HC Deb 12 August 1842 vol 65 cc1306-19
Mr. T. Duncombe

said, he had taken the liberty of informing the Secretary of State for the Home Department that he intended to put a question to him relative to a correspondence he meant to move for between the Home Secretary and the mayor of Bridport, in reference to a supposed Chartist meeting, at which violent language was used, held on the 21st of July. The right hon. Gentleman had felt it his duty to inquire into the circumstances of the meeting, and on the 1st of August addressed the following letter to the mayor of Bridport, signed by Mr. Manners Sutton, requesting to be informed of the nature of the said meeting:

" Whitehall, August 1, 1842.

Sir—I am directed, by Secretary Sir James Graham to acquaint you that he has been informed of a Chartist meeting which was held in the Town-hall at Bridport, under the sanction of the town authorities, on the 21st July, and at which violent language was used. Sir James Graham requests that you will transmit to him a report on the subject, and inform him whether the statement, which has been made to him, is correct,

" I am sir, your obedient servant,


"The Mayor of Bridport."

To which the town clerk of Bridport returned the following reply:—

" Sir—In reply to the letter of the 1st instant addressed to the Mayor of Bridport, and requesting to be informed whether a statement made to you of a Chartist meeting having been held in the Town-hall at Bridport, under the sanction of the town authorities, on the 21st of July, at which violent language was used, is correct, 1 beg to state that the Mayor of Bridport has been absent from the borough from the 8th of July; that the Town-hall is held by the council of the borough as trustees, having received such trust from the former trustees under the 79th section of the Municipal Reform Act; that the council leave the control of the room to the discretion of the mayor for the time being; that, in the absence of the mayor, applications are made to me, as town-clerk, for the use of it; that on or about the 19th of July, a most respectable member of the Society of Friends) a member also of the town-council), applied to me for the use of the Town-hall, for one evening, for the Rev. Mr. Spencer. of Hinton Charter-house, Somerset, to deliver a lecture, the programme of which was announced by the accompanying hand-bill; that I immediately acceded to the request, and afterwards attended the lecture from beginning to end, and that the lecturer spoke throughout, in a spirit and temper becoming his sacred profession, most earnestly and impressively, and without even the slightest approach to violence of language or gesture. Indeed, the whole of the proceedings were perfectly decorous, and, as far as I heard, were once only interrupted, and then by some drunken person, who probably, if he had any opinion at all, differed in opinion from the Rev. lecturer. So unexceptionable was the language used by the lecturer, that, for his sake, I felt somewhat indignant, although by no means surprised, on reading in the Dorset County Chronicle, of the following week, a very scandalous and false statement on the subject; and I was not until then aware, that the assembly of some of the most respectable inhabitants of the town (female as well as male) to hear the lecture, was considered by any one to be a Chartist meeting, although I recollect that there was allusion made to what are called 'the points of the Charter.' I believe that a day or two previous to the 21st July, Mr. Spencer had much gratified by his speeches those who attended in the same hall, on one evening, a Bible Society meeting, and on another evening, a meeting of Teetotallers, and this probably induced a larger attendance to hear a lecture on the interesting subject of 'free-trade, and how to get it." The town-hall is and has been used for a variety of purposes, such as the petty sessions of the county and borough magistrates, Dorcas societies, lying-in societies, Bible societies, teetotal meetings, conjurers, Protestant associations to abuse and vilify Catholics and Dissenters, Catholics to vindicate themselves and their doctrines, bazaars, Independents, Baptists, Wesleyan Methodists, and even Unitarians; tea meetings, Church, and other missionary societies, teachers of the art of boxing, vocal and instrumental performers, societies for aiding shipwrecked seamen, meetings of commissioners of turnpikes and other commissioners, Anti-Corn-law lectures, Pro-Corn-law lectures (if required), agricultural and political dinners, &c. &c.

"Those persons who are understood to make a direct profit by their exhibitions, and by the use of the Town-hall, pay a moderate sum to the trustees; but those who instruct the people in political and other interesting sciences, are admitted to its use gratuitously, but I apprehend that no person would be permitted to use it whose opinions promulgated there would be likely 'to inflame the minds of the people,' or endanger the Queen's peace. With all these advantages the working classes of Bridport are, as might reasonably be expected (and I can speak from long experience, having lived among them for upwards of thirty years), a very peaceably-disposed and loyal community. I have the honour to be, Sir, Your most obedient servant, E. NICHOLETTS, Town Clerk of Bridport. Bridport, Aug. 3, 1842. To her Majesty's principal Secretary of State, Home Department, Whitehall.

He (Mr. Duncombe) was anxious to obtain this information and this correspondence, because it was rather consistent with that disposition he regretted to see in the present Government to interfere with the rights of public discussion. He wished to know on what authority the right hon. Baronet had made his inquiry, and who was his informer; whether it was the constituted authorities of the town, or one of those wretches he was sorry to see employed—a description of spy. Even if the points of the Charter were advocated, he did not see that this could justify the interference of the Secretary of State. He moved that copies of the correspondence between the Home Secretary and the mayor of Bridport, in reference to this subject, be laid on the Table.

Sir James Graham

considered it his duty to give his most decided opposition to this motion. The hon. Gentleman had told him that he intended to put a question to him with respect to the correspondence, of which he had read a portion, between the Home Office and the mayor of Bridport, but he had given no notice of any motion for the production of copies of that correspondence. The hon. Gentleman had thought fit to insinuate—hardly to insinuate—for the hon. Member was bold enough to assert, that he had obtained his information through means of a spy. He absolutely and distinctly denied the imputation that a spy had been employed by him or any other member of her Majesty's Government in any part of the United Kingdom. It was a system which he unequivocally disclaimed; he believed that it was dangerous in the extreme; that those who employed spies were usually deceived by them, and that a Government honestly bent on putting down turbulence and disorder, only promoted those evils by the employment of spies. On the other hand, he held himself responsible for the maintenance of peace and good order. It was in consequence of a communication which he received from respectable inhabitants of the town of Bridport, clearly and distinctly complaining to him as Secretary of State of the language used at the meeting in the Town-hall, that he applied to the mayor. On receiving that information, what course did he take? Did he take an underhand course? The moment he received the information he wrote a letter to the mayor, and asked him was it true that a Chartist meeting had been held in the Town-hall of Bridport, at which violent language was used? It. was reported to him that this passage occurred in the lecture of the rev. gentleman; it was this passage that Made him put the question to the mayor. It was reported to him that the rev. gentleman said:— The Government is corrupt in the extreme, and it could not exist if it had not men base enough to list as soldiers, to be appointed policemen, and to sit in the jury-box to find their fellow-creatures guilty. Such a reference to the Government of the country and the trial by jury, without any strained construction of the language, seemed to him to be dangerous in the extreme, and it was, therefore, he asked the mayor whether it was true that a Chartist meeting in the Town-hall, where violent language had been used, had received the sanction of the town authorities? To that question, he received the answer, part of which the hon. Gentleman had read. He was disposed to think, from the vast variety of subjects discussed in the Town-hall, that it must add much to the spread of knowledge, and inasmuch as the town-clerk had given him a positive assurance that the Town-hall would not be given to any person whose opinions, if promulgated, would be likely to inflame the minds or disturb the peace of the Queen's subjects, lie allowed the subject to rest there. Having received from the authorities of Bridport such an assurance as that, he was bound to believe that the information contained in the private letter from Brid- port was untrue, and that it was impossible that the town-clerk could give such an assurance if any such language had been used as he had just read. After that general and solemn assurance, he did not think it necessary to carry the matter further. He had recently proved by his conduct that he was by no means indisposed to favour municipal government, and that he believed it to possess great advantages for preserving the public peace, but to do this the municipal authority ought not to be abused. He thought that the Government was entitled to receive from those authorities every assistance in the maintenance of peace and order, and he could not conceive that lie overstepped the line of his duty, if, on being informed that any proceeding had occurred in any municipality contrary to the peace, order, and good government of society, while he by all means disclaimed the use of spies, he, on the part of the Executive Government, appealed to the municipal authorities, stated the information he had received, and asked for an explanation. For such an explanation lie had asked on the present occasion. He had willingly given this full and frank statement. In the present state of the country it was desirable that such information should be given, and he was bound to state that the good effects of it had been recently proved. It was undoubtedly true, that in Manchester and its neighbourhood some serious disturbances had lately arisen from a quarrel between the masters and workmen with respect to the rate of wages. He had been in daily communication with the magistrates of Manchester, and he could state, that all the master manufacturers, without distinction of party, had assembled, and used the utmost exertions to maintain property and peace in that community. He had derived the utmost ad- vantage from having a facility of communication with the constituted authorities in that neighbourhood. He was bound to say, that so far as the execution of his duty went, he would endeavour to uphold the constituted authorities, but at the same time he should expect from them zealous co-operation in the maintenance of law, peace, and good government. He was thankful to the hon. Gentleman for having afforded him an opportunity of stating the grounds of the country. which he meant to pursue with respect to the municipal authorities on the one hand, and the assistance which he considered the Government entitled to expect from them on the other hand.

Mr. Hawes

now for the first time heard a Secretary of State avow, that it was his intention to superintend public meetings in this country, to write to the constituted authorities for reports of them, to decide himself whether the language was violent or not, and to require from the municipal bodies assurances that the town-halls should not be lent for purposes of which he disapproved. Why then had the right hon. Gentleman stated, that, if he had not received that assurance, he would have followed the matter up? He was certain, that the municipal bodies were not to be controlled by a Secretary of State, who had told the constables throughout the country, that they were to be the sole judges whether a meeting was lawful or not. Was the peace broken at Bridport? There was certainly a discussion on free-trade and the Corn-laws; but could that make the meeting illegal? He did not believe, that there was any precedent to be found for the course taken by the right hon. Baronet, except perhaps in cases of the highest exercise of prerogative. He hoped, that the people would meet and discuss their grievances till their meetings and discussions should force the Goverment to satisfy their demands. The legislation of the present Session had not satisfied the people of this country, and they were now told that their discussions were to be watched over by a Secretary who once boasted of his Whig principles. He owned he was astonished at the doctrines of the right hon. Baronet. The right hon. Baronet might seek to put down public discussions, but he would find the firmness and love of liberty on the part of the people too strong for him.

Sir J. Graham

said, the hon. Gentleman reminded him of his Whig principles. He wanted to know how long existed the connection between Whig principles and Chartism. Other Whigs might answer the question, but for himself he must say non hœc in fœdera veni. As far as he knew Whig principles, there was every desire on the part of genuine Whigs to sanction the legitimate exercise of the right of presenting petitions; but he had yet to learn that it was consistent with Whig principles to state that it was base on the part of the community to enlist as soldiery, to act as policemen, or to sit in the jury box. If those were the Whig principles for which Gentlemen on the other side contended, it was better that men of property and station might understand them, and that there should be no mistake with respect to the principles which divided the two sides of the House. He totally denied any interference with the exercise of the right of petition, but no expression of the hon. Gentleman, however taunting, could deter him from endeavouring to prevent a breach of the peace.

Mr. Hawes

explained. He had not said one word about Whig principles in connection with the words alleged to have been used by Mr. Spenser, and the right hon. Gentleman must have known that full well. The principles which the right hon. Gentleman was now propounding were not Whig principles, and it was odd, that while he was asserting his right to Whig principles he was sitting among the Tories.

Mr. Hume

was glad to hear the statement of the right hon. Baronet with respect to the employment of spies; it. was very important that the public mind should be disabused on that subject. He had received a letter from Bridport on the subject of the meeting, from which it appeared that the words in question were directed against the spy system. The object of the speech was to denounce any person who either as a policeman, a juryman, or in any other character, would lend his aid to prevent free discussion. He would take that opportunity of putting a question to the right hon. Baronet on a subject of very great importance, referring, as it did, to the present state of Manchester. He wished to know whether he would have any objection to lay on the Table of the House a copy of the correspondence which had passed between the officer in command of the military in Lancashire and the Home Office, in reference to the maintenance of the peace. The town of Manchester was now in a state of civil war. What did it arise from? Nominally from a quarrel between the masters and their workmen with respect to wages; but in point of fact, it arose from the want of employment, which might be provided by proper and honest legislation. It appeared to him that her Majesty's Ministers were about to dismiss Parliament at a time when the country was in a most dangerous condition. He would beg leave when the present motion was disposed of, to move for a copy of the correspondence to which he had referred.

Mr. C. Buller

said, he rose partly for the purpose of expressing his regret at the hasty manner in which he had expressed himself on the subject of Exchequer-bills on a former evening. His warmth arose from his being brought. in contact with persons who had suffered greatly from what had taken place. All he wanted was, that the right hon. Gentleman should take into his consideration the great suffering which had been borne by the holders of these bills, not only from the loss of their property, but from the locking up of their capital for a period of eighteen months, the total suspension of large commercial operations, and occasionally from imputations upon their character. He wished to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it was the intention of the Government to make their measure on this subject one of the first measures of the next Session.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

felt obliged to the hon. and learned Member for the manner in which he had brought the subject forward, and, with the permission of the House, he would now state the precise situation in which the question stood. At the commencement of the present Session, a commission was appointed to inquire into what the real state of the transaction was with respect to Exchequer bills. The House thought it necessary the subject should be examined into by persons of impartiality, but at that time it was distinctly understood that those commissioners were not to pronounce any opinion on the question of compensation; that was to be reserved for the future deliberation of Parliament and the Government. He regretted extremely, that from causes that could not be controlled, that report had been presented at so late a period of the Session as to make it impossible for Parliament to decide upon the question of the extent of the compensation to the different classes. He should have been happy, if time had been allowed for the consideration of the subject, for he felt deeply for the distresses of those individuals, not only on account of their losses but from their being supposed to be implicated in fraudulent transactions. He thought many of the cases of the claimants were entitled to the favourable consideration of Parliament, and he had no wish to avail himself of technical objections. In conclusion, he could assure the hon. and learned Gentleman, that if he remained in the office he now held till the next Session, one of the first measures that would he proposed would be one on the subject of the claims of these parties.

Sir Thomas Wilde

begged to express dissent from the doctrines laid down by the right hon, Baronet. What, he would ask, was the difference between free and a despotic government—what distinguished the present times from the worst days of the Stuarts. Was it not that the people conceived they had the power f expressing their opinions, either verbally at public meetings, or by writings—they being responsible for what. they might do and say? He did not believe that the principles which were to be deduced from the expressions of the right hon. Baronet were those which the right hon. Baronet really entertained, nor would he believe them to be so until he saw the right hon. Gentleman act upon them. He did not complain of the act done by the right hon. Baronet in the present instance.. It was an act perfectly consistent with free Government and no just complaint could be founded upon it. He thought it was the duty of the right hon. Gentleman to make inquiry into the subject of the meeting that had been adverted to; but the principle that had been avowed by the right hon. Baronet would put an end to the expression of public feeling altogether. Were the paramount party in that House of opinion that the controlling power should not permit these meetings to take place? That supervision the right lion. Baronet avowed indicated a dangerous opinion in the Government as regarded the public liberty. Were the majority of that House—a majority enabling the Ministry to pass measures at their discretion—of opinion that in these times of distress meetings should not be permitted to be held at which were discussed topics calculated to inflame the public mind? Why, could the distress that existed be made a topic of discussion without inflaming the public mind. Who was to define what was calculated to inflame the minds of the people? Were public meetings to be confined to one side? Or, he would ask, could the people be prevented from meeting? No, they could not; and, if not, where was the most fitting and the safest place for them to meet? Was it not in a municipal building, under the eye of the authorities? Or did the Government desire to drive the people to the fields and open spaces, there to assemble in greater masses than could be contained in a public building? Was it better that meetings should be held in Spa-fields than in Guildhall? A more dangerous doctrine could not be promulgated than that public meetings should be prevented on the ground that the opinions there expressed were calculated to inflame the public mind. He repeated, he, was not complaining of the act of the right hon. Baronet, but, dissenting from his sentiments—sentiments which might lead to most dangerous consequences—but sentiments which at the same time he acquitted the right hon. Baronet of really entertaining. If, however, the right hon. Baronet should ever act upon the principles implied by his expressions, he (Sir T. Wilde) trusted that such conduct would be visited by the unanimous reprobation of that House.

Mr. Mark Philips

assured the right hon. Baronet, that there was every disposition on the part of the municipal authorities at Manchester to support the law with firmness and humanity, and that the manufacturers as a body would cooperate in that object. At the same time he urged Parliament not to separate under the impression that the distress that prevailed and the evils which it had brought about were mere passing events. He implored the Government to give to the evils prevailing in the manufacturing districts their most earnest and solemn consideration. They were evils that threatened to disorganise society, and to spread themselves wider and wider, until they involved the whole country in one common ruin and one common downfall.

Mr. Cobden

said, that because he had prophesied the occurrence of the evils that now existed, he had been accused of being the cause of them. He asked the House to consider the position in which the manufacturers stood. Who were more liable than they to the destruction of their property? Children had been instructed to destroy the spinning machines with knitting needles, and a box of lucifers could destroy the greatest amount of manufacturing capital. Could the right hon. Baronet hold out no hope? Had he nothing to say? He would tell the Government there was dagger of dire confusion. At present he did not believe there was a settled purpose in the minds of the people, and confusion was the most fitting term to apply to the state they were in. He believed there was less danger from Manchester than from other places, but with regard to even that town he exhorted the right hon. Baronet not to bring in the Yeomanry Cavalry but particularly the Cheshire Yeomanry, against whom the people entertained strong feelings of dislike, in consequence of what occurred in 1819. The people did not entertain any hostility against the regular troops, and Colonel Wemyss was very popular. He heard that the Mayor of Stockport had sent for troops, but he hoped that the regular troops would be employed.

Mr. Hamilton

rose to point out to the House, that the report of the committee on the western coast of Africa (delivered that morning) was inaccurate, and required to be reprinted.

Mr. Ward

rose to order. The motion of his hon. Friend was before the House, and was not yet disposed of. He hoped the right hon. Baronet would give some answer—some assurance, which would produce the moral effect alluded to by the hon. Member for Stockport. He trusted that some safety-valve would be opened which would give employment to the people. The inquiries of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department into the conduct of the municipal authorities would do little. If an opening to the proper expression of the people was refused, the people would be thrown into the hands of secret agitators. He urged the right hon. Gentleman to be cautious in the present state of the country. All his prudence and all his powers would be put to a severe trial, and he wished the right hon. Gentleman well through the ordeal. But he knew that an assurance from the right hon. Baronet that something would be done, would do more to pacify the country than any military strength which might be brought together.

Sir R. Peel:

I was happy to hear some hon. Gentlemen deprecate the use of exciting language under the present circumstances of the country, and I wish others would follow the same example; but it is well known that whilst the people have borne their ills with unexampled forbearance, studious attempts have been made to inflame them to a contrary course. [Au hon. Member: By whom?]. By whom; The hon. Gentleman cannot have read the proceedings at the public meetings which have taken place for some time past without seeing that it was so. [Mr. Cobden: The people were remarkably quiet.] I know they were. I know they were remarkably quiet, and they would have continued to be so, seeing that there was every disposition on the part of the Government to do all in its power to alleviate the present distress. They would continue to be so, but for the studious efforts which have been made to excite them. To their credit be it spoken, the people were remarkably quiet—they were in no degree to blame—but there were others who indulged in the use of language calculated to lead to a contrary result. It remains yet to be seen whether they may tint have reason to repent of having adopted such a course. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Cobden) calls upon me to say something which may hold out hopes to the country, and produce the effect of leading to a greater demand for present employment. If I have a distrust of being able, by legislative means, to do any thing which wits lead to a greater extension of permanent employment, such as would alleviate the existing distress, I hold it to be my duty to abstain from encouraging hopes which it is not in my power, nor in the power of the Legislature, to realize. You assume that we have the power, but I, acting upon the best judgment which I can form, and giving the subject the fullest consideration, entertain strong doubts as to the efficacy of the measures which you recommend; and I therefore think that great caution and discretion should be used before resorting to expedients which would only produce some temporary effect. I do not think it wise to create a factitious demand for labour by making promises, and holding out hopes, which would after-wards prove delusive. If I adopted the remedy upon which the hon. Member for Stockport so confidently relied, and if this remedy should, as I conceive it would, prove ultimately to be a failure, should I not be justly liable to the charge of having held out hopes which proved delusive? Why, who would be the first to bring the charge of holding out delusive hopes against me? Would it not be the hon. Member for Stockport himself, and those by whom he is surrounded? If the evils under which the country suffers are to be remedied, as they aver, by the removal of restrictions, have I not done more to that end during the present Session than any other Administration has effected for many years? [Loud cheering.] Ay, ten times more than any other Administration. If too great a pressure on the springs of industry and too close a system of commercial restriction have been the cause of the distress, more has been done at my instance and through toy instrumentality to remove this cause than has been done by any preceding Administration. The hon. Member for Montrose has more than once admitted this in the course of the Session. You say, that in adopting the principles, I should have gone much further; but I say I have done more than any of my predecessors. I was accused as the cause of the rise in the price of corn, but now that it has fallen you will give me no credit fin it. It has fallen, notwithstanding your predictions to the contrary; and let me ask, is there no hope of a progressive fall in the course of a few months According to your own doctrines this prospect holds out a source of relief—holds out a prospect of increased employment; and is it not better to give the present law a fair trial, seeing that it has already been, to a certain extent, successful, rather than that I, by vague assurances, should excite hopes which may never be realised? On the whole, it is my belief that the promises which I held out in consequence of the alterations which have been made in the law will be ultimately fulfilled, and that the 3 per cent. upon income which was required for the relief of the necessities of the State, and to equalize the income with the expenditure, will be fully made up by the provisions of the late tariff. I wish not to be misunderstood or be supposed to state that the tariff will make up the amount upon any one particular article. It will not make it tip upon meat or bread alone, but its combined operation as respects the whole of the articles will produce a reduction in the cost of living equal to the amount of the tax. The measures which I have introduced will produce more benefit to the shipping trade than any which have been passed for the last fifty years, I admit that there are modes by which a temporary prosperity might be created. might create a temporary prosperity by the issue of 1l. notes, and by encouraging the Bank to make large issues of paper; but such a prosperity would be wholly delusive. It is much wiser, in my opinion, to abstain from the application of any temporary stimulus.