§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."
§ MR. HILDYARD
said, it was his intention to move that the Bill be postponed for a month. This was not a mere squabble between railway companies; the question involved was one which concerned that House, and before he had finished his observations he should appeal to the House to say whether it was so or not. It happened that the district which, in the West of England, had Exeter as its apex, and Salisbury and Dorchester as its base, was at this moment less supplied with railway accommodation than any other portion of the kingdom, whether regarding its local or national requirements. But this was not the fault of Parliament. In the year 1848 Parliament sanctioned the construction of a railway by a local company, assisted by the company whose Bill was now before the House, and the latter company was authorised to raise a considerable sum of money towards carrying the under 1369 taking out; and a large portion of that money had, he believed, been raised, though not one farthing had yet been employed for effecting the purposes to which the sanction of Parliament was then given. But what he more particularly desired to call the special attention of the House to was that which happened in the year 1853. In that year the Great Western and Bristol and Exeter Companies proposed to construct a line of railway running out of the Wilts, Somerset, and Weymouth Railway at a place called Maiden Newton, passing through Axminster to Exeter, and that Bill was opposed by the South-Western Company, whose traffic it would have materially prejudiced had it passed into a law. They did not contend that there was no necessity for such a railway; their plea was that the line proposed was not, as regarded either local or national requirements, the proper line; and to prove this position they called before the Committee on the Bill the heads of the principal military and naval departments of the country, who all concurred in stating that the line was not a right line, and that a better one was capable of being laid down. The Committee, in their Report to the House, stated that they were reduced by this evidence to great perplexity. They felt, to use their own terms. the urgent want of railway accommodation in the district, so far as the local interests were concerned, and yet that the evidence which had been given by the public authorities was such as they could not possibly disregard. They, therefore, asked the South Western Company what guarantee they would give them that if the Committee threw out the Bill before them, they would construct that other line which the company contended was the right line to be laid down? At that time the chairman of the South Western Company was his hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire (Mr. F. Scott); and his hon. Friend went before the Committee, being authorised so to do by a unanimous vote of a meeting of the shareholders, and distinctly pledged himself that if the Bill before the Committee were thrown out, the South Western Company would next year introduce a Bill and carry into effect the line which they asserted was the right line. He also wrote a letter by the same authority, to the Committee; that letter the Committee made a part of their Report, and it was accordingly placed upon the records of that House. As soon as the South Western Company, however, 1370 had by these means got rid of the other Bill, they called their shareholders together, and—he did not say unanimously, for, happily, there was some shame remaining among them—but by a majority determined not to redeem the pledge they had thus solemnly given; and the consequence was that this important locality had been deprived of the accommodation which it would unquestionably have obtained but for the interposition of the South Western Company with these false pretences. Unhappily up to this time Parliament had not been able to get at them; for it could not compel a company to introduce a Bill, even though that company had pledged themselves to do so. But generally speaking there was a day of retribution for railway companies as well as for other people; and the day of retribution had at last arrived. This same company were at length driven to come to Parliament with a Bill for another object. He begged it to be distinctly understood, however, that he had no wish to obstruct that measure. On the contrary, it was a Bill which would further the very object he had in view—namely, the extension of the line in the direction in which the South Western Company had in 1853 pledged themselves to carry it. For this reason he did not oppose the second reading, but merely proposed that it should be adjourned for a month, because within that period the company would assemble together at its annual meeting, when the directors would have the opportunity of receiving authority from the shareholders to redeem their pledge. If, when the company assembled, they gave their chairman, who was a Member of that House, distinct authority to say, that if the Bill proceeded, a clause should be introduced so worded as to compel them to redeem the pledge they had given, then no Member of that House would support the Bill more readily than he (Mr. Hildyard) would do. If, however, they declined to do that, it would then be for the House to consider what it was most becoming that they should do. If it were once admitted that railway companies might come before Parliament, and influence the decisions of its Committees by the most solemn engagements, having it, nevertheless, in reserve to throw over those engagements so soon as they had obtained the object for which they were given, all he could say was that Parliament would be suffering itself to be treated in a manner that was alike unsuitable to its own dignity, and contrary to the interests committed to its 1371 care. He was happy to say that the Chairman who, in the name of the company, gave the pledge to which he had referred, when he found that he was not in a condition to perform it, instantly, as became a man of honour, resigned his place at the board.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words, "upon this day month."
§ Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ MR. CHAPLIN
said, as the mover of the second reading of the Bill now under consideration, he would beg to state that he was not chairman of the South Western Company when the transactions referred to took place in 1853. He had no doubt that his predecessor was authorised to give a pledge to the Committee; but when the time came for fulfilling it the shareholders thought they would not be justified, under the adverse circumstances which then existed, in adhering to the promise which they had given. But he would like to know how an error or a wrong committed in 1853 was to be rectified in 1855, when the Bill before the House referred to a different matter altogether? Moreover, the feeling which prevailed among the shareholders in 1853 was five times stronger in 1855, and for his own part he despaired of effecting any change in favour of the scheme proposed by the hon. and learned Member for Whitehaven (Mr. Hildyard). He should not give any promise on the subject, because he did not mean to commit himself; but he thought it hard that a railway company should be censured at one time for constructing new lines and branches, and at another for refusing to plunge headlong into works of the same description. The present Bill was merely a Bill for the better regulation of the traffic of the company, and he hoped hon. Members would not feel themselves justified in refusing to read it a second time.
said, he thought the South Western Company had forfeited all claim to confidence, not only by failing to undertake the construction of the line for which they had obtained powers in 1848, and applying the money subscribed to other purposes, but by refusing to redeem the pledge given by the hon. Member for Berwickshire (Mr. F. Scott), in consequence of which the scheme supported by 1372 the Great Western and Bristol and Exeter Companies was rejected. Parliament, in his opinion, would consult its dignity by refusing the present application.
§ MR. LABOUCHERE
said, the question before the House was one of very considerable importance. There were, he believed, no doubt about the facts of the case:—A railway company induced a Committee of that House to throw out a Bill proposed by another railway company (which, if passed, would have supplied the wants of the inhabitants of a large district), upon the authority of a general meeting that they would undertake to make this line. The Committee considered that the line proposed would, from the representations of men in high office, be of great public benefit. The Committee, however, rejected a Bill which they would have adopted, with a view of passing a Bill which the South Western Company promised to bring in. That company afterwards repudiated their own acts, for another meeting was called which disavowed the proceedings of the former meeting, in consequence of which the directors at once resigned. The company repudiated engagements, and acted against the commonest principles of honesty. He believed the House would give a useful lesson to railway companies by refusing to read on the present occasion the Bill a second time. The adjournment for a month would give the present directors of the South Western Company time to consider the course they ought to pursue. He (Mr. Labouchere should vote for the Amendment; and, in doing so, he need scarcely say that he was totally unconnected with the companies of both districts.
§ MR. DEEDES
said, he would vote for the Motion of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Whitehaven, on public grounds. In the year 1848 he had had the honour of presiding over a Committee of that House before which this question was brought, and which spent fifty-seven days in endeavouring to ascertain what would most completely satisfy the wants of the part of the country affected, and the interests of the public service. The decision of that Committee was that certain things undertaken to be done by the South Western Railway Company would best attain that end, and on that account their plan was preferred to that of the Great Western Railway Company. The result, however, of that fifty-seven days' inquiry was that not a single thing was done which the 1373 company had undertaken to do; every promise had been broken, and the proceedings of that House had been set at nought.
§ MR. HUTCHINS
said, he did not see that any good would be done by postponing the Bill. He had always spoken in the strongest terms of the transaction which had been referred to, and he was not now about to defend it, but he must remind the House that persons standing very high in this country had voted in favour of it. An ex-Chancellor and two or three of the Judges had sent their proxies in favour of the repudiation. This Bill, however, referred to an entirely different matter, and he certainly thought the House ought not to refuse to proceed with it.
§ MR. HENLEY
said, he could see very considerable advantage to be derived from the postponement of the Bill. The breach of faith on the part of the company was not denied, and that the House should now enter into dealings with this company without taking notice of such a transaction was a thing not to be thought of. The hon. and learned Member for Whitehaven had given a very excellent reason for postponement. He wished to afford the offending company, which, it appeared, was to have a meeting within the month, an opportunity of seeing what the House of Commons felt with regard to the gross breach of faith which had been committed by them—to give them a locus penitentiœ, so that finding they were not to be trusted again on their bare word, they might have the option of inserting in this Bill some clause which should bind them by a stronger obligation than was usually demanded from men of honour. Certainly, if the House allowed this Bill to pass without taking any notice of the former transaction, they would be opening the door to all sorts of trickery, dishonesty, and chicanery,
§ MR. F. SCOTT
said, that as he had been Chairman of the company at the time when the transaction referred to took place, he might be expected to have some feeling in the matter; but he could assure the House that he had none other but that which he trusted every Gentleman present had—that of morality, truth, and propriety. Being still a shareholder in the company, his bias would naturally be in favour of the Bill now before the House, which was a very important one, but, as the Motion before the House was one for its postponement, and not for its rejection, he would not oppose it, thinking that, as the half- 1374 yearly meeting of the company was about to occur, the proprietary would have an opportunity of deciding whether they valued this Bill so much as to make it worth their while to put themselves in the position of coming into court with clean hands. He should not fail to attend the meeting, whether he were hooted or cheered, and he should tell the shareholders of the light in which their conduct was viewed by that House.
§ MR. JAMES M'GREGOR,
said, he would wish to point out that the present position of the House with regard to this company was to be attributed to its injudicious, ill-considered system of railway legislation.
§ MR. CHAPLIN
said, that as the feeling of the House was so strong, he should not oppose the Motion for postponement.
§ Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn.