HC Deb 12 July 1854 vol 135 cc111-6

Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [24th May], "That the Bill be now read a second time."

Question again proposed.

Debate resumed.


said, he had been in possession of the House when the adjournment of the discussion upon the measure had last taken place. He should not, however, avail himself of his privilege for the purpose of stating at any length the grounds upon which his opposition to that measure was based, inasmuch as he understood that it was the intention of the hon. and learned Member for Enniskillen (Mr. Whiteside) to withdraw it. He might, however, be permitted to say, that the Bill was one whose principle was in direct antagonism to the feelings and wishes of almost every Roman Catholic in Ireland, and in a declaration signed by nearly 250,000 persons it had been characterised as a mere cloak for sectarian bigotry, and as an insult to the Roman Catholic community. He was exceedingly glad that the shortness of the Session, and the discretion of the hon. and learned Gentleman, had put a stop to any further progress of this Bill.


said, be wished to obtain the indulgence of the House while he stated the reasons why it was that he had come to the determination to withdraw the Bill under their notice. It would not, of course, be becoming in him to call into question a rule which had been framed by the House of Commons in its wisdom, and by which the minority were enabled to control the voice of the majority of its Members. He was of opinion, however, that it was due, as well to himself as to the House, that he should state the reasons which had induced him to give up a measure which he had ventured to introduce. He could only say that he gave up that measure from necessity—from the impossibility of being enabled to carry it during the present Session, and not from any belief on his part that the question relating to the disposition of property, as embodied in the Bill, was not one with which Parliament and the country could legitimately deal. What the Bill proposed to effect had already been done in France and in other Roman Catholic countries, and he could not, therefore, justly be held liable to the charge of intolerance because he had endeavoured to place the law of England upon the same footing as that which in those countries prevailed. He had brought forward the Bill in conjunction with a proposition which had been made by an hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Mr. T. Chambers), but he thought it right to state that he had never had the honour of exchanging a word with that Gentleman until after his Motion had been made. In abandoning the Bill, he should take occasion to protest against the doctrine which was maintained by some hon. a Members in that House—that subjects such as that with which the Bill proposed to deal were subjects into which individual Members of Parliament, or even Parliament itself, must not venture to inquire. No institution in this country could escape the ordeal of submitting to investigation if the Legislature should think it expedient that that investigation should take place; and, he should add, that facts fully justified a resort to inquiry, in order that it might be ascertained whether monastic and conventual establishments were institutions in conformity with, or antagonistic to, the interests of England. The reason why he had not pressed his Bill of late was because he had entertained a hope that a case which was pending in the other House of Parliament would have relieved the House from the necessity of deciding upon the principle of his Bill, by rendering it clear whether the law with relation to the civil death of individuals was still the law of England. The case to which he referred had, however, been compromised by the payment of a sum of money, and no judicial opinion upon its merits would, of course, be pronounced. The law relating to monastic institutions was in a most unsatisfactory state, and he was, indeed, but a short-sighted politician who was not aware that the question of placing it upon a sound footing was that which was uppermost in the minds of the people of England, and was a question which required, and which should receive, a speedy solution. In conclusion, he would beg to move for leave to withdraw his Bill.


said, he was glad the hon. and learned Gentleman had consented to withdraw a measure which could only give rise to religious squabbles, and serve to display the intolerant spirit by which hon. Members on the other side of the House were actuated. [Cries of"Order !"]


rose to order, on the ground that the hon. Member had already spoken on the Bill, and was proceeding to address the House, but was interrupted by


who said, he begged to submit to the right hon. Gentleman in the Chair that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire having been himself already heard on the Bill, was not in order in now speaking upon it.


said, that the hon. Member for Sheffield was out of order, because he had previously spoken on the Bill, but he was not aware that the bon. Member for North Warwickshire had spoken on the question.


said, that he must regard the objection which hon. Members opposite appeared to entertain to his being heard in the light of a compliment. He could assure those hon. Gentlemen, however, that he should not be deterred by their opposition from giving expression to his sentiments with reference to the subject under their consideration; and that even though he were to consent to be silent with respect to it, the feeling which existed in connection with it throughout the country was such as would give Parliament no rest until the question relating to monastic and conventual establishments was fairly solved, and those institutions were brought within the purview of the law of England. But to return for a moment to the hon. Member for Sheffield (Mr. Hadfield). That hon. Gentleman had ventured to accuse those who sat upon his (Mr. Newdegate's) side of the House of manifesting a spirit of intolerance, but no person, he believed, who had heard the speech which the hon. Gentleman had delivered a few nights before with respect to the Regium Donum, could fail to be of opinion that the charge of intolerance came from him with a very bad grace in- deed. A more bigoted speech than that of the hon. Member on that occasion—one breathing a more intolerant spirit with reference to members of the Presbyterian religion—he had never heard. He believed, and he hoped the country would perceive, that no course could be adopted more calculated to be fatal to the interests of Protestantism, or to the maintenance of religious freedom, than that which the hon. Member for Sheffield, and those other hon. Members who were equally indiscriminate and unjust in their attacks upon their brother Protestants, upon the ground that they received State endowments, had pursued. Those hon. Members were perpetually assailing the Established Church in this country, which was the great bulwark of Protestant freedom, and they thus rendered themselves nothing more nor less than agents in the hands of those who were the advocates of the supremacy of the Church of Rome. With respect to the Bill under their notice, he wished to make a very few observations. He for one felt deeply indebted to his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Enniskillen (Mr. Whiteside) for having brought his great legal ability to bear upon the question with which that Bill proposed to deal. Under the operation of the law as it at present stood in reference to that question, convents were permitted to exist; but, at the same time, the conditions upon which their existence was based—so far as those conditions related to the possession or disposition of property upon the part of their inmates—were by the law totally ignored. The law presumed that a nun was a free agent, quite as unfettered as any unmarried woman at large throughout the country. Now, the hon. and learned Member for Enniskillen had upon a former occasion explained to the House in the fullest manner that the vows which were taken by a nun extended to the question of the disposal, not only of such property as she might possess at the time of her entrance into the convent, but also of all property which might subsequently accrue to her either by gift, by will, or inheritance; that this was a state of things which rendered the position of a nun wholly different from that of any other member of the community, and which made it perfectly clear that the law proceeded upon a false assumption in dealing with the nun as a free agent in the disposal of her property. Now, the Bill of his hon. and learned Friend proposed to deal with the subject as it stood, and to throw upon the superioress and the other inmates of the convent the onus of proving that the nun had not been coerced with respect to the mode in which her property should be disposed of. The Bill of his hon. and learned Friend must, however, he supposed, share the fate of another attempt which had been made during the course of the present Session to deal with the anomalies of the existing law, and must be withdrawn, in deference to that persevering abuse of the forms of the House which had been put into practice by some of its Members. He should warn those hon. Members, however, that their attempt to coerce the voice of the House of Commons upon the subject—that every instance in which the Government had either tacitly or otherwise aided them in making that attempt—would merely serve the purpose of strengthening the determination of the Protestants of England that the hands of the Legislature should be set free, and that the laws of this country should be adapted to the altered relations which notoriously had subsisted between the Roman Catholic body and the State ever since the occurrence of that Papal aggression which the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill had been framed to suppress. He could tell the Roman Catholics that, if they hoped to exempt themselves from the control of the laws by resorting to the practice of coercing the voice of the House of Commons, they would fail in the attempt, for the members of the Church of England would never submit to the renewal of that ancient principle of abuse—the privilegium clericale. They were, on the contrary, determined that all religious institutions in this free country should be subject, and equally subject, to the jurisdiction of the law. In conclusion, he had merely to express his thanks to his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Enniskillen for the ability and industry which he had brought to bear upon the subject with which his Bill proposed to deal.


said, he never would be a party to originate any religious discussion calculated to wound the feelings of any Members of that House; and, were he to use strong expressions, they would only be directed against one or two individuals who were perpetually treating the Catholic Members with insulting language. He wished the hon. and learned Member for Enniskillen had simply withdrawn the Bill, without observing that he was yielding to a factious opposition. That was not the fact, for the Bill had been allowed to stand over on a former occasion because the hon. and learned Member was absent from the House, being more profitably employed elsewhere. However, he congratulated the hon. and learned Gentleman that on this day, the 12th of July, the hon. and learned Gentleman was doing an act of charity.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill withdrawn.