HC Deb 13 March 1843 vol 67 cc750-4

On the Order of the Day being read, for the House to resolve itself into a committee of Ways and Means,

Mr. Milner Gibson

said, he wished to put a question to the right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir J. Graham) with respect to certain proceedings which had taken place at the recent Chartist trials at Lancaster. Any one who had read the evidence adduced on those trials must have perceived that numerous attempts were made to drag in the names of parties who had taken an active part in opposition to the Corn-laws, and who had supported the Anti-Corn-law League. Endeavours were made to excite an impression, that these parties were the originators of those disturbances which took place a few months since in the manufacturing districts; but the attempts failed most completely and signally. The attempts to which he referred were of such a remarkable character, that they elicited an observation from the learned judge, who said— I have not been able to understand what the introduction, which has been made several times, of the names of parties connected with the Anti-Corn-law League, and of other parties, can have to do with the present question. A similar feeling was entertained by a great number of persons who were present during the trial; they felt that an attempt was made to inculpate parties who, not being before the court, did not possess the means of refuting the accusation. One of the witnesses who gave evidence of this nature was a person named James Wilcox, who was called for the prosecution by the Attorney-general, and upon his cross-examination by Mr. Feargus O'Connor, an attempt was made to draw statements from him.

Mr. B. Escott

wished to know whether the hon. Member for Manchester was in order in thus introducing a question arising upon a trial which took place in a distant part of the country?

The Speaker

The hon. Member for Manchester is in order, there being now a question before the House.

Mr. Milner Gibson

continued:—The Attorney-general called as a witness for the prosecution a person named James Wilcox, who stated as it appeared to him from a perusal of the trial, some very unimportant facts, but in the cross-examination of this witness by Mr. Feargus O'Connor, an attempt was made to draw from him statements calculated to inculpate the Anti-Corn-law League. This witness stated in the course of his examination, that previously to the trial he had been in correspondence with the right hon. Baronet the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and he (Mr. Gibson), wished to ask that right hon. Gentleman whether he would object to lay on the Table of the House any letlers or correspondence which had passed between himself and Mr. James Wilcox. Although he had no doubt, that all the proceedings connected with the recent trials had been perfectly regular, he must confess he regarded it as extraordinary, that the right hon. Baronet (Sir James Graham), who was subpoenaed by Mr. Feargus O'Connor as a witness for the defence, should have been allowed to leave Lancaster on condition that Mr. James Wilcox, a witness for the prosecution, should be called in his stead. He thought it strange that one of the defendants should substitute a witness for the prosecution for a person whom he had subpoenaed in his own defence. He had derived the information which he possessed on this subject from reading the reports of the trial in the newspapers, and if he had misstated any fact he hoped that some hon. Member would correct him. He had no doubt the proceedings had been quite regular; but he wished to know whether the right hon. Baronet would object to the production of the whole correspondence on the subject?

Sir J. Graham

would endeavour to an- swer the question of the hon. Member as far as the circumstances to which he had referred came within his own knowledge. He had been informed just before he came down to the House that the hon. Member for Manchester intended to put a question to him as to his correspondence with a person named Wilcox. He did not remember ever to have heard the name of that person until he was present in the Court-house, at Lancaster, upon a subpoena which he received from one of the defendants, in the recent trial, when the Attorney-general informed him that his presence was no longer necessary, as an arrangement had been made that a person of the name of Wilcox should be called in his place. His hon. and learned Friend (the Attorney-general) would state the circumstances which led to that arrangement. Until the name of James Wilcox was mentioned on that occasion, he (Sir J. Graham) was not aware that he had ever heard of that person, but it was now stated that in the course of the last autumn this individual addressed a letter to him. He (Sir J. Graham) had searched the public records of his office, as well as his private correspondence, and he could discover no trace of the receipt of any such letter, or of any answer having been returned. He could assure the hon. Member that, not only could he find no trace of such correspondence, but that he had not the slightest recollection of the receipt of any letter from a person of the name of Wilcox. At the time of the outbreak he received very numerous communications by letter from the disturbed districts, but he was in the habit of sending all letters bearing upon the transactions to the solicitor who was employed by the Government to institute prosecutions. He had not had an opportunity of communicating with that officer since the hon. Member for Manchester intimated his intention of proposing this question; but he would apply to him, and perhaps he might possess some knowledge of the letter referred to.

The Attorney-general

said, as the hon. Member opposite had expressed surprise that a witness for the prosecution should have been accepted by one of the defendants in the place of the right hon. Gentleman, it might be satisfactory for him to state to the House the circumstances under which the arrangement was made. The right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Graham) was subpoenaed by one of the defendants to attend at Lancaster, and he accordingly proceeded there, although his absence from town was attended with great incon- venience to the public service. Some communication took place between him (the Attorney-general) and the hon. Member for Sutherlandshire (Mr. D. Dundas), who appeared for one of the prisoners; and he was informed that as the presence of the right hon. Baronet was required in London, it was intended by the defendant to call in his place a person named Wilcox, who, it was supposed, was in attendance as a witness for the prosecution. A communication was made to him (the Attorney-general) that if it was intended to call Wilcox, Mr. Feargus O'Connor was willing that the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Graham) should return to London, as he expected to get from Wilcox all the information he wished to obtain from the right hon. Baronet. His (the Attorney-general's) intention was, from a regard to the interests of the country, to have examined Wilcox, irrespective of any such arrangement as that to which he had alluded. The hon. and learned Member for Sutherlandshire also conceived that the further attendance of the right hon. Baronet would be unnecessary; and he (the Attorney-general), therefore, publicly informed the learned judge of this arrangement. He could not recollect, at this moment, for what precise object Wilcox was called on behalf of the prosecution; but he did remember that his evidence was necessary for the identification of some of the defendants with certain transactions which occurred during the outbreak in Lancashire. Wilcox was examined for the prosecution, and he was then cross-examined by Mr. O'Connor with reference altogether to certain communications made by him to the Home Department. He had objected at the time to this line of examination, stating that although he did not wish to place Mr. O'Connor in a worse position than he would have been in had his right hon. Friend (Sir J. Graham) been examined, he must put it to the Court whether, if that right hon. Gentleman had been under examination, he could have been called upon to produce the communications to which reference was made; and the learned judge decided that if those communications were made to the right hon. Gentleman in his official capacity, he could not be required to produce them. He could assure the House that, throughout the proceedings, he had objected to all questions which could tend to inculpate parties who were not before the Court. Any hon. Member who had read the proceedings attentively, must have observed that he (the Attorney-general) had, while he endeavoured to bring distinctly before the Court the proceedings of the defendants of which he complained, cautiously and religiously prevented, as far as he could, the utterance of any reflection upon absent persons, and the moment an attempt was made to elicit evidence reflecting on absent persons, with regard to whom such evidence would have been a calumny, he interposed all the authority which he possessed in order to confine the investigation to the single judicial purpose for which it was instituted.

Mr. M. Gibson

had not imputed to the hon. and learned Attorney-general, as the prosecutor in the cases to which he had alluded, any desire to inculpate absent parties. Having read the evidence throughout he was willing to admit that the hon and learned Member did, on many occasions, prevent witnesses from making statements which would have tended to criminate persons who were not present; but he adhered to his former statement, that in the course of the trial attempts were made of so marked a character [cries of "order,"] to drag in the names of absent individuals [renewed shouts of "order"], that the learned judge——

The Speaker

said, the hon. Member must be aware that he could not again address the House on the subject on which he had before spoken.

Mr. T. Duncombe

thought it right to state that he had received several communications with reference to the trials to which allusion had been made, and he was bound to say that the conduct of the Attorney-general had given universal satisfaction to men of all parties