HC Deb 15 May 1860 vol 158 cc1319-25

said, he rose according to notice to move an Address for Copy of all Correspondence between the Home Office and the Directors of the South Eastern Railway Company, in the year 1859–60, relating to the conveyance of Persons intending to commit a breach of the Law. He was not on that occasion about to enter into a discussion on the merits or demerits of prizefighting. On a recent occasion an exhibition of that kind, at no great distance from the Metropolis, was declared—rather reluctantly and apologetically, he must say—but it was declared by the Secretary of State for the Home Department to be illegal; and it consequently followed that those who attended those illegal exhibitions or promoted them were accessories before the fact, and equally guilty with the principals. That was not the first time on which complaints had been made of the conduct of the South Eastern Company in this respect. That company had been entrusted, as everybody knew, with a very large portion—he might almost say, with a mono- poly—of the traffic in the counties over which their lines ran; and they had been warned of the illegality of aiding and abetting prize fights by himself, when he was a Member of the late Government. It was then understood the directors pledged themselves that nothing of the sort should again take place. Last year a letter was addressed to them by the bench of magistrates of the county of Surrey on a similar occasion; the answer of the Secretary was, that any arrangements for the conveyance of such excursionists had been made without the knowledge of the directors, and that it should not occur again. But so far was the company from keeping this pledge that it allowed two special trains to be run down the line on the morning of the recent fight. At every station in the county of Surrey these trains were met by police, but on passing into Hampshire no police were found, the passengers got out at a station in that county and the fight took place. Nor was this all; with one of these special trains, he was informed, was an officer of the company, a superintendent from the office at London-bridge, while the use of the telegraph was denied to the police authorities while the fight was going on. Under these circumstances he submitted that the complicity of the company was clearly established. Whether it was possible to bring the law to bear on the directors was another question, perhaps it would not he right, as he perceived none of the law officers of the Crown present, to ask the opinion of the Government; but he hoped the House by assenting to his Motion would intimate that they would not permit persons to whom they had given great powers to wield those powers in defiance of the law. Few could form an adequate idea of the inconvenience which arose from those special trains, from which 2,000 or 3,000 of the worst ruffians in London were in a moment launched upon a quiet neighbourhood. He was happy to quote the example of the South Western Company as a Company that had entirely given up the practice, and that had recently refused to giant trains for any such purpose. The House knew that the Executive was not very strong when opposed to numbers, as shown by the case of St. George's-in-the-East, where a mob of ruffians had for the last three months been able to keep up a continual disturbance in the church. He thought it right, therefore, to ask whether the Government had in this instance attempted to enforce the law; or whether anything had been done to stop the practice to which he had referred?


I do not intend to offer any objection to the noble Lord's Motion, but I must make a protest against the sort of exaggerations in which the noble Lord has indulged. He has described the railway launching 2,000 or 3,000 ruffians upon some quiet neighbourhood in a manner that might lead one to imagine the train conveyed a set of banditti to plunder, rack, and ravage the country, murder the people, burn the houses, and commit every sort of atrocity. I am not going to dispute the point, because I am told that it is the law, that a fight between two men—not a fight of enmity, but a trial of strength—is, technically, a breach of the peace, and an act that renders the parties liable to prosecution; nor whether the persons who go to witness it are not, technically, involved in the charge. But, as far as the latter are concerned, they may conceive it to be a very harmless pursuit; some persons like what takes place, there may be a difference of opinion, as a matter of taste, whether it is a spectacle one would wish to see, or whether it is calculated to excite disgust. Some people look upon it as an exhibition of manly courage, characteristic of the people of this country. I saw the other day a long extract from a French newspaper describing this fight as a type of the national character for endurance, patience under suffering of indomitable perseverance, in determined effort, and holding it up as a specimen of the manly and admirable qualities of the British race. All this is, of course, entirely a matter of opinion, but really, setting aside the legal technicalities of the case, I do not perceive why any number of persons, say 1,000 if you please, who assemble to witness a prize fight, are in their own persons more guilty of a breach of the peace than an equal number of persons who assemble to witness a balloon ascent. There they stand; there is no breach of the peace; they go to see a sight, and when that sight is over they return, and no injury is done to any one. They only stand or sit on the grass to witness the performance, and as to the danger to those who perform themselves, I imagine the danger to life in the case of those who go up in balloons is certainly greater than that of two combatants who merely hit each other as hard as they can, but inflict no permanent injury upon each other. I think there should be moderation in all things—moderation in all opinions; and, although it may or may not be desirable that the law should be enforced — whatever the law may be—still I do not think any advantage is gained or good done either to public morals or public feeling by the sort of exaggerations in which the noble Lord has indulged. At the same time the Motion is one to which I see no objection, and therefore I do not oppose it.


The noble Lord has pleaded the cause of prize fighting so strongly that I am almost led to expect that he will bring forward a Bill to make it legal. I was under the impression that all breaches of the law were to be discouraged and guarded against by the Government, and more especially by the Secretary of State for the Home Department; but the noble Lord very skilfully turns the discussion into one on the merits of prizefighting, whereas I specially guarded myself against saying a word on that subject. I hold with respect to it opinions the opposite of those of the noble Lord; but I did not say a word about prize-fighting. I said that some thousands of ruffians had been carried down by the train to one spot for that purpose. There were persons present at the fight who were not ruffians, I admit. I have heard of great names as having been present. ["Name !"] Of course I shall not mention names; but if the noble Lord had done what I did—if he had gone in a train with some of the gentlemen who were present at the fight—[Laughter]—I assure the House I was only a casual passenger— he would have seen that many of the passengers were not such as he would like to be in company with. I repeat, I am not going into the merits of prize fighting; but if these things are to be put down let them be put down. If they are not, let us not be calling on the police to endeavour to preserve the peace in those cases, while you, who occupy a much higher position, are endeavouring to contribute the whole weight of your influence to support those who are abettors in a violation of the law. Let us have one thing or the other.


said, he did not think it right to let it go abroad that the noble Lord (Lord Lovaine) stood alone in that House in his condemnation of those exhibitions. He, on his own part, must enter his protest against them; but he thought the noble Lord who brought forward this Motion should fly at higher game than the directors of a railway company who were guided by a desire of profit. The Minis- ters of the Crown, instead of putting down prize fighting, lent every encouragement to it. The Home Secretary, whose peculiar business it was to put down prize-fights, defended them; and now the noble Lord at the head of the Government spoke of them only as playful exhibitions of the animated nature of the British lion. It was the duty of the Government to enforce the law, whether they considered it a good law or not. Such used to be the doctrine laid down in his own country, and ought to be applied in this instance. He could only add, that his schoolboy experience taught him that those who set others on to fight were generally cowards themselves.


said, he had a few nights since asked the Homo Secretary to state what was the law relating to prizefights, but received in reply an indirect defence of the practice. He thought that if the law said one thing the Secretary of State ought not, even by anticipation, to say another. He did not object to fighting with gloves as an exercise, nor did he object to the art of self-defence, which was better than the knives or stilettos used in foreign countries. Neither did he object to fencing with foils; but he drew the same distinction between such fencing and a duel with swords as he did between a fight with gloves and a prize-fight. The paper which the noble Lord (Viscount Palmerston) had quoted as eulogizing the recent fight, was the journal des Débats; but, in fact, the paper did not justify such proceedings, and only mentioned it as an instance of the pugnacity and vigour of the Anglo-Saxon character. The Siècle, however, a paper of great circulation, condemned the proceeding in strong terms. He hoped that the present discussion would terminate, and that they would hear no more in that House about this matter.


said, that in justification of the Directors of the South-Eastern Railway Company he felt bound to say that he was informed that they did not admit they had forfeited any pledge. Upon a former occasion a special train was stopped without the Directors' knowledge or sanction, at a place intermediate between two stations, where a fight came off, and a promise was given that in future no trains should be allowed to stop anywhere but at stations on the line. Some time after, and that was the occasion more particularly alluded to by the noble Lord, a train stopped at a station and a fight took place, but the Directors maintained that they know nothing about it, and had not broken their word. They declared, truly or not, that they could not tell the intentions of those who travelled by their trains, and could not assume that any breach of the peace was intended.


said, he was not one of those who were very squeamish on those matters. He admired the skill and courage displayed by Englishmen on such occasions, and more especially the pluck and skill shown at the recent fight; but the question was whether prizefights were not breaches of the peace, and magistrates ought to know what would be their position if they took part in endeavouring to keep the peace on those occasions. He happened to live on the South-Eastern line, and was also a magistrate for the county of Surrey. One or two of those prize-fights had taken place in his own immediate neighbourhood, and one or two of his brother magistrates bad run considerable risk of personal danger in endeavouring to prevent them. But what would be their position when it was known that those proceedings were sanctioned by the voice of the Government in that House? He was very much astonished at the tone of the noble Lord (Viscount Palmerston) on this subject; and he wished to place before the House the position himself and his brother magistrates would be in if they thought it to be their duty to suppress those breaches of the peace while they were sanctioned by the executive Government, and encouraged by the railway companies for the sake of gain.


I distinctly stated that it was ruled by legal authorities that such prize-fights were breaches of the peace; but I protest, at the same time, against the exaggerated terms in which the noble Lord (Lord Lovaine) characterized the conduct of the spectators on those, occasions.


said, he was surprised to hear his hon. Friend (Mr. V. Scully) take the noble Lord at the head of the Government to task for the remarks he had made on this occasion, for he (Colonel Dickson) could not understand an Irishman objecting to fighting. The noble Viscount (Viscount Palmerston) had not laid himself open to such taunts. He sat on a different side of the House from the noble Lord, and did not often find himself in the same lobby with him on a division; but he would say for the noble Viscount, that if he had one attribute more than another which endeared him to his countrymen it was his thoroughly English character and his love for every manly sport, He (Colonel Dickson) would not stand up for prize-fighting, nor had he ever seen a prize-fight in his life; but he would say that the two men who fought on the recent occasion showed qualities of which the whole English race had reason to be proud; our own man in particular, who evinced powers of endurance and an indomitable pluck which entitled him to the admiration of his countrymen, lie said so advisedly, as he had been partially disabled at the commencement of the struggle. Many men in this country received honours who did not so well deserve them. He did not think Parliament ought to legislate with the view to put down manly sports; and, with regard to the duties of magistrates, about which the hon. Baronet (Sir W. Jolliffe) professed to have doubts, the law was clearly laid down. Magistrates themselves ought to know when to act and when to shut their eyes.


said, until the gallant Gentlemen (Colonel Dickson) had spoken he was not prepared to hear that the noble Lord at the head of the Government, after fifty years of memorable public service, would be known to posterity as the patron of prize-fighting. He thought it an unfortunate thing, whether or not it was in the power of the Government to stop those exhibitions, that the First Minister of the Crown and the Home Secretary should be found palliating, if not sanctioning, them. After what the noble Lord had said, he thought the caricature in a certain facetious public print, which a few years ago represented the noble Lord as a bottle-holder, was not altogether wrong,

Motion agreed to.

Address for "Copy of all Correspondence between the Home Office and the Directors of the South Eastern Railway Company, in the years 1859–60, relating to the conveyance of Persons intending to commit a breach of the Law."