HC Deb 23 March 1859 vol 153 cc672-7

Order for Second Reading read.


, in rising to move the second reading of this Bill, said, it was rendered necessary in consequence of a decision come to by the Poor Law Board that all children in workhouses, the religion of whose parents could not be ascertained, should be brought up as Protestants. This decision, in the face of the vast proportion of Roman Catholics and of Catholic pauper children in the majority of parishes in Ire- land, had created the greatest dissatisfaction, and had led to repeated collisions between boards of guardians and the Poor Law Commissioners, The present Chief Justice Blackburne, when Attorney General, had given an opinion that boards of guardians were bound to register deserted children as of the religion of the State; but from the Poor Law Act itself, and from an opinion given by Judge Keogh when Attorney General, it seemed clear that where the guardians could come to a conclusion as to what the religion of the child's parents was, they were bound to register it in that religion. In many cases something found round a deserted child's neck, such as a rosary, would sufficiently indicate that the parents were not Protestant; but the Poor Law Commissioners insisted on all deserted children being registered as Protestants. This state of things gave rise to contentions which it was the object of his Bill to put an end to; and it therefore provided that in all cases where there was no clue to the religion of the child's parents the board of guardians should be left to judge what that religion most probably was, and should register the child accordingly. He had been requested to bring forward this Bill by Protestants as well as by Roman Catholics; and he could assure the House that many Protestant clergymen had expressed to him their desire that the matter should be settled by legislation. After the liberal manner in which the present Conservative Government had acted towards the Roman Catholics, in the appointment of additional Roman Catholic chaplains for the army, he trusted they would show the people of Ireland that they were ready to act with equal liberality in reference to this important subject.

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


seconded the Motion, for he believed the Bill would effect a wise and just settlement of a question which, if not speedily adjusted, bade fair to destroy the present harmonious working of the great majority of the Irish Poor Law Boards, and to divide into two antagonistic religious parties men who had hitherto acted cordially together for many years past, who had learnt to respect and esteem each other, and to exhibit that mutual forbearance which was essential for the proper administration of the Poor Law in Ireland. In the north of Ireland it might be assumed that the parents of every deserted child were either Roman Catholics or Presbyterians; and therefore it did not seem just to register their child as a member of the Church of England. Each of these cases ought to be decided separately and on its own merits, but this could not be done by the State, and must therefore be left to boards of guardians. Another object which the Bill had in view was to provide greater attention to these poor children, by far the larger number of whom, at present, died at a very early age. It was extremely difficult to rear in a poor house children separated from their mothers at such an early age; but it was believed that if placed out to nurse the greater number of them would survive; and a clause in the Bill therefore empowered the guardians, if they thought fit, to take this stop.


said, that no one could complain of the tone in which his hon. Friend the Mover and the noble Lord the Seconder of this Motion had dealt with the question; but their proposition came to this—that the law of the land ought to be changed to meet the views of those who objected to the present system of registering deserted children. If these children were not registered as Protestants the opinion of Chief Justice Blackburne must be upset. Mr. Blackburne was at present Lord Justice of Appeal in Ireland; he had for some years filled the office of Lord Chancellor there, and it was well known that there was no more competent opinion on matters of this kind. It was said by his hon. Friend that Mr. Justice Keogh had delivered an opinion the other way. But was it so? What was Mr. Keogh's opinion? Why, that where it was shown that the child had been baptized in a particular religion, it ought to be presumed that its parents were of that religion, and be registered accordingly. The simple point before the House was whether they were prepared to repeal the established law of the land, as interpreted by one of the most eminent legal gentlemen in Ireland, merely for the purpose of accommodating some of the boards of guardians in the south; and he called upon hon. Members therefore, not under the pretence of restoring harmony and doing away with the bickerings and heart burnings which now existed, to introduce an element which must inevitably lead to those very consequences. Adopt this measure, and enact that boards of guardians should have the power at any of their meetings to declare the religion in which a deserted child should be brought up, and the result would be that on such occasions as there happened to be a minority of Protestants present the hoard would order the child to be reared as a Roman Catholic; and whenever there was a majority of Protestants present they would order it to be brought up as a Protestant; for he know well what efforts were constantly made in Ireland to encompass these children, and that cases came before the law courts almost every term for their possession—especially when there was any property at stake. They were asked to repeal the present law; but were they disposed to do that upon probabilities? He agreed with the noble Lord who seconded the Bill, that where the religion of the relatives of the child could he ascertained the child ought to be educated in that religion. No one wished to commit an outrage on the feelings of persons professing the religion to which the child belonged; but it was a totally different thing where there was nothing to guide the boards of guardians in arriving at a decision as to what religion it should belong to. They must have a rule then; and the question was whether it was to be the fluctuating one of a Protestant majority to-day and a Roman Catholic majority to-morrow. Let them adopt that rule, and it became a necessary element of interminable contests, confusion, and disputes in the board of guardians. The other portion of the Bill enabling boards of guardians to send the children out to nurse was equally objectionable. A deserted child would be brought into the workhouse; it passed the register; a nurse was wanted for it out of doors. "Who," said one of the board, "was so fit and proper as that fine young woman there?" The suggestion was at once acceded to, and the child was handed over to a person who might in reality he its mother. He also contended that the bringing up such children to a trade would he an injustice to the honest and industrious poor who endeavoured to maintain their families without parish relief. He would move as an Amendment that the Bill 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."

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


[who rose amid cries for "Lord NAAS"] said, he thought it was incumbent upon Her Majesty's Government to declare what their opinions were upon a subject so important as that under discussion.


moved the Adjournment of the debate. [Cries for "Lord NAAS!"].


thought the Government were bound to state what were the opinions they entertained with respect to the question. But notwithstanding the expression of the sentiments of the House in that respect, the noble Lord opposite (Lord Naas) and the Attorney General for Ireland seemed, like These us, immovable. Sedet æternumgue sedebit. He for one called upon the Government to state their views upon the subject. The noble Lord and his colleague appeared to be determined to remain silent with respect to it, but if they persevered in that course, the Roman Catholic Members could have no difficulty in coming to a conclusion as to what their intentions really were.


said, he could assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that there was no indisposition whatever on the part of the Government to declare their opinion on the proposal contained in the Bill; but he would remnd the House that it was not until a quarter to five o'clock that his hon. Friend had risen to make his statement on the second reading of the Bill; that no statement was made upon its introduction, and that the first word which had been uttered in its favour was that very afternoon. Subsequently an hon. Gentleman moved, as an Amendment, that it should be read a second time that day six months; and he believed it was no unusual occurrence for the Government to refrain from expressing their opinion immediately on the mover of an Amendment sitting down. He put it to the House, then, whether at twenty minutes to six o'clock, with but five minutes left before the Adjournment of the debate would be put from the Chair, it was possible to discuss the Bill in a satisfactory manner. He did not wish to conceal his opinion in the least degree. He thought the matter was one that deserved consideration. The question with which the Bill dealt was one, he readily acknowledged, which ought to be settled; but the way in which it was now proposed to settle it was not the right way; and he feared that if this Bill were passed into a law, the result would be to create still more ill-feeling, acrimony, and dissension than now existed, and increase to an enormous extent the very evils they desired to remedy. At the same time, he wished it to be un- derstood that he was far from saying that the present state of things with regard to these children was satisfactory. The opinion of the law officers had been given in favour of the view which many persons took, that the children ought to be brought up in the religion of the State; and he was not prepared to say that that was not a correct opinion. Still it was a matter that required consideration, and the House had a right to demand that full opportunity should be afforded for that purpose. When the proper time arrived he should be able to show that there were other means of settling the question, and that the measure now proposed, so far from effecting that result, would only lead to irremediable confusion, and create a lasting sore. Under these circumstances, at that advanced period of the day, he should certainly support the Motion for adjourning the debate.


asked whether the measure which had been introduced by the Government the evening before for the amendment of the Poor Law in Ireland, made any provision for the settlement of the question under discussion?


could assure the hon. Member for Dovor (Mr. Osborne) that the Government had no desire to hide their opinion upon this subject, though the hon. Member was scarcely justified in assuming the tone he did when he said to them, "Why do you presume to be silent when I desire you to speak?" He did not understand that Mr. Justice Keogh differed substantially from the opinion which had been pronounced by his learned Colleague on the bench; but if those learned persons differed upon the law or the application of the law to the facts, that was reason sufficient of itself why the question should be fully and maturely considered. So far as the present measure was concerned, he believed that if it were agreed to the result would be to increase instead of diminish confusion in litigation. In answer to the question of the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. J. D. FitzGerald), he did not believe there was such a clause as that to which the hon. Member referred in the Bill for the amendment of the Irish Poor Law, which had been introduced in his (Mr. Whiteside's) absence from the House. At all events, that Bill would be shortly printed, and the hon. Member would then be able to see what its contents were.

Debate adjourned till To-morrow.

House adjourned at ten minutes before Six o'clock.