HC Deb 20 April 1860 vol 157 cc2051-6

said, that he felt he owed the right hon. Gentleman an apology for troubling him with a legal question, but he would beg leave to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, whether the Government could not adopt some means by legislation, if the existing law did not suffice, for preventing the recurrence of such scenes as the one which had lately taken place for determining the "Championship of England"? He wished to know from the Home Secretary how far the parties promoting such, contests were amenable to the law as abettors and accessories before the fact. He believed that there was a lingering notion in the minds of many persons that the continuation of these "prize-fights" was favourable to the manliness of the English character. That there was any truth in such a notion he distinctly denied. In 1800, Mr. Windham opposed a Bill to abolish bull-baiting, stating that the abolition of such sports would be "destructive to the English character," and went so far as to affirm that sports like those were "favourable to the continuance of the connection between Church and State." There was no fear of such an argument in favour of such cruelty being brought forward in the present time; but he should like to know, now that many barbarous sports bad been abolished, whether the manliness of the English character had suffered deterioration, or whether, on the contrary, the British soldiers had not shown more bravery than ever in their recent campaigns in the Crimea or in India. He acknowledged that the public took a deep interest in these matters, and he was ready to admit that no person could attend the prize fighting meetings or read the account of them without feeling a certain amount of interest in them. So they might even in a Spanish bull-fight. If by any magic power we could revive the scenes of ancient Rome, and be transported into the Colisseum to witness the encounters of the gladiators, it would be impossible, however much persons might be opposed to them, not to feel a deep interest in them. But this was no evidence that our judgment or our conscience approved of them. He objected to the late contest being regarded as an international contest. Such encounters could do no good to either country. If we were to have an importation of pugilists, he hoped the Chancellor of the Exchequer would put the highest duty possible upon the imported article. He was grateful to the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, and to the police, who seemed to have exerted themselves to the utmost to prevent the recent encounter, and he hoped that in future they would be more successful. He would also express his regret at hearing that one of the railway companies had given great facilities to the parties engaged in the violation of the public peace. He thought their conduct deserving of grave censure, the more so as on a previous occasion they had done the same in defiance of the orders of the Home Office, and the solicitations of the magistrates.


said, the various topics which had been already introduced into this evening's discussion, in which they had gone from boys' games in the streets up to prize-fighting—"from pitch-and-toss to manslaughter"—was an apt illustration of the variety of subjects that might be discussed in that Assembly, upon the Friday's Motion for an adjournment until Monday. He thought it was disgraceful that two human beings should be allowed, in open day, for two hours and a half, to pommel each other in one of the most civilized counties in England, without the interference of any magistrate. It could not be said by the Home Secretary that it was impossible to prevent so gross a public outrage, and the absence of a magistrate afforded no excuse. Now, if such a fight had occurred in his own country [Laughter], he repeated if such a brutal business had occurred in Ireland, there would have been an outcry against the Irish as a nation of savages. Much milder offences against public propriety in Ireland had given rise to much more severe language. If unpaid magistrates would not interfere to put down these disgraceful scenes, why not imitate the Irish law, by the appointment in every county of resident stipendiary magistrates, whose duty it should be to do so? It was idle to say that the scene of the fight could not be ascertained beforehand. Was there a single Member of this House who, at 2 o'clock on Tuesday morning, could not have gone there if he had chosen? He was not in the way of such things at all; but he was sure that he could have gone, and he might have figured there with impunity, because if the newspapers had even inserted his name as being present not one of his constituents would have believed them. [Laughter.] There was a time when a speech against duelling would have been received in that House with shouts of even greater derision than had greeted his present remarks; but the time would assuredly come when prizefighting would sink into equal disfavour with duelling. He did not wish to attack the English character in making these observations. Indeed, he had heard that both these gentlemen—what were their names? [Cries of "Sayers," "the Benicia Boy"]—that Sayers and the Benicia Boy were both Irishmen, and that Morrissey, who beat the Benicia Boy in America, was also an Irishman. All he could say was that these persons were a disgrace to their country. He thought that such exhibitions were as bad as the gladiatorial displays in old Rome, and it was due to the civilization of England that they should be put a stop to. He trusted that the Home Secretary would endeavour to have this subject treated in a more serious mood.


I will first answer the question put respecting the commitment of boys for playing in the streets of London. I understood the hon. Gentleman (Mr. T. Miller) to exclude from his remarks all games of chance; but the number of commitments under the Vagrant Act for playing in the streets at games of that description is considerable, and among the persons so committed there are many boys and young persons. To that class of offenders the hon. Gentleman does not address his remarks. As to the other class convicted under the Police Act, there seems to be no complaint of the commission of any illegality by the authorities. It is not imputed to the police that they have exceeded their powers, or to the magistrates that they have committed boys for acts which do not come within the scope of the statute. Nor does the question seem to point to any alteration in the law; it is merely one affecting the discretion of the persons who administer the law. Now, I have communicated with the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police on the subject, and he states that there has been no increase in the strictness with which the law on this subject has been of late years administered. On the contrary, his instructions have been to administer it with great lenity. But in the crowded streets of London great inconvenience often arises from these games, which may be the means of inflicting serious injury on persons passing along the streets, and often frighten horses, with very serious consequences both to life and property. For the convenience and safety of passengers, therefore, it is absolutely necessary that the law should not be allowed to lie perfectly dormant. There must be some exercise of power on the part of the police, and some punishment must in such cases be inflicted by the magistrates, when the boys are brought before them. It is impossible to send children for a long period to a reformatory, and the only punishment possible, therefore, is a short period of imprisonment. My own feeling is, that the best mode of dealing with those cases would be by the infliction of a slight corporal punishment upon the boys who are charged with this offence; but I do not know whether the law would warrant that punishment. I will make inquiry into the number of cases; but the information which I have received, makes me believe that there has been no undue severity in the application of the law.

The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. W. Ewart) has made a speech condemning the practice of prize-fighting, and travelling over a wide range of topics, but he ends by simply asking me what is the law upon the subject. An hon. Gentleman (Mr. V. Scully), following him, has expatiated still more widely on the subject, and has expressed his opinion that it is utterly impossible that any event of this sort could have occurred in that part of the kingdom with which he is more immediately connected. He certainly adverted, in passing, to the slight accident that both the combatants on this occasion were Irishmen. However, without narrowing the question in that manner, I would take leave to call his attention to the fact that those who deliberately defend the practice of prize fighting, do so, I apprehend, on this ground:—They say that it affords a model of fair fighting between two persons who engage in a pugilistic encounter; that it lays down certain rules which may be observed by all who fight in a less regular manner; that in the fights arising out of quarrels, which must be frequent in every community, the rules laid down by the professional members of the ring are looked to for guidance; that in that way you avoid the casualties which are inflicted where similar rules are not observed; and that an inducement is thus afforded for the adoption of a mode of fighting much better than the bowie knife, the stiletto, or, even, let me add, the shillelagh, the use of which, I understand, is not very uncommon in Ireland. There certainly did occur in former years, and perhaps do now sometimes occur, encounters at Irish fairs, which the hon. Gentleman must admit are somewhat more dangerous to the public peace than encounters such as we are now considering. Having merely adverted to what fell from the hon. Gentleman, I will now answer the question of my hon. Friend behind me as to what is the state of the law. I do not find there is the slightest doubt that a fight of this nature is an illegal act. It is clearly a breach of the peace. An assemblage of persons to aid and abet such a breach of the peace is an unlawful assemblage, and any person present and taking part in it may undoubtedly be indicted for a misdemeanour. It has not been the habit of the Government of this country to institute prosecutions in cases of this sort, even at a time when they were much more common than they are now, and therefore more likely to cause inconvenience and confusion. But it is open to the local authorities, when any fight takes place, to institute a prosecution in the ordinary way, and bring the matter before the proper tribunals.

Now, as to the question of the hon. Member for Middlesex (Mr. Hanbury) respecting the site of Smithfield Market, I must say that the matter is not so simple as he seems to think. It is true there was a grant from Charles I. to the City of the site of Smithfield for a market, but it is held by the Government that when the site of Smithfield ceases to be used as a market the ground, according to the terms of the grant, reverts to the Crown. The City does not admit that construction, and questions the right of the Crown to re-enter. The Crown, under those circumstances, could only re-enter after litigation, and the course of which the Government is prepared provisionally to approve is this:—The site of the old market in Smithfield consisted, for the most part, of land that had been granted by the Crown, but also in some part of land which had been purchased by the City, and of which they are unquestionably the owners. The plan provisionally approved by the Government is that the smaller portion of the ground claimed by the Crown, together with that portion of which the City is the undoubted owner, and a third portion to be hereafter purchased by the City, be dedicated to the purposes of a dead-meat market; the chief portion of the ancient site of Smithfield which belongs to the Crown to remain open and dedicated to the general purposes of the public, the other part to be covered with buildings of a moderate height. In order to carry this plan into effect it will be necessary for the City to introduce a private Bill into Parliament, and there will be ample opportunities before the Select Committees of either House for individuals or public or private bodies to raise any question which they may desire to raise.

The hon. Member for Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) asks me about a Bill relating to Roman Catholic Charities. A Bill was introduced by the hon. Member for Dundalk (Mr. Bowyer), which was not proceeded with; but I understand that hon. Gentleman is prepared to take a course in which the Government will acquiesce, and will shortly move that the Order be restored, that he may proceed with the Bill in an altered shape.