HC Deb 14 June 1853 vol 128 cc143-55

presented a petition from certain electors of Harwich, stating that full inquiry into the corrupt practices prevailing at the last election for that borough had not taken place before the Select Committee, and praying for a thorough investigation on the spot by means of a Commission of Inquiry.


said, that, notwithstanding the petition just presented, and notwithstanding the charges of bribery and corruption brought from time to time against the borough of Harwich, it was a singular fact that there existed no evidence of a legal character upon which any lawyer could get up in that House and say that there ought to be any measure of punishment inflicted upon the electors of Harwich. Not one tittle of legal evidence had been adduced before the recent Committee of that House, and the borough of Harwich was quite immaculate and pure as compared with others for which writs had been issued. He had a petition to present from the Mayor, Aldermen, and burgesses of Harwich, in which they declared that, although it had been alleged in the Report of the Committee that there was a corrupt understanding between Mr. Attwood's agent and the late Member for Harwich, there was no evidence to show that any elector in the borough was cognisant of any such proceeding. He was quite sure that, if even handed justice was dealt out, there would be a new writ issued for the borough of Harwich immediately; and he would, therefore, not trouble the House further, but at once move the Resolution of which he had given notice.

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 pre- sent Parliament for the Borough of Harwich, in the room of George Montagu Warren Peacocks, esquire, whose Election has been determined to he void.


in the absence of his hon. and gallant Colleague (Sir D, L. Evans) said, he would beg to move the Amendment of which notice had been given. He thought that if there was one place which stunk more than another in the nostrils of the people of this country, it was the borough of Harwich. There had been election petitions, and gentlemen unseated, at each of the general elections, in 1841, 1847, and 1852; and although perhaps only one case of bribery had been proved before the late Committee, it would not be right to draw from that any conclusion favourable to the borough, because the witnesses had absconded, and could not be discovered while the Committee was sitting, although they returned to their residences immediately after it had concluded its labours. He thought that this was in itself a sufficient reason why the. House should be in no hurry to issue the writ. Believing that there was no individual who could put his hand on his heart and say that he did not believe that Harwich was one of the most corrupt places in the kingdom, he begged to move the Amendment to which he had referred.


said, he cordially seconded the Amendment. As a Member of the Select Committee which had inquired into the circumstances attending the last election, he believed that corrupt practices did extensively prevail in Harwich.

Amendment proposed— To leave out from the word 'That' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words 'a Select Committee of Five Members be appointed by the Committee of Selection, to inquire into the state of the Representation of the Borough of Harwich,'—instead thereof.

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


said, that he could not, as Chairman of the last Committee of Inquiry into corrupt Practices in the Borough of Harwich, agree with the hon. Member for North Essex (Sir J. Tyrell) in saying that there was no evidence of bribery having been committed there at the last election. One case was clearly established before the Committee, though it was at the same time true that it was not brought home to the sitting Member. The persons implicated in the bribery had ab- scowled, and had succeeded in evading an appearance before the Committee. At the same time it was fair to say that there was no evidence of general bribery and treating at the last election, and consequently there was not any foundation for the issue of a Commission of Inquiry into the borough under the provisions of the Act passed last Session. Mr. Peacocke was unseated because it was clearly proved that he had entered into a corrupt contract with Mr. Attwood for his interest in the borough. This contract was carried into effect by Mr. Attwood, who wrote upwards of thirty letters to different electors to secure their votes for Mr. Peacocke. The question then arose whether upon this state of facts a new writ should issue. Now he (Mr. Headlam) had always acted upon this principle, namely, not to refuse a writ unless there was some clear, definite, practical course to be adopted with respect to the borough; for instance, unless there was some evidence before the House on which to found either the issuing of a Commission, or some distinct Motion respecting the borough which it was necessary should be decided before the writ was issued. But even if the House should decide upon the appointment of a Committee asked for by the hon. Baronet the Member for Westminster (Sir J. Shelley) that was not a sufficient reason for suspending the writ in the meantime. He should not object to the appointment of such a Committee, if the hon. Baronet thought that he could elicit any new and useful facts concerning the borough; but he would call his attention to the fact that there were already numerous reports in the library made by the various Committees which had sat upon the elections of this borough during the last few years.


said, that he trusted the House would be of opinion that a new writ should issue for the borough of Harwich, and that they would not agree to the suggestion of the hon. Baronet the Member for Westminster (Sir J. Shelley), who did not bring it forward as a substantive Motion, but as a substitute for the issuing of the writ. It might be quite true that Harwich had acquired a very bad reputation, but they must take care not to be misled by prejudices arising from that source. It was quite true that Mr. Attwood was unseated for bribery in 1841; but it was also true that the cases on which he was unseated having been subsequently investigated before a jury, verdicts adverse to the charge of bribery were returned in both cases. Since 1847, there had been four single elections, and the last general election. The hon. Member returned at one of these elections was unseated for want of qualification; and another election was voided in consequence of the returning officer having closed the poll before the legal hour, there being at this election no allegation whatever as to the existence of bribery or treating. At the last election only five charges of bribery were made against the sitting Members; and the Committee merely reported one of these as proved. They also, it was true, reported that there was an arrangement between Mr. Peacocke and Mr. Attwood, by which it was arranged that on the payment of a certain sum of money by Mr. Peacocke, Mr. Attwood should procure his return as Member for Harwich. The evidence, however, on that point was, that Mr. Attwood's agent stipulated for the payment of the expenses of a former petition, and that Mr. Peacocke said that he would take the matter into consideration. He thought that in construing this to be such an agreement as would, under the provisions of the 49th Geo. III., void the seat of Mr. Peacocke, the Committee had construed the law in rather a stringent manner; but, however, that was their decision, and he bowed to it. The House would recollect that they had determined in favour of the issue of a new writ for the borough of Rye, although it was proved that great influence had there been exercised upon the voters by means of loans; the case of Harwich was infinitely weaker than this; and he hoped, therefore, that they would not act inconsistently with their own decision, by refusing to issue this writ.


said, that the case of Rye was not the only one which might be quoted as a precedent in favour of the issuing of this writ. The case of Plymouth was much stronger than that of Harwich; and yet, although the Election Committee had reassembled to inquire into the state of the borough, a new writ had been issued pending their investigations. Even, therefore, if they agreed to the appointment of the Committee moved for by the hon. Baronet the Member for Westmeath (Sir J. Shelley), that would be no reason for refusing to issue the writ.


said, he agreed with the hon. and learned Member for Stamford (Sir F. Thesiger) that the Amendment of the hon. Member for Westminster was not the best remedy that could be adopted in this case. Harwich, in his (Mr. T. Duncombe's) opinion, was quite ripe for disfranchisement. In 1842, a Committee, known as Mr. Roebuck's "Compromise Committee," considered the case of Harwich. Before that Committee it was adduced that Mr. Attwood had been returned with Mr. Beresford, and that it was endeavoured to be arranged that Mr. Beresford should retire, and Sir Denis Le Marchant take his place. But Mr. Roebuck's Committee completely spoilt that arrangement; and did their Report bear out the assertion of the hon. Baronet (Sir J. Tyrell), that there was no legal evidence of bribery or corruption at Harwich? The Committee said in their Report— The Committee also find that the electors in number are 182. That the sum of money expended by Mr. Attwood for the election of himself and Major Beresford was, as nearly as the Committee can ascertain, 6,300l., and that of this sum a large portion was expended in direct bribery by the agents of the sitting Members, and paid chiefly at periods subsequent to the election. This sum is exclusive of the money paid for the compromise. The person said to be employed for the purpose of receiving the money and engaging Others to distribute it was a banker of the town, who has died since the election. That among thirty persons a sum of above 3,000l. was distributed in direct bribes. That Major Beresford paid no part of this sum, he not having contributed to the expenses of the election. That the gross cost of the election on the part of Sir D. Le Marchant was, as nearly as can be ascertained, 1,500l.; and that a part of this sum—how much does not appear—was spent in an illegal manner, and 500l. went to pay certain former outstanding accounts. That the gross cost of the election to Mr. Bagshaw was 500l. And it appears also that bills against Sir D. Le Marchant and Mr. Bagshaw, to the amount of between 300l. and 400l. remain yet unsettled. That was a long time ago; and he did not say these bills were unsettled now. The Committee added— It would appear also that a large part of the whole constituency were bribed. What was Mr. Attwood's account of the affair? He said— Previously to my going down to Harwich, I mentioned to two or three of my friends in town that I was invited to stand for Harwich. I told them that I was a, perfect stranger to the place; that if I could go in a proper manner, without acting in any dishonourable or improper way, I should go with my friend: but if I could not go In that way I would not go near the place; and my friends said,' We believe you have nothing to year about that,' or something like that. I said, then I would go. I will state to the Committee that when the first application was made to me or money, I was astonished at the amount. I said a good deal about it; but I was not informed at that time that I should be called upon again; but after that I was called upon again, to my great astonishment. I paid a second sum. I believe I was called upon a third time, and I was very much astonished indeed, and I said a good deal against it. But then, standing upon my honour, what could I do? There were these sums to be paid. They appealed to me, 'Can you help paying them?' and appealing in that kind of way to my feelings, I considered I should not be acting honourably if I did not pay them; but it was very much against my inclination. I would sooner have paid five times the amount in any other way than that, if it had been left to me. Mr. Bagshaw, who was an unsuccessful candidate at that election, was examined before the Committee. He was asked— Are you, directly or indirectly, cognisant of any bribery at the last election, practised by your agents or local committee, or any member of it, on your behalf?—I have since the election heard that there has been bribery committed. I was not aware of it at the time. Do you know, of your own knowledge, that a large number of the Harwich constituency received bribes at the last election?—Yes; I think the great majority of them. Of your own knowledge?—I have seen those sort of documents which confirm me. I do not mean to say that I saw the money paid to them, but I think I could induce any Committee to believe that they were all bribed, directly or indirectly. Have you, through Sir Denis Le Marchant, as late Secretary to the Treasury, or through any other source, procured any Government clerkships or other appointments for Harwich electors, or for relations of electors?—I should think about twenty or thirty have been procured within the last five years, but not through Sir Denis Le Marchant. Perhaps it would be amusing to the Committee to know that there are more people of Harwich employed in Government appointments at this instant than there were on the poll. Your canvass was completed before Sir Denis le Marchant arrived?—Yes. Had you made a successful canvass?—Most successful. What majority did you think would be returned by you?—I polled 83 persons. I had 100 certain promises, and two persons that I did not reckon on voted for me. Which would have given you a clear majority?—Yes; there were only 180 persons who could vote. Well, that was the history of the election of 1841, which was subsequently made matter of inquiry by a Committee in 1842. Nothing, however, resulted from that inquiry, and the next election took place in 1847, on which occasion, though Mr. Attwood would of course do nothing improper, somehow or other, having been returned, he was unseated on petition for bribery. Sir John Hobhouse was returned accordingly in his place; but another election came off on that right hon. Baronet being raised to the Peerage. Then came the case of Mr. Prinsep, unseated for want of qualification; and of Mr. Crawford, declared not duly elected in consequence of the poll being closed too soon. His hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Westminster (Sir De Lacy Evans) then moved for a Committee of Inquiry, and the writ was suspended until the following Session of Parliament. On that occasion a Motion was made that an inquiry should be instituted into the state of the borough; but the House decided that it would not institute an inquiry. Well, then came the question, what was to be done with the writ? On that occasion he (Mr. Duncombe) stated that only two courses were open to the House, namely, either to disfranchise the borough, or to issue the writ. It was decided accordingly that the writ should be issued, and the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for East Suffolk (Sir F. Kelly) was returned in consequence. Well, then, there was evidence of a system of bribery having prevailed in this borough, which, in his (Mr. Duncombe's) opinion, fully entitled it to the distinction conferred upon Sudbury and St. Albans. But then Mr. Attwood came out again, and having bought the electors upon a former occasion, it seemed he was now prepared to sell them. And, therefore, he took a sum, five and twenty hundred pounds or so, and seemed to treat the whole matter as a kind of speculation, feeling that he could return whomsoever he liked, and that it would be absurd in any one to go to Harwich without the countenance of Mr. Attwood. He wrote letters to fifty or sixty electors who were his tenants, asking them to vote for Mr. Peacocke. Well, the question was, whether the investigation of the other day was complete. He believed that it was not; and, coupling that incomplete investigation with all the delinquency which had been displayed upon former occasions, he believed that the House would be stultifying itself were it to accede to the Motion of the hon. Member for North Essex (Sir J. Tyrrell). He would, however, have very much preferred to vote for the Motion of the hon. Member for Westminster (Sir J. Shelley), if he was asking for leave to bring in a Bill to disfranchise the borough, for to that it must come at last. It returned two Members for its 200 electors; it would still have one, and surely it would be still sufficiently represented. Next year they were to have a new Reform Bill, and of course the noble Lord the Member for the City of London would not forget to deal with this borough; and the more so, as he would have one foe the less to eon-tend against, because he might depend upon it that the two Members for Harwich would always stand up for its purity, as the hon. Baronet the Member for North Essex had done on the present occasion, He should vote for the Amendment of the hon. Member for Westminster, though he must repeat that the middle course it indicated was not the proper one to be adopted.


said, he quite agreed that though common fame might possibly be a good ground for disfranchising a borough, it was no ground whatever for withholding a writ. When such grave imputations were cast upon the constituency's discharge of the elective franchise, it would be hardly decent or hardly consistent with the constitutional usage of that House to issue the writ without further inquiry. Time was, no doubt, when candidates obtained seats openly and professedly by means of bribery: for instance, the late Sir Samuel Romilly found it much more convenient to enter Parliament by the payment of a sum of 3,000l., rather than appeal to one of the larger constituencies. That, however, was many years ago, and he had imagined that all such practices had been abolished. Here, according to the Report of a Committee, a borough was charged with having returned a Member through the instrumentality of a corrupt bargain, and it was not right that the writ should issue without such an allegation having been inquired into. If a Commission could prove that Mr. Attwood had cheated Mr. Peacocke out of his money, then the borough would clear itself; but if, in consequence of that bargain Mr. Peacocke had been returned to that House, it would be a mockery to continue such a system.


said, he held that a constituency had an absolute right to send a representative to that House—a right only qualified by the Report of a Committee appointed to consider the circumstances of a former election. In the present instance all the circumstances were in favour of the issuing of the writ. The question was not what Harwich did in 1841 or 1847, but whether, in the circumstances of the last election, there was anything to justify the suspension of the writ. In the absence of such Report, he thought that, ex debito justitice, the borough had a right to claim the issue of the writ. The authority of the Chairman, who was perfectly conversant with the facts, was against the disfranchisement for which they had been told the borough was so ripe. He, therefore, cheerfully concurred in the proposition of the hon. Baronet the Member for North Essex, as he had heard nothing to deprive his fellow-subjects of their constitutional rights.


Sir, I cannot agree with my hon. Friend who has just spoken, for I think this House has a right to suspend a writ—a right which has been exercised ever since the time of the Revolution. I believe, however, that our course upon the present occasion must be a good deal determined by the course which we have taken upon former occasions. At the commencement of the Session I gave it as my opinion, that in every case in which a Report of an Election Committee should be made to this House that a seat had been gained by bribery, and that a Member had been unseated, we should proceed to appoint a Select Committee to investigate the subject; and if it should appear to that Committee that extensive corruption had prevailed, that then the House, proceeding according to Act of Parliament, should inquire into the practice of the borough by a Commission. That, however, was not the opinion of the House; and it was very evident that a great majority were in favour of the issuing of the writ in those cases where the express words of the Act of Parliament were not reported by the Election Committees. I think, therefore, Sir, that it is very difficult, after the decision that was then come to, to single out a particular borough, and to say that this is a worse case than any other that has come before us, or that in this particular case circumstances are more aggravated or more condemnatory of the borough than in previous cases in which the writ has been issued. I find the great difficulty that I believe the present to be the strongest case that has yet come before us, much stronger than the case of Rye, which the hon. and learned Gentleman (Sir P. Thesiger) takes up with such great zeal. There is, however, another reason which should determine us in the course to be adopted, namely, that the hon. and learned Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Mr. Headlam), who was Chairman of the Committee, has stated that in his opinion the writ ought to issue. Now, I own I give great weight to the authority of the hon. and learned Gentleman, as he must be well aware of all the circumstances of the case. But at the same time, while I say that the previous course of the House, and the authority of the hon. and learned Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, would determine me to vote as to the issuing of the writ, I confess I very much agree with what has been stated by my hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury (Mr. T. Duncombe) with respect to this borough. I certainly cannot see how Parliament can overlook the Report which the Election Committee made to this House; and with regard to the particular facts and arguments stated by the hon. and learned Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne—though perhaps I do not say they are an authority against the issuing of the writ, nevertheless I will say that they very much condemn the borough. For it appears there was a regular bargain and sale of the seat. Before the Reform Act it is perfectly notorious that many Members procured their seats by paying down certain sums of money to those who commanded influence in particular boroughs; and it would appear that in the present case, in accordance with the old usage, a sum of money was paid by a Member of this House, and an engagement was entered into with Mr. John Attwood, through his solicitor, for securing his election. Why, this amounts not merely to one case of bribery, but it determined the majority of the electors in the borough; for it is not to be supposed that a gentleman would agree to pay a sum of money unless he could obtain in return a majority of the votes of the constituency. In this instance the foresight of the purchaser was justified, and he was returned a Member to this House. But, then, why did not the Committee pursue its investigation further? Why, we are told by the hon. and learned Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne that the two witnesses from whom they expected to ascertain all the facts, had disappeared, and that they could not, therefore, get at their evidence; that it appeared further, that since that time they have been living quietly at Harwich in pursuit of their usual occupations. I own I must conclude, even if this House should issue the writ, that the case of Harwich is such as that there ought to be immediately further inquiry by a Select Committee with respect to the state of that borough: either that, or some hon. Gentleman can move for leave to bring in a Bill to disfranchise it. I am ready to vote for either of those courses. If the House should think that there is not sufficient evidence with regard to the former corruption, or the actual corruption of the borough of Harwich, there can be further inquiry; but, at all events, I believe that the case alleged is such that for the sake of the character of this House the borough ought to be disfranchised.


said, he hoped, as the representative of Harwich, he should be permitted to offer a few observations on the present occasion. It was not his intention to enter at this time upon the issue raised by the hon. Member for Westminster (Sir J. Shelley) as to the comparative corruption of large and small constituencies; but when the noble Lord the Member for the City of London should agitate that question in connexion with his promised Reform Bill, he would venture to give his opinion, founded on long experience, as to which class of constituency was most prone to be operated on by improper influences. That, however, was not the question now to be considered; neither was the question what Harwich had been, but what it now was—not what it was in 1841, but what it was in 1852. He asked the House whether it was prepared to deprive the electors of Harwich of the right to exercise their constitutional privileges according to their conscientious conviction? Was it because an individual, through the medium of his private solicitor, was reported to have entered into a pecuniary arrangement with Mr. Peacocke, that they would deprive the rest of the constituency of the elective franchise? He (Mr. Waddington) stood there as evidence that Mr. Attwood's influence was not requisite to return a Member for the borough of Harwich upon pure and independent principles. He had been called upon to stand for Harwich, and he had been told that unless he saw Mr. Attwood, and obtained his influence and that of his agent, that his return would be quite impossible. But he refused to do so; he maintained that refusal, and he had never seen either Mr. Attwood, his private solicitor, or his agent, until they appeared before the Committee of the House of Commons. But if he were to be told that he was not again to go to Harwich—and go again, let him say, he intended to do—because, forsooth, either Mr. Attwood or Mr. Peacocke had committed an indiscretion, he would say at once that this House was easting a slur upon the electors of Harwich, and upon all who desired to be returned upon pure and independent principles. He would state to the House that the whole expenditure on account of his election had amounted to but 61l., and beyond that sum his return for the borough of Harwich had not cost him one sixpence, either directly or indirectly. It was downright injustice to the Conservative party to place upon their shoulders the bribery which took place at the last election for Harwich, for there was not a tittle of evidence to support such a charge. He maintained that on that occasion not so much as one single glass of ale had been distributed on behalf of either of the candidates. Inasmuch, then, as he believed, notwithstanding the sneer of the hon. Baronet the Member for Westminster (Sir J. Shelley), that Harwich was removing out of that state of abeyance in which she had been so long kept through the instrumentality of party politics, and that by means of improved communication which it now enjoyed that she would be ultimately-placed in a state of great commercial importance, he called upon the House not to perpetrate an injustice by suspending the issuing of the writ.


said, that after what he had heard from hon. Members, he would beg to inform the House that he held in his hand a petition to the House of Commons from the mayor, aldermen, and burgesses of the borough of Harwich, in which they stated that they were ready to submit to any investigation which that House might prescribe, but they expressed a hope that in the meantime no delay might be suffered to deprive them of their constitutional rights. He would remind hon. Members, before they proceeded to harsh measures with regard to this borough, that it had sent to that House such illustrious men as Huskisson and Canning.


(who was met with shouts of "Divide, divide!") said, if hon. Gentlemen would only hear him for a moment they would learn that he wanted to spare them the trouble of dividing at all. He wanted to suggest to his hon. Friend the Member for Westminster the advisability of withdrawing his Amendment, after what had fallen from the noble Lord the Member for the City of London.


under the circumstances, would do so. He begged to say, however, he would still vote against the issuing of the writ, and that it was his intention at a future day to move that the borough be disfranchised.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 247; Noes 102: Majority 145.

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