HC Deb 06 July 1855 vol 139 cc519-31

I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether, after the allegations contained in the petitions presented to this House in reference to the conduct of the police on Sunday last, it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to institute a searching inquiry?


I stated yesterday that where any specific case of alleged misconduct on the part of the police was brought under my notice I should feel it my duty to institute a strict and searching inquiry into such charge. I am not, however, prepared to say that the petitions presented yesterday—which I have had no opportunity of looking into—afford sufficient grounds for inquiry. I have received a large number of representations on the subject from persons wholly unknown to me—some stating that they did see acts of unnecessary violence on the part of the police, and others stating that, considering the circumstances in which the police were placed, they were perfectly ready to come forward and testify their opinion that the conduct of the police was marked by moderation and forbearance. I do not think the statements of persons avowedly mixed up in the proceedings of Sunday last should be taken as conclusive evidence of the misconduct of the police, and I am anxious not to say or admit anything which would bear that inference. I am also anxious to call attention to the great facilities afforded individuals who have complaints to make against the police, either for assaults or improper violence in the discharge of their duty. In addition to the ordinary law, by which policemen charged with assaults can be dealt with as any private individual, by summary conviction before a magistrate on sufficient evidence, they are liable to action for damages, to immediate dismissal by the police commissioners, and by the 2nd & 3rd Vic., c. 47, to a penalty of 2l., or imprisonment for two months (to which other persons are not liable) inflicted, not by the police Commissioners, but by the ordinary police magistrates, for unnecessarily inflicting injury on any person while in discharge of their duty. There are ample means of identifying a policeman, by the marks on his dress; when complaints are made, they are impartially inquired into, and the punishment is beyond that which can be inflicted on other persons. With regard to the general allegations which have been made, provided it does not imply any condemnation or preconceived judgment against the police—which, I am bound to say, information I have received leads me to believe would be most unmerited—I have not not the slightest objection to have those allegations submitted to a searching investigation.


In order that I may not be out of order in making a few observations, I will move that the House, at its rising, do adjourn to Monday next. The right hon. Gentleman says there are plenty of facilities afforded for the identification of peccant policemen by the number and letter upon their coats. Now, I will venture to say that if any of those unoffending persons who complain had done so on Sunday last they could not have offered a stronger invitation to the police to break their heads than by taking down names and numbers. The right hon. Gentleman says he will institute an in- quiry into any case which may he really brought home to the police. We do not want that inquiry. The people do not want an inquiry instituted between the Home Office and the Police Commissioners. They want a public inquiry—an inquiry to which the public shall be admitted, and not merely a report to be laid upon the table of the House founded upon the answers given by the police officers to inquiries from the Home Office. The public must be admitted to the examination, and be permitted to give evidence of what they saw on the occasion. What I would suggest is this—if the Government assent to the Committee which I suggested yesterday, I will move for it without saying a word, and the Government shall appoint any ten or eleven gentlemen they think proper, the House, of course, seeing that they shall be such as are likely to be impartial and unbiassed. I had intended to move for such a Committee upon the Motion of going into Supply; but I find there are fifteen or twenty notices already on the paper to be made upon the Motion for going into Supply. I know that that is a very disadvantageous occasion for making a Motion of this kind, and many hon. Gentlemen would say, "You are interfering with the course of public business; we would be glad to divide with you but for that." If the Government will not consent to do this, I would then suggest that the Crown should issue a Commission to inquire into the conduct of the police on Sunday last. Let the Government appoint three or five gentlemen connected with Parliament, if they think proper, and I shall be satisfied. The last time the right hon. Gentleman was a Member of the Government I unfortunately came once or twice into collision with him upon some charges I made against some public authorities connected with Woolwich and other places. The charges were disputed—my statements were sent down to the authorities accused—of course they denied them. We persevered, and at last we got a public inquiry through a Commission, upon which, among others, I believe, was the noble Lord the Member for Totness (Lord Seymour). That inquiry was perfectly satisfactory to me, and to all those who had made the charges. Now, let the right hon. Gentleman appoint a Commission to inquire into the conduct of the police. Let that Commission have full powers, as we say, to send for persons, papers, and records. Let the people who complain appear either in person or by Counsel, and, I will venture to say, every one of the statements which have been made—all the allegations contained in the petitions which have been presented—will be fully substantiated before such Commission. But no inquiry of the sort which the right hon. Gentleman proposes will be satisfactory to the people, or meet the requirements of the case; it would be nothing but a mockery of an inquiry—a burlesque and farce. The right hon. Baronet, the other night, said, in answer to a question from me, that certain soldiers—some of the Guards—had been mixed up in the crowd in the park, and a picket was sent for from the barracks to fetch them in, and that the commandant, I think he called him, thanked the police for their conduct in giving information which enabled him to send for those men. Now, I understand that that commanding officer was nothing more than the sergeant in charge of the barrack-yard. Is that so? [Sir G. GREY: He was also commanding in the barrack at the time.] Well, when the word "commandant," or "commanding officer," is used, nobody would suppose a non-commissioned officer was meant. At least it was not so when I had the honour to hold a commission in the Guards. When the soldiers were all fetched in the sergeant and the head policeman got upon good terms with each other, and shook hands together, and no doubt arranged the affair comfortably among themselves as to what was to be done with the soldiers. I want to know what offence these soldiers were guilty of? What has become of the charges against them? If those soldiers were guilty of any civil offence they ought to be tried by a civil tribunal. Whether a man wears a red coat or a fustain jacket, if he commits a civil offence he ought to be tried by a civil tribunal. You have no business to send a man to barracks and shut him up there for what he did in the park. The only offence those men were guilty of was in crying "Shame" on the police, for their cowardly and brutal conduct to women and children. Are you punishing these men by martial law, confining them in the black-hole of the barrack, for that conduct? I repeat, if the right hon. Baronet will only appoint a Commission to inquire into these grievances, I believe it will be perfectly satisfactory. If he will make that statement now, I am quite satisfied we shall hear no more of disturbances, unless the police themselves make them, on Sunday next. To be sure, though, even the Church can't let the people alone. I find there has been a letter written to The Times by the senior curate of St. Botolph, Aldgate, which I really must read to the House, that it may see how the people are libelled. If this letter be true, then the metropolis is in a most dangerous state. He says, of course, he is sorry for the Sunday Trading Bill, and then goes on to talk about Houndsditch, the favourite haunt of the hon. Member for Dorsetshire (Mr. Ker Seymer). The writer says— In the heart of London, on every successive Sunday in the year, in various streets, alleys, and courts to the north of Houndsditch, and therefore in my own immediate neighbourhood, are congregated upwards of 15,000 persons, engaged in traffic of various kinds, and constituting what is called the 'City Exchange Fairs.' The trade is carried on principally in Cutler Street, Phil's Buildings, City Exchange, Exhibition Mart, Harrow Alley, and Petticoat Lane, places notorious in the annals of crime for outrages and abominations of all descriptions. The articles offered for sale consist, for the most part, of wearing apparel and jewellery, and the fair lasts for the greater portion of the day. I speak from personal observation and inspection, and hesitate not to characterise the place as one of the very foulest sinks of profligacy and crime to be found within the length and breadth of London. This is a minister of the Gospel, a minister of peace, who is speaking of his own parishioners— Of the 15,000 individuals there assembled some are Jews of the lowest grade, but the great majority are nominally Christians, uniting together in forming a multitude of the most ignorant, lawless, brutal, and degraded ruffians that the metropolis can furnish. In this vile haunt crimes are both plotted and perpetrated; for in a spot at the entrance to Harrow Alley I was myself informed on the occasion of one of my visits, by one of our excellent police, that of all the males there congregated, of various ages, and to the number of several hundreds, every individual had been a convicted felon. Stolen property is here disposed of to any extent, 'and no questions asked;' and an inducement is thereby held out to thieves from every quarter to bring hither the results of their crimes, assured of their immediate and safe disposal. I could furnish you with many details of this den of horrors. This is addressed to the Editor of The Times newspaper, and I am really surprised that respectable journal admitted such a letter into its columns— But I will content myself with affirming, that if there be an epithet in the English tongue more descriptive than another of a place reeking with blasphemy, clamour, and obscenity, and of a loathsome assemblage stained with every vice named or nameless, I would select and apply it to this foulest of foul scenes and filthiest of filthy multitudes. Many of these people, no doubt, were among those who assembled in Hyde Park on Sunday last, and who propose to visit it again. If, then, of the class which this clergyman, this rev. Mr. Hugo, the senior curate of St. Botolph, describes,—I say, if 100,000 of these people are to be assembled in the park, property at this end of the town will be in considerable danger on Sunday next. They say they certainly do mean to come and see what is going on at the West End on Sunday next. I believe they would have been peaceable if the police had let them alone last Sunday. Some friends of mine heard some of these people saying, "This is a pleasant place, this Hyde Park; we had no idea there was such a fine place. We have nothing like it in Poplar or Whitechapel—Victoria Park is nothing to it—we shall come here again." Soon after that the police suddenly and brutally attacked them, and all these poor people were driven away although they were quite harmless. Now, if they do come again, and be attacked, I am informed they will come provided with means of self-defence. [Cries of "Oh!"] I don't doubt that they will come armed. But I am at the same time satisfied that if the people understand that there will be a full and fair inquiry into the conduct of the police we shall hear no more of these disturbances. I think there can be no better tribunal for inquiring into the wrongs of the people than a Committee of their representatives, but it would be almost a mockery at the end of the Session to appoint such a Committee. At all events the people will not be satisfied without a full inquiry, and they certainly will not be content with an inquiry made by the Home Office, which would enable the police to concoct their own evidence and make out their own case. I therefore propose that a Commission should be appointed to institute a full inquiry into the conduct of the police during the last two Sundays, and, whatever may be the report of that Commission, I believe the public generally will be satisfied.


said, that if they were to appoint a Commission to inquire into the proceedings of the police in Hyde Park on Sunday last, they ought to abstain from making statements calculated to prejudice that inquiry. He had proposed no formal inquiry, but a full and searching inquiry into the allegations that had been made to him with regard to the conduct of the police last Sunday. The hon. Member had stated that he would not he satisfied with the inquiry which he had promised, because it would be merely an affair between the Home Office and the police. He (Sir G. Grey) had, however, stated clearly and distinctly that a full and searching inquiry should be instituted into the proceedings in Hyde Park on Sunday last, including the conduct of the police. Such a mode of inquiry as that which the hon. Member had assumed this would be—namely, an inquiry between the Home Office and the police, had never entered into his (Sir G. Grey's) contemplation when he stated that an inquiry should be made. The hon. Member had stated that on former occasions, when he had brought forward charges against certain proceedings at Woolwich and other places, he (Sir G. Grey) had caused an inquiry to be made by means of a Commission, and he said that the result of that inquiry had been satisfactory. What right, then, had he to assume that in the present instance the inquiry would be less searching or less satisfactory? He agreed with the hon. Member, that at this period of the Session an inquiry by a Committee of the House of Commons would not be the most efficient mode of proceeding. He pledged himself, however, that the inquiry which he would institute should be conducted in a manner satisfactory to the House and to the public. He was not then prepared to state to whom the inquiry would be entrusted; but the form of the inquiry, together with the persons entrusted with it, should be communicated to the House, and he pledged himself that the inquiry should be as satisfactory and complete as he had described it. The hon. Member had made a statement with respect to the soldiers mixed up with the crowd, and had assumed that these soldiers were improperly sent by the police in charge of a picket from the barracks, and that the police-sergeant and the sergeant in command of the barracks being upon intimate terms, had arranged the proceedings among themselves, by which the soldiers had been unjustly subjected to punishment. He had been informed that these soldiers had mingled with the crowd, taking part in some of the proceedings there going on, and that the police, instead of placing themselves in collision with the soldiers, sent to the barracks and informed the officer in command of their conduct; a picket was sent and the soldiers transferred to the military authorities, according to the usual custom in such cases. The hon. Member for Finsbury had stated that it was only a sergeant in charge of the barracks at the time. He had been assured that it was an adjutant, and not a sergeant. At all events, it was a commanding officer, and he (Sir G. Grey) was informed that he had thanked the police for the manner in which they had acted by bringing the men under military authority. The hon. Member had also read a letter which had appeared in The Times newspaper, which he (Sir G. Grey) thought had better have been consigned to oblivion; for the hon. Member also stated that the people to whom that letter referred would come from the east end of London next Sunday to enjoy themselves. They had a perfect right to do so. They had a right to be there and to enjoy themselves quietly; and while they did so, they would find the police ready to protect them in their enjoyment. But if they came with arms in their hands, or with weapons which showed an intention to create disorder, or commit crime, they would find the police firmly determined, in spite of all allegations made against them, to discharge their duty for the protection of the public, and the protection of property, and that no intimidation would detain them from the performance of their duty.


said, the right hon. Gentleman had put words in his mouth which he never used. He had stated that he said that the police, and the sergeant, and the commanding officer in charge of the barracks arranged how those soldiers taken in Hyde Park should be punished. He never said anything of the sort. He merely asked whether the matter had been hushed up, or whether it was to be referred to a civil tribunal. He was of opinion that it ought to be referred to a civil tribunal. The right hon. Baronet had said that he was satisfied with the inquiry on a former occasion, in respect to Woolwich. He certainly was perfectly satisfied with the subsequent inquiry, but he was not at all satisfied with the previous inquiry into that matter.


said, that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Finsbury had alluded to the conduct of some commissioned officer or non-commissioned officer; the fact was, that at the Magazine barracks in Hyde Park there was no accommodation for an officer, and no officer resided there. It was at all times under the command of a sergeant. With regard to the question between the soldiers and the police, the general instructions are that the soldiers are at all times to obey the police. The consequence was that the police were obeyed by the soldiers in the same manner as non-commissioned officers were. If the soldier disobeyed the police, a message was sent to the military authority, and the soldier was taken in charge. Such, he supposed, was the case on the occasion of last Sunday. At all events, the officers are extremely obliged at having soldiers who may have committed themselves given over to the military authorities, rather than that they should, for slight offences, be brought up to the police-court. He hoped this explanation would be satisfactory to the House, as far as the soldiers were concerned. There was one remark he wished to make, and that was, that an old soldier would always get out of a crowd as fast as he could. At the present moment unfortunately they had no old soldiers, but, although they were all young men, he never knew a body of men more exemplary in their conduct than those now constituting our force in London.


said, there was no complaint against the soldiers for their conduct. On the contrary, their conduct generally has been such as to have earned the commendation of all persons. When the right hon. Baronet the Secretary of State for the Home Department had stated the nature of the inquiry which he was about to institute, he (Mr. Fox) thought he could undertake to furnish that tribunal with several respectable names of parties who had witnessed gross atrocities in Hyde Park on Sunday last—such, for instance, as striking unoffending old men while quietly walking, striking women and children, and cases of this kind. One gentleman who had written to him was a clergyman, who stated that he was walking by accident that way, and was attracted by the crowd to see what was going on. He saw a policeman with great and unprovoked fury striking in every direction. He addressed himself to the policeman; but such was his threatening attitude and motions towards the writer, that he thought it much better to reserve his condemnation of the act till a future occasion, and retire from the scene as quickly as possible. His earnest wish was that such an examination would be instituted as would quiet the minds of the people, and restore a good understanding between the population gene- rally and the police. He had received a communication from the proprietor of the "thieves' exchange" referred to by the hon. Member for Dorsetshire. In that communication were stated the names of the principal houses in the metropolis who had dealings with that establishment, and explaining also the reason why things there were so much cheaper than in most other places. He hoped the inquiry instituted would be such as to bring about a good feeling between the people and the police.


said, the statements which he had made with respect to what took place at Houndsditch on a Sunday had not been contradicted by any person; on the contrary, it had been corroborated by every statement which was made. He would also take that opportunity of repeating that, whatever might be thought of the place, there could be no doubt whatever the existence of this Hounds-ditch establishment was a disgrace to the metropolis. He thought it very inconvenient to go into matters in that House which were to be the subjects of inquiry, before the appointment of that inquiry. He could assure the House that if it were disposed to go into the matter he could say something on the other side of the question; and from what he saw on Sunday last he could have no hesitation in stating that the police were not the only parties who were guilty of brutal and cowardly conduct towards women and children.


The right hon. Baronet has stated that the police judiciously avoided coming into collision with the soldiers. I was present, and saw the transaction in question, and I can inform the right hon. Baronet that two soldiers were seized by the police and dragged about so violently by them that the people cried "Shame!" I saw that myself, and was indignant at the manner in which the soldiers were treated. We are bound to believe, after the statement of the right hon. Baronet that the inquiry will be both searching and fair; but I ask would there have been such an inquiry if the hon. Member for Finsbury had not brought forward this question? I will tell the House what is the course which is usual at the Home Office when complaints of this sort are made. The Home Secretary institutes what he calls an inquiry—that is to say, he asks the police what their statement is. Then, having done that, he believes the police, and he does not believe other parties. I do not say that the right hon. Gentleman does that from an improper motive. It is natural for official people to back up the police, and that is what the right hon. Gentleman would have done if the question had not been perseveringly brought forward by the hon. Member for Finsbury.


I agree with what I believe to be the general feeling of the House, that it is extremely undesirable that we should proceed to offer statements and counter statements upon a question which has not yet been investigated. I cannot help saying, however, that nothing, in my opinion, could be more unfortunate than the course which has been taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury. He professes the greatest anxiety that there should be no disturbance or breach of the peace in consequence of any ill feeling on account of what has taken place; but I think that it would have been very difficult for my hon. Friend to concoct a speech which should be more calculated to inflame the passions and to excite the irritable feelings of people out of doors than the speech which he has delivered this evening. My hon. Friend first tells the people that they have been brutally ill-treated by the police; and then he informs them that they need expect no satisfaction from the Home Office. After the statement of the Secretary of State for the Home Department, that he will afford the fullest inquiry into the subject, I am sure there is no man in the House who doubts for a moment that the inquiry is intended to be full and ample. If, after this discussion, there should be a disturbance next Sunday, in consequence of what occurred last Sunday and of what has taken place in the House to-day, I am bound to say that I think that disturbance will be attributable, not to the conduct of the Secretary of State for the Home Department, but to the very ill-advised remarks which have been made to-night by my hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury.


I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has brought back the attention of the House to the subject which was first raised by the hon. Member for Westminster, because I am anxious to say a word upon the conduct of the police on Sunday last, against whom there seems to be a set made by gentlemen who in a manner assume to be, in a peculiar degree, the friends of the people. I happened to be in Hyde Park on Sunday last, and I must say that I never saw greater forbearance and moderation exhibited upon any occasion than was then exhibited by the police. The mob consisted in a great measure of boys and young men under twenty; and I ask you to fancy to yourself, Sir, a mob of such a character leaning over the iron railings, and screeching and hallooing at every carriage that passed, and evincing the most intense delight when their hallooings frightened the horses of a carriage and endangered the lives of those who happened to be in it. I saw the police attempt to drive back that canaille from the rails. They did it with the utmost moderation. No doubt they hit some of them; but the rascally boys deserved much greater punishment than any that was inflicted upon them. I also saw a man get his face cut open, and much he was making of it; but we all know how small a blow will bring blood, and how little blood will make a great show. I do not pretend, Sir, to have much experience in the forms of this House; but I extremely regret that such a demonstration as that of last Sunday should have induced the noble Lord the Member for Middlesex (Lord R. Grosvenor) to withdraw his Bill. I hardly think that it was a very dignified proceeding on the part of this House to yield to that popular clamour. So, we are threatened with another demonstration next Sunday, and men are to go armed in order to defy the authority of the police! I hope that the right hon. Baronet will take efficient means to prevent any such ebullition. I may remind the right hon. Baronet that prevention is better than cure; I will go further, and say that nothing will frighten a mob more than the crash upon the pavement of the trail of a 6-pounder. [Cries of "Oh!" and some sensation.]


said, the public were under great obligations to his hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury, for bringing forward the subject; and for having obtained from the right hon. Gentleman the promise that a full and searching inquiry would be instituted. He believed that that assurance would be the means of preventing any further disturbance. The people of this country were anxious for upholding the laws and the preservation of the peace; and any occurrence was to be deprecated that irritated them with their own servants—for the police were paid, not by the Government but by those very people—by the ratepayers of the metropolis. They were the servants of the ratepayers, for the purpose of preserving, and not committing a breach of, the peace. He was convinced, from the statements he had heard, that, when an inquiry took place, it would be found that the conduct of the police had been perfectly unjustifiable; and he hoped that the right hon. Baronet would cause such an inquiry to be made as would be the means of allaying the irritation now felt by the whole population of the metropolis, and pretty nearly by all classes, against the police. It was of great importance that the great body of the people should have confidence in the Government; and that when any attempt at a breach of the peace was made by the police especially, the Government should institute a rigid inquiry into the cause of it. He thanked the hon. Member for having brought forward this question, and hoped that it would lead to a settlement of the matter.