HC Deb 01 September 1848 vol 101 cc761-7

On the Motion that the House do now adjourn,


said: Sir, I feel it my duty to address to the House a few observations on a matter affecting in an important degree my own character, and that of every other Member of the House who was associated with me in the discharge of the duties imposed on us by our being selected to try the merits of the petition presented against the late return for the borough of Cheltenham. This a matter which concerns not myself only, and those Gentlemen, but it concerns also the dignity and character of this House, because an impediment has been offered to the due discharge of those difficult, and delicate, and laborious functions which are intrusted to Committees who have to decide on the validity of the elections of Members of the House. I am sure that when I first heard of my appointment on the Committee, I was fully aware that I had been appointed to discharge a very disagreeable duty, and one which might become infinitely more disagreeable, if the consequence of the investigation should he that we should feel it necessary to declare the seat to he vacant. I confess, however, that I was not prepared to find that, after honestly and conscientiously discharging the duties imposed upon me by the House and by the law, and which I had sworn at the table faithfully to perform, I should he assailed with scurrilous, venomous, foul-mouthed, personal calumny by the Gentleman who was unseated by the decision of that Committee; a Gentleman to whom I was a total stranger, to whom I bore no personal ill will, and no ill will on public and political grounds; and towards whom I had no other feeling than a desire to render him justice in the execution of the duty assigned to me. I have received information from several parties, to whom I beg to tender my best thanks, that a speech was delivered by Mr. Craven Berkeley, at Cheltenham, on Monday last, which was published in the Cheltenham Examiner of Wednesday. That gentleman is reported to have addressed a meeting of the electors of Cheltenham, and to have referred to the Members of the Election Committee in the following terms. He said— Gentlemen, when Mr. James, my counsel, and myself, saw the constitution of the tribunal before which my cause was to he tried, we viewed the result of their decision with serious apprehension and alarm. I will tell you how that Committee was constituted; and now, gentlemen of the press, take my words down and report them correctly, for I intend my opinion of that Committee to go east, and west, and north, and south. Now, really I am sorry to read the words which follow—not for the sake of Sir W. Clay, because it was impossible for any man to exhibit more ability, more courtesy, more candour, more moderation and justice, or a greater consideration for all parties concerned, than were displayed by Sir W. Clay as the Chairman of that Committee. And yet, because the Committee came to a decision adverse to Mr. C. Berkeley's wishes, he speaks of Sir W. Clay in these disgraceful terms:— Now, the Gentleman selected as Chairman of that Committee was Sir William Clay, the Member for the Tower Hamlets—an empty-headed coxcombical fop, possessing that which no other person possesses of him—the very best opinion of himself—a man, to use a common expression, who, for any one to buy at his own valuation, and sell at his intrinsic worth, the purchaser would be very much the loser. No Gentleman would think this worth noticing; it refutes itself. I now come to what is said of myself:— The next Gentleman upon that Committee was Mr. Roundell Palmer, the Member for Plymouth, a Puseyite lawyer, who has bolstered up his somewhat questionable reputation by means of one or two lucky hits in the Court of Chancery. He is perfectly ignorant of the law of evidence, and perfectly ignorant of the common law of the land, and of the practice of the ordinary tribunals of justice in this country. Now, if this gentleman had stopped there, I should not have noticed his observations, because I should have felt that it was quite unnecessary for me to come here and make any answer to such an attack. But what he goes on to say is this:— Now, Gentlemen, I contend that a Parliamentary Committee once formed, becomes a judicial tribunal, and that it is bound to decide on such evidence, and such alone, as would be admitted in a court of common law. Did the Committee act upon that fair and honourable principle? Why, if this petition had been brought before any jury of twelve honest Englishmen, chosen from any county in the empire, I don't care where, they would never have left the box to consider their verdict, which must have boon an unanimous verdict in my favour. Certainly, if that were so, we were very unfortunate, because the vote of the Committee against the hon. Gentleman was unanimous; that Committee being composed of Members entertaining different political opinions, and the majority, I believe, consisting of Members holding the same political opinions as the hon. Gentleman. But now comes the passage to which I wish particularly to call the attention of the House:— I will now return to the constitution of the Committee. I have disposed of two of them, and I appeal to you whether I have not fairly, and justly, and honestly, disposed of them. And here I am reminded that one of these Gentlemen (Mr. Roundell Palmer) committed during this investigation one of the most indecent acts which it was possible for a man in his situation to be guilty of. Mr. Roundell Palmer was in frequent conversation and colloquy with the counsel and agents for the petitioners during the hearing of the case. I ask you, if any man were being tried for an offence at Gloucester, what would the country say, if during the hearing of the case any of the jurymen were to be seen in consultation with the counsel for the prosecution? Yet that was what was done by Mr. Palmer during the inquiry. He was seen near Howard's robing-rooms, next door to the House of Commons, where, no doubt, he had been closeted with the counsel for the petitioners. That I meet with the most distinct and deliberate contradiction. I never spoke one word to any one of the agents concerned on either side. With the counsel I was personally and professionally acquainted, and of course if I met them I spoke to them as friends. But if I made any observations to them in the progress of the case, I most carefully guarded myself from saying anything which could guide them as to what was going on in the deliberations of the Committee. I never said one word to them which did not relate to unimportant topics; and, as to being closeted with the counsel for the petitioners, I declare that a more unfounded calumny never came from the mouth of man. In the same way, it might be said of me that I was closeted with Mr. Craven Berkeley, because that Gentleman did me the honour to address to me some conversation upon what was going on, which he might have done with great propriety. I repeat, therefore, that a more ungenerous, a more unjust, or a more unfounded charge never was made against any man. Mr. Berkeley goes on to say:— Now, Gentlemen, the third Member of the Committee is Captain Harris, the Member for Christchurch, and brother to Lord Malmesbury. He is a Tory of the old school, and he went to that Committee with his mind made up, and perfectly convinced that it was his conscientious duty to unseat the Liberal Member. The two other Members of the Committee are very estimable and amiable men in private life; but I assert that they are both totally unfit to sit upon a legal tribunal. Whatever Mr. Roundell Palmer said, Mr. Ogle and Mr. Thicknesse immediately assented to. Now that, I believe, is all that I need notice. To be sure, one Gentleman at the meeting was pleased to play upon my name, and to call me "Mr. Scoundrel Palmer;" but he was not a former Member of this House, and his observations may he passed over without further remark. Probably I might be justified in founding some Motion upon the statements which I have read to the House, or in bringing the matter forward as a breach of privilege; but I do not think it worth while. I trust that the House will not think it necessary to call for this mode of vindication, and that the characters of the hon. Gentlemen who have been assailed will be thought to afford a sufficient refutation of the charge. I must say, I never heard a clearer case than Mr. Craven Berkeley's; and the decisions of the Committee were unanimous, except upon the last point which came before them. Mr. Gardner, the Conservative candidate, had given a notice in general terms, respecting acts of bribery which had been committed during the election; and he claimed the seat on the ground that Mr. Berkeley had been disqualified, though he (Mr. Gardner) was in a considerable minority. The question was one of much nicety, and we divided upon it in the proportion of two to three; and if I had thought fit to concur in the opinion expressed by the Chairman of the Committee, who is opposed to me in politics, and by another Member of it, who agrees with him, Mr. Gardner would now have been the sitting Member for Cheltenham. After what I have said, I hope the House will excuse me from taking any further notice of the matter.


quite agreed with the observation which had fallen from the hon. and learned Member, that unless this very unjust accusation had been made against the constitution of the tribunal appointed for the trial of the petition, it would not have been worth his while to bring the matter forward. He regretted exceedingly that a gentleman, who was formerly a Member of that House, should, in the excitement of an election, have indulged in the unjustifiable language which he was reported to have uttered. It was a most unfair thing to cast an imputation upon any Gentleman for speaking as a friend to gentlemen with whom he had a professional acquaintance. He was not a member of the bar, but he was acquainted with many of the Parliamentary counsel, and he should think it very hard if he were accused of a want of impartiality because he had exchanged a word with Mr. Serjeant Wrangham or with Mr. Serjeant King-lake.


I think I should he wanting in duty to the House, if I did not rise to express my indignation at the outrage which has been committed against the five honourable men who were the Members of this Committee. I hope that the noble Lord opposite, representing the Government, will also express the indignation which is universally felt by us that a gentleman, once a Member of this House, should have dared to make such an attack as this on Gentlemen acting judicially in their office of Members of an Election Committee. I learn from you, Sir, that technically this is no breach of privilege, because an Election Committee is appointed by an Act of Parliament, and by that Act is directed to be constituted of Members of this House. But, if this had been a Select Committee, acting by the order and appointment of the House exclusively—if such a charge had been made against it, I apprehend it would have been such a breach of the privileges of this House that we could not have abstained from calling any gentleman who had been guilty of it to the bar. But, what is the case here? An Election Committee, with three out of its five Members who were the political friends of the gentleman whe has now dared to impugn their conduct, has been charged by him with partiality, corruption, and injustice. And then the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Plymouth, whose legal reputation is known to all the empire and to all the world, is selected, above all, as a person supposed to be ignorant of law; when it turns out that he was the very Member to whose influence—an influence just on account of his legal reputation—it was owing that the claimant of the seat, who was of the hon. and learned Member's own party, was prevented from obtaining it. I could not resist rising and expressing my feelings of indignation against such a charge.


I feel no difficulty in expressing my deep regret, that my hon. Friend the late Member for Cheltenham should have been led away by the irritation of the moment, to express himself in terms so unbecoming and undeserved of five Gentlemen who were acting in the performance of their duty, and under the obligations of an oath, because they have come to a decision which is in accordance with strict justice. I am sure, however, that the Members who have been so unjustly attacked must feel too strong in their own personal character, and the respect which that character inspires, not only in this House, but elsewhere, to suffer in any degree from the unfounded aspersions which, in an unfortunate moment, my hon. Friend was led to cast upon their character and conduct. I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman was quite right in giving a contradiction to the statement which he brought forward; and I am sure that he will be satisfied with the explanation which he has afforded the House. I doubt not that my hon. Friend, whose speech has been the subject of this discussion, will, in a calmer moment, regret having uttered it.*

House adjourned at half-past Five o'clock.