HC Deb 21 February 1853 vol 124 cc357-62

said, he wished to put the question of which he had given notice to the noble Lord the Secretary of State for the Home Department, if the Government intended to proceed with the prosecutions which had been commenced against certain parties in Buckinghamshire for distributing placards animadverting on the Militia Bill? Similar placards had been distributed for the last ten years referring to the regular Army, and it was thought that they might be applied to the militia, without subjecting the parties circulating them to prosecution. The moment the Government stated them to be illegal, the Peace Society had ordered them to he withdrawn, and they were withdrawn accordingly. He hoped, therefore, that no further steps would be taken by the Government, as it would scarcely be fair at this time of day to make war upon the circulation of opinion.


begged to say, in the absence of the noble Lord the Secretary for the Home Department, that the Government did not intend to proceed with the prosecutions referred to.


said, he thought that the noble Lord the Home Secretary ought to have been present to answer this question, particularly because when his hon. Friend the Member for Ashton (Mr. Hindley) had asked the question before, the noble Lord was not particularly civil, but treated certain persons out of the House, who were quite as respectable as himself, as if they had been guilty of a grave offence. The charge against the persons held to bail was, that they had been guilty of something which went by the name of sedition in advising young men to avoid enlistment in the militia. Now, when they recollected the scandalous means that were used to induce unthinking young men to enlist, of which they had full testimony in the evidence of a distinguished military officer, he thought that in a free country like this, those persons who took a different view should have liberty to give a contrary advice. He would refer to some passages of the evidence of Adjutant General Brown given before the Army and Ordnance Committee of 1851, the purport of which was that the old pensioners residing in their native villages dared not attempt the recruiting service, so unpopular was enlistment with the peasantry, and that the best recruiting sergeants were those who, by being able to sing a good song and tell a merry story, could cajole the young countrymen. The evidence went generally to prove that military service was odious in the country, and that the recruiting sergeants used various means to induce young men to enlist. Now, they had heard a good deal of "gagging" the press, and that operation might apply to the newspaper or the bill-poster. They had it in evidence that irregular means were used to induce young men to enter, and that 5s. were offered to every simpleton; and surely it was open to those who believed that young men were doing badly in abandoning their parents, and leaving their families, to represent to those young men that which was true, and to take other means to induce them to remain at their industrial occupations. The offending placards consisted of a woodcut and an extract from a work called the Autobiography of a Working Man, written by Mr. Somerville, who was at one time most unjustly subjected to flogging when in the military service. He should think himself deficient in his public duty did he not take every means towards the abolition of that degrading punishment. The woodcut was more complained of than the letter-press; but it should be recollected that they were appealing to persons, many of whom were unfortunately unable to read, and they were, therefore, compelled to bring thus home to them facts which they could not acquire from the newspapers. The present Emperor of France complained more of the pictures in Punch and the Illustrated News than the articles, because his people understood the one and not the other; but it was monstrous that in this free country, the Monarch of which was so much beloved, and the Government one in which so many persons placed confidence, people, for circulating a few placards such as he had described, should be rendered amenable to a prosecution. He understood that one person was in prison at the present moment; and he had received a letter from Christchurch, in Hampshire, stating that the police had entered a man's house without warrant, and torn down forcibly some of those placards. Now, if we had heard of such conduct in Paris, from the correspondents of the Times or Chronicle, we should have had leading articles denouncing the Government of that country, and proclaiming hostility to all despots. He was glad, however, that the noble Lord had determined upon abandoning this prosecution, a resolution which he believed had been already come to by the preceding Government, and on that belief had recommended the people at Christchurch not to enter upon any expensive preparations for defence. These poor persons had, however, been kept a long time in a state of uncertainty about a charge which, if they had received early and proper intimation of the state of the law, would never have occurred. He was sure the noble Lord would not regret the course he had now taken, and trusted that those persons who were incarcerated would be immediately set at liberty.


(who had now returned to his seat) said: I have to apologise to my hon. Friend (Mr. Hindley) who asked this question, for having been absent from my place at the moment he put it; but I was called out to look at an Act of Parliament on another subject, and I thought, from the course of the discussion on the Irish Church question, that I should be back in time to give an answer. It is true, as my hon. Friend (Mr. Fitzroy) stated, that it is not the intention of Her Majesty's Government to proceed with those prosecutions, and the reason is this—that whatever may have been the intentions of the parties who have caused those placards and pictorial descriptions to be printed and circulated, those intentions have wholly failed. The good sense and patriotic spirit and feeling of the English people have induced them to treat those invitations to abandon the cause of their country with the contempt they merit. The attempt to thwart the enlistment of the Militia having failed, I thought it would really have the appearance of vindictiveness to pursue the prosecutions which had been instituted. I have, therefore, given notice that those prosecutions should be entirely and absolutely dropped. I shall not take the trouble of requiring the parties to enter into their recognisances, and therefore of course anybody who is in, prison on this charge—although I am not aware there are any—will be released. The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down alluded to the case of Mr. Somerville, which formed the subject of one of the pictorial exhibitions on the placards. He had received a letter from Mr. Somerville on the subject, which he would read to the House. The noble Lord then read the following letter, inclosing a copy of a letter to Mr. Hindley:— Militia—Peace Society. To the Right Hon. Lord Palmerston. 36, Lime-street, Liverpool, Feb. 17, 1853. My Lord—I observe by the newspapers that Mr. Hindley is to put a question about the antimilitia placards of the Peace Society. I have written by this post a letter to Mr. Hindley, of which I annex a copy. Should that gentleman not read or notice my letter, I trust your Lordship will do so, and set me right with the public. I am more interested in that offensive placard than any other person. I am a literary man, earning bread for self and family by my pen, and eating it only by favour of the public who buy my productions. As your Lordship will perceive, the Peace Society, by placarding me all over the kingdom, have placed me in a false and odious position.—I am, my Lord, your Lordship's obedient servant, ALEXANDER SOMERVILLE, ('One who has Whistled at the Plough,') &c. Copy of a letter to Mr. Hindley, 17th Feb., 1853. Sir—Seeing in the newspapers that you are to put a question to Lord Palmerston on the subject of the anti-militia placards posted throughout the kingdom by the Peace Society, I beg your attention to the following facts and I think you should in fairness read this letter in the House:—The placard in question contains an engraving of a man tied up to be flogged. It contains also a description by me (in a book entitled the Autobiography of a Working Man) of the punishment I received while a soldier in the Scots Greys, on the 29th of May, 1832. I have reason to complain of that offensive placard, and complained of it to the Peace Society as soon as I knew of its existence, and on the following grounds:—

  1. "1. Because my own opinion has been decidedly in favour of the volunteering of recruits to the militia, in preference to a compulsory ballot (or invasion of the domestic circle by a conscription); and because, if the battalions of the militia were not filled by volunteers, the conscription must have been resorted to.
  2. "2. Because I do not believe that militiamen were or are likely to be flogged, unless they commit crimes which they may easily avoid.
  3. "3. Because my book was intended to be, what every page of it proves, a warning to young men entering the Army, and to soldiers already there, not to connect themselves with politics and regimental politicians, as I unfortunately did; also to dissuade civilians from connecting themselves with physical force movements.
  4. "4. Because a quotation is prominently made from my book in the Peace Society's placard without their naming the hook, or explaining why I was flogged, but, on the contrary, leading any one not acquainted with me to infer that I was some malefactor, guilty, probably, of a vile moral crime (which soldiers usually are guilty of before receiving such a punishment).
  5. "5. Because my name was the only one used in the placard as a soldier who had suffered that punishment which was to deter men from volunteering into the militia.
  6. "6. Because I was not asked if I should allow my name to be used for such a purpose.
And, lastly, if I had, I should have emphatically said 'No.'—I am, &c, ALEXANDER SOMEUVILLE. Charles Hindley, Esq., M.P. Well, I think that that letter does great credit to the writer. The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, I understand, began his remarks by finding fault with me for having said something on a former occasion which he considers to be offensive, or uncivil, or rude, to the Peace Society. Now I then stated what I cannot retract, namely, that I think the course they pursued was a grave offence. Their intention was to obstruct the public service, and to deprive the country of those means of defence which Parliament deliberately thought that the country ought to have. But, Sir, the hon. Gentleman says that the proceedings instituted by the late Government were calculated to gag the press; that this is a free country, and that a man may publish what he likes. Well, he may publish what he likes, provided it is not against the law. But if this country is a free country, and it is free for any man to risk publishing that which he considers not to be against the law, it is also free to the Government, and it is the duty of the Government, if they see any one publishing that which they think and are advised is against the law, and against the interests of the country, to take steps that such an offence may be punished. In the remarks I made the other evening, I did not intend to say anything offensive to the Peace Society. I look upon the Peace Society as a society of very well-intentioned fanatics—much too good to be entrusted with any political functions in this wicked and sinful world; and I would urge and entreat my hon. Friend who asked the question, to use his influence, as a man of good understanding and practically conversant with public affairs, to induce his peace-preaching colleagues in the society to be a little less pugnacious than they have recently shown themselves.