HC Deb 17 July 1839 vol 49 cc408-19
Mr. Mackinnon,

in giving notice of his intention to bring the subject of the late riots at Birmingham under the consideration of the House, would take that opportunity of asking the noble Lord whether he were prepared to afford the House any information relative to those occurrences. The question which he wished to ask the noble Lord was this, whether it were the intention of her Majesty's Government that any investigation should take place with regard to tile conduct of the mayor and magistrates of that town, relative to the riots which had taken place there on Monday night, and which, in consequence of the apathy evinced by the mayor and magistrates, had continued for several hours?

Lord John Russell

said, Sir, I have not the least objection to answer the question of the hon. Member; but I could not do so properly by merely confining myself to give a direct answer, as by doing so, I should not convey to the House an accurate knowledge of the conduct of the magistrates. I must, therefore, request leave from the House to state some circumstances connected with the lamentable occurrences which took place on the night to which the hon. Member has referred. It must be recollected, that I stated some clays ago in the House, in answer to a question from the right hon. Baronet, the Member for Tamworth, that representations had been made to me by the mayor and two magistrates of the town of Birmingham, who had come to town on purpose, that there had been for some days past tumultuous meetings of discontented and turbulent characters in Birmingham, to the great disturbance and alarm of the peaceable inhabitants of that town, and that they were not able to take efficient steps to suppress those proceedings, in consequence of the insufficiency of their police force, which they had not yet been able to organize, as enjoined in their charter of incorporation; but that they hoped, at no great distance of time, to have an efficient local police; and that they, therefore, requested that a detachment of the metropolitan police force should go to Birmingham to be sworn in there as special constables, and afford such assistance as might be required. I acceded to that request, because I thought it was my duty, under such circumstances, to do everything in my power to assist in preserving the public peace of so important a community. That step had been previously alluded to in the House, and some censure appeared to be thrown upon the Government in consequence of the course which I thus adopted. The mayor and magistrates, on the arrival of the metropolitan police at Birmingham, without, perhaps, taking sufficient precautions, ordered them to arrest certain persons, which was ultimately effected, but not till after some of the police had been wounded, and not till after they had been obliged to be assisted by the military. The mayor and magistrates, after investigation, thought it necessary to commit some of those persons to Warwick Gaol, on certain charges. One of them was liberated on bail, others detained in prison, and further arrests took place on different charges. Those measures so adopted by the magistrates had a very beneficial effect, and I received a letter from the mayor, stating, that they thought that tranquillity had been perfectly restored, and that it would not be necessary to continue the daily reports to the Home-office, which, from the state of the town, I had considered it my duty to call for. While those measures appeared to have been effectual in restoring the peace of the town, comments appeared in the public prints, that by the sudden attack of the police, the safety of many persons had been put in jeopardy who were taking no part in the tumults, and an hon. Member asked me if those statements contained in the newspapers were or were not correct. To that question I answered, that I disbelieved those accounts, and the information which I have since obtained, justify me in the disbelief which I then expressed, relative to the charges against the conduct of the metropolitan police force. At the same time, I wish the House to recollect, that comments were made upon the magistrates, who, it was said, had, from an excess of zeal, interfered with the peaceable meetings of the inhabitants of Birmingham. I think it proper to notice this, because it cannot be disputed, that such charges cannot be made without having the effect of repelling many persons from placing themselves in such responsible situations. The magistrates had stated, that they were satisfied with the state of the town. It has since appeared, that they were satisfied without sufficient reason, and on the night of Monday the occurrences took place which are pretty clearly stated in the newspapers. A tumultuous meeting then was held, the persons assembled at which, proceeded to the destruction of a great deal of valuable property—to acts of great violence and outrage—setting fire to houses, two of which appear to have been entirely burned and destroyed. Other acts of injury had been committed on the houses of shopkeepers residing in the vicinity of the Bull-ring, where the riot occurred. One of the proceedings of the mob was to attack the Public-office, and break the windows. The superintendent of police, who was in the place, took no measures to capture any of the rioters, having, as he states, received orders not to do so, or to leave the place, without special orders from the magistrates. These proceedings continued for some time. It is stated, in a memorial which I have received at the Home-office, that they commenced at half-past eight, and till a quarter before ten. Neither the police or military appeared to put down the riots. The account I have received from the military officer in command is, that at half-past nine one of the magistrates applied at the barracks for assistance, when the police and military proceeded to the place of riot. The resistance made to them was quite inconsiderable. The mob fled, and, after a certain time, the peace of the town was restored, and no further rioting took place that night. The accounts which I have received of the state of the town last night are, that although there had been a considerable disposition manifested to riot in different places, and a disposition to renew the disgraceful proceedings of the former night, yet, by the interference of the police and military, the peace of the town had been preserved, and no serious riot took place last night. Now, the hon. Member has asked me whether it be the intention of the Government to institute any inquiry as to the circumstances which took place. The hon. Member stated, doubtless with no intention to misrepresent the facts, that for several hours the town had been left to the mercy of the mob. Now, according to the information which I have received, the period was half-past eight until a quarter to ten. But there is a statement, at the same time, that information was given to the magistrates that such riotous proceedings might be expected, and that they were known to the informants to be actually in contemplation. I do think, that this fact alone, that from half-past eight till a quarter before ten, no measures appear to have been taken to stop this riot, is a fact that requires investigation. I certainly think it necessary to inquire into that, and also to ask for proof that the magistrates had been warned that they might expect such riots were in contemplation. I cannot close this statement without taking some notice of an assertion that has been made with respect to these lamentable occurrences. It has been stated that they are entirely owing to the nomination of magistrates, some of them holding political opinions of a very violent nature—and being political theorists or chartists. Now, my belief is, that no part of these lamentable occurrences is to be attributed to the nomination of the magistracy. The fact is well known to the House, that I stated in the debates on the Municipal Reform Bill, that with regard to the nomination of magistrates in corporate towns, the recommendation of the respective town councils would have great weight with the advisers of the Crown. I do not mean to go into that question now. For myself, I think that that was a very proper concession—if concession it can be called—to grant to the recommendations of such corporate towns. Let it be remembered that in many of these towns, as in London, the magistrates are elected by popular suffrage, without the confirmation of the Crown. From Birmingham, after the election of the town-councillors, I received a list of twenty-one persons recommended by the town-council as fit and proper persons to be placed in the commission of the peace. At the same time, Sir, I received a communication from the lord-lieutenant of Warwick—a very unusual circumstance, I may remark, for it has been but very seldom that I have heard from that noble Lord, or derived any assistance from him; but, however, on this occasion I received a communication from him to the effect that he thought it desirable that the county magistrates, and the county magistrates only, should be named in the commission of the peace. I took these representations into consideration—the representation of the town-council on the one hand, and that of the lord-lieutenant on the other; and I made what inquiries I could with reference to both these representations from other parties. The result was, that I did not agree completely with either of these representations. I put in the majority of the county magistrates, leaving out some few, chiefly gentlemen who, as I heard, did not any longer reside in the town, and had no connection with it, and one or two others who had ceased to take an active part in the affairs of the magistracy, but still I put in eleven of the county magistrates—gentlemen of various political opinions, some Whigs, some Tories, for I did not attend to their politics in making the selection. I also put in a certain number of persons recommended by the town-council, and two or three persons who were much recommended to me from other quarters as persons of great respectability and competency; and the result was, that instead of twenty-one magistrates, I appointed twenty-four, so that it cannot be said I altogether took the opinion of the town-council in the matter; and as to all these appointments, I took every care to inform myself as to the respectability of the individual. There was one gentleman with respect to whom I had in the first instance great doubts whether, after the violent part he had taken in politics, he could be considered a fit person to name in the commission of the peace (I refer to Mr. Muntz); but before I decided on this point, I made inquiries in various quarters respecting this gentleman, and was told that though certainly Mr. Muntz had taken a violent part in politics, he was a man of considerable talent, that he was likely to prove of great use to the town as a magistrate, that there were none of his views which would at all prevent his giving every support to the maintenance of the peace and good order, and that he had declared his total and entire separation from the persons who wished by means of violence to make changes in the laws and institutions of the country. I thought, therefore, that on the whole it was more likely that the cause of peace and good order would be served by placing this gentleman in the commission of the peace, and I accordingly appointed him. With respect to this matter, I will take the present opportunity of moving "An address to her Majesty for a list of the magistrates in the several towns of Birmingham, Manchester, and Bolton," and if any hon. Gentleman on seeing these names should be disposed to call into question the fitness of any person appointed, I shall be ready to state the grounds on which I thought fit to appoint him. But, I repeat, my decided belief is, that these nominations have had nothing whatever to do with the recent outrages in Birmingham. I cannot conceive that out of the twenty-four magistrates of that borough, many of whom are Tories and many others of whom are Whigs of great moderation of opinion, I cannot conceive that among these there would be any men who, on account of their political opinions, would refrain from taking a part in the suppression of these riots. If there have been faults or negligence in this instance, I believe it to have been from an error in judgment on the part of the magistrates in imagining that the town was restored to tranquillity, and perhaps from an apprehension that they might be blamed if they proceeded to measures of too great activity in repressing the appearance of tumult, and not from any sympathy with the rioters. I will take this opportunity of stating a circumstance which, though not in immediate reference to Birmingham, the House will be glad to hear, as affording an illustration of what is the peaceful disposition of the operatives of the manufacturing towns generally. I believe that in Birmingham the great body of the operatives have no sympathy with the authors of the recent disorders. The circumstance I have to state has reference to the operatives of the very populous districts of Longton and Lane End, in the Staffordshire Potteries, who have addressed a declaration to me, which has been a source of the highest satisfaction to the Government. It was on the occasion of some riotous proceedings which had taken place in their district, and the terms in which their declaration is framed are these:— To the Right Honourable Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for the Home Department. Declaration of the undersigned operstives of the liberties of Longton and Lane End, Staffordshire Potteries:—Finding that we share in the stigma cast upon our town, by the late riotous and disorderly proceedings manifested therein, we deem it prudent to repel such calumny, come from what quarter it may, by disavowing all participation in such conduct, or the feelings which originated in it, assuring your Lordship that our ardent desire was, is, and we hope ever will be, that peace should prevail throughout our town. We do, therefore, call upon all our fellow townsmen, filling what stations in society they may, to set a peaceable example, and unite with us for the preservation of peace and good order. Sir, I believe that though this, is the only formal document of the kind in my possession, yet that, in the great majority of the manufacturing towns, the disposition of the operatives is rather in accordance with this declaration than with the sentiments of the class of persons who wish to advance their projects by riot and violence. Before I sit down I must beg leave to say that I do not think that any good effect will be produced by endeavouring to exaggerate the extent of the riots and outrages which have taken place. I have seen several statements carrying their exaggeration to a very great extent, and I was very sorry to see them, because they tend to produce the very state of things which it is of such essential importance to avert, because they tend to interrupt trade, and to throw a great additional number of persons out of employment; and I need not remind you that it is when a vast number of persons are thrown out of employment that the peace of society is most endangered. I therefore trust that—while I am quite ready to say that an inquiry should take place with respect to these occurrences at Birmingham (so, however, as not to affect the proceedings at the Warwick assizes), while I am ready to make these inquiries, I do trust that—no statements will be made tending to discourage the magistrates of Birmingham in the execution of their duty, or to create unnecessary alarm throughout the country. The noble Lord concluded by moving "that an humble address be presented to her Majesty for a list of the magistrates of the towns of Birmingham, Manchester, and Bolton."

Mr. Goulbourn

expressed his gratification at hearing the noble Lord's opinion that the disturbers of the public peace did not comprise a large proportion of the operatives. This had always been his own conviction, entertaining, as he did, a most favourable view of the good sense of the general body of the working classes. He believed that those who were led astray were certainly rather the dupes of designing demagogues than voluntary disturbers of the public peace, and it was precisely this which caused him to feel the greater jealousy and regret when he found that more prompt and energetic measures were not adopted for nipping such outrages in the bud, and for dealing effectually with the agitators and authors of them. The result of such forbearance was to encourage the guilty, and to compromise the innocent. As to the noble lord-lieutenant for Warwick, he could not but complain of the manner in which that noble Lord's name had been introduced into the statement of the noble Lord opposite, in the absence of any of the noble Lord's Friends who were instructed as to the circumstances of the case.

Lord John Russell

had made no charge against the noble Lord in question. At the same time he could not but remark that it was generally the practice for lords-lieutenant of counties, to whatever side of politics they belonged, to communicate with the Secretary of State respecting any peculiar circumstances which happened in their counties; he thought that if the noble Lord in question had wished to obtain information as to what had occurred, and as to what it was desirable he should do, it might have been better for him to have proceeded to the Secretary of State's office on the subject rather than to have made the subject a matter for Parliamentary discussion. Certainly the noble Lord's proceeding was not in conformity with the usual practice.

Mr. Goulburn

wished that this understanding was always acted upon. The noble Lord opposite seemed to complain that he was not in the habit of hearing from the noble lord-lieutenant of Warwickshire. He new nothing of the circumstances of the case, but he had known Lord Warwick for a number of years, and he could safely say, that he believed there did not exist a more honourable man than that noble Lord—a man more unlikely to do anything ungentlemanly or unbecoming his situation. He had that entire reliance on the noble Lord, that he did not believe he had taken any course which he was not fully prepared to justify.

Mr. Scholefield

hoped the House would permit him to say a few words, under the peculiar circumstances in which he was placed. He felt sure that the magistrates of Birmingham would be able to satisfy the House and the country that no blame or neglect was justly attributable to them. The question was entirely one of time. From the information he had received, he understood the case to be this, that at the very first appearance of riot, Redmond, a very active police officer of the town, took a coach, and went in all haste to the house of his (Mr. Scholefield's) son, the mayor of of Birmingham, who lived about a mile out the town, and that his son proceeded immediately to the town, accompanied by Dr. Booth, and was with the other magistrates on the ground at shortly after half-past nine. As the riot did not break out till half-past eight, there could hardly have been any very great neglect or omission on the part of the magistrates. As to the police not being allowed to act, it must be borne in mind that the magistrates were much censured for the conduct of the police on the former occasion; and the very charge which was brought against the magistrates for unnecessary severity on that occasion was the reason why they did not wish the police to act again without themselves being at their head. There was not the slightest expectation of any outbreak: these occurrences came upon the magistrates quite unexpectedly. It was due to his fellow-townsmen and to the magistrates of Birmingham to state, that he believed that the statements which had been made as to the injury done were great exaggerations. The affair seemed to have been an indiscriminate plundering attack upon friends and foes, for one of the persons whose house was plundered was an old Reformer. He was sure that the magistrates would be able to prove that they had not neglected their duty.

Mr. Wolverley Attwood

had that morning received a letter from Birmingham, which stated that there was a general anticipation of a renewal of the outrages, and that the townspeople were by no means satisfied that the means in the hands of the magistrates would be promptly or effectively employed; and it was desirable to know whether the noble Lord opposite intended to give the people of Birmingham better protection than that afforded by the magistrates, by the introduction of some other power into the town on this pressing emergency. It was his decided opinion, that if the magistrates had done their duty promptly, none of these scenes would have occurred. The mob themselves beforehand stated that they were encouraged to their proceedings by the supineness of the magistrates, and their expectation that they would not promptly interfere.

Mr. Hume

said, that it would have been but a proper proceeding on the part of the hon. Gentleman, as he seemed so much in the confidence of the mob, had he gone and given the Secretary of State a warning of what their intentions were, and let him into a few of their secrets. Further, he thought it desirable that the hon. Gentleman should state to the House whence came the letter which he had mentioned as expressing an anticipation of renewed outbreaks, and a belief that the magistrates would be tardy in their proceedings. It was desirable to know who it was that thus inculpated the magistrates if only to learn the grounds on which they founded their opinions. It appeared to him, that this, at least, was not the proper time or place for bringing forward such a charge against the magistrates. Again, while complaints were thus being made against the magistrates of Birmingham for neglecting their duty, he should like to ask where the Lord-lieutenant of Warwick whose duties on such an occasion were so peculiarly important—where that noble Lord was, whether he was at his post, whether he was down at Birmingham, now that that town was stated elsewhere to be "in a situation almost worse than that of a town taken by storm." If the town of Birmingham was in so deplorable a condition, he would ask—was the Lord-lieutenant on the spot to give his assistance. He considered that it was essentially the duty of the noble Lord to be at his post in times of difficulty like these; and that if neglect were charged against any parties, the magistrates of Birmingham ought at least only to share it with the noble Lord-lieutenant; for that noble Lord so far from doing his duty on the spot, had been all the time in London.

Lord Granville Somerset

observed, that even if the Lord-lieutenant had been in the town he could not have done anything except as a magistrate; and if he was not a magistrate, he could do nothing at all. He thought, therefore, that it was most unjust that the noble Lord should be called over the coals in this manner. The hon. Member for Birmingham seemed to think rather lightly of what had happened; but he could not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member spoke of the affair as a misfortune which had fallen equally on friends and foes, which was the first time he had heard of rioters having friends at all among other classes. It was a most lamentable and strange thing, that the mob should have had full liberty for an hour and a half to perpetrate such violence, or that any attempt should be made in that House to modify the character of these outrages.

Mr. Scholefield

said, that the expression he had used was, that it appeared to be an indiscriminate plundering attack upon friends and foes; and he had illustrated this by adding that one of the houses plundered was that of an old friend of Reform. The mob appeared to have gone from house to house.

Mr. Pryme

said, the noble Lord opposite seemed to imagine that the Lord-lieutenant of Warwick had no power in Birmingham, because there was a corporate body there; but he was not aware of any Act of Parliament which gave to the corporation or magistrates of Birmingham an exclusive jurisdiction.

Lord J. Russell

said, the hon. Member was quite right; but he should have thought it a great misfortune if the magistrates for the county, not being also magistrates for the town, had taken occasion to interfere with the town. As to what had fallen from the right hon. Gentleman opposite, he begged to say that nothing which he had said had been meant as derogatory to the character of Lord Warwick as a gentleman, or as a person holding a high situation in the country. Yet he would repeat that he felt the noble Lord would have done better on this occasion in coming to the Secretary of State's Office than in going before Parliament on the point—Motion agreed to.

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