HC Deb 16 February 1859 vol 152 cc434-59

Order for second reading read.


said, he rose to move the second reading of the Bill for legalising marriage with a deceased wife's sister. The Bill he had laid upon the table of the House was, word for word, the same as that which had been so fully discussed last Session, and it would therefore be unnecessary for him to trouble the House with any remarks on the subject. His hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. B. Hope) had, however, given notice of an Amendment, and intended to move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months. In the short discussion that took place on the first reading he had been charged with hurrying forward the measure. If he had done so it was not from any fear of meeting the hon. Gentleman or the other opponents of the Bill in argument, but simply from a wish to spare the time of the House. He could assure the hon. Gentleman that if he brought forward any argument or adduced any facts which required answer or attention, he (Viscount Bury) should not shrink from the challenge; and, if the forms of debate allowed him, he should have great pleasure in answering the hon. Gentleman. He believed he only consulted the feelings and wishes of the House in not making a lengthened speech, and he would content himself with merely moving the second reading of the Bill.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."


seconded the Motion.


rose to move as an Amendment, that the Bill be read a second time on that day six months. He said the noble Lord who had charge of the Bill had accepted the challenge which he (Mr. Hope) threw out, and had promised that the House should have the advantage of some details in reference to the Bill when he came to reply. The noble Lord must know that he made a similar promise last year, but that promise was not very efficiently carried out, as his reply only occupied two or three minutes. The noble Lord took no notice of the invidious position in which, Session after Session, he placed the opponents of his measure. "Sic volo, sic jubeo" appeared to be the motto of the noble Lord, who demanded a sweeping change in the law, but gave no reason for the change he asked. On the contrary, he threw the entire onus of making out a case on his opponents. According to all the fair laws of argument it was for the noble Lord to give his reasons why the law should be changed, and not for him, Session after Session, to throw his Bill upon the table and then to cast the burden of proof on the shoulders of those who opposed it. The Bill, for good or bad, materially affected the social condition of the country, and yet it was only printed and sent round to Members of the House that morning, while shortly after noon on the same day they were called upon to pronounce a verdict upon it. There was enough in this circumstance to justify him in calling upon the noble Lord to postpone his Bill, but he considered that that would be paying too much attention to that agitation of which the noble Lord was the promoter. He would not, however, take that course, but would meet the noble Lord with a direct Amendment, for he was surprised that the noble Lord should have condescended to attempt to drive his Bill, like a coach-and-six, through that House. The noble Lord had put his name on the back of this Bill, of so deep importance to the community at large, with about the same formality that he would have set his name to some private Bill for incorporating some impracticable company for carrying out some impossible scheme of local improvement in the city which he represented. He could assure the noble Lord that although this might have been very good Parliamentary strategy, it would be clearly seen through by the country. There were few people, except those who were connected with the establishment in Parliament Street, who cared about this measure, and there was no one in the House who did not know that if that agitating firm had succeeded in making a commotion in the country during the past autumn on account of the rejection of the Bill by the Lords last Session—if they could have got up any monster meetings in the purlieus of Bethnal-green, Liverpool, or elsewhere, and could have brought forward, as the result, any monster petitions in favour of this change in the law, then the noble Lord might indeed have thought himself not called upon to make a speech; but he would not have adopted a course which was as contemptuous to the clients whose brief he held as to the great majority of the country who were opposed to his views. How stood the case? The Bill passed through the House by majorities last year, but did it reach "another place" in a form which any measure pretending to be a rational scheme should have assumed? No, it went up in one in which he supposed no measure pretending to deal with an alleged general grievance was ever before presented to the House of Lords, a form in which, by the last clause, Scotland and Ireland were expressly excluded from the operation of the measure; thus leaving all the questions, connected with those countries, of doubtful legitimacy, title, marriage, lex loci, &c., open, upon which the most difficult litigation might arise, and throwing everything into a state of prospective embarrassment which would be hardly creditable even to an amateur legislature. It was the most marvellous attempt at lumbering legislation ever made in this country, and he was tempted to suppose this cause must have been adopted by an arrangement with the Solicitor General who anticipated the loss to the legal profession to arise from the Bill for supplying the title to landed estates. Where, again, he would ask the noble Lord, were the cases on which he proposed to prove the necessity of this Bill? Had he advanced one inch beyond that Blue-book which was got up ten years ago in Messrs. Crowder and Maynard's office, at the instigation of a few wealthy individuals who had never relaxed in their efforts in pushing the Bill? There was marshalled against this Bill the preponderating feeling of the country. ["No, no!"] Yes! the preponderating—["No, no!"] As long as they said "No, no!" he would say "preponderating." There were marshalled against it the overwhelming feeling of the serious portion of the community, the majority of the estab- lished Church, a large proportion of the Dissenting community, and the whole of Scotland and Ireland, without distinction of creed and politics. ["No, no!"] Then why had they passed a clause excluding Scotland or Ireland from the operation of the Bill? The Bill had also marshalled against it all the sacred feelings of home and of domestic security—feelings whose very sacredness and delicate contexture prevented those who held them from coming to that House with clamorous claims for protection. It would introduce the brand of discord into the heart of every family in the country. Every mother of daughters would fear for the marriages they might make. Every wife would look upon her sister as her prospective rival. Every unmarried sister would regard with fear and trembling the innocent attentions of her brother-in-law. She would be deprived of a valuable protector in trouble and distress—it would cause inquisition to be held upon every kind look, word, and offer of protection which the husband might make to his sister-in-law. The house was asked to pass a Bill that would have these results, because they were told that the children of a deceased wife ought to have a mother's protection from her sister. But what prevented the widower from now calling in the aunt's supervision? Pass this Bill, and the aunt could only be brought in to take care of the children on condition that she would place herself in a position antagonistic to that of their late mother. But would the affection with which the aunt should be regarded be increased by the nephews and nieces seeing that aunt placed in the position of becoming the mother of half-brothers and half-sisters to them? Why was the aunt now the best protector of her sister's children? Because she never could be other than aunt to them; because no relationship between her and their father could come nearer and dearer than that which already existed. If they passed this Bill the aunt became a step-mother and might become the mother of a second family, whose interests would compete with those of the first. And that was called looking after the children. And then they had heard many sentimental arguments about this being a question which interested the labouring classes of this country; that this Bill was necessary on behalf of the labouring man, who required some one to perform those domestic offices which the wives of the humbler classes are called upon to discharge. But if they really knew the condition of the working classes, they would find that, according to the rules of social life and the habits of the labouring poor, the last person whose industry would be available for the children would be the sister of the first wife. The families of the poor soon went out to service. The daughters were always dispersed, and the one who remained at home, and who would alone be available for the purpose of taking care of the children, was usually the most idle and good-for-nothing member of the family. So much for the case of the poor. Then it was said that certain cases had occurred in which the law had been violated, and that therefore the law ought to be altered. But was there any offence against morality or purity to which the same argument might not be applied? On former occasions when the measure was before the House, he had to fulfil the painful task of producing statistics to show that alliances with a wife's sister were only links in the chain of that vice which lurked in our alleys and skulked in our hamlets; that they only took their place among other impurities committed in defiance of relationship, and in the ratio which might be expected. Reasons as plausible might be urged in favour of marriage with a brother's widow as were urged in favour of these marriages. Such unions had taken place; but Messrs. Crowder and Maynard's clients did not happen to come within that category, so that no agitation was got up to legalize that class of alliance: even the more distant degree of wife's niece was most inconsistently omitted. In all those countries of Europe where, either by dispensation or the common law of the land, marriage with the deceased wife's sister was allowed, marriage with the aunt or the niece was also permitted; now this must be either an accidental coincidence, or it proved the existence in those countries of a deteriorated standard of morality, and a deterioated state of public purity. For his part he believed in the latter alternative, and was convinced that the same system which justified the class of alliances now proposed to be legalized must lead to the other also. It was indeed called a question of civil and religious liberty. But what "civil and religious liberty" had to do with it he never could discern. He did, however, think that the noble Lord would find it rather difficult to justify his omission of other prohibited degrees to those who seemed to think that because this empire had reached the Roman height of power, it ought to reach the Roman pitch of corruption. He had been told by an hon. Member that the religious arguments against these marriages were all nonsense, and that he knew a charity boy who could refute the whole Bench of Bishops on them. If that were so, let the wonderful boy be produced; no doubt the House would relax its rules and allow him to be heard at the bar, and then perhaps the noble Lord would find less difficulty in passing his Bill than he had hitherto experienced. To all such random, blustering assertions, made on the other side, of Christian authority for the change was opposed the united voice of Christendom for the first fifteen centuries of Christianity, and the preponderating and overwhelming voice of Christendom for the last three centuries. It ought never to be forgotten that of all Christian Ministers, Roderick Borgia (Alexander VI.) was the first to come forward to give his sanction to these marriages. He repeated, that what he had correctly designated vague, blustering assertions went for nothing, for the alteration of a law of which Roderick Borgia was the first promoter and the noble Lord was now the last. He cared nothing for the sentimental opinions they had heard, and maintained that this Bill in its effect must necessarily tend to throw wide open the floodgates of vice. There was a remedy for the evil of which the promoters of this Bill complained as amongst the labouring classes, but it was not in such a measure as this. The way would be to establish more schools, to send forth more clergy, to give more effectual religious teaching, and, above all, to make an improvement in their dwellings, so that by herding all the members of the family together in one room the sleeping apartment should no longer be made the hot-bed of incest. Any one who had devoted attention to the cottages of the poor knew the fearful temptations which were thrown in the way of children of both sexes to commit the most frightful violations of purity. Those temptations which the laches of former landlords threw in the way of those poor people were, he was happy to think, being gradually removed. Cases of larceny occurred, yet no law had been passed to make pocket handkerchiefs common property; murders and infanticides were still numerous; they had all lately felt deeply for the wretched Mary Newell; and yet the penalties enacted against these crimes by the law were not repealed. In this country the prohibition was not felt as a grievance. The grievance was altogether artificial, arising from the blue-book he had adverted to; while a brass plate, a secretary, and occasional advertisements in the newspapers were necessary to keep alive the smouldering feeling on the question. Then why did the noble Lord come there and, tossing on the table the Bill, which the Members had not yet had time to peruse, move its second reading, without stating its contents or the arguments by which the proposed enactments were enforced? He had his clients to please; but he was evidently anxious at the earliest moment to get rid of a disagreeable job. He (Mr. Beresford Hope) regretted that this Bill should be annually introduced into that House only to meet with destruction in "another place," which endorsed, upon this point, the good sense and good feeling of the country. Instead of asking the noble Lord to postpone his Bill, he should conclude by moving, as an Amendment, that it should be read a second time that day six months.

Amendment proposed to leave out the word "now" and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."


said, he had given his cordial support to the Bill for several years past, and had heard nothing in the speech of the hon. Member for Maidstone to alter his opinion on the subject. He had carefully examined the Bible, and there also he could find no prohibition of these marriages. Nor did he understand how Parliament could consistently declare that to be sin now which it recognized in 1835 as just and right. The religious societies with which he was connected were almost entirely in favour of the Bill. Upwards of 400 of the clergymen of this Metropolis had petitioned in favour of the Bill. If the religious societies were in favour of the Bill, he could see no objection, on moral grounds, to the alliance with a deceased wife's sister. He was told that it would prevent that kindly intercourse which now took place between sister and sister; but if this was so, how much more must it be the case with any female not relatied residing in the House. His own opinion was that he believed that no arrangement would be productive of more advantage to a family than to have the deceased wife's sister to take care of the children, and he thought, moreover, that the tie would be greatly strengthened by the provisions of the Bill. As, however, the House had on various occasions so fully discussed the matter, he would not waste the time, but would content himself with saying that both in its religious and social aspects he believed the Bill would be productive of the highest advantages.


said, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Beresford Hope), had spoken of Borgia as the first promoter of this proposed alteration in the law, and of the noble Viscount (Viscount Bury), as the last; but he had forgotten to mention that there had been all kinds of good men between them. Several arguments had been advanced against this measure, but be, as far as he could make out, they all resolved themselves into these four. One was, that there was no strong feeling in the country about the matter; but seeing that in the last ten years petitions, with 830,000 signatures had been presented in favour of the change, seeing that nearly the whole press of the country took the same side, and seeing that the House of Commons had declared several times by a great majority its opinion, and therefore the opinion of the whole country, that the restriction ought to be done away, there really seemed to be more agitation in favour of the Bill than might have been looked for, since it did not practically touch the mass of the people, but only scattered individuals. The next argument was, that the legalization of these marriages would be inexpedient. Now, he used to think that as far as expediency went there was pretty nearly a balance between the arguments pro and con. On the one hand, the passing of the Bill might in some cases prevent sisters-in-law from living with their widowed brothers-in-law, who otherwise would do so; and, again, it might in some cases create a painful feeling between the wife and her sister. On the other hand, it was a great hardship to the widower who was desirous to marry his sister-in-law; and where there were children no wife could be so suitable as she, who already would look upon them with little less than a mother's love. It might, therefore, have been thought that the motives one way were nearly as strong as those on the other, as regards expediency. But that balance was maintained no longer, now that the country, through its representatives, had so loudly and so clearly spoken its mind, that these marriages were not unlawful in the sight of God, and ought no longer to be unlawful by the laws of man. The present state of things was so inconvenient, so embarrassing, so inex- pedient, that it could not possibly be worse. Some people took for granted that the power of that House, the sway of public opinion was so irresistible, that the question might be taken as settled, and were arranging accordingly, while others remained in a distressing state of suspense, wholly unable to make out what course it would be wise to follow. Those, then, who had stood in the way of such marriages, on the ground of expediency, ought now to take the side of allowing them, upon that very ground. The third argument was, that were this restriction taken off, no one could tell at what point to stop. But, in fact, in that case the law would rest on a defined principle. Those marriages that were allowed by the Word of God would be allowed by the English law; those that plainly were forbidden by the Word of God would be forbidden by English law. And, in truth, nothing tended so much to stir up speculation and shake peoples's belief with regard to the lawfulness of marriages as the discussion which must arise year after year, Session after Session, upon this point. There was no other restriction that as yet excited the least interest, but, if the Conservative party delayed this inevitable reform, the old and wholesome convictions of men on the subject of other marriages might be thrown into confusion by the agitation thus awakened. The fourth argument brought against the Bill was that these marriages were forbidden by Scripture. That question had been talked over till the world was weary of it. He would only touch on it to ask how—if the verse in Leviticus really forbade these marriages—how came it that the Jews, who must surely be allowed to be the best interpreters of their own Scriptures, had always looked on these marriages us perfectly lawful? That fact at once overthrew all the subtleties by which scholars had sought to explain away the text. He thought, then, that those who disapproved these marriages should be content to obey their own consciences themselves, but had no ground for enforcing on others scruples which were not really based on the Word of God.


said, that since the commencement of this Session the House of Commons had been acting in a manner very characteristic of what was called the "Progress of Liberalism;" in one week a Bill was introduced to promote sacrilege—in the next another to sanctify incest. The two hon. Gentlemen who had preceded him avowed that, in their minds, the prominent argument in favour of this Bill was the religious argument, yet both of them seemed to doubt what it was that the Word of God really said on their point, and both of them went to very queer quarters for its orthodox interpretation—one to the religious societies which met in Exeter Hall, and the other to the Jews. The unanimous voice of the Church, so long as it could be heard freely, was against these marriages; but when the Church was split into fragments of schism, and no clear utterance from it could be heard, as it had to pass through different media—red, green, and blue—then came in what was called the right of private judgment, and every gentleman, by the help of a little ingenuity, would find a text to sanction anything he wished to prove. The prohibited degrees were not the offspring of the Church of England—they came down from the earliest ages of the Church, and never were disputed. From the time of Borgia the Popes began to permit incest; but it was for a valuable consideration. And now the House of Commons was asked to permit incest without any consideration at all. Both Catholics and Protestants were agreed that the thing was wrong; but this right of private judgment put an end to all questions of right or wrong. Every man assumed to judge for himself. A great deal was made of the argument that the House of Commons had often sanctioned this measure; but he denied the competency of the House of Commons to decide questions of this nature. Incest was incest, pass what laws they chose, and no man would commit it who had any value for what God's opinion of it was. There was nothing new in this—it was so from the beginning. God said, "You shall not eat this apple." Man said, "I will." God said, "You shall not commit incest." Man said, "I will." The argument, therefore, that this law had been broken was of no weight whatever. He would not enter into the Social question, but as it had been contended, also that by passing this Bill, they would be giving relief to a large number of people throughout the country, he might observe that there were certain families within his own knowledge to whose happiness the passing of this Bill would be certain ruin.


said, that the arguments which had been used in that House against the Bill showed how difficult it was to cast any new light upon the subject. He believed the measure to be based on truth and justice, and absolutely required by the social condition of the people. Its promoters were encouraged in pressing it forward by repeated and increasing majorities, and not at all daunted by repeated defeats in the other House. The present Government had just introduced a measure to expunge from the Prayer Book certain obsolete observances, and in doing so removed the last vestiges of the religious animosity of past ages. He ventured to hope that they would now remove from the Prayer Book a prohibition not based on Scripture, and for which no valid social argument could be adduced. A noble and venerable Lord in the other House intended in 1835 to make the marriages in question legal. He was frustrated in this object by the Bench of Bishops, who consented to grant absolution for the past—to legalize the existing marriages with the sisters of deceased wives—but only on the condition that such marriages should be prohibited in future. The bishops ought to rely on argument for the support of their opinions; but, instead of doing so, they called in the aid of the civil power. Hon. Gentlemen on the opposite side of the House disparaged the purity of the motives of those who wished to contract these marriages; but in doing so, they aspersed alike the living and the dead; and it should not be forgotten that a noble Duke in the other House would not now be in the enjoyment of his title and estates but for a legal declaration in favour of the marriage of his parents who were within the prohibited degrees. Among the working classes the absurd prohibition was utterly disregarded. Finding no Divine law against such unions, they could not be brought to consider them objectionable. No physical argument had ever been urged against them, and, in fact, it was well known that the objections to marriages on account of consanguinity did not apply to cases of affinity. He thought it a foul libel on the character of the higher classes to say that a wife would look on her sister with jealousy, because in the contingency of her own death that sister might step into her place in the husband's house; and he asked the House whether the Legislature of the country should be called on to legislate for the religious scruples of a very small section only of the Church of England? He thought those persons were not true friends of the Church who tried to impose on the rest of the religious popula- tion their own peculiar prejudices; and he trusted that this last vestige of religious intolerance would be swept away.


said, that as all his constituents were known to want to marry their deceased wives' sisters if the contingency unhappily arose, he felt bound to say a few words in their behalf. The Mover of the Amendment had, in fact, suggested the great argument; it was quite true, that if the Bench of Bishops got into collision with the charity-girls on this point of doctrine, they would be beaten by the charity-girls. He should be sorry to show any disrespect to that rev. Bench; but there were myriads in this country as well able to interpret a text of Scripture or an Act of Parliament as they, and who would never acquiesce in interpretations where a "not" was put in or out, in the manner so justly rebuked by the Star Chamber. Instead of believing that marriages of this kind were prohibited in Scripture, public opinion maintained that they were commanded; and his own belief certainly was, that no man could decently have his deceased wife's sister in the house to take care of Ids orphan children, without offering her marriage. At all events, he was quite sure that, though in point of fact not within the limits of the question, he could not do it. Attachments which ought to end in marriage do not grow up from causes which should be sent among the bestial herds to range, but from common interests, common affections, common loves. There could be no final success in trying to legislate upon what the public believed false grounds, against what the public felt to be for the manifest diminution of the ills of life. He was acquainted with a young lady of extraordinary talent, sightless from birth. She was led into society by an attentive mother, whose appearance was that of a sister only a few years her senior. One day the young lady did not appear; and it was announced that the mother was—dead. Here then was a case of severest human suffering; and if there was an aunt whose instalment in the mother's place was the only remedy God or man could suggest for the heavy blow on this afflicted creature, forth stepped the theologian and the legislator, and on grounds which the public devoutly believed to be based on the insertion of a "not," forbade the promptings of nature and humanity to take their course. If one branch of the Legislature still refused to sanction the Bill, he would only say that everybody knew the process for carrying out the decided wishes of the community, in spite of obstacles which ought not to have been so broadly alluded to in that House.


said, the promoters of the Bill were in this dilemma, that if the Bill was really just in principle, and necessary, it fell far short of what was required. The operation of the Bill was limited to England. But were there no people in Ireland or Scotland who desired to be relieved from this grievance? He had great objections to any Bill which was made applicable to one part of the country and not the rest. He would ask the promoters of the Bill to state their reasons why they should place Ireland and Scotland in so different a moral position from the rest of the United Kingdom? Moreover, if it was right that marriage should be permitted between a widower and the sister of his deceased wife, a fortiori should he be allowed to marry her niece, that being a more remote degree of affinity. [A laugh.] Hon. Members appeared to think that it was not likely that such a case would arise, and it had been said that the disparity of age would be a sufficient obstacle, but it should not be forgotten that in many cases the niece might even be older than her aunt. It was a remarkable circumstance that the two extreme parties amongst Christians, the Roman Catholics and the members of the Scotch Church, were equally opposed to the legislation of such marriages, and he had no doubt that this was the reason why Ireland and Scotland were to be excepted from the operation of the Bill. In his opinion it was an overpowering argument against the measure. Further, the hon. Member for Huddersfield told them that the Act of 1835 had made that sinful which was not sinful before, but all that the Act of 1835 did was to make certain marriages which had already taken place legal.


explained, that all he meant to say was that the Act of 1835 was the first legal prohibition of such marriages.


Sir, there was one remark which fell from the hon. Gentleman who moved this Amendment which ought not to be allowed to pass without some notice. He anticipated a majority in favour of his Motion. Now, I will venture, on the other hand, to predict that there will be, as there was on the first stage of the Bill, a majority in favour of its principle. But I wish, in reference to that question, to carry the regard of the opponents of the Bill one step further, and to offer some remarks for their consideration why they should relax in their hostility and look forward to the time when this Bill will ultimately receive the sanction of the three branches of the Legislature. If we consider what was the state of the law before the passing of Lord Lyndhurst's Act, we shall find that, practically, facilities did exist for the contraction of these sort of marriages, and that the state of things which that Act introduced differs from that which exists in any other country in the world. The peculiar party to which the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Beresford Hope) belongs attempts to enforce on this country greater strictness with regard to this class of marriages than exists in any other part of the Christian world. I believe that in all other Protestant countries in Europe the law permits marriage with the sister of a deceased wife, and that may be taken as a tolerably strong indication that the notions promulgated by some hon. Gentlemen that such marriages are contrary to the law of God and incestuous have no foundation in reason or authority. We can hardly suppose that so large a portion of the Protestant world would agree in admitting an impious and immoral doctrine. If we look to Catholic countries, we shall find that, although the letter of the law prohibits these marriages, a facility exists for obtaining a dispensation from that law in any particular case where such a union is desired; and therefore, looking at the two classes of foreign countries, Catholic and Protestant, the law permits them in one class and practice permits them in the other. In England alone they are absolutely prohibited, and in no other country. Before Lord Lyndhurst's Act these marriages were not void, but voidable. Such a marriage was good until avoided by a suit in the Ecclesiastical Court; and, moreover, it was necessary that the suit should be instituted and carried to a conclusion during the lifetime of both parties. There were obstructions to enforcing the law, and where there was no descendible property there was no motive to set the law in motion. In cases where there was heritable property there were collusive suits and various means by which marriages so contracted were enforced. Therefore, the state of the law was this, which I should have thought would have satisfied the hon. Gentlemen who are so earnest in opposi- tion to this Bill—that the law, to a certain extent, discouraged these marriages—that it made them unadvisable; but at the same time did not place an absolute veto on them. That state of things was not found unendurable. No complaints existed when unfortunately the Act of 1835 passed, and from circumstances to which I need not more particularly refer, though legislation was founded on particular cases, the law was altered, and those marriages, instead of being voidable, were declared void. That introduced a state of the law which I venture to affirm does not exist in any other country in Christendom, and therefore I would submit to the consideration of Gentlemen who are carrying on opposition to this Bill, whether they think that, looking to the great anxiety which exists for a change, they can prevent this question being agitated, and induce the country to acquiesce in a state of the law which I maintain does not exist in any other country, and did not exist in this country up to the year 1835. I think those inflated phrases—"relaxation of the law of marriage," "sapping the foundations of morality," "incest," and "violation of the law of God," utterly unsuited to the circumstances of the case. Be it observed, that the Act of 1835 actually declares existing marriages of this class to be valid and unimpeachable. Therefore, according to the supposition of hon. Gentlemen opposite, not only the Members of this House, but the Members of the House of Lords, including the Bishops, assented to the principle of declaring valid and making firm and unimpeachable marriages which were incestuous and contrary to the law of God. Such a supposition is wholly extravagant. It must be admitted that this question is to be decided according to the ordinary rules of social morality, and looking to those considerations, and the extremely stringent and cruel state of the law which the Act of 1835 introduced, I trust that it will be seen that not only will this Bill be carried to-day, but ultimately, and at no distant period, be the law of the land.


Sir, the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has given a challenge to those who have the misfortune to oppose this Bill against the opinion of the majority of the House, and has asked them to state whether, considering the state of the law of the land, and remembering what is the law in other Protestant countries upon this subject, they think they can continue their opposition to it. That is a fair challenge and is entitled to an answer; and I will say to him at once, that if I could concede his premises I should not be prepared to disagree with his conclusion. I must, however, point out that this is not a case of ordinary national legislation, but it is one in which we are asked to alter the relations of the marriage state in a manner contrary not only to the laws of this country, but unless the change is carried further than is proposed by this Bill, to those of the very Protestant countries to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. By the laws of this country, from time immemorial, one line, and as far as I can see the only line, which can be maintained, has been laid down as the permanent settlement of the boundaries between which marriage is allowed and prohibited. It is true that by the laws of Prussia—to which the right hon. Gentleman refers when he speaks of "other Protestant countries in Europe"—marriages are allowed to be contracted with the sister of a deceased wife; but they are also allowed with a more distant relation—her niece, which you don't presume to contemplate by this Bill. Therefore the appeal of the right hon. Gentleman points in the clearest possible manner to the strange inconsistencies and anomalies into which the supporters of this measure are going to throw us. I wish to state very shortly the reasons why I individually cannot support the second reading of this Bill; for of course I have no right on such a question to speak on behalf of anybody but myself. In the first place, I think that when you propose to alter the law of marriage you are dealing with a subject on which you are bound to offer the best and most conclusive reasons for the change suggested; and in the second place I am convinced that if you make any change in the laws of marriage nothing can be so dangerous, so detrimental, and so disadvantageous as to have one law for this part of the Kingdom and another for Scotland and Ireland. My right hon. Friend seems to think that we ought to have no regard to those religious reasons which have been adverted to, and to those higher considerations to which others have often appealed, because he thinks, and no doubt honestly, that they have no real bearing upon the subject. I will not enter upon a religious discussion, but to vindicate the course which I feel bound to take, I will so far allude to the religious reasons as to point out the only line upon which you can safely stand. The religious reasons are these, that from the time of the original creation there was such unity and mystery thrown round the marriage state that the obligations, duties, and responsibilities which attached to one of the parties equally attached to the other, and the mysterious unity arising also out of those sacred obligations in which man was placed at the commencement of his existence have been approved, sanctioned, hallowed and confirmed by the only Master whose command and injunctions as a Christian people we are bound to obey. Now if I am right in that reasoning, and I will only to that extent advert to the religious principle involved in this question, the man at the time of his marriage is entitled to say—"When I marry you, your mother becomes my mother, your daughter my daughter, your aunt my aunt, your niece my niece, and your sister my sister." The woman, who, remember, is not represented here, and for whom you are making an alteration in the law, which almost the whole of her sex repudiates is as much entitled to say—"By my marriage with you, your father is my father, your son is my son, your uncle is my uncle, your nephew is my nephew, and your brother is my brother." You cannot shake me from the logical inference which flows from this reasoning, unless when you ask me to say that on behalf of one of the sexes I will break through this line in one instance, and one instance only, namely, in favour of a man when he marries his wife's sister, you are prepared to admit that the woman also shall be allowed the same indulgence, that is to say she shall be allowed to marry her husband's brother. But we will tell you, and we do tell you, as has already been done by the hon. Member for Surrey (Mr. Drummond) who always stands up for the truest and highest principles of morality with a manliness which entitles him to respect from both sides of the House, that by the law of God those marriages are incestuous. Upon the principle to which I have adverted we can hardly arrive at any other conclusion, unless you intend to base the argument upon this, that since there is no blood connection there cannot be incest. (Opposition cheers.) You cheer that as if I had furnished you with an answer to my own reasoning, and if that answer were complete I would admit it at once; but I allude to it to point out that, according to that reasoning, you cannot stop at the point reached by this Bill. I have adverted to ten cases of relationship, in no one of which is there any blood connection; you tell us that in one case only will you relax the law, and now I ask you, what are you going to do with the other nine? Do you intend to permit marriage to the nearer relation, the sister, and withhold it from the more distant one, the niece? Upon what ground do you withhold it? I am told that the existing law is a restraint on liberty—civil and religious liberty, although it is difficult to understand how civil and religious liberty are affected—what liberty? I know of no liberty which is not under restraint. I know of no liberty which has not a moral obligation attached to it. But if the prohibition of marriage with the sister of a deceased wife be a restraint upon natural liberty, I go back to your former argument, and ask you, why is not the prohibition of marriage in the other cases also a restraint upon that liberty? I am told that the permission of these marriages would be an advantage to the lower orders, that there are grave social reasons for the passing of this law, and that the sister of the deceased wife is the best protectress to the orphan children. That argument has always been met by another, and I believe a sound one, that for one case in which you would give the orphans the protection of a stepmother, in twenty you would deprive them of that of an aunt. Remembering what has been done by the Marriage and Divorce Act, and coupling that with a clause in this Bill, I must ask the noble Viscount to consider the dreadful position in which he is going to place the people of England. By the recent Divorce Act, which for the first time—and I supported that provision—gave a woman a right, in certain cases, to apply for a divorce a vinculo matrimonii, you gave her that right in the case of the commission of incest by the husband. By the noble Viscount's own Bill he proposes to say that nothing therein contained "shall invalidate or affect any canon or law ecclesiastical of the United Church of England and Ireland now in force." By these canons these marriages are at this moment by the law of the land incestuous. If, therefore, we pass this Bill and enable the husband to get the advantage of marrying the sister of his deceased wife, and if, at the same time, you put the two parties in a position of temptation which they have never been in before, we may encourage that very incest upon which is to be founded the sentence of divorce for which the unfortunate and deluded wife will then have to apply. No such consequences ought to be admitted; and if you intend to pass this Bill, you must repeal this clause of the Divorce Act. But is there any argument whatever in favour of this measure? The noble Viscount tells my hon. Friend (Mr. Hope) that it is for him to show that the objections are so great that he will not allow the Bill to be read a second time. I always understood that when anybody came into this House or the other House of Parliament for an alteration of the law it was his first duty to show the reasons for that alteration. But what are the reasons urged for this alteration? You tell me that the law is not kept, that it is violated, that these marriages take place, and, therefore, for the sake of some few hundreds of people you are going to inflict grievous mischief on thousands of others. Never let it be said that the violation of the law in this country is a sufficient reason for alteration. The last argument upon which you ought to rest a measure is that; but if you do rest it upon that I recommend you to read carefully through the blue-book all the cases where the law has been broken, cases where men have married their nieces, and a mother and daughter consecutively. On your own showing, if you alter the law in one respect you must in another; and then, on your own showing, you will throw into confusion and leave the courts in such a position that no one can tell hereafter what are to be the marriage relations in England. I protest once more against this measure. I have urged the same arguments which I have used before, namely—that the measure is dangerous to society, and contrary to the highest religious and moral considerations. Believing that the present law is good for the offspring, good for the parties, and good for the country, I hope it will still b maintained, and I shall therefore join with my hon. Friends personally and individually in giving my vote most cordially against the second reading of the Bill.

[Baron Mayer Amschel de Rothschild, the new Member for Hythe, presented himself at the table to be sworn. The proceedings hereon are recorded post.]

Debate resumed:


Sir, before the House goes to a division I wish, without entering generally into the arguments, to state in a very few words the grounds upon which I shall give my vote, more es- pecially as for several years during which the House has discussed the question I have felt the difficulties to be so great on both sides that I have refrained from giving any vote on the subject. When Lord Lyndhurst's measure was before the House I did indeed give my vote in favour of the confirmation of existing marriages, but on the general question I have refrained from voting. I am sorry that I did not hear the whole of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department, but that part which I did hear was undoubtedly very powerful, and placed the argument in the strongest light. I should say with regard to the religious part of the question that I was satisfied with the statement made some years ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth, that every Member of this House was bound to look at it for himself, but that it would not be desirable that Members of this House, having satisfied themselves either that there was or was not a religious prohibition of these marriages, should enter into a discussion of that part of the question. I agree in that view, and I must say that I have satisfied myself that here is not any religious prohibition of these marriages. The right right hon. Gentleman who spoke last has alluded very properly, and in terms in which I quite concur, to the religious sanction of marriage both in the Old Testament and by our own Christian dispensation; but when he went on to say that he agreed with the hon. Member for West Surrey (Mr. Drummond) in regarding these marriages as not other than incestuous, there could not but occur to my mind the vote which I gave many years ago, after a very powerful speech made upon the subject by the late Sir W. Follett, than whom no man was better acquainted with the principle which should guide legislation on such a matter. Looking back to the question, I cannot say that I am now perfectly persuaded that we were right in not altering the general law on the subject; but there was one part of the Act in which we all concurred, and that was to confirm the marriages with a deceased wife's sister which had previously taken place. That Act was agreed to, as I believe, both by the spiritual and the temporal Peers of the House of Lords, and there are now Members of that House—Peers of Parliament—who have their seats in the House of Lords by virtue of that Act. I do not say that it would, but this might have hap- pened under the then existing state of the law—that those marriages being voidable, suits might have been instituted in the Ecclesiastical Courts, they might have been set aside, and those who were confirmed in their possessions, titles, peerages, by that Act of Parliament might have been deprived of those advantages. But, now, Sir, will any man say that the House of Lords would have sent to us at that time—or that we would have agreed to it if they had—a Bill which confirmed incestuous marriages? Supposing that there had been some five or six marriages with persons really sisters in blood, so that they were unquestionably incestuous, would the House of Lords ever have sent down to us a Bill confirming those marriages? I think no man can say that such would have been the case. There is, therefore, a clear distinction between marriages of relations in blood and those which are between relations who have become so by the marriage tie. But, in admitting this difference, I must say I have felt—and this has prevented me hitherto from giving an affirmative vote in favour of the proposition—that it is a weakening of that relationship which takes the place of relationship by blood when the sister of the wife is placed in a different position from that which she has hitherto held. I cannot but allow that it is in itself a misfortune and a disadvantage that that feeling which has hitherto prevailed, that when a man marries a woman the sisters of that woman become his sisters—that all his feelings, all his conduct to them in the most domestic intimacy—with relation to their affections, it may be with reference even to their marriage—are guided by the same sympathies, the same care, and, I may add, the same reverence which are due to a sister. I cannot but feel, I say, that it is a great disadvantage and a great misfortune that that tie should be weakened by any alteration in the law of marriage. But, while I admit that on the one hand, I also think that there is a great and practical evil which we cannot well refrain from remedying. The evil is not among the upper classes of society, where I trust there will be no weakening of the idea of relationship, and no alteration of feeling, as the result of that alteration we may make in the law. But there is no doubt, partly among the middle classes, and much more among the lower classes, a feeling that after the death of the wife there is often no person so fit to take care of the children as the beloved sister of that wife. With the confined space and the close dwellings in which they live intimacy in no long time grows into that kind of affection that they wish to confirm it by the ties of marriage, and to those persons it does not appear—not being blood relations—that there is a sufficient reason why they should not contract that bond. I am afraid that your law has been found useless in its prohibitions, and that it has failed to make people feel that those near relations are sisters, and that marriage, therefore, ought not to be contracted between them. The consequence is that upon persons who live together on terms of intimacy, whose motives are innocent, and who have no other object in contracting marriage ties than to live together in comfort and respectability, and to give to the children that care and protection to which they are entitled, you impose the stigma of concubinage, and upon the woman especially who is living in that condition you affix infamy and disgrace. Sir, I believe that to be so great an evil that I am willing to submit to that other disadvantage to which I have referred rather than refuse to remedy it. It is not, perhaps, in a great number of cases that these marriages would be contracted, but I think where persons feel that they can without scruple contract them, that they should be allowed to do so. I do not, however, see any answer to the argument of the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary with respect to other relationships of the same kind. I can well understand a line between the blood relations, among whom the guilt of incest is at once admitted and dreaded, and relations by marriage. That line is intelligible and distinct; but I own that, in my opinion, if you make this change in the law you cannot stop short where you are. As the right hon. Gentleman truly observed, the man says, "I take you for my wife, your mother for my mother, your aunt for my aunt, your sister for my sister." Those are all relations of the same kind, and I do not see, if Parliament agrees to the change in the law now proposed, how it can stop short of a change to a still greater extent. Neither can I see any justice in saying to the man. "You shall have certain advantages, and in case of your wife's death you may contract a marriage that suits you, but your widow shall not have the same opportunity." In voting, therefore, for the second reading of this Bill I should consider the change of the law utterly imperfect unless you further alter it so as to make it equally applicable to both sexes, and to all the degrees of relationship which have been mentioned. I certainly feel the question to be one of great difficulty, and it is not without some reluctance that I vote upon it, but as it has been pressed on the attention of the House I felt bound to state my opinion.


said, that it was with extreme reluctance that he ventured to make any remark upon the very delicate and very painful subject before the House; but one observation had fallen from the gallant General the Member for Bradford (General Thompson) which had occasioned him (Mr. Walter) the greatest pain at the moment, and which he could not pass over in silence. If he understood the gallant General aright, he had expressed the opinion that it would be impossible for a widower to receive into his family the sister of his deceased wife as the protector of his children without making to her an offer of marriage. Now, he (Mr. Walter) stood there to give a practical refutation in his own person to that opinion. For many months past it had been his lot, in a period of great affliction, to enjoy the benefit of that very arrangement which the gallant General condemned, but which this Bill would tend utterly to destroy. He did not propose to enter into any of those arguments, either theological or social, which had been addressed to the House on both sides of the question; but, in reference to what had fallen from the noble Lord the Member for London, he might be permitted to say that they could not deal with the question of marriage in any way—they could not relax any of the prohibitions as to the degrees of relationship, without diminishing to a corresponding extent those bonds of family interest and those domestic associations which, above all things, it was desirable to preserve. It was not a question only of what they would give by this Bill; but it was also a question of what they would take away; and it was his belief, founded upon personal experience, that what they proposed to give would not compensate for what they proposed to take away. For these reasons he should give the measure his strenuous opposition.


said, in reply, that the weight of argument and authority had been so overwhelming on the side of the proposed measure, that he would not have detained the House another minute, but for the pledge which he had given to the hon. Member for Maidstone that he would not allow any argument which the hon. Member might advance to remain unanswered. That hon. Member could not now complain that the subject had not been ventilated. Many hon. Gentlemen had risen on this side of the House, but very few on the other, and those few had stated facts and raised arguments which, Session after Session, had been disproved and refuted, and which, division after division had shown not to be consonant with the feeling of the House. It had been urged that the Bill ought not now to be read a second time, because it had only been in the hands of hon. Members only a short time previous to the meeting of the House; but that, he begged to assure them, was entirely due to the new postal arrangements of the Secretary of the Treasury. The proof of the Bill. which had been forwarded to him through the post when he was out of town, had no "head" upon it; and the consequence was, that after lying a considerable time in the hands of the Post-Office authorities it was sent back to the Bill-Office. It only reached him at last by an accident, but for which the Bill would not even yet have been in print. The Bill being identically the same as that introduced last Session, he did not think it necessary to make a speech on moving the second reading, and it was only to reply to some of the objections that he had heard that day that he rose to address the House. One of the objections of the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Beresford Hope) was, that there had been no agitation upon the subject. He remembered that last Session many speeches were made against the Bill, and that the main objection was that there had been an agitation upon it. It appeared that his hon. Friend was dissatisfied when there was agitation, and equally dissatisfied when there was no agitation at all. He remembered that last Session petition after petition was placed upon the table of the House in favour of the Bill, and that the hon. Gentleman made it a matter of complaint that those petitions were referred to as a reason for passing a Bill on such a subject as this. This Session no petitions at all had been presented in favour of the Bill, and still his hon. Friend was dissatisfied. With regard to the Scriptural objections to the Bill its opponents had been beaten in many a hard-fought field, and at last they were obliged to take refuge in the state of the canon law. The canon law appeared to him to be obligatory only so often and in such cases as those who advocated that law chose to deem it to be binding upon them. He ventured to assert that there was no clergyman who regarded that law as binding upon him. He believed that by that law a clergyman was not allowed to go into a publichouse on Sunday. He did not say that any clergyman did so; but he had no doubt that if a clergyman wished to go into a publichouse on Sunday he would not hesitate because there was a canon against him. He believed that one of the canons said that clergymen should not marry widows or servants; but he ventured to say that many clergymen had married widows, if not servants. He had known instances of the latter. The opponents of the Bill having been driven from the canon law, which was their stronghold, asserted that the Bill was socially inexpedient. That point was most ably urged by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and that, he believed, was the only real objection of which any notice ought to be taken. The right hon. Gentleman said that when you married a woman her daughter became your daughter, her sister your sister, and that, in fact, when you married a woman you married her mother, aunts, sisters, and her whole family. He (Viscount Bury) should like to submit that opinion to the impartial verdict of the whole community of England. Did the right hon. Gentleman mean for a moment to say that when a man married a woman he made her mother his mother, and was there anybody who would like that arrangement? He (Viscount Bury) maintained that there was no such relationship, and though he, as a young Member of the House, should feel the greatest hesitation in gainsaying the authority of the right hon. Gentleman, still he asserted that to mix up the ties of consanguinity and affinity in that manner was not a fair argument to offer against the Bill. Would any hon. Gentleman with a smattering of physiology say that by marrying a woman you mixed one drop of your blood with that of her relations? He thought that was a perfectly untenable argument. There was another question which was raised by the hon. Member for Surrey (Mr. Drummond). That hon. Gentleman was an old Member of the House, and he (Viscount Bury) was, as he had said, a young one. It would not, therefore, be decent to bandy personalities or hard words with that hon. Gentleman, but when he stigmatized these marriages as incestuous (although a great majority of both in the House and out of doors considered them to be perfectly innocent,) he attempted unjustly to prejudice the House against the Bill. Then there was an argument which had been endorsed by the noble Lord the Member for the City of London, and that was that if a man ought to be permitted to merry the sister of his deceased wife he ought also to be permitted to marry his deceased wife's niece and other relations in the same category. He had no answer to make to that. This Bill was simply to legalize marriage with a deceased's wife's sister. The Order of the day which preceded this was a Bill about tramways in Ireland, and you might as well say that tramways ought to include roads of all descriptions as say that this Bill, which was brought in for a special purpose, ought to make provision for something else. When a Bill was brought in for a special object, he submitted that Parliament ought to discuss that object alone, and ought not to allow its attention to be diverted to other collateral matters. He quite admitted that the same reasons which were urged in support of this Bill applied to the legalization of marriage with other relations of a deceased wife; but if the Bill had gone to that extent its passing through Parliament would be impeded. The real question at issue was the legalization of marriage with the deceased wife's sister, not his niece. The grievance of a man not being allowed to marry his deceased wife's niece was so small as to be infinitesimal—he might say, almost invisible—no particular hardship was felt from the state of the law in that particular, and it was therefore not deemed necessary to encumber the Bill with any provision on that subject. In conclusion, he expressed a hope that the House would by another division defeat the attempt which the hon. Member for Maidstone had made to stop the progress of the measure.

Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 135; Noes 77: Majority 58.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read 2o, and committed for To-morrow.