member who preceded him. With respect to the hon. Member for Leeds, although he commenced his speech by laying claim to a great deal of good temper in the manner he dealt with the subject, yet he must say there appeared to him to be a great deal of asperity, mixed up with somewhat of the spirit of injustice, in what fell from him. The hon. Member stated, that the petitioner averred that he could not expect to get justice at the hands of the Ecclesiastical Court. But every one who knew the hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets, who presided in that court, would, he was sure, treat such a remark with the contempt it deserved. The hon. Member appeared to labour under a great deal of ignorance as to what were the functions and duties of judges. He appeared entirely to forget that they were not the parties to bring on cases, but to decide upon all cases brought before them by others. When the hon. Member said, that the judges did not dare to face the large communities, but only the smaller ones, and that they did not dare to deal equally with the rich and the poor, he was sure that the hon. Member could find nothing in this or any other case to warrant such insinuations. If the hon. Member could show him any case which had been brought before the Ecclesiastical Courts in which justice had been administered differently to the rich and the poor, then, indeed, he should be ready to give every attention to the charge. He would not enter upon the general subject of church-rates at present, when there was every probability of the House being counted out; but he would only ask the hon. Member when a man had defied the authority of a judge before whom he was cited, how could that judge act otherwise than defend and vindicate the authority of the law? The hon. Member had given the House a great variety of pathetic details of this case, as to the time of year at which the petitioner was taken to prison, the number of hours he was kept without seeing his friends, &c.; but he did not think the House, looking to the merits of the case, had been much moved from its propriety by these statements. He must say, that in his opinion, the hon. Member had mixed himself up on many occasions with matters connected not only with the temporalities, but with the spiritualities of the Church, rather more than, as a Dissenter, he was fairly entitled to do. In conclusion, he had only to disclaim, on the part of the Church, all the suggestions which had been made by the hon. Member.

Sir G. Strickland

expressed his regret that the bill for the abolition of the Ecclesiastical Courts and Church-rates had not been passed. He begged distinctly to say, that he thought no charge of injustice was attributable to the judges of these courts in any of their proceedings, for they were bound to administer the law as they found it, and not otherwise. As a magistrate himself, a great many cases of severe hardship had come before him from time to time, arising out of these jurisdictions; and he therefore hoped that the Legislature would interfere to prevent their recurrence.

Dr. Nicholl

said, that the case which was stated in this petition had come before one of the most learned individuals in the country, and one as little inclined to do wrong as any person in the country. The hon. Member had made it a charge against the judges of the Ecclesiastical Courts, that they did not seek out and punish those who violated the canons. Why, the hon. Member might just as well go to the statute-book and say, that the judges in our Temporal Courts were responsible for not calling into operation all the statutes that were to be found there. With respect to the case in question, he regretted that power had not been given to the Ecclesiastical Courts to enforce their sentences by distress. In the case of Quakers, the remedy was given by a distress of goods. With respect to the Ecclesiastical Courts, bills had been previously brought forward by the administrations of Earl Grey, of Sir R. Peel, and of Lord Melbourne, for their amendment; and these bills had failed, not from any unwillingness on the part of the Church to consent to them, but from the opposition of the various local interests connected with the inferior courts. With respect to the relief prayed by the petitioner, it could be got out of the House. He could be brought before the Court of Queen's Bench, and if any grounds could be shewn for it, that Court would order his discharge.

Mr. Hume

was glad to hear the hon. and learned Member opposite express a wish that these courts should be abolished. He would only refer to the treatment of the Church-rate victims at Truro the other day, when a splendid procession, and an elegant dinner awaited them on their liberation from prison, to show the House the impolicy of persevering in the present system. It appeared to him a pitiful course of proceeding to oppress the poor in order to support a Church which ought to be rich enough to support itself. It was surely making it out a beggarly religion that could not support itself without oppressing the people. How could they put up a pretence to civil and religious liberty if people were obliged to pay for other people's clergymen, as well as their own? It was intimated that Mr. Thorogood had brought this misfortune upon himself. So he had; and for so doing, in his opinion, he had much merit. Was not Hampden held in veneration for resisting an oppressive tax? He held in his hand a list of persecutions (for so he would call them), which had taken place in Birmingham. Men for small sums had goods to a large amount taken out of their shops, and sold for a few shillings. Why, it was nothing less than robbery—it was a robbery against conscience. Hon. Members would not deny, that the pockets of the people were picked by law every day. The system was one which no enlightened community ought to suffer to exist any longer. It was inconsistent with Christian principle to punish a man for believing according to the dictates of his conscience. He really thought, that if the bishops and prebends of the Church, rich as it was, were to contribute towards a fund for this purpose, this odious exaction, amounting to about 240,000l., might be abolished, without any detriment to the Church. In the mean time, here was this unfortunate Mr. Thorogood in prison; and how was he to get out? The judge had not the power to liberate him—[An hon. Member: By a subscription.]—A subscription! he hoped not. Mr. Thorogood was now a martyr to the cause, and he hoped that he would remain in prison, to be a constant stimulus to the Government and to the public; so that there should be public meetings every day, till some measure was carried to remove this stigma from the Church.

Mr. Goulburn

thanked the hon. Gentle- man who had just sat down, for changing the character of a debate which had begun in so acrimonious a tone. He should not have troubled the House, were it not that he had interrupted the hon. Gentleman who brought forward the motion in the course of his observations. He had asked the hon. Gentleman to read the canon which he had quoted. Now, what were the exact words of that canon on which the hon. Member had founded a charge against a clergyman? They were—"Because it often comes to pass that persons of the laity whose duty it is to prevent the commission of sin and wickedness neglect that duty, it is hereby enacted that the clergyman of the parish may, if he think fit, take measures for their prevention." This was the literal meaning and words of the canon, and yet the hon. Member insisted that it was a positive duty incumbent on the clergyman to restrain evil doers. The hon. Member must surely have mistaken the canon, and had consequently fallen into a gross misrepresentation of the case.

Mr. Bramston

should not oppose the motion. Being resident in the neighbourhood in which the transaction had occurred, he was anxious it should have every publicity. He hoped, that the unfortunate gentleman, when satisfied by the statement of his case and the production of his papers in the House of Commons, would purge his contempt, and regain his liberty. With regard to the statement which had been made that his wife had been refused admission to the prison, he could state that on the only occasion on which application was made to the visiting magistrate, permission was granted. In his opinion, the more the matter was sifted the more clearly it would be proved that the magistrates had merely done their duty.

Sir J. Tyrrell

could not assent to all that had fallen from the hon. Member for Kilkenny, but he cordially assented to the remark, that that hon. Member did not like subscriptions. He was sorry that he would not support the man with his purse as well as his tongue. A large subscription had already been made for the man, and he was neither poor nor ignorant.

Motion agreed to.