HC Deb 30 July 1839 vol 49 cc998-1006
Mr. T. Duncombe

rose to call the attention of the House to a case of great hardship. The petitioner, John Thorogood, was a dissenter, and a warm partizan of the liberal party, and though a poor man, he hoped the House would not indulge in the idea that his religious scruples were not as conscientiously adopted, and as firmly fixed, as those of the noblest and richest in the land. The facts of this case were stated in a petition presented by the hon. Member for Leeds, whom he was sorry not to see in his place. He had subsequently presented another petition, in which this poor dissenter again complained of having been imprisoned in Chelmsford Gaol for the non-payment of 5s. 6d. due for church-rates; that he was there treated as a felon; that he had been there six months; that for eighteen hours out of the twenty-four he was kept in solitary confinement, that none of his friends were allowed to see him, except at the hours appointed by the prison regulations; and that he had applied for leave to see his wife on Sunday, and was refused. The visiting magistrates of the county of Essex had laid a paper before the House, in which they admitted that the petitioner was a Protestant dissenter, and that he had been imprisoned for the non-payment of 5s. 6d. due for church-rates. They denied that he had been treated as a felon, and said that the felons were not confined in the same prison, but in the prison of Springfield, three quarters of a mile off. With respect to the assertion of the visiting magistrates, that the petitioner was not treated as a felon, the petitioner allowed that in certain particulars a difference was observed, but he said further, that in some respects his treatment was more severe than that of a felon, because there was no limitation to its duration, and unless he were released by the timely interference of the House, he might rot and die in gaol. The petitioner had been thirty weeks in prison, and on only four days during that time had his wife been admitted to him; and now, when he applied for leave to see her on Sundays, he met with a positive refusal. He would ask whether all this persecution was likely to redound to the credit or advancement of the Church Establishment? The petitioner stated, that he had done nothing to violate the law, and that he had been subjected to this persecution merely on account of his conscientous resistance of the payment of church-rates, and all such compulsory exactions for religious purposes, which he considered contrary to the doctrines and spirit of Christianity. He would ask whether the Church would dare to promote their demands for church-rates in Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, or Birmingham, or any of the large towns and if not, why did they persecute so unrelentingly, this unfortunate individual? It was stated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, two years ago, when moving a resolution on the subject of church-rates in this House, that in the town of Manchester, there were thirty thousand inhabrtants who resisted the payment of them. Now, if the law was to be applied, why should it not be equally applied to all? He might be told, that this individual wished to obtain notoriety as a martyr. Nothing, in his opinion, could be so unfounded, and he would beg to read a letter written by the petitioner to a highly respectable dissenter, a friend and constituent of his (Mr. T. Duncombe's) on the 27th of June, before he knew that it was intended to bring the subject under the notice of the House, and, therefore, not written with any view to produce effect on the present occasion. The hon. Member read, accordingly, an extract. This letter showed that the petitioner entertained a very strong opinion against church-rates, which he did not think would ever be removed by persecution on the part of the Church. But, looking at the great number of towns where these payments were successfully resisted, he maintained that it was rank cowardice, to punish this unfortunate individual. Three years ago, the Chancellor of the Exchequer brought forward a motion for referring this subject to a committee, which sat in the years 1837 and 1838. The instructions to the Committee were, that they should ascertain the probable amount of any increased value of church lands, which might be obtained by art improved management of church leases, and to report the same to the House. The Committee made a report to the House, that they hoped to be able to give the information required early this Session. They had since made a report, but they had failed of giving the only thing that was called for of importance in this investigation, that of the improved value of church lands; but they recommended, under the circumstances, the enfranchisement of church property. This report left the question exactly where it was before. Though he was aware that they could not by a vote of this House release this unfortunate individual from the persecution of of the Essex authorities, yet he hoped that by expressing their strong opinion upon this act of violent and shameless persecution, they might shame his persecutors from further proceedings of this kind, and bring about the discontinuance of a system so little calculated to do credit to the Established Church. The hon. Member concluded by moving a resolution condemning the imprisonment of Thorogood as cruel and unjust, and declaring, that it would be the duty of the Legislature, at the earliest possible period of the next Session of Parliament, to make alterations in the existing laws for levying church-rates.

Lord J. Russell

would not enter into the general question of church-rates, but restrict what he had to say to the case of the individual whose petition the hon. Member had referred to. The petitioner complained, that he had been treated with great severity in gaol; that was a distinct question in itself, and he would suppose fur the present, that such severity had been used; but then the hon. Gentleman went on to say, that, therefore, on account of this severity, church-rates, being a cruel and unjust system, ought to be altered. But it did not at all follow that if this petitioner had not been treated with this severity, the system of church-rates would not be quite as unjust and cruel. A man might be taken up on a charge of felony, and treated with undue severity, but it did not follow, that the law against housebreaking or robbery, was a bad law. With respect to this par- ticular case, the magistrates stated, that the petitioner was not confined with felons, but had a room sixteen feet by fifteen, and nine feet high. As to the indefiniteness of the period of his imprisonment, that, again, resulted from the state of the law, and could not be laid to the charge of the gaol regulations This petitioner was committed for contempt upon the warrant of Dr. Lushington for not answering to a citation fur the payment of this church-rate, This might be a bad state of the law, but it was not the fault of the regulations of the gaol. With respect to the restriction as to the admission of visitors, he did not see, that there was any great hardship in a prisoner's being allowed to see his friends only between the hours of ten and four—a period of six hours. It appeared that this person had a room allowed to meet his wife on Sunday; but having collected a crowd at the window, he addressed them on the hardship of his situation, and on the severity of the law under which he was imprisoned. The magistrates thought, that such conduct tended to disturb the general order of the gaol, and, therefore, determined not to allow him the indulgence, which, up to that period, he had enjoyed. As to his general treatment, he believed, that the magistrates did not treat him with any unnecessary severity, seeing, that they were answerable for his safe custody. As to the general question of the state of the law, he was not one of those who wished the present system to be continued. He wished very much they had some substitute by which the sums now collected for the repairs of the church could be raised in a less objectionable and onerous manner. The hon. Gentleman must recollect, that he had proposed a plan for effecting that object, but it did not receive the sanction of Parliament in such a way as to enable him to give it effect. When he said he was anxious that some substitute should be provided for church-rates, he did not mean to approve of the abolition of church-rates without some equivalent. He did not think it right, that the repairs of the Church should depend entirely on voluntary contribution, but that some legal power should be given to provide for them. As to the assurance of the hon. Gentleman, that this person had no wish to be considered a martyr. He had certainly received a different impression from those qualified to speak to the fact.

Mr. Harvey

He was not surprised that the noble Lord had characterised this motion as inconvenieut. Looking at the state of the session, and the vast importance of the subject which this application involved, it might be found very convenient to deal with the applicant as a very insignificant person. He regarded it of the first importance in every civilised community that individuals should be compelled to yield an instant obedience to the mandate of the law, otherwise it would be in the power of individuals from the most censurable motives, to defeat the process of the law. But why did they not apply the same principle to matters of this description that they applied to questions of property? If an individual withheld his answer on a question involving property, did they permit that the party should be put not only to great expense, but should be permanently withheld from his right, by allowing him to remain in perpetual imprisonment? They did no such thing; and the reason was obvious. One question involved a matter of property; the other of conscience. One party was treated with respect; the other with ridicule. A man resisting a demand from conscientious motives, and imprisoned in consequence, met with very little commisseration; but when a man withheld from some powerful individual information respecting the distribution of his property, all the apprehensions of justice were kindled, and he was made to feel the effects of his obduracy by a much milder treatment. If he did not give his answer voluntary it was taken pro confesso. Why not, he asked, pursue the same course in matters of ecclesiastical demand? It would not be convenient, because if the petitioner were the sort of roan he apprehended, and ventured to think for himself, though in humble circumstances, it was desirable that he should be selected as an object of legal persecution. Hon. Members and particularly those connected with Essex, knew that any person in arrear for tithes or church-rates might have a warrant issued against his property for the amount if it exceeded 40s. Why had not this been done here? Because John Thorogood was a troublesome man who had an opinion of his own on religious matters, and an independent course of conduct in politics; and as Chelmsford was a great Conservative citadel, it became important to deter any man in humble circumstances from daring to think for himself. It might be said, that 5s. was a trifling demand. Yes; but this man could not appear to the process under 6l. Now he wished to know from the noble Lord, who had expressed something like sympathy for the conscientious scruples of the dissenters, whether it was right or just, or likely to calm the exasperation which inoculated the entire mass of the people, to say that a man should have no opportunity to resist a demand of 5s. 6d: without being subject for a preliminary proceeding, to the legal demand of 6l. As the Members of that House had no sympathy with any case but one which involved property to some considerable amount, he asked if any one amongst them was asked for 100l. where he thought he was liable to a demand of 90l., what would he say if told he could not put in his answer without paying 600l.? They would be all alarmed at such a case and all their party hostility would yield to the single sentiment of hostility against such an exaction. And yet when a poor man, who told them he was a shoemaker, and in whose case 5s. 6d. might amount to half his salary, appealed to their sympathy, he was treated with neglect. This poor man asked, "why should I pay this demand? I neither enter your church nor agree to your doctrines," But suppose this man was told "you must pay 5s. 6d. Say yes or no If you don't agree to do so, here is a process signed by Lushington, a great Member citing you to the Ecclesiastical Court." Well, this poor man might seek legal advice, and though told that the demand might be clear robbery, he must pay 6l. 5s. before he entered on his defence. Was that a state of things to satisfy the great mass of the people? Were hon. Gentlemen aware that these ecclesiastical courts were remnants of the ecclesiastical tyranny that formerly existed in this country? They were about to pass a bill for giving a distinguished Member of that House a splendid salary, amounting to 4,000l. a-year. Ever since he held a scat in that House he had heard these ecclesiastical abuses denounced by such high authorities as the receiver of this large income, and that, too, with an eloquence and zeal which almost invited the suspicion of their sincerity; but never had the slightest step been taken with a view to the redress of such grievances. There were then no less than seven distinct ecclesiastical courts, the remnants of papal power. Blackstone, for he liked to quote a judicial Conservative—stated that these courts were the offspring of papal tyranny, which the Reformation itself had failed to destroy. Into either or all of these seven courts the clergy, or rather the great Conservatives of the national piety could draw the subjects of this kingdom. First of all there was the Archdeacon's Court, confined to the locality over which the authority of each respective archdeacon extended. From that individuals might be drawn into the Consistory Court; and though, as a religious body, they who presided over this court proceeded on the assumption that no man could tell a lie, they set out with a glaring falsehood, by making the very writ of removal declare (as in the case of Mr. Apsley Pellet, whose petition he had presented) that of his own free will and desire he came before the court for the purpose of obtaining speedy justice with the aid of men learned in the law. It was all in vain that the petitioner pleaded his own case, without assistance from the members of the court, as he had doctors learned in the law opposed to him, and was obliged to pay 30l. or 40l. Then he was told, "true, there is a judgment against you in that court, but it is only a preliminary one. The ecclesiastics, in their tender solicitude for conscience, and from respect for your sense of right, have provided you with a refuge. Are you not aware that there is a Court of Arches? We will introduce you to it. And if you should fail there, never despair; only leave 50l. on the threshold of the Court of Arches, and we will introduce you to the Court of Peculiars. There you will have the advantage of an assembly of grave men, rendered singularly significant by wigs and other appendages of learning. If justice be not done you in the Court of Peculiars, you have nothing to do but to pay for the advantage of getting into the Prerogative Court, which, if it should confirm the judgments of the inferior tribunals, still thank your God you are in a land of liberty and of law, and the doors of justice are not closed against you, for you have still an opportunity of appearing before the Court of Delegates. And if you be defeated in all the courts, then the tender mercy of the law hands you over to a commission of review." All this for 5s. 6d. He fancied he heard some aristocrat, whose income it puzzled the rules of arithmetic to compute, exclaim, why not at once pay such a trifle? That was not the question. Whether the demand was 5s. or 5l., there should be the means of obtaining a prompt and efficacious decision. Nothing, said the hon. Member, will gain the attention of this House to the complaints of the poor, but some great political offence which stirs not your better feelings, but your feelings of alarm, and the case of John Thorogood having roused the great body of the dissenters on the question of church-rates, there was a chance of its finding a hearing, at the expense of great individual suffering, in this House. But allow me to say that the time is come when you must not be indifferent to the voice and demands of the great multitude. We are far too close and confined in our views. We live hardly any where else than in St. Stephen's, and we are more intent on shrouding ourselves in the conceit of our importance, and in the drapery which our pride throws around us, than in evincing a solicitude to inquire into the grievances, still less to redress them, as they affect the great mass of the people. I consider this petition to come under this class; and though a minister may say it is inconvenient to consider it, and that we should proceed for the augmentation of military establishments, or for the establishment of a constabulary, this is not the way, I think, in which wholesome legislation ought to proceed; nor is it the way to conciliate the affections of the people. Though you are accustomed to deride the name of popular power, the time is rapidly coming when a complaint of this nature will be considered a proof that the grievances to which it refers have been too long neglected.

Mr. Duncombe,

in order to meet the views of the noble Lord, would alter his motion.

Sir R. Inglis

would oppose the change.

Mr. Hawes moved the omission of the words which his hon. Friend wished to have struck out.

Mr. Easthope

was glad that his hon. Friend had changed his original motion, so as to admit of the question being submitted to the consideration of the House, and of the present state of the law being canvassed without relation to individuals. He thought it of great importance that every discussion on this subject should as much as possible be divested of individual character, and that the state of the law, and that alone, should be contemplated by the House. Thorogood was incar- cerated from the 10th of January to the present time for resisting a claim of 5s. 6d.; not because he fraudulently endeavoured to resist it, but because he could not consistently with conscientious scruples agree to the payment. His mode of resistance to the law might be unwise, but that did not prove that the law itself was not unjust. Indeed, he felt astonished that this papistical law should have been continued so long, without raising a tumult in that House against it. But what surprised him more than anything was, that the hon. Member for Oxford, so famed for his objection to popery in all its forms, should cling with such apparent fondness to this relic of popish domination, which had been suffered to remain on the statute book to the disgrace of our country and of our legislation. Surely the hon. Baronet ought to be among the foremost to advocate the change in the law which, as it now stood, was injurious and disgraceful to the Established Church. If that House, being composed principally of the members of the Established Church, had resolved against the continuance of church-rates, well might a Protestant dissenter, under the influence of conscientions opinions, oppose such a tax, and well might his incarceration by a law, which was an outrage on all common sense and justice, raise an outcry throughout the country.

The House divided upon the question, that the words proposed to be left out by Mr. Hawes stand:—Ayes 20; Noes 44: Majority 24.

The House divided on the resolution so amended having been put, Lord John Russel moved the previous question:—Ayes 42; Noes 22: Majority 20.

List of the AYES.
Barnard, E. G. Humphrey, J.
Bridgeman, H. Hutton, R.
Brotherton, J. Johnson, General
Browne, R. D. Leader, J. T.
Bryan, G. Lushington, C.
Craig, W. G. Muskett, G. A.
Easthope, J. Norreys, Sir D. J.
Ellis, W. O'Connell, M. J.
Ewart, W. Philips, M.
Fielden, J. Pigot, D. R.
Finch, F. Rutherfurd, rt. hn. A.
Guest, Sir J. Scholefield, J.
Hill, Lord A. M. C. Seymour, Lord
Hindley, C. Somerville, Sir W. M.
Hodges, T. L. Steuart, R.
Howard, P. H. Thornely, T.
Hume, J. Vigors, N. A.
Villiers, hon. C. P. Wyse, T.
Wakley, T. Yates, J. A.
Warburton, H.
Wilbraham, G. TELLERS.
Wood, Sir M. Duncombe, T.
Worsley, Lord Hawes, B.
List of the NOES.
Baker, E. Preceval, Colonel
Blair, J. Reid, Sir J. R.
Broadley, H. Richards, R.
Broadwood, H. Round, J.
Chute, W. L. W. Sandon, Viscount
Dick, Q. Sibthorp, Colonel
Gordon, hon. Captain Somerset, Lord G.
Hope, H. T. Wood, Colonel T.
Lowther, Lord
Mackinnon, W. A. TELLERS.
Packe, C. W. Inglis, Sir R. H.
Palmer, G. Bramston, T. W.

Resolution agreed to as follows: That it appears by certain papers laid before this House, that John Thorogood, a Protestant Dissenter, has been confined in her Majesty's county gaol of Essex, since the 16th day of January last, for neglecting to appear in the Consistorial Court of the Bishop of London, for the non-payment of 5s. 6d. being the amount of church-rate assessed upon him for the parish of Chelmsford; and it is the opinion of this House that it will be the duty of the Legislature, at the earliest possible period of the next Session of Parliament, to make such alterations in the existing laws for levying church-rates, as shall prevent the recurrence of a like violence being ever again inflicted upon the religious scruples of that portion of her Majesty's subjects who conscientiously dissent from the rites or doctrines of the Established Church.