HC Deb 27 February 1852 vol 119 cc915-25

said, he rose to move that a new writ be issued for the borough of Harwich, that seat having been declared vacant by a decision of a Committee of the House. He was aware that the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster (Sir De L. Evans) had given notice of his intention to move that no new writ be issued for the borough in question without due notice having been previously given. He had heard that the hon. and gallant Member did not intend to persist in his Motion. If this report were correct, he (Mr. Bram- ston would have the less difficulty in proposing the present Motion; but he had not the least desire to take the House by surprise, and if it should be the general feeling that the Motion was premature, he would have no objection to postpone it for a fortnight.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown, to make out a New Writ for the electing of a Burgess to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Harwich, in the room of Robert Wigram Crawford, esquire, whose Election has been determined to be void.


said, that the hon. Member (Mr. Bramston) was in error in supposing that it was his (Sir De L. Evans') intention to withdraw the Motion of which he had given notice. He had no such intention. He believed the borough in question to be one of the most corrupt, if not the most corrupt, in the kingdom, and he did not think that a, new writ should be issued for the borough without the most deliberate consideration. However, he had no desire to take any course that might be considered as throwing obstacles in the way of the new Government, which would be in opposition to the general feeling of the House; and he would be guided altogether by the amount of support he might receive. It was his own opinion, and he was happy to think that it was an opinion in which many hon. Gentlemen around him were disposed to concur, that it was desirable that such an investigation should be instituted into the abuses and malpractices which had so long prevailed in Harwich as would effectually put an end to them. There was a very strong feeling on his side of the House upon the subject of that borough; and this being the case, however desirous he might be to avoid raising any obstructions in the way of the recently appointed Government, he was compelled to oppose the Motion of the hon. Member for South Essex. He (Sir De L. Evans) had given notice that he would, on an early day, call attention to the borough of Harwich, in the hope that an inquiry on the subject would illustrate the very objectionable practices resorted to at elections there, and in other boroughs. He had hoped to have been able to have made such an exposure of evil practices as would have induced the noble Lord, recently at the head of the Government, to introduce into his new Reform Bill some provision which might have the effect of removing one of the greatest stains upon our repre- sentative system. He was grieved to be obliged to say that there were many corrupt boroughs in England, but there were strong grounds for believing that Harwich was the most corrupt of all. It was a decaying town—falling off in wealth, and wasting away in population; and there was; this remarkable peculiarity about it, that the number of voters increased in proportion with the poverty and progressive ruin of the town. This fact alone was sufficient to awaken suspicion and justify inquiry. It was his own opinion that so universal and so deep-rooted were corruption and bribery in Harwich, that there was but one method of putting an end to such practices, and that was by disfranchising the borough altogether. They might depend upon it there was no other mode of abating the nuisance. There was scarcely such a thing known as an election in Harwich which was not followed by an inquiry before a Committee of that House; but the worst of it was that when the Committee had once seated or unseated the Member petitioned against, there was an end to the matter, and the House did not care to institute any further investigation into the prevalence of corrupt practices in the borough. He looked on the present Motion as ill-timed and unnecessary, and would more as an Amendment that the writ be suspended for six months.


, in seconding the Amendment, said, that regard being had to the changed circumstances of public affairs, he was sure that the House would give credit to the hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Treasury (Mr. Mackenzie), who had just moved for certain writs, for declining to move a new writ for the borough of Harwich. Although it might not be known to many Members on the Ministerial side of the House, it was not the less notorious out of doors, that the present Solicitor General (Sir F. Kelly) intended to present himself before the immaculate electors of that borough; and he held in his hand an address to that right hon. Gentleman from certain of the electors of that borough, inviting him to come down to that purest and most estimable of constituencies. He therefore was not surprised that the hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Treasury should not have moved for a new writ for that unhappy place; but he certainly was not a little amazed that the hon. Member for South Essex (Mr. Bramston), who knew so well what Harwich was, should have done so. That hon. Gentleman could not be ignorant of the state of Harwich, for he was one of the most prominent Members of the Committee appointed in 1841 to inquire into the affairs of that depraved and degraded borough. Many inquiries had, from time to time, been instituted respecting the electors of Harwich, but he (Mr. B. Osborne) would not go further back than to the Commission of 1842. The Commission appointed in that year had presented a Report which was eminently worthy of the attention of the House. They stated that three petitions had been presented against the return of Mr. J. Attwood and Mr. Beresford on the ground of bribery and corruption—that arrangements had been entered into by the agents of those gentlemen, which had been carried into operation by their principals, to the effect that Major Beresford should retire within a month, by accepting the Chiltern Hundreds—that Sir Denis Le Marchant should be allowed to retain his seat—and that Mr. J. Attwood should guarantee the fulfilment of those stipulations by the payment of 2,500l. The Commission, moreover, had had it in evidence from Mr. J. Attwood himself, that he had paid 2,000l., and they also discovered that one of his agents had been so obliging as to pay 500l. more. The Report then went on to state that the election of Messrs. Attwood and Beresford had cost 6,300l.—that thirty-three voters had received for their votes sums varying from 50l. to 100l. a piece, and that the great majority of the whole constituency had been bribed. That was in 1842. And what occurred in 1847? Why, in 1847 a Committee of that House declared that J. Attwood, Esq. had not been duly elected to sit for the borough of Harwich, having been by his agents guilty of bribery; and the noble Lord who had just accepted the office of Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household (Lord C. Hamilton) had been very eloquent, a few evenings ago, about the corruptions which were proved to have prevailed at St. Albans, and had even declared that, in his opinion, Mr. Coppock would have been treated just as he deserved had he been called to the bar of that House to answer for his misconduct—a course which he (Mr. B. Osborne) regretted was not persisted in. But such a proceeding would not have remedied the evil of which the noble Lord complained; for what was Mr. Coppock but one of the effects of their present Parliamentary system? Did the noble Lord (Lord C. Hamilton), a member of the Carlton Club, forget that Mr. J. Attwood was a member of that club? Did it occur to the noble Lord to take his name from the list of members of the club because Mr. J. Attwood, who had bribed more boroughs than any one of Her Majesty's subjects, was also a member? Away, then, with all these impurities, and away with the mock modesty which shrunk from the task of bringing the guilt home to the real offender. Why should they pursue and persecute the unfortunate Coppock, and spare the man who could subscribe to a magnificent club—give splendid dinners and entertain his friends? Such conduct he did not hesitate to stigmatise as pretended purity and mock modesty. It was to be hoped that, if the noble Lord recently at the head of Her Majesty's Government should ever again come into office, he would destroy, not conglomerate, such boroughs as Harwich. In 1841 there were 180 voters in that borough. The population since then had greatly decreased, and yet they were told that the number of electors at the present moment was no less than 282. Surely this was, to say the least of it, exceedingly suspicious. He hoped that the House would assent to the Motion for suspending the writ for six months, and he trusted that the day was not far distant when the inestimable borough of Harwich would be erased from the list of places entitled to send representatives to Parliament.

Amendment proposed— To leave out from the word 'that' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words 'the Writ for the Borough of Harwich be suspended for six months,' instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


, as a Member of the last Harwich Election Committee, upon whose Report the present vacancy had occurred in the representation of the borough, said it was perfectly true that the decision of the Committee rested upon a technical point with regard to the time of closing the poll; but he could safely appeal to any man who had sat on that Committee to place his hand on his heart and say whether he was not convinced, from the facts which were elicited in the course of the inquiry, that the most fraudulent and iniquitous practices had been carried on in the borough; and that those prac- tices were so habitually familiar to the inhabitants and electors as not even to create surprise amongst them, but rather to be regarded as a part of the legitimate proceedings at every election. It was proved that voters were abducted, and that treating to a most extraordinary extent prevailed at the last election. Bribery was not, however, shown to have existed; but it was well known that that was an offence which it was extremely difficult to establish before Committees of that House. With regard to the question now under consideration, he thought it would be a more dignified course, at the same time that it would be more in accordance with the wishes of the public, if a Commission similar to the one which was issued for St. Albans last year, were appointed to investigate the case of Harwich. He was satisfied there was not another borough in the kingdom in which corruption and fraudulent practices had been more widely prevalent. Moreover, it was universally acknowledged, and not denied; and he believed that no service the House could render would be more acceptable to the country than the appointment of such a Commission, which he felt assured would arrive at the same result as in the case of St. Albans.


said, he had sat on the previous Election Committee for Harwich, and it was his opinion, formed on the evidence given on that occasion, that the evil in that particular case was only to be cured by disfranchisement.


said, the vacancy in any borough ought of right be filled up the moment it occurred. The rule was, where a Committee of that House had not recommended disfranchisement, or any other ulterior proceedings, as in the case of Harwich, that the House would not interfere to deprive the electors of the right, given to them by the Constitution, of sending Members to that House. He was not for affording protection or encouragement to bribery: far from it; but he did not think that they would be justified in withholding the writ from any borough against which bribery and corruption had not been distinctly proved by the judgment of that House. He would ask hon. Members who now sought to disfranchise Harwich, what had become of all their virtue during the last Session of Parliament? He trusted he should be pardoned for saying it, but the fact was, that unless the writ had been moved for with a view to serve the purposes of a candidate attached to Her Majesty's present Government, they would have heard of no opposition to the writ from those who now opposed it. ["Oh, oh!"] Then, why was not a Motion brought on last year for sending a Commission? He simply contended that the Committee empowered to investigate the matter reported that the sitting Member ought to be unseated, but did not recommend any ulterior proceedings; and he thought, as there was no record on the table of the House showing any grounds on which the borough of Harwich ought to be disfranchised, they were bound, consistently with the ordinary rules of the House, to concur in the Motion that Mr. Speaker be directed to issue his writ.


said, he could not refrain from expressing his surprise that his hon. Friend who had just addressed the House should have risen to be the advocate of corruption. He was sure his hon. Friend would be obliged by a correction of the statement, that if the Ministers who were lately in power had remained in office, no such proceeding as that proposed respecting Harwich would have taken place. Notice was given on the subject last Session, and notice was given this Session; and he had himself put a question whether steps would not be taken by the Government for the issue of a Commission? They who wished to see rotten boroughs disfranchised, and an end put to corruption, expected in the coming reform that the borough of Harwich would be one of the first to be dealt with. The late Ministers had sanctioned the course of not issuing the writ. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bramston) who had moved for the writ should have waited till the Ministers of the Crown were in their places. Ministers would have had a glorious opportunity of showing how far they were determined to support such practices as had prevailed in Harwich. The hon. Gentleman was, he (Mr. Hume) knew, as hostile to such practices as any one, and would, he hoped, yield to the opinions intimated by the House, and abstain from pressing the Motion.


objected to the continued suspension of writs without steps being taken for inquiry. The constitutional way of proceeding would have been to have had a Commission issued long ago. On this point he held himself to be as free from the charge of encouraging corruption as any Member of the House. It was not right for the House to encourage this unconstitutional mode of proceeding against suspected or convicted boroughs. They ought to take the manly course of disfranchising the borough if they had evidence of its corruption; but, since they had altogether failed in obtaining sufficient legal evidence, however strong the moral evidence might be, of bribery or corruption on the part of the borough of Harwich, he protested against their withholding the issuing of the writ. He would ask whether, at the last two elections for that borough, there had been a tittle of evidence to sustain the charge of bribery? He believed there was no proof at the last election or the one before, of either bribery or corruption.


said, he had sat upon the Harwich Election Committee, and he could state that the evidence produced referred only to the premature close of the poll, in consequence of a riot, and not at all to bribery or corruption. Therefore there was no ground of proved malpractices to justify the refusal to reissue the writ. But he also objected to the Amendment before the House, on the ground that the practice of suspending writs was most unconstitutional. If the House allowed the principle, the result would be, on occasions, to place in the hands of a tyrannical majority a most unconstitutional power.


believed that the practice of the House in the case of transferring the franchise from one borough to another, was to consider what had taken place in that borough, not at one election only, but at all preceding elections. That was the rule applied to the borough of St. Albans. At the same time, he considered it very unconstitutional to suspend the issuing of a writ for any borough, and to take no steps for purifying that borough. But, voting for suspending the issuing of the writ, as he should do in this instance, he should do so upon the understanding that Harwich would be dealt with in the same spirit in which St. Albans had been. He could not help agreeing with the hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Hume) that this was a glorious opportunity for Her Majesty's present Ministers, which it appeared they had failed to take advantage of. They should have come forward at once and proposed an inquiry into the practices not only at Harwich, but at Staf- ford, at Malton, and in several other boroughs where there would have been found practices that required to be dealt with quite as much as with Harwich itself.


could state, as Chairman of the first Harwich Election Committee, that no evidence had been given to justify a report that bribery and corruption had been proved. If this Amendment was carried, the mover of it would be bound to call upon the House to issue a Commission; and in the event of a Commission for Harwich being appointed, he (Mr. K. Seymer) would feel it his duty to ask the House to appoint another Commission to inquire into the state of affairs at Leicester at some recent elections. He had sat on the Leicester Committee, and the report of that Committee had been that the bribery proved to have been practised at Leicester required the attention of the House.


thought that as such different opinions had been expressed by different Members of the Harwich Election Committee, with regard to the character of the evidence produced in this case, it would be advisable for the House not to come to any conclusion without being well informed as to the precise facts. He believed that on a former occasion it was clearly understood, at the suggestion of the present hon. and learned Judge Advocate, that the writ for Harwich should not be moved for without forty-eight hours' previous notice being given. The hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Bramston), however, had moved that the writ be issued; and the hon. Gentleman was understood to say that he would not take the House by surprise, but that, if any opposition should be offered he would at once withdraw or postpone his Motion. At least, if the hon. Gentleman pressed his Motion, the best course would be to adjourn the debate for a fortnight. He (Sir G. Grey) had not understood from the observations of hon. Members who had sat on the Harwich Election Committee, that gross corruption had been proved to prevail at Harwich: if, however, that were so, the House should certainly be called on to issue a Commission. But under present circumstances he thought the discussion had better be postponed.


understood that sufficient evidence of corruption in the borough of Harwich had been adduced to prevent the present Judge Advocate from moving for a new writ. He (Sir De L. Evans) would give notice that if the House suspended the issuing of the writ, he should move for a Commission of Inquiry.


said, he had entertained no intention whatever to take the House by surprise, and he should not have moved the issuing of the writ, if he had not understood from the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster (Sir De L. Evans) that he merely wished to make some remarks upon the question, without opposing the Motion. He (Mr. Bramston) admitted that he was a Member of what was called the "Roebuck Committee" of 1841, when the state of Harwich and other boroughs was inquired into; but the House had no right to concern itself now with what took place in 1841. Upon receiving a communication from some of the electors of Harwich, requesting him to move a new writ, he at once felt it to be his duty to look into the decisions of the two last Harwich Election Committees, and the result of his investigations was, that in the case of the inquiry which took place before the Committee of April, 1851, he found that Mr. Prinsep was deprived of his seat for want of the property qualification required by Act of Parliament; and that in the recent instance Mr. Crawford was unseated because a not took place in the town which brought the poll to a premature conclusion. No mention of bribery or corrupt practices was made by the Committee in their Report, or any recommendation for the issue of a Commission of Inquiry; but the Committee contented themselves with simply stating the facts to which he referred as grounds for a fresh election. In cases of bribery and corruption, he (Mr. Bramston) was as ready as any man could be to visit boroughs and even counties with the punishment such an offence deserved; still it was due to those boroughs that they should not be punished without evidence to convince the House of the guilt they had incurred. Having satisfied himself by consulting the Reports of the two last Committees that bribery was not proved or imputed against the borough of Harwich by those Reports, he felt that he was doing no more than his duty as one of the Members for the county of Essex when he acceded to the request which was made to him, and moved for the issue of a new writ. He would not, however, press his Motion further at this moment.


begged permission to refer to one point in the remarks of the hon. Gentlemau (Mr. K. Seymer) opposite. He begged to assure the hon. Gentleman, whatever might have been the scenes at Leicester at the period at which the hon. Gentleman had sat on the Leicester Committee, that, at the last election, he (Mr. Ellis) and his hon. Colleague had been returned for Leicester without the expenditure of a single shilling. And all he could say was that if Leicester should ever again be in the predicament in which she once was, he would be among the first to urge the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry.

Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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