HC Deb 18 July 1853 vol 129 cc381-94

said, he rose to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the petition of certain electors of the city of Peterborough, complaining of the interference of the Earl Fitzwilliam at the election in December last, and at previous elections for that city. In moving for this Committee he should take up but little of the time of the House, because he should confine himself as much as possible to the statement of a few simple facts. It was a painful matter to him, rather than otherwise, to appear, in some degree, in the position of accuser of Earl Fitzwilliam, for whose private character, and his public character also, in many respects, he had always entertained a very high regard. But he had had placed in his hands a petition, signed by 219 electors of Peterborough, complaining of undue interference. He believed there were not more than 500 electors in the borough. The petition, therefore, was signed by so large a number of electors that it was impossible for any Member who was asked to present it on their behalf to refuse to proceed upon it, for he considered that it would be quite impossible for the House to refuse to appoint a Committee to inquire into its allegations. The petitioners referred to the election of July last (the general election), and also to the election of December last, in consequence of the death of the gentleman (Mr. Watson) returned in July. They state that on both occasions Earl Fitzwilliam had, through the instrumentality of his agents and servants, directly and indirectly, interfered, by intimidation, persuasion, treating, and offers of sums of money, in favour of the gentleman returned in July, and of the gentleman who had failed to secure his return in December. There was another allegation which was important—that they believed the petition against the return of the present sitting Member was not the petition of the persons whose names were appended, but rather the petition of Earl Fitzwilliam, and that they had reason to believe that all the expenses of the proceedings con- nected therewith were defrayed by Earl Fitzwilliam; that Earl Fitzwilliam's interference destroyed the independence of the city; that notices to quit had been served on some electors who had voted against, and some who did not vote at all, either for or against the candidates approved by Earl Fitzwilliam; and that though nominally the representatives of that borough, the Members were really the representatives of Earl Fitzwilliam, and his interests were consulted in Parliament rather than the interests of the electors of the borough. They said—and they were very modest in that respect—that the almost unanimous feeling of the people of Peterborough was, that at least they should have one Member to represent the constituency, who would be in some degree independent of the mere will and pleasure of the said Earl. Their ambition had only arrived at that point yet that there should be one Member for the laity, while the other should represent Earl Fitzwilliam. He had also to state that a petition signed by a large number of ratepayers, who were non-electors of Peterborough, had been presented, praying the House to take into consideration the petition of the electors, and to give such relief as they should think suitable. They stated that the possession of the franchise was calculated to inflict positive injury, for if they voted against the candidate approved by Earl Fitzwilliam, they were subjected to vindictive persecution, up to absolute ruin; and if, on the contrary, they voted against their consciences for the persons nominated by the Earl, then they lost the respect and confidence of their neighbours and townspeople. They stated that they were aware of the fact that it was a high misdemeanour for any Peer of Parliament to interfere in the election of Members of that House, and they therefore prayed the House to appoint a Select Committee to inquire into these allegations of interference, and also into the charge that the expenses of the recent petition were defrayed by Earl Fitzwilliam, and not by the petitioners themselves. Without going into an historical account of the city of Peterborough, he might state a rather interesting fact, that so long ago as the reign of Charles II. a Mr. Fitzwilliam represented that city in Parliament, and up to the last election the approved candidates of the Fitzwilliam family had been the only representatives of that city. There were contests in 1835, 1837, 1841, and 1852, and upon all those occasions the nominees of Earl Fitzwilliam were returned. The effect of this state of things was to reduce the constituency, for in 1832 there were 773 electors, whereas in 1852 they amounted to 512. At a former period about two-thirds of the electors were what were called scot and lot voters; and as these died off, the constituency had diminished, there being now only ninety scot and lot voters in the borough; and this was the reason why the Fitzwilliam influence had diminished, for the influence of the family was naturally greater over this class of electors than over the 10l. householders. Earl Fitzwilliam's house was three miles from the borough, and he had accordingly very large influence there. In all probability the noble Lord's high character had much to do with this, for he believed his character hitherto had been such as to make his influence less galling to the borough than the same kind of influence exercised in other boroughs had been. He found that his Lordship had 317 tenants of houses, buildings, and lands, within the borough of Peterborough, and 220 of these were voters; so that, if he chose to exercise it, he had very large influence in a borough with a constituency of only about 500. He understood Earl Fitzwilliam had a large and powerful staff—a steward, under-steward, political agent, registration agent, private solicitors, and others, who were most influential at elections, in canvassing and giving support to such a candidate as his Lordship approved, and in using those means with which every hon. Member must be familiar, of intimating which was the candidate Earl Fitzwilliam wished to be elected. The scot and lot voters, about ninety in number, were generally men living upon wages varying from 14s. to 30s. a week; and it was proved before the Committee which sat upon the election petition, that a practice had continued from a period anterior to the Reform Bill, of giving the scot and lot voters an annual gratuity of what some called "crowns." Those who had given two votes received 10s., or two crowns; those who had given one vote only, received 5s., or one crown; and those who did not vote at all for Earl Fitzwilliam's friends, were always understood to receive nothing at all. These facts were brought out on the Committee that unseated Mr. Whalley. John Noble, one of the witnesses before that Committee, stated that the first time he voted for the "Blues"—that was, the independent party—the crowns left him, having always had them when be voted for his Lordship's candidates. George Moniton, another voter, having remained true to the Milton interest at previous elections, voted for Clifton and Whalley; and when he went in February to receive his crowns, he was told by the Earl's steward there were none for him. That man was remarkable for his simplicity, fur having opposed Earl Fitzwilliam's friends, he nevertheless went to the steward to get his regular donation of money. William Smith, Sarah Deacons, Grace Smale, and others, gave similar evidence as to the system adopted with regard to the payment of headmoney. With regard to the other class of voters—the householders, many cases had occurred in which houses had been refused to be let to persons not likely to have votes; and he had a copy of a letter addressed to a lady, which was a very interesting and pretty description of what was done by Earl Fitzwilliam's agent. It was dated February 26, 1853, and addressed to Mrs. Chettle, Thorneyfen:— Madam—I much regret that since I last wrote to you upon the subject of the house in the Long Causeway, I find that the proposition which you have made of Mr. Chettle or Mrs. Elstone becoming tenants would be unavailable, as the vote of a non-resident could not possibly be secured; and this portion of his Lordship's property having at all times commanded a vote, it is of the utmost importance that the existing privileges should not be diminished. It will, at the same time, give me much satisfaction if I can serve your interest in any other form.—I am, Madam, your obedient Servant, "CHARLES SIMPSON. The fact was, this lady, not being able to give a vote, was refused the house; this, he thought, clearly showed the means taken for bolstering up the influence of Earl Fitzwilliam, with a view of carrying the candidates whom he might approve. There were cases more objectionable still—of notices to quit having been served upon those who had voted in the July or December election against Earl Fitzwilliam's approved candidates. He had the names of eight electors who had received notices to quit, or that their rents would be raised; and it was believed by the voters, and it was notorious in the; town, that it was a punishment on them for having voted against his wishes, or at least abstained from voting when he wished them to vote. No. 1, was a notice to quit, or to have the rent raised; Nos. 2, 3, and 4, were the same. Another was a notice to quit, or his rent to be doubled. Another was the case of a farmer, who was told that he must quit, or his rent must be considerably raised; and one of Earl Fitzwilliam's staff was reported to have said at a public meeting that if this man had his rent raised he had no right to find fault—that he had been renting 50l. under the value, on the understanding that he should vote for Earl Fitzwilliam's candidates, and if he would not grant favours to those who granted favours to him, he could not complain of the consequences which might befall him. Another case was that of a grocer and stationer in Peterborough, who had notice to quit, or if he remained a tenant that his rent would be raised. He asked the person who served the notice, if he submitted to pay the increased rent, might he vote as he pleased? The person said he did not know, but he would inquire. The same inquiry was made by the tenant of Mr. Wilkinson, his Lordship's political agent, and Mr. Wilkinson said he did not know, but he would inquire. Afterwards Mr. Wilkinson called, and said he had received a letter, which he read, to the effect that Mr. Wilkinson was quite right in saying the tenant was at liberty to remain in the house by paying the increased rent; but if he exercised his vote offensively, or printed or published anything, or used the press to print or publish anything, offensive to his Lordship, he must take the consequences. Now that was a species of interference which that House ought not to tolerate, and therefore, he trusted they would consent to a Committee of Inquiry into these allegations. Among the many allegations, it was stated that the petitioners in the recent election petition were only nominal petitioners, and the expenses were supposed to be defrayed by Earl Fitzwilliam himself. The recognizances were entered into by his Lordship's late house steward, and a builder constantly employed by the noble Lord; and several of the petitioners had, to their fellow townsmen repudiated all connexion with the petition, or concern for it, or that they were liable in any degree for the payment of the expenses incurred. He did not bring forward these statements on his own authority, but on that of a committee of the electors of the city of Peterborough, and he believed they all could be substantiated before a Committee of that House. They had brought forward a great many other statements of a similar character, with which he did not think it necessary to trouble the House, believing the petition was one of that character upon which the House would not feel at liberty to refuse to grant a Committee of Inquiry. The noble Lord at the head of the Government in that House would bear him out in saying that this system, it was intended by the Reform Bill, should be put an end to, and in a great many instances it was put an end to; in Peterborough it appeared to exist with great force, and it was to relieve the borough from such a state of things that a brave and courageous attempt was now made on the part of a large body of the electors—an attempt which he held to be worthy of the support and sympathy of that House. They appealed to the House, and the House would be wanting in their duty if they did not give them the opportunity which they sought of proving the allegations of their petition. The petition was signed by nearly half the constituency, and he believed by the vicar, churchwardens, and others of respectability; the evidence was obtained by a committee well known in the town, and was of such a character as to be quite conclusive of the statements made. He might have quoted, if he had pleased, from a work by Sir Robert Heron, who at one time represented the borough, in which he said the borough was completely in the hands of Earl Fitzwilliam, and he was elected by Earl Fitzwilliam, and represented Earl Fitzwilliam in that House. The case was a very simple one, but unfortunately he could not say an uncommon one. Still he contended such interference with elections was a violation of the constitution, and an insult to the House of Commons. One of their standing orders declared that it was an infringement of the privileges of Parliament for a Peer of the realm to interfere in elections; and he believed Peers in Parliament were not allowed to vote in elections of Members of that House. Nothing could be more scandalous than the proceedings apparently carried on in this case, and he was afraid in many other cases of a similar character. He intended to propose that the Committee be constituted very much the same as the Committee appointed in 1848, to inquire into the petition of certain electors of Stamford. That petition was very much of the same character, though the evidence was very inferior in conclusiveness to that which he had laid before the House, and he had given only the fringe, the outside, of that which he believed would be substantiated before the Committee. The Committee of 1848 was chosen by the General Committee of Elections, and consisted of nine Members, one being Mr. Page Wood, who brought forward the charge, and another some friend of the Marquess of Exeter's, against whom it was preferred. He would propose that this Committee should not exceed the number of seven, and if he should be on the Committee he would represent the petitioners, and some other gentleman could be appointed to represent Earl Fitzwilliam, and there would be five indifferent Members to hear evidence and decide upon it and make a Report to the House. He thought the hon. Gentleman below him (Mr. Fitzwilliam), would acquit him of having in the slightest degree exaggerated the allegations with the view of creating any excitement, or increasing the unpleasantness which must naturally exist. He had laid the simple facts before the House, and feeling confident the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) would not oppose it, and that every Member of the House would consider it a case for inquiry, he should move that a Select Committee be appointed for that purpose.


, in rising to second the Motion of the hon. Member for Manchester, said, he begged to thank him for the courteous manner in which he had made his proposition to the House. The hon. Gentleman might have gone more explicitly into the circumstances laid down in the petition, but he had refrained from inciting the House to any discussion that might have produced ill-feeling, or protracted the debate to an unnecessary length, and had contented himself with a mere statement of the facts put into his hand. Perhaps the House, however, would allow him to say, in seconding the Motion, that the petition contained allegations of a very grave nature, and such as to convey serious reflections on the character of Earl Fitzwilliam as a public man, and he felt that he would very ill discharge his duty to the constituents whom he represented, as well as towards the character and position of Earl Fitzwilliam, were he, on the ground of the relationship subsisting between them, to resist the proposition which the hon. Member had made; and it was as much in vindication of Earl Fitzwilliam's character, as from a sense of the duty he owed to his constituents, that he asked the house to accede to the Motion of the hon. Member. He must say he did not think the circumstances, were completely similar, though they might have some analogy to those of the Stamford petition, to which the hon. Gentleman had referred. He thought they were calculated to fix a severer stigma on Earl Fitzwilliam's character than any that was conveyed in the petition of the electors of Stamford. The petitions stated that an elector was exposed to punishment in some form or other if he voted against a candidate introduced by Earl Fitzwilliam, and that those who did so were exposed to "vindictive persecution, up to absolute ruin." Then electors, residing in Peterborough, were stated to have received notices to quit in consequence of having voted for his hon. Colleague at the election in December last. Now, he might state, from knowledge which he had acquired within the last clay or two, that these notices had been served on tenants, not because they voted for his hon. Colleague, and against Mr. Cornewall Lewis, but because in some eases their houses had been improved, and in others they had not paid rent for some years. In one particular case—that of a man holding land from Earl Fitzwilliam, and which case he understood was to be brought forward as showing the persecution which he committed—it appeared that that person was paying 50l. less a year than he was paying to another gentleman for a similar quantity of land; and it would be obvious to the House that unless Earl Fitzwilliam chose to resign that interest in his farm which he wished to retain, he must give the tenant notice to quit, that he might raise the rent up to the rate that was paid to the other gentleman. There were other statements of a similar kind which he might make to the House. On the death of Mr. Watson, it was necessary, of course, that a candidate should be brought forward for Peterborough; and one day about the time that the news of Mr. Watson's death arrived from Germany, Earl Fitzwilliam was paying a visit to a gentleman in the neighbourhood, and lamenting over the circumstance which had occurred, when a question was put as to how his place was to be supplied. The gentleman mentioned some names, and among others that of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Morpeth (Sir George Grey). Earl Fitzwilliam took down in writing on a piece of paper the names of several gentlemen who would be eligible candidates, among whom were Sir George Grey, Mr. Horsman, Mr. John Parker, and some one else whom he had forgotten. On the return of Lord Fitzwilliam to his own house, he found there the gentleman who invited Mr. Whalley to stand as a candidate, who was the chairman of his committee, and who nominated him as the election, and who had come to consult with Lord Fitzwilliam as to the most eligible person to represent Peterborough. He believed that Lord Fitzwilliam drew out of his pocket the names he had just alluded to; and during the conversation, and previous to that occurrence, this gentleman brought out of his pocket a paper, on which it turned out that the very same names were written. It was presumed, therefore, that there was no objection to any of the candidates who were considered eligible by Lord Fitzwilliam, inasmuch as every one of the names corresponded; but nevertheless Mr. Whalley was invited to stand for Peterborough. There was another allegation contained in the petition, which could be clearly refuted by reference to a book not unfrequently quoted in that House—he meant Dodd's Electoral Facts. The allegations in the petition were, that Earl Fitzwilliam's influence in the borough was predominant, and that his spirit was so vindictive that no person, having any feeling for such electors as desired to exercise their elective francise conscientiously, would be ready to present himself as a candidate with the view of vindicating the independence of the place. Nevertheless, the presence in that House of the hon. Member who succeeded in beating Mr. Cornewall Lewis, who was called Lord Fitzwilliam's candidate, was a sufficient refutation of that statement; and a reference to Dodd's Electoral Facts would serve to show that since 1832 there had been several contests in the borough. These were facts which he did not wish the House to take on his testimony alone. The petitioners desired a strict investigation into the facts, and in seconding the Motion of the hon. Member for Manchester he was performing a duty, not only in reference to Earl Fitzwilliam's character and position in society, but also to the constituency he represented.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the allegations contained in the Petitions of certain Electors and Inhabitants of the City of Peterborough, which were presented upon the 30th day of June last, complaining of the interference of the Earl Fitzwilliam, a Peer of the Realm, at the Election in December last, and at previous Elections, of Members to serve in Parliament for the said City.


said, he understood—for he had not heard the speech of the hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Bright)—that the petition complained of undue interference by a Peer of Parliament with the election of a Member of the House of Commons; and, inasmuch as the Motion had been seconded by a relative of Lord Fitzwilliam, he supposed there would be no objection to the appointment of the Committee asked for. What he rose to mention, as a Member of the General Committee on Elections, was, that there was a petition pending against the last election for Peterborough, and that the General Committee proposed on an early day to proceed to name the day for choosing the Members. The actual choice could not take place for fourteen or fifteen days afterwards. But, if they were to appoint such a Committee—such as that now moved for—the proceedings before it would prejudice the proceedings before the Election Committee. He suggested this with the view of obtaining the opinion of the noble Lord the Member for London upon it.


said, he owed an apology to the House and to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. G. Fitzwilliam), for having omitted to mention that the petition before the House did not refer to the last election, because it had been drawn up, signed, and sent to London previously to the last election. The petition now pending with regard to the hon. Gentleman referred altogether to his qualification; and he could not, therefore, see how this petition could in any way have any bearing on that; and what he feared was, that were this postponed till the others were disposed of, it could not come on till next Session.


said, that the petition was first put into his hands before the last election, but that as the petition against the seat was then pending, he consulted Mr. Speaker, and understood from him that it was desirable this petition should not then be presented. He accordingly refused to present it while the election petition was still pending.


said, he was of opinion, from his experience of Election Committees, that it was utterly impossible fairly to enter into the inquiry affecting the seat, if another Committee of this nature was sitting at the same time. He quite concurred in thinking full inquiry into this case was absolutely necessary; but he hoped that it would be postponed until the other Committee had reported.


said, that after hearing the hon. Member for Manchester, and the hon. Member for Peterborough, he was quite ready to concur in the Motion which was before the House. He thought, in the case of a petition of this nature, which the hon. Member had moved, and which had been seconded by a relative of Lord Fitzwilliam's, it was right that the House should consent to the Committee which was asked for. The question, therefore, remained, whether the Committee should be appointed forthwith. They had a recent precedent which war nearly, if not exactly, the same as this, that occurred in the case of the city of Durham. A petition of a somewhat similar nature to this was presented in the case of Durham. But the election petition being at the same time the subject of inquiry, no Committee was appointed in the case of the other petition. The Election Committee was appointed on the 2nd of June; they reported on the 9th; and or the 14th the House named the Committee which was to inquire into the petition that had been postponed. There was a difference of this case from that, in so far as the petition now pending referred to the disqualification of the sitting Member for Peterborough. He did not think it reasonable, although the Session was drawing, to a close, because there might not be time to proceed with this investigation, if there was a general rule of the House that two Committees touching the same borough in election matters should not sit at the same time, to say that that general rule should therefore be set aside. There was one petition pending against the last election for the city of Peterborough relative to qualification, and another alleging that undue influence had been used by a Peer of Parliament in the election of a Member the House of Commons. Now, if it wet a general rule that these two petitions should not be proceeded with together, he did not think it advisable that the House should contravene that rule. The Committee could be appointed on the election petition, and after they had reported on that, the second inquiry might be proceeded with.


said, he had not heard the concluding observations of the noble Lord, and was quite unable, therefore, to say whether the noble Lord meant to oppose the Committee, the noble Lord spoke so very low. His words were so very indistinct that, although he (Mr. Bright) wished to give notice of another Resolution for Thursday with regard to instruction to the Committee, he was at a loss to know what to do, for if the noble Lord, were opposed to the appointment of the Committee, he had a few words to say in reply. The noble Lord said the Durham case was a very different matter from this. The petition before the House had no reference whatever to the hon. Member for Peterborough. At the same time he wished to state, that what he was doing was done neither in hostility to Lord Fitzwilliam, nor out of affection for the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Whalley). This petition complained of the influence of a Peer of Parliament in the borough; the other referred to nothing whatever but the disqualification of the hon. Member, and, consequently, his ineligibility to sit in that House. The question affecting the hon. Member was one for the lawyers and the Committee, which, after much speaking, he had no doubt they would be able to settle; but the constituency of Peterborough would have considerable reason to complain if the House should put off a case of this nature merely because there was another inquiry pending into the eligibility of the hon. Gentleman to sit in that House. He hoped the House would do no such thing as put off the appointment of the Committee for which he had moved.


said, that, the General Committee of Elections was now in a peculiar position, three of its Members having resigned, and three more being required before it could pursue its duties. He thought that what the House had to regret, if not to complain of, was, that the gentlemen who had signed this petition did not present it in time for it to come under the provisions enacted by the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) for this special purpose, by which provisions its allegations—though not immediately affecting the issue under consideration—might have been brought before the Election Committee appointed to try (Mr. Whalley's) right to his seat, and might, moreover, have been investigated on oath. The House should consider that there was important matter of precedent involved in this case; and, as a matter of precedent, they must consider whether it would be desirable that, when an election petition was pending, a petition relating to election matters in the same borough should be heard by another Committee—a Special Committee—not able to examine on oath, and yet inquiring before the Election Committee, which could examine on oath. It was important for them to adhere to some sound and strict rule upon this point. With respect to the numbers of the proposed committee, he suggested, if that committee were appointed, that, as at that period of the Session it was extremely difficult to obtain the services of many Gentlemen as Members of Committee, it would be better to make the Committee consist of five Members instead of seven.


said, he deeply regretted being obliged to say anything at that moment, but he would make but one remark. If it was desirable to lay down a new rule for any case similarly circumstanced as this, he hoped it would not be done in this case, for a reason which he would state. He said this petition was put into his hands when he was sitting in the House before for Peterborough; but objections having been taken by some to his presenting the petition, Mr. Speaker overruled these objections. However, he consulted his own feelings, and, considering that it might affect the petition which was then hanging over his head, he used all his influence to have the presentation of it put off as long as it was possible. He was eventually unseated, and the petition was then put into the hands of the hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Bright), and it was in his discretion to have presented it at what time he thought best. He hoped the House would not put off the appointment of this Committee, seeing that the other petition now in existence referred only to his legal qualification. He begged, for his unfortunate constituents, that they would not prolong their present condition, which was one of internecine war. [Laughter.] He used but the allegations of the petition itself. If the House left his constituents to the mercy of Lord Fitzwilliam for six months longer, it would be a great injury to men who made sacrifices for conscience, and what they believed to be right, such as had not been exceeded by any instance in this country.


said, the point which had been chiefly raised had not been brought to his attention until he entered the House, when the hon. Member for Berkshire (Mr. Palmer) raised the question as to the propriety of appointing this Committee now, with the prospect of the Election Committee sitting soon. He said he should therefore like to take till Thursday to consider what course he should advise.


said, he considered the House had to consider its own dignity and its own order quite as much in this matter as anything which had been suggested. But not to dwell upon that, the position in winch the petition stood was this. Application had been made to several hon. Members to present it; but no hon. Gentleman would present it, for the obvious reason that an election petition was pending. The hon. Member for Manchester had said that the case was not altered by that fact; but that hon. Gentleman was incorrect in his statement. This petition referred to the election that took place previously to the last, and complained of Lord Fitzwilliam having used his influence privately, and of having been guilty of other reprehensible conduct at that election. One of the accusations was, that the petition was not signed by the persons from it professed to proceed. That was a matter which ought to be submitted to the investigation of an Election Committee, and not to a Committee of that House. And what was the charge in the petition against the return of the sitting Member for Peterborough? Treating at the previous election; so that the instruction to this Committee would be to make inquiry whether or not the sitting Member was guilty of treating at that election or not; and in that way the whole question as to the previous election would be opened before the present Election Committee; or, if not, it would be referred to another Committee, sitting at the same time with the present Election Committee, which would take evidence upon oath. Against that course he (Mr. V. Smith) ventured to warn the House, for it would most assuredly supersede altogether the Election Act. He had no such anxiety as that entertained by the hon. Member for Peterborough as to the result of the proposed inquiry; but that was not the question before the House.

Motion agreed to.