HC Deb 20 March 1839 vol 46 cc941-8
Mr. Pakington

rose to move the second reading of the Bill for the amendment of the Sale of Beer Act. It had become indispensable that Parliament should interfere upon this subject, and he would shortly explain the nature of the provisions which he had ventured to suggest. It must be in the recollection of hon. Members, that when the present Act passed in 1830, it was predicted by those who were opposed to the Act, that it would be impossible that it should come into operation without producing the most prejudicial and dangerous effects upon the morals of the people. All these predictions had been verified, and the evil had become even greater than had been anticipated. The Beer Act, instead of conducing to the comfort of the labouring classes, had only pandered to their vices. Not a year had elapsed from the passing of the Beer Act before these evils came into operation, and in 1833, three years after the passing of the Act, they had increased to such an extent that a Committee was appointed to investigate this subject, and an Act passed to amend the former Act. That Act had proved a complete nullity. The time had now come when the complaints of the clergy and magistracy on this subject ought to be attended to, and the Beer Act be either totally repealed or greatly modified. He had no doubt he should be opposed on financial grounds, and the hon. Gentleman opposite had moved for returns, which showed an increase in the malt-tax since the passing of the Beer Bill. Now this tax, although not to the same extent, bad increased in Scotland, and when it was considered that the duty was taken off beer at the same time, he did not think they could fairly attribute this increase in the malt-tax to the passing of the Beer Act. When the question was last before the House, the Chancellor of the Exchequer wished them to consider the vast amount of capital invested in beer-shops, but the Bill which was now under discussion would leave untouched all those houses where capital to any great extent was vested. When the Beer Act was introduced, no tenderness was shown to the licensed victuallers, notwithstanding the very large amount of capital invested in public-houses. The House would hear, no doubt, of the necessity for free trade in an article so essential to the poorer classes as beer, and of all the monopolies which previously existed. But all this must give way before the paramount consideration of the demoralising tendency of the Sale of Beer Act. On that ground he took his stand, and trusted he should be able to convince the House of the necessity of interfering. In 1833 and 1834 Committees were appointed, before which the strongest evidence was given as to the true nature and demoralising tendency of the Act. The third resolution of the Committee on Drunkenness stated, that there was a house for the sale of intoxicating liquors for every twenty families throughout the country. The House was bound to look also to the effects of intoxication in entailing one of the worst calamities that could befal human nature. By the evidence of Sir H. Ellis, it appeared that in one year, out of 28 patients who were under his care, 19 had become insane through habits of intoxication. The evidence of Mr. Wright, a magistrate of the county of Hants, showed that, in the gaols of that county, out of 118 prisoners, 116 attributed their crimes and misfortunes to their frequenting beer-shops. He would call the attention of the House to the case of several persons who had been executed. The two who were executed in Cambridgeshire for the murder of Lord Hardwicke's keeper, in the last moments of their existence, attributed their crimes to the associates they had picked up in beer-shops. The same had been said by two men who had been executed in Somerset. Petitions from the magistracy of no less than twenty-four counties in England had been presented against these laws; and a meeting was held in the county with which he was connected (Worcestershire), at which men of all parties attended, Liberal as well as Conservative, and expressed their abhorrence of the crimes and outrages which these laws had generated. Perhaps a statement might be made, that the evils arising from the present law were not so great at present as they had been. In answer to that statement, he would only point to the number of petitions that had been presented during the present Session from all classes of society, and to the evidence of numerous magistrates and other persons throughout the country. The hon. Gentleman then read to the House several letters and other documents, all bearing testimony to the demoralizing effect of the Beer-law. Amongst them were, a letter from a clergyman in a small town in Suffolk; a letter from Mr. Foster, of Manchester; and declarations from the chief constable of the town of Halifax, the churchwardens and overseers of Manchester, and the mayor of Worcester. In Leeds, during the three years next before the passing of the Beer Act, there had been brought before the magistrates on charges of drunkenness 639 persons, and during the three years immediately following the passing of that Act, there had been brought up on a similar charge no less than 2,023 persons. He had several other documents from various towns in England, all tending to prove the dreadful effects of the present system; but he would not weary the House by reading them, for he was sure that no hon. Member would attempt to deny that those effects had been produced. Such being the evils of the measure, the question was, what was the best mode of correcting and remedying those grievances. At first he was inclined to think, that no measure would be effectual that did not prohibit the drinking of beer on the premises; but upon further considering the subject, he was disposed to think, that a corrective measure, provided it could be made sufficiently strong, would be the best. Before the Committee of 1833 the Mayor of Leeds was asked, "Do you think that preventing the sale of beer on the premises would tend to remove the inconveniences of the present system?" The answer was, "I think something of that kind was tried some time ago, but it was evaded in this way; persons, after procuring their beer at a beer shop, would go to a kind of partnership concern over the way, where they would drink the liquor." There was a difficulty in applying police regulations to such houses. If drinking on the premises was allowed, the old system must be resorted to, of licensing public-houses. But though he did not wish to throw any reflections on the magistrates, he did not think it expedient, if any other remedy could be devised, that the licensing should, in these excited times, be committed to the magistrates, as it would doubtless subject them to a suspicion which it was desirable should not attach to the bench. He trusted this bill would be suffered to go into committee, when he would explain its provisions. He would only state that, taking the rating of the house as a criterion for allowing a licence had been suggested by the Committee of 1833. He had fixed a rating of 10l. per annum in country towns, as being necessary for a licence to sell beer, and it should be remembered that, by the Parochial Assessment Act, the rating must be a real one. It might be said, that the rating was not a proper test, because the value of property was different in different counties, but he did not think this objection of importance, because the value of property was always in proportion to the population. It had been found in large towns that a rating of 10l. was insufficient to secure the respectability of the parties keeping these houses, and therefore, he proposed to raise the rating, under those circumstances, to 15l. annually. He also proposed, as a further guarantee, that the person applying for a licence should be known to have occupied the premises for a certain time previous to applying for his licence. This, he thought, would prevent improper persons from applying for licences, and also prevent brewers from building houses for the purpose of selling beer by means of their agents. He should wish to prevent the too great facility of transferring licences; at the same time he would introduce a clause allowing the transfer of licences to the widow or the children without delay or hardship. He would also correct an error in the 7th clause, which had crept in, relative to the sale of beer on the premises. He trusted the House would permit the bill to go into committee, and would allow the bill to pass in its integrity. If the bill were not calculated to meet the wishes of every Member, it was calculated to remove many of the evils which were so much complained of. Looking to the question before the House—looking to the pecuniary interests involved on the one hand, and the highest interests of human nature on the other, he trusted the matter would be discussed with calmness and quietness, and that hon. Members would approach the subject with an anxious desire to correct the evils which now existed. The hon. Member concluded by moving the second reading of the bill.

Mr. Warburton

said, upon the last discussion of this subject he had told the hon. Member, that if the bill was made one of police, if it was to regulate beer-shops, it would meet with no opposition. If the hon. Member would defer the committee until after Easter, he would offer no opposition to the second reading of the bill. Every crime that was now committed was attributed to beer-houses. Why, crimes existed before beer-shops, and even Mr. Wright, who had been quoted, said, that criminals had made confessions, and before the beer-shops were opened, and then they attributed their folly to the associates they made in licensed houses. Mr. Wright attributed the incendiarism of 1829 and 1830 to the beer-shops, when the fact was, the Sale of Beer Act, did not come into operation till October, 1830. Crimes, he was prepared to prove, had not only not increased, but had actually decreased. It was boasted of, only a few nights ago, that the deposits in savings' banks had much increased. Was that a sign of greater drunkenness? So long as beer was made good it would be drunk. To prevent that, they must either make the beer much worse, or prevent its sale altogether. He had no doubt but the country would be more moral if the sale of all intoxicating liquors was prohibited. But were they able to do so? At all events let them not allow beer to be sold under one set of circumstances, and prevent a free trade. Under this bill the landlord would have the whole power of the licensing magistrates, and to that he should prefer the old system. Under the bill, a new house built on purpose for the trade could not be opened at all, and if a person disposed of his business in the beer trade, that house could not be opened by the buyer under one twelvemonth. Then, by the bill, the sellers of beer were to be much heavier taxed—the licence was to be raised from 3l. 3s. to 5l. 5s. If the committee were postponed till after Easter, he should not oppose the bill in that stage.

Mr. W. Duncombe

believed it was almost generally the opinion throughout the country, that beer-shops had much demoralized the people. In the county he had the honour to represent, at the Assizes, the Judge, the Grand Jury, and the Magistrates all said these shops were the fertile sources of crime. He had not the slightest wish to curtail the enjoyments of the people, on the contrary, he wished to elevate them in their moral state, and make them more happy.

Sir C. Burrell

said, in the country, beer shops were the resort of poachers and thieves, and in them many great crimes had been planned. When the Beer Act was before the House, it was said the poor would have the benefit of cheap and better beer. But was that the case—had not the whole trade fallen into the hands of the large brewers? He knew one brewer who had no less than sixty of these beer shops of his own.

Mr. Hume

was glad he had given way to the right hon. Gentleman, because his statements would be of importance in enabling the House to come to a proper decision. The House would not, however, take the statements of the hon. Gentleman opposite without some reservation, for it was well known that tens of thousands of the working classes, for whose accommodations these shops had been established, had stated that they now got much better and cheaper beer than formerly. He denied that there was any immorality or intemperance practised in these shops. The poor man could enjoy his beer in moderation, and perhaps in that respect set an example to persons of a higher rank; and he need not refer to club-houses and hells.—in proof of the immorality and intemperance prevailing in the higher classes. He was warranted in making that statement by what had occurred during the fair in Hyde Park after the Coronation, and the evidence there was, that there were more persons of the class of the hon. Gentleman, in point of rank and property, engaged in riot and drunkenness than of the lower classes. The hon. Member referred to the evidence of Col. Rowan and Mr. Mayne for the purpose of showing that drunkenness and crime had diminished in the metropolis and its neighbourhood, and that was ascribed to the increase of beer-houses and the diminished sale of spirits. It appeared also from the same evidence, that the number of convictions which had taken place were much greater in the case of public houses than in beer shops. Of every 100 persons who had been convicted for adulterating beer, ninety-three were publicans and seven the keepers of beer shops. He thought he had offered sufficient evi- dence to the House, to show that the assertions of the hon. Gentleman were not warranted by the fact.

Sir Edward Knatchbull

would rather reserve what he had to say until the bill went into Committee. He thought, however, that the hon. Gentleman whatever might be the cause, had taken up a very strong prejudice against the Licensed Victuallers. He thought the Government ought to take the question into its own hands, and introduce some general measures for the better regulation of both beer-houses and public houses. This would probably best please all classes. He thought the hon. Gentleman would have great difficulty in getting his bill passed.

Mr. Slaney

thought the hon. Member for Kilkenny was mistaken in his criminal statistics—the fact being, that crime instead of having diminished, as he had said, had fearfully increased. Thirty years ago the committals for crime in this country, were only 5,000, now they had swelled to 30,000, while the growth of the population had not been in anything like a corresponding ratio. He thought the beer-houses held out irresistible temptations to the poor and the lower classes, and tended towards general crime and demoralization. He must, therefore, support the bill of the hon. Member for Droitwich, and, whether the Government should take the measure into its own hands or not, the country would still be much indebted to him.

Mr. Aglionby

thought that the beer sellers should not be ridden over because they were poor. He concurred generally with Mr. Hume that a most unjust outcry had been raised against the beer sellers. Perhaps it would be better if the Government would introduce a measure for the regulation of all parties connected with the question. He would, however, at once agree to the second reading of the bill, but would most diligently watch it when it came before the Committee.

Mr. P. Howard

objected to that clause of the bill which proposed that the prices of licences should be raised. Licensing should not be raised, except in the case of a war, or some other great emergency. He could see no necessity for the bill. He would prefer to see the present system retained under the superintendence of an effective rural police.

Mr. R. T. Parker

read a statement which asserted, that about Manchester, many of the beer-houses were conducted as brothels, and the landlords were tried in great numbers for theft at every sessions in Salford. There were as many as 480 beer-house keepers tried in 1838. He trusted his hon. Friend would not allow the Government to take his bill out of his own hands.

Bill read a second time.

Back to