HC Deb 11 March 1853 vol 125 cc34-6

presented a petition from Robert Edmund Bower, then in the custody of the Serjeant at Arms, for having refused to take an oath, or make a declaration, previously to tendering his evidence before the Committee appointed to try the merits of the petition presented against the return of Sir Alexander Cock-burn for Southampton. The Petitioner prayed the House either to let him make an affirmation before the Committee which shall be binding on his conscience, or to set him at liberty. He would now move that the Petitioner be discharged from custody, without payment of fees. It might perhaps be proper to say a few words in explanation of the circumstances under which this person was placed in custody. On Wednesday morning, he (Mr. Herbert), as Chairman of the Southampton Election Committee, felt it his duty to report Bower's conduct to the House. Bower's refusal to take an oath or make a declaration took place on Tuesday, and the Committee then felt that they were justified in putting their powers with regard to witnesses in execution, by ordering Bower at once to be placed in the custody of the Serjeant at Arms. But, from everything that had taken place, the Committee believed that Bower had bonâ fide a conscientious scruple to taking an oath or making a declaration; and even if Bower had not presented this petition, the Committee would have asked the House to consent to his release. He (Mr. Herbert) might add that the case for the petitioners had closed, and that their counsel had stated that he had no wish to keep the man in custody. There could, therefore, be no earthly purpose why Bower should remain any longer in custody.


said, he did not rise for the purpose of objecting to the Motion, but rather to call the attention of Her Majesty's Government to the extremely unsatisfactory state of the law on the subject. His remarks were not intended to apply exclusively to the proceedings of Select Committees of that House. By the present state of the law there were provisions for relieving certain persons from taking oaths. The persons so privileged were Quakers, Moravians, (as well as persons who had been either Quakers or Moravians), and the sect called Separatists. He did not pretend to know what were the distinguishing characteristics of that sect. Now, when it happened that a witness presented himself to give evidence in a Court of Law, who did not belong to any of the religious bodies just named, but who, like them, had an objection to taking an oath, the Court was obliged to commit him or dispense with his evidence. He thought it would be extremely desirable to give Courts of Law in such cases power to receive evidence on affirmation. Of course, if it was believed that a witness pretended to have a conscientious scruple to taking an oath, merely with the view of evasion, no one would sympathise with him if he were committed by the Court.

Ordered—" That Robert Edmund Bower be discharged out of the custody of the Serjeant at Arms attending this House, without payment of fees; and that Mr. Speaker do issue his warrants accordingly."


observed, that the Motion of Mr. Herbert included exemption from payment of fees by Bower.

It was then agreed that Bower should be released without being subjected to costs.