HC Deb 26 July 1866 vol 184 cc1536-41

Sir, as some anxiety prevails with regard to a meeting which has been extensively placarded in all public places as being intended to be held on Monday next in Hyde Park, I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department the precise state of the case as to his relation to the Reform League. I wish further to know whether he has granted permission for that meeting to take place in the Park; and, if so, whether he will calm the anxiety of the public mind by stating what precautions have been taken for the preservation of the public peace?


Sir, my relations with the Reform League are simply the relations of a Secretary of State receiving a deputation from that body with reference to the painful circumstances which have recently taken place in Hyde Park. That is the answer which I have to give to the first Question which has been put to me by the hon. Gentleman. In answer to the second question, which is a very natural inquiry, not only upon his part but upon the part of any Member of this House, I have to state that I think I can show that a misconception of a most extraordinary kind has taken place with respect to the proposed meeting in Hyde Park on Monday next to which he alludes. There are those in this House, and there are others who were present at the interview which I had with the deputation from the Reform League, who know exactly what passed between us. Substantially, the statement on the point which is published to-day in the leading journal of this country is correct. What took place on the occasion was that I intimated to the deputation, after a statement had been made to me of a conciliatory character, that, as the main if not the only question which had given rise to the disturbances which have occurred was the alleged right, or claim to a right, of admission to the Park for the purpose of holding a public meeting, Her Majesty's Government would give every facility in their power for obtaining a legal decision on that question; and that while nothing was in the interval done in assertion, or in the way of an attempt at the assertion, of such a right on the one hand, nothing should on the other hand be done to prevent a determination upon it from being arrived at. It was then stated at the interview that one of the great causes of irritation was what was called the demonstration of large bodies of police, and it was intimated to me that if those large bodies of police were withdrawn from the Park the irritation would cease, and the disturbances come to an end. My reply was that there was, on the part of the Government, no desire to make any unnecessary demonstration either of the police or military force, and that if the gentlemen who addressed me would express their willingness to give, as far as they could, a guarantee that on the removal of the large bodies of police then in the Park they would themselves go to the Park and induce, at least as far as they were able, the people to retire from it peaceably, I would undertake, on the one hand, to remove all unnecessary demonstrations of large bodies of police, reserving to myself, however, the fullest power of calling out either them or the military force in the event of any danger arising to the public peace; while these gentlemen undertook, upon the other hand, if that were done, to do their best to put a stop to the unhappy and painful disturbances of the last few days. I think I should have neglected my duty if I had not availed myself of such an opportunity of bringing these unfortunate matters to what I hope will be a satisfactory conclusion. It was after this interview that two or three members of the deputation came into my room and asked the question whether the Government would allow a meeting on the subject of Reform to take place in Hyde Park on Monday next. In answer to that question, I distinctly stated that such an application, as it involved considerations of great importance, must be made to me in writing, that I must submit it to the consideration of my Colleagues, and that they should receive a reply to it in writing. It was stated in a placard which was afterwards posted in different parts of the metropolis, that an arrangement had been entered into to the effect that the meeting might take place on Monday with the consent of the Government. Now, I have not from the beginning of these unhappy transactions wished to use any language which might provoke irritation. I will abstain from using any such language even now; but I must say, that a more extraordinary misconception than that of what I said could hardly have occurred. The letter which was to be addressed to me by Mr. E. Beales — I mean the application for permission to hold the meeting—was actually not in my hands until near six o'clock yesterday afternoon, while the notices that the meeting was to be held with the sanction of the Government must have been printed at all events by that time, so that they were printed before it was possible for me to return any answer to the application. I do not know whether the House would care that I should read the letter which was addressed to me by Mr. Beales. [Cries of "Yes, yes!"j Well, his letter, which I received between five and six o'clock yesterday afternoon, is dated the 25th of July, and is in these words— Sir,—I am requested by the Council of this League to most earnestly press upon you the advisability and even urgent necessity, as the most effectual means of putting an end to the state of dangerous exasperation now existing in the public mind, that you will offer no opposition to the meeting proposed to be held by the League in Hyde Park on Monday afternoon next at six o'clock, such meeting to be held on the general subject of the Elective Franchise and Reform, and to be with-out prejudice in any way to the decision of the question in Parliament or in a Court of Law as to the abstract right of the people to meet for political discussion in that or any other Park, the Council of the League undertaking on their part to do everything in their power to preserve the peace and prevent any act tending to riot or disorder.—I am Sir, with the utmost respect, your obedient, humble servant, EDMOND BEALES, President. The Right Hon. Spencer Walpole. That letter shows, I think, as distinctly as words can show, altogether independently of the affirmation I have already made, that the application which was to be made to me in writing was only so communicated to me upon the receipt of the letter, and I must also add that the answer which was to be given by me in writing had not been given at all yesterday afternoon, when the placards to which I have referred were printed. I might also appeal to witnesses who were present at the deputation. [Cries of "No, no!"] I thank the House for so readily believing my statement; but, in justice to a most able member of the Reform League, who is known to many Members of this House, and who was present with the deputation —I mean Mr. Holyoake—I must state that, in a manner which reflects infinite credit on him, he volunteered to come to my office to day. I was so busily engaged that I could not see him, but he saw my private secretary, who came into my room immediately afterwards, and told me what had passed between them, when I said— The words which you say were used by Mr. Holyoake are so important, let me while they are fresh in your recollection take them down. The words so taken down are these— He came to repudiate in the strongest terms Mr. Beales' proclamation. He perfectly understood Mr. Walpole to decline to sanction any meeting in the Park, and to ask that an application for that should be made in writing. He spoke to many Liberal Members last night, and also to Mr. Beales, when the proclamation was being posted. I may add that however unfortunately the misconception arose in the mind of Mr. Beales, I regret that it should have taken place, and I hear that he regrets it too. In order to complete the case I will read the answer which, with the assent of my Colleagues, was returned to the application of Mr. Beales after the first Cabinet Council which could be held subsequent to the receipt of his letter. The answer is as follows:— 26th July, 1866. Sir,—I have laid your letter of the 25th inst. before my Colleagues, and I beg to state that, pending the judicial decision (every facility for obtaining which will be afforded by the Government) as to the legal right of holding meetings in the Royal Parks, no permission for such meetings can be given. In the event of its being desired to hold an open-air meeting on the subject of Reform, no objection will be made on the part of Her Majesty's Government to such meeting being held on Primrose Hill. I have, &c., S. H. WALPOLE. E. Beales, Esq.. Thanking the House for the kind way in which they have received this statement, I have now simply, in conclusion, to express my earnest hope that those who were anxious to hold the meeting in the Park, with the view of bringing to a test the legal question involved, will not try to press the assertion of that right further by means of force; but, if they do, then I trust that hon. Members, on whatever side of the House they may happen to sit, will aid the Government in their endeavour to maintain those rights with respect to the Parks which as they have every reason to believe belong to the Crown, and with which they trust no attempt at interference which has not the sanction of the law neither can or ought to be allowed by those who have at heart the sacred interests of peace and order.


Sir, I rise to make a statement which I believe will give satisfaction to the whole House. I have just had an interview with Mr. Beales and several leading members of the League, including all those who were present at the second interview to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred. I have full authority from them to say this, that so far as they are concerned there is no intention of renewing the attempt to meet in the Park. There has been no council of the League held, and they are not, therefore, in a position to I speak for the League. [Laughter.] That ribald laugh might well have been spared. Do hon. Members suppose that Reformers do not mean what they say? I tell them that they do. What I have to say is that these gentlemen regret exceedingly that a misunderstanding should have occurred with regard to the communication made to them by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department. They are perfectly certain that the misunderstanding is in no way imputable to him. The interview left on them the most favourable impression of his feelings, disposition, and character, and there is nothing which they would more regret than to say anything which could in the slightest degree reflect on him. That being the case, it is unnecessary to enter into the circumstances, though I might state something that might, perhaps, account for this misunderstanding. But the misunderstanding having taken place, the same motives which induced them to exert themselves last night so as to prevent what they believed would have otherwise resulted in bloodshed, preclude them from taking any advantage of, or in any way acting on, what is now shown to have been a misconception. Whether they will accept the offer of Primrose Hill, or consider that on this occasion it is better to abstain from meeting altogether, I am not authorized to state, and probably they do not consider themselves authorized to decide on that offer without consulting the council of the League. But, so far as their influence goes, nothing will be done that can possibly afford cause for any further disturbance.