HC Deb 04 August 1842 vol 65 cc1054-9
Mr. T. Duncombe

said, it was with extreme regret that he felt himself compelled to call the attention of the House once more to the imprisonment of Mr. Mason and several working men now confined in Stafford gaol, but having undertaken the cause of these ill-used individuals, he should ill discharge his duty either to them or to the public, if he allowed the Session to close without directing the attention of the Government to the important. question involved in their case; fur he must maintain, that as long as those men remained in prison, so long would the rights of the subjects of this country to hold public meetings be in abeyance. Having entered very fully on a former occasion into the particulars of the case, he would not trouble the House by a repetition of them. But the doctrines which had recently been laid down by the right hon. Baronet the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and which he was sorry to think had met with the sanction of a large majority of the House, were of the most dangerous description. According to that doctrine, a constable was invested with the power of deciding upon the legality or illegality of any public meeting of the people; and that such constable, upon his own responsibility, could dissolve any such meeting, if, in his opinion, any speaker used language which he considered seditious. The meeting held at Sedgeley, where Mason was interrupted by Beman, the constable, was perfectly legal, and if death had happened to Mason, by being dragged off the bench, nothing could have saved Beman from being tried for murder. If the language used by Mason at that meeting was seditious, and was sufficient to justify the constable to interfere and disperse the assembly, why did not the police break in and disperse other bodies of men, at whose meeting language infinitely stronger than any that Mason used were daily to be heard? Why not break in and disperse the meeting of the delegates of the Anti-Corn-law League, which was held daily within a stone's throw of the House of Commons? The doctrine put forth by the right hon. Baronet was similar to that held by the magistrates, and the presiding justice at the trial of Mason and others, in his summing- up to the jury, and was wholly irreconcileable with the spirit of the British Constitution. After such an address, he (Mr. Thomas Duncombe) could not blame the jury for the verdict they returned. The whole question resolved itself into this — what was the power of the constables? The consequence of the interference of Beman was, that the meeting was dispersed, and these men were committed to prison—Mason for six months, some for four months, and others for two months. Mason was a man of respectable station, and a lecturer; but the others were working men, with large families. Much to the credit of the people of Sedgely and Stafford, they, without distinction of party politics, being impressed with the hardship of the imprisonment of these men, had raised a subscription to maintain their families. This showed that the public were by no means impressed with the belief that these persons were justly punished, and that the feeling of the people was hostile to the magistrates. Under these circumstances, he had a right to call upon the House to interfere, and express some opinion upon the subject. He might be told, that this was an interference with the prerogative of the Crown. That was the old story. Anything that was at all inconvenient or unpleasant to the Minister of the day, was always called an interference with the prerogative of the Crown. But it was the duty of the House of Commons to advise the Crown upon every subject, and more particularly upon a subject affecting the rights and liberties of the people. No public meeting could be held during the ensuing winter—when, from the extreme distress which prevailed, it might be expected that the people would assemble together to discuss the cause of their sufferings—if the doctrines of the right hon. Baronet, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, of Mr. Wemlow the magistrate, of Beman the constable, of Mallelieu the inspector, and of Mr. Jeremy, the police-magistrate, were correct. Without troubling the House further, he would merely say, that if the right hon. Baronet would give an assurance that the cases of these men should be taken into consideration, he should be happy to leave it in his hands; but if no promise were given that this case would meet with the merciful consideration of the Crown, he should only be discharging his duty in asking the House to agree to the address which he was about to propose. The Session was about to close, during which they had done many acts of great injustice towards the people: he now wished, before they separated, to give them the opportunity of doing one act of grace; and they could not do a better act of grace than to address the Crown for the release of these men from prison—men whose incarceration had been effected by an immense straining of the existing law. Under these circumstances, he begged leave to move, that an humble address be presented to her Majesty, praying that her Majesty will be graciously pleased to take into her Majesty's merciful consideration the case of John Mason and seven working men, confined in Stafford gaol, with a view to their immediate discharge.

Sir James Graham

expressed his regret that the hon. Gentleman should have considered it necessary again to bring this particular subject under the notice of the House, more especially in the form in which he had now presented it, because he (Sir J. Graham) would be very sorry to sanction any course which might interfere with the impartial administration of the law. This was the third occasion upon which it had been his duty to resist motions made by the hon. Gentleman upon subjects of this description. On the first occasion he (Sir J. Graham) contended that the object of the hon. Gentleman was to make the House of Commons a court of appeal from the ordinary courts of judicature. The hon. Gentleman himself admitted that he meant to impugn the conduct of the magistrate who authorised the prosecution, and he also impugned the summing-up of the presiding magistrate at the trial. This was a distinct admission that he did seek to make the House a court of appeal from the courts of legal jurisdiction of the country. He would not deny that in extreme cases, where malversation of the judge might be alleged, it was competent for the House of Commons, in the exercise of its highest functions, to interfere; but he could not discover that upon this occasion the hon. Gentleman had the slightest ground to impugn the motives or the conduct of the magistrate or the presiding judge. The hon. Gentleman had said that if death had ensued by the interference of Beman, the constable at Sedgeley, he (Bemen) would have been guilty of murder. But that was a begging of the whole question; because, if the meeting were illegal and death had ensued, it would have been justifiable homicide. The only question hinged upon this point—whether the meeting was legal or not. Upon that question there was the verdict of the jury and the summing up of the chairman, who was a barrister of many years" standing—. a man conversant with criminal trials—of unimpeachable character, of great experience, and who had presided at the sessions. of the county of Stafford for ten or eleven years. The strong presumption, therefore, was in favour of the verdict of the jury, and of the correct summing-up of the judge. He did not think this was a case in which the House would act wisely in converting itself' into an appellate tribunal upon the criminal laws of the country. The Executive Government, in advising Bit, Crown to administer justice in mercy, must have regard to the circumstances of each case. In the case of Mr. Mason, who, as the hon. Member had said was not a working man, but a hired and paid lecturer, he (Sir J. Graham) had heard statements which very much impressed his mind. That person had gone into Staffordshire among a people who were in a state of considerable excitement, where there were large bodies of men out of employment; some from conduct of their own, which he (Sir. T, Graham) could not justify; and others under circumstances more to be regarded with compassion than to be visited with severity; and there among these persons this Mr. Mason had, to say the least, used very indiscreet language, such as was calculated to exasperate rather than appease the people. He considered that persons se acting were deserving of great censure He (Sir James Graham) could not compromise the unfettered discretion of the Government under these circumstances, and he hoped the majority of the House would support him in resisting the motion.

Mr. Hawes

thought, under the circumstances, this case was one which it would well become the right hon. Baronet opposite, and his Colleagues, to bring under the merciful consideration of the Crown. He did not approve all that had been said by Mason, but he thought the fact of his being a paid lecturer ought not to excite a prejudice against him. He considered that the constable who seized Mason had interfered very improperly at the meeting. He had frequently attended similar meetings, and he would, when he considered it his duty, attend such meetings in future. He hoped the people would not be deterred by what had occurred, with reference to this case, from attending public meetings, and freely expressing their opinions, even though they might do so in somewhat strong language. Indeed, the exercise of this right constituted one of the safeguards of the liberties of the people. It was something new to be told that such meetings were unlawful; and he was still more surprised that it should be stated, on high authority, that constables were to be constituted the judges of their legality or illegality. He was convinced that all moderate men entertained strong objections to the interference of the police at meetings of the people, without just and sufficient cause; and he had been greatly surprised that such a doctrine should be held by a Minister of the Crown, as that which had been advanced by the right hon. Gentleman opposite.

Mr. R. Yorke

would in that House, in his capacity of a Member of Parliament, adopt the very words used by these men, and he would repeat them at the first public meeting he attended. As he understood the case, the magistrates hail proposed a compromise to these men; the magistrates had sent to them the night before the trial, and bad proposed that if they would plead guilty, they should either have no punishment or a very slight one. This ease seemed to him, in a constitutional point of view" to he of a very grave complexion; it could not be too often brought forward, and he trusted that the hon. Member for Finsbury would persevere in his motion, and take the sense of the House upon it.

Mr. Brotherton

recommended his hon. Friend not to press the motion to a division, for he thought. the right hon. Gentleman must be convinced that something should be done, and he would rather trust to the right lion. Gentleman's consideration of the case than to any expression of opinion by a division.

Mr. T. S. Duncombe

hoped, after all that had been said, that there would be no objection to his motion, and that the House would assent to it, more particularly as he had heard nothing from the right lion. Gentleman opposite to induce him to withdraw it. The right hon. Baronet admitted, that it was the privilege of the House to express an opinion, although the House ought not to interfere on light grounds. He (Mr. Duncombe) said, that this was no light matter when working men with from two to eight children were deprived of their liberty unjustly. He said, that they had not violated any law; the Government did not say, that they had violated any, and it was evident, that the magistrates thought they had not, otherwise they would not have offered a compromise The men refused the offer; they would not in their persons compromise the right of the people to meet and discuss their grievances. He regretted to find, that since he had noticed this case, the treatment of the prisoners was more severe—that they were now forbidden to see their friends, and that notice was even sent to Mason that he should not see his wife. This made him think, that these proceedings were instituted by the magistrates of Staffordshire for party purposes, He knew that his noticing the case in the House, or that anything he might do would not injure the case of these men with the right hon. Baronet. He was in the hands of the House, but it should be by no consent of his that these honest men continued one moment longer in prison.

The House divided.—Ayes 30; Noes 53: Majority 23.

List of the AYES.
Aglionby, H. A. O'Connell, D.
Barclay, D. O'Conor, Don.
Bowring, Dr. Pechell, Capt.
Brotherton, J. Philips, M.
Buller, C. Scholefield, J.
Cave, hon. R. 0. Scott, R.
Cobden, R. Smith, B.
Dalmeny, Lord Tufnell, H.
Duncan, G. Turner, E.
Ebrington, Visct. Villiers, hon. C.
Gibson, T. M. Ward, H. G.
Gill, T. Wood, B.
Heathcoat, J. Yorke, H. R.
Hill, Lord M.
Humphery, Mr. Ald, Duncombe, T
Mangles, R. D, Hawes, B.
List of the NOES.
A'Court, Capt. Hamilton, Lord C.
Arkwright, G. Hardinge, rt. hn. Sir H.
Baird, W. Henley, J. W.
Baldwin, B. Hodgson, R.
Baring, hon. W. B. Hogg, J. W.
Bateson, R. Hope, hon. C.
Boldero, H. G. Howard, P. H.
Borthwick, P. Jermyn, Earl
Botfield, B. Knatchbull, rt. hn. Sir E
Cockburn, rt. hn. Sir G. Langston, J. H.
Collett, W. R. Lockhart, W.
Cripps, W. Lygon, hon. Gen.
Dick, Q. Masterman, J.
Eliot, Lord Nicholl, right hon. J.
Flower, Sir J. Palmer, R.
Fuller, A. E. Peel, right hon. Sir R.
Gaskell, J. Milnes Polhill, F.
Gladstone, rt. hn. W. E. Pollock, Sir F.
Gordon, hon. Capt. Praed, W. T.
Gore, M. Round, J.
Goulburn, rt. hon. H. Sanderson, R.
Graham, rt. hn. Sir J. Sutton, hon. H. M.
Greene, T. Taylor, T. E.
Thompson, Ald. Wilmot, sir J. E.
Tollemache, hn. F. J. Young, J
Trench, sir F. W. TELLERS.
Verner, col. Fremantle, T
Vivian, J. E. Pringle, R.