§ MR. C. BERKELEY
rose to call the attention of the House to the petition presented by him on Friday last. It related to the forgery of signatures to a petition which purported to come from Cheltenham, but which had been sent from Manchester. He believed that it was a breach of the privileges of the House, and he was ready to adopt any suggestion the House might think proper to make. He had letters in his pocket to show that many of these signatures were forged. The matter was well worthy the consideration of the House, because there was a general complaint out of doors that the petitions of the people were not treated with proper respect and attention; and he could not wonder at it, if petitions were got up in such a way. He moved that the petition be referred to a Select Committee, to ascertain the circumstances under which, and the parties by whom, the signatures thereto were annexed.
§ MR. NEWDEGATE
seconded the Motion. He thought it a fitting time to call the attention of the House to the conduct of the agents of the Anti-Corn-Law League, in the registration courts. If the privileges of the House were endangered by the forgery of signatures, they were still more so by the attempt to influence unduly the election of Members for that House. He was anxious, if a Committee was appointed now, that its inquiries should not be confined 381 to the subject-matter of the petition, but that it should extend to the far more important question of the undue interference of the League in the registration courts. In the registration courts of Warwickshire, in October last, a great number of objections were served, all of them bearing the name of the same individual, an inhabitant of Coventry; in the district of Birmingham and Edgbaston alone 710 objections were served, many of them not being delivered till after the proper time. He understood that upwards of 30,000 objections had passed in one day through the Manchester post-office.
§ MR. NEWDEGATE
understood that the conduct of the Anti-Corn-Law League had been referred to in the petition presented by the hon. Member. He wished, in corroboration of that statement, to adduce further evidence, in reference to the more direct interference with the privileges of the House.
§ THE SPEAKER
said, the question now was for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the circumstances connected with the signatures affixed to the petition presented by the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham, and whether such signatures were forgeries. Unless, therefore, the hon. Member was prepared to bring forward statements in respect to such Motion, he apprehended that the Amendment moved by the hon. Gentleman would not affect the privileges of the House in reference to the petition of the hon. and gallant Member.
§ MR. NEWDEGATE
said, he would, of course, bow to the decision of the right hon. Gentleman; but if he were not out of order he would move that it be an Instruction to this Committee of Inquiry to enter further into the case of all the signatures attached to the petitions which he had just referred to.
§ MR. BRIGHT
observed that he had offered the other night to second the Motion of the hon. Member for Cheltenham, but he had since received an explanation, which, perhaps, he had better submit to the House before the Motion was disposed of. He held in his hand a letter from the Secretary to the Anti-Corn-Law League at 382 Manchester, which he would read to the House:—National Anti-Corn-Law League, Manchester, Feb. 28.Dear Sir—I see by the newspapers of to-day that you have had a stir in the House about a petition from Cheltenham, which was sent from this office on Tuesday last; and, as you have promised to second the Motion of which Mr. Berkeley has given notice, I may as well put you in possession of the facts as far as I know anything of them. You know that in January we sent out from this office a circu-ar of which copies were addressed to our free-trade friends in all parts of the kingdom, suggesting the sending of petitions for immediate repeal. Among many hundreds of replies to that circular was one from Peter Vines of Cheltenham, and of this I enclose a copy. In consequence of the request of Mr. Vines, I ordered copies of the printed form of the South Lancashire petition to be sent to him, with a few of the other Bills he mentions, and we heard no more of the matter until last Tuesday, when we received (I believe by post) a number of sheets containing the signatures, which we had to paste together, and attach the head. Mr. Septimus Pruen, a respectable solicitor of Cheltenham, sent the sheets to us. As Mr. Berkeley is Member of Parliament for the borough, I ordered Mr. Walters, our clerk, to send the petition to him for presentation. I can say nothing as to how the signatures were obtained, except that as Mr. Pruen and Messrs. Bishop and Vines had the management of the matter, I should have had the fullest confidence that all would be done honourably and fairly. I did not expect the sheets to be sent to us, but that the whole would be forwarded direct from Cheltenham to London, as has been done in almost all other cases. I have written to Mr. Pruen to-day, and requested him to inquire into the matter, and to communicate with their M. P. I ought to mention that four or five names which appear on the first sheet were copied from the head of one of the other sheets, and these five names as originally signed were pasted over, and this was done by Mr. Walters by my direction.—I am, dear Sir, yours very truly,JOSEPH HICKIN.From this fact had arisen the circumstance that there were only five names on the first sheet, and that they appeared to be written in different ink from the rest, and this was a corroboration of the statement in the letter. The hon. Member for Cheltenham had referred to the case of a gentleman named Perry, whose name appeared in the petition, although he had not signed it. On this subject he (Mr. Bright) had received a letter from Mr. Hennessy, a gentleman connected with the League at Cheltenham, written in consequence of having read what occurred in the House the other night:—4. Essex Place, Cheltenham, Feb. 28.Sir—The hon. C. F. Berkeley is reported in the Morning Herald of this date, in presenting a petition from this town on the subject of the Corn Laws in the House of Commons, to have read a letter from his agent, in which the following passage occurs:—'I have seen Mr. Perry, the miller, of Alstone Mill, whose name is to the first sheet; he 383 says he never heard of it before.' I was present when Mr. Perry signed the petition in question, and believe his signature follows ray own. I am sure he will remember it when I name the circumstance to him. I have deemed it right, as you promised to second Mr. Berkeley's Motion for an inquiry on the subject, to put you in possession of the above fact, and believe the other signatures to be genuine. The fact is, no effort was made to obtain signatures to the petition; sheets were in the shops of two tradesmen, and an announcement stating the simple fact appeared in their windows, beyond which no further trouble was taken,—I remain, Sir, your most obedient servant,JOHN F. HENNESSY.J. Bright, Esq., M.P.He thought it right to state to the House there was no charge against the genuineness of more than five of the signatures. The individual who changed them had acknowledged the fact; and although it was not one of the most prudent or regular things to do, yet it might have been done without any intention to infringe the rules of the House, or to substitute false names. He hoped the House would be satisfied with this explanation, and would not think it necessary to take any further steps; but if they did he would be most happy to second the Motion for a Committee.
§ MR. FERRAND
begged to inquire of the right hon. Gentleman in the chair, whether it would be regular that he should move an Amendment to the Motion of the hon. Member for Cheltenham? He was desirous of asking that question, because he had received a letter from Sheffield in corroboration of the statements which he had made the other night in that House respecting the forgery of signatures to petitions. He had also seen an extract from the Leeds Intelligencer to the same effect. He had also a letter from a gentleman who resided in London, and referred him to the engraving which had lately appeared in the Illustrated London News, as a perfectly true representation of the manner in which the Anti-Corn-Law Leaguers procured signatures to their petitions. The petition which had been referred to by the last-named paper had been presented by the noble Lord the Member for London; and it had been, in fact, signed by mere children, who had signed their names two or three times over. He had also a letter, which was only a dozen lines, and he would therefore trespass upon the time of the House while he read it. That letter was as follows:—If any further information will be of any use to you in your opposition to the Anti-Corn-Law League, I should feel great pleasure in forwarding to you the name of a man who is engaged by 384 the League, and has affixed about 14,000 signatures to one petition from that body. There are twenty persons similarly employed. I also know another case in which 500 names were affixed to a petition by one party before he left the room in which they were written. I have no doubt that many other instances of the same kind may be brought forward.Having received that letter, he asked for a reference as to the respectability of the writer, and having obtained it, he had had a personal interview with him. He had found his statements correct, and he was proved to support his assertions before a Committee of that House. He begged therefore (if he were permitted to do so) to move as an Amendment, that the Committee be directed to inquire generally into the method of obtaining signatures to petitions adopted by the Anti-Corn-Law League.
§ LORD J. MANNERS
said, that any gentleman wbo walked the streets of London might afford evidence of the manner in which the signatures to petitions were obtained. He, himself, had happened to be walking down Grosvenor-place the other day, when he heard a comfortable-looking baker's boy say to one of his companions, "I say, old fellow, have you signed the Anti-Corn-Law petition? I have signed it three times." This was not an isolated case, as he believed that parties were in the habit of signing these petitions as often as they happened to pass along the streets in which they were exhibited. Parties were allowed to put down their names as often as they thought proper. He thought some steps should be taken to put an end to this evil, for he witnessed with regret the diminished influence which the petitions of the people now had in that House.
§ THE SPEAKER
said, that it would be more proper for the hon. Member for Knaresborough to move an instruction to the Committee, when it was appointed, to include the subject he had referred to in their inquiry.
§ MR. C. BERKELEY
merely rose to say, in answer to the observations of the hon. Member for Durham, that he viewed with great suspicion any petitions coming to him through Manchester. He had also received a letter from Mr. Hennessy, and without meaning anything offensive to those gentlemen who came from the Emerald Isle, he was disposed to say he was afraid that he had borne out their character for blundering. The postscript of this letter stated that, in reference to the petition, he would find his signature followed that of Mr. Perry, of Alston Mill. He had searched 385 that petition carefully throughout, and it appeared that Mr. Hennessy's signature was not attached to it all.
Petition referred. The following is the entry on the Votes of the House:—
Corn Laws.—The Honourable Craven Berkeley, Member for the town of Cheltenham, having in his place called the attention of the House to the circumstances under which a Petition, purporting to be the Petition of the undersigned inhabitants of Cheltenham, for a repeal of the Corn Laws, had been transmitted to him, to be presented to the House; and having stated, that he had in consequence made inquiry at Cheltenham, in relation to the said Petition, and could not find any trace of such a Petition having been signed by the inhabitants of Cheltenham whose names are attached to it; the said Petition was delivered in at the Table.—Ordered, That the said Petition be referred to a Select Committee, to inquire into the circumstances under which and the parties by whom the signatures thereto were annexed.
§ MR. FERRAND
begged leave to move,That it be an Instruction to the said Committee, that they do inquire into the method which has been adopted by the Anti-Corn-Law League in obtaining Signatures to Petitions, praying for the total and immediate repeal of the Corn and Provision Laws, to be presented to this House.He had understood the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham to state, that a Mr. Reed had informed him he had not attached his signature to this Cheltenham petition: this person's name must therefore have been forged.
§ After some conversation this Motion was, by leave, withdrawn.