§ MR. BRIGHT
said, that pursuant to notice he rose to move the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the allegations contained in the petition of Hugh C. E. Childers, Esq., presented yesterday.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the allegations contained in the Petition of Hugh Culling Eardley Childers, esquire, [presented 9th August,] relative to the withdrawal of the Pontefract Election Petition.
§ MR. OVEREND
said, he could assure the House that he felt no small degree of humiliation and mortification that the first occasion on which he had the honour of addressing was in justification of his own conduct and vindication of his own honour. However, he did not complain that his Friend, Mr. Childers, had presented this petition, because if that gentleman entertained the feeling that he (Mr. Overend) had been guilty of a breach of duty, it was much more agreeable to his feelings to have it stated openly in that House, instead of expressing his opinion in private to his friends, and so allow him the opportunity of 1277 meeting the allegation and giving it all the refutation in his power. Moreover, he was greatly obliged to the hon. Member for Birmingham for having moved that this Committee of inquiry should be appointed, for his sole desire was that the whole thing should he thoroughly sifted. He did not desire to conceal anything; but he hoped that the subject would be fully investigated, for he believed the purity of his conduct would be established. On the very same day on which this matter was investigated before another tribunal he had notice to appear in his place in that House. That was on Friday, and he did attend; but on the following day (Saturday) he left for his professional duties in the north without having received the slightest intimation that any Motion was to be brought before the House. It was not till yesterday that he received a telegram at Lancaster that the matter was to come before the House this day. He thought in his absence— when no person acquainted with the circumstances and who could make any statement on his behalf was present in the House—it would have been fairer towards him if the hon. Member for Birmingham had at all events abstained from using one strong expression which was never applied to any gentleman except under circumstances of clear and distinct proof. He thought it was a great hardship to him that a word which had for the first time been used in connection with his name should have been applied to him in his absence. [Mr. BRIGHT: What word?] He referred to the word "defrauded." He would say no more upon that point, but he would proceed to make such a statement to the House as to show that at all events in regard to the question of fraud or mala fides there was not the slightest imputation upon him. It was true, as was stated in the petition, that he and Mr. Childers were opponents at the last election for Pontefract, and that he (Mr. Overend) was the successful candidate, having been returned by a majority of ten. Immediately after the election he had certainly heard that a petition had been presented to the House, imputing bribery and all the usual charges in such cases against him; and he need scarcely assure the House that it gave him considerable pain, for although he was perfectly conscious of the purity of his own conduct, nobody could be sure of the conduct of his agents. He therefore made inquiries into the matter, and instructed his agents to defend his seat. He went 1278 into evidence at considerable trouble and expense, with the view of ascertaining what was his real position; and he was instructed that he had as good a chance as any man could have of successfully defending his seat. Having received that assurance, having retained counsel, and done everything in his power in the expectation of fighting the petition, he went on circuit. He had no communication, either with his London agent, Mr. Rose, or with his agent in the country, Mr. Cariss. In fact, he knew nothing about what was done in London or the country; but presumed that they were preparing evidence, and getting up the case for the defence of the seat, and preparing for the fight whenever it might come off. Whilst at York, in the midst of conducting a trial, without any previous notice that any communication or negotiation had taken place between Mr. Leeman, the agent of Mr. Childers, and Mr. Rose, he received the following telegram from the latter, dated the 19th of July:—L. [meaning Mr. Leeman] offers to withdraw the record upon my agreeing with him to refer all questions arising out of the late action [which meant the election] to a Member of the House of high standing on our side; both parties to be bound by his decision. May I consent? I think it a fair offer and intended for a dignified withdrawal. Telegraph reply at once.What he understood from that telegram was that it was proposed that certain questions arising out of the petition should be referred to some hon. Member of that House, and that the proposal was intended to pave the way for the more dignified retirement of Mr. Childers. Thereupon, feeling that it would be absurd to refer the question of the seat, he took the opinion of two learned Friends of his, one of them being the brother of a distinguished Member of that House, and the other one of the counsel engaged to defend his seat before the Committee, with regard to the meaning of the telegram. He said to them at the time, "It is absurd to refer the question of the seat, for see in what a position I shall be placed. If I refer that question to a private gentleman I shall have no opportunity of calling witnesses before him; he will not be able to administer oaths; we cannot have the advantage of a cross-examination in public; nor would there be any power of preferring indictments for perjury if that offence should be committed. The result of such a reference would, therefore, be to place my character and my seat entirely at the mercy of any bad or wicked man who 1279 might come up from Pontefract and tell any falsehood he pleased." He and his Friends discussed the subject fully, and they came to the conclusion that it was impossible any question as to the seat could be intended, as that would be usurping the functions of a Committee of the House of Commons, and would involve a breach of the privileges of that House, for which the persons concerned might be called to account. After an elaborate discussion, it being stated distinctly that this was a dignified withdrawal on the part of Mr. Childers, he came to the conclusion without the slightest doubt, that the seat, which he had determined he would not submit to reference, because he was certain he had every chance of success if the matter went before a Committee, was not in jeopardy, nor was the question of the seat at issue. He therefore sent a telegram, of which he had not the exact terms, but which was to this effect:—"Do the best for me—I place myself in your hands." In order to show the bonâ fides of his conduct, and what was the impression upon his mind, he might read a letter he had addressed to Mr. Lefroy, a gentleman who had assisted him during his canvass, along with a copy of the telegram he had received from his agent. The letter was in these terms:—On the other side you will see my telegram. I do not understand it, but I have put myself in Rose's hands, and told him to do the best for me. 'All questions arising out of the late election' cannot possibly involve my giving up the seat, in any event, I should think.Therefore, on receiving that telegram, and before anything took place, he assumed that it was meant as a dignified withdrawal on the part of Mr. Childers. He had so stated to his friends whom he had consulted. He had also written to his Friend Mr, Lefroy that such was his impression, and then he waited to see what would be the result of the next day's communication from Mr. Rose. Next day, therefore, there came down the memorandum he would now read to the House, and which was dated the 19th July, 1859.
§ ("Private and Confidential.)