HC Deb 20 July 1869 vol 198 cc357-67

(Mr. Thomas Chambers, Mr. Morley.)


Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [8th June], That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Marriage with a Deceased Wife's Sister Bill, that they have power to make provision therein for a woman to marry her deceased husband's brother."—(Mr. Collins.)

Question again proposed.

Debate resumed.


appealed to the hon. and learned Member having charge of the Bill (Mr. T. Chambers) to withdraw it in consideration of the important measures now before Parliament, and the late period of the Session at which they had arrived. He moved that the Order be discharged.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That "to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the Order for the Committee on the said Bill be read and discharged,"—(Mr. John Talbot,) —instead thereof.


said, he could not consent to the Motion; the appeal made to him had taken him by surprise. The measure had been passed by a majority of 99, and had before been sent to the Upper House on several occasions; it was a measure which touched the family honour and fears of many thou- sands of families, and under these circumstances he could not but deem himself entirely unworthy of the position he held if he insulted the House by withdrawing a measure endorsed by a majority of 99 votes. Admitting that measures of overwhelming national importance were before Parliament, he denied that any measure touched more nearly the honour of the people. He therefore trusted the hon. Member who had given notice to move an Instruction to the Committee (Mr. Monk), which he disliked as much as he disliked the Bill, would either move it or withdraw it, that the Bill itself might be proceeded with.


said, he wished to correct the hon. and learned Member's chronology. It was not true that this Bill had been often sent to the House of Lords; it had never been there but once, and that was ten or twelve years ago; it was only once introduced into this House in the Parliament of 1865, and only once in the Parliament of 1862, on both of which occasions it was rejected. Although the second reading had been carried, the Bill had struck no responsive chord in the hearts of the people. He agreed with the hon. and learned Gentleman that the measure did touch the honour of many families in the country. It wounded the most tender and delicate feelings of countless thousands of wives, sisters, brothers, and families.


said, he had always supported this measure, the opposition to which was carried on in a manner which he thought contrary to Parliamentary usage, and unworthy of the House.


said, he could not be suspected of hostility to the Bill, but he would advise the withdrawal of it, considering the late period of the Session, and the treatment which the Bill encountered. He was ashamed to think, that a subject which ought, at any rate, to be discussed with a degree of decorum and respect should be made the vehicle for levity and attempts to discover words of double meaning and bad signification. Amendments were moved which were simply designed to cast ridicule on the Bill. As it would be almost impossible to force the Bill through the House against the determination of those who I appeared to be so little particular as to the means they used to obstruct it, he would recommend his lion. Friend (Mr. T. Chambers) to withdraw the Bill.


said, the advice just given came with considerable weight from the noble Viscount, because he had been for a long time desirous that a Bill of this kind should be passed, but the conclusion he arrived at could hardly be justified from his speech. With great frankness and plainness the noble Viscount had characterized the opposition to the Bill, which had been carried somewhat beyond the limits of Parliamentary usage; but he doubted whether it would be a salutary precedent to withdraw a Bill on account of such opposition. This was not a Cabinet question. Many highly respected Members of the Government were not favourable to the principle of the measure; but, personally, he felt bound to do what he could to assist the hon. Member in charge of the Bill. For many years he had felt the pressure of this subject to be extreme. Among certain classes the change proposed would not be without a disturbing effect on domestic relations; but these classes were limited and select, and it was the mass of the community we must look to in dealing with such a question. When he considered the weight of testimony given by ministers of religion, among the most respected in their several communions—men among the Roman Catholics, the Nonconformists, the Established Church—High Church and Low Church—including such a man as Dr. Hook, who might, perhaps, be described as the first parish minister of his day—when he considered the pressure of motives which had induced so many persons, who had practical experience of the consequences produced by the present state of the law, to support the proposed change he did not shrink from the responsibility it would entail. Some twelve or fourteen years ago he formed the opinion that the fairest course would be to legalize the marriage contracts in question, and legitimize their issue, leaving to each religious community the question of attaching to such marriages a religious character; and the hon. and learned Member for Marylebone (Mr. T. Chambers) had shown a wise judgment and a conciliatory temper in reducing his demand to a minimum, and introducing a Bill to do no more than obviate the ruinous consequences of the present state of the law. The conduct of the hon. and learned Member gave him a strong claim to the support of all except those who conscientiously objected to the measure. The Bill was read a second time on the 21st April, by 243 against 144; the subject had been under discussion many years, so that the arguments for and against the proposed change of the law were well known, and it was not the fault of the author of the Bill that the Committee had not been taken long ago; and it was not equitable now to ask him to withdraw the Bill on the score of time. It had been remarked that there were other questions that were likely to occupy time during the remainder of the Session. He knew not the means of information possessed by hon. Members, or how it was they were able to form a judgment that those questions were likely to occupy so much the time of the House; whether that were so or not, he would express his opinion that they were bound to encourage the author of the Bill to set his face against obstructive opposition, and to aid him in securing a fair treatment of the Bill.


said, he did not share the opinions of the First Minister, but he denied that the Bill was being met in a factious spirit. He must complain that it had not been put down for Wednesday, when it would have had a chance of being discussed. He protested against the system of having piecemeal discussions of important questions — ten minutes one day, and five minutes three months afterwards. The real question was the abolition of affinity as distinct from consanguinity; and, as the time was coming when relationship by marriage would cease, he protested against the exceptional legislation proposed by the Bill. What could be more absurd than to say that a man should be allowed to marry his deceased wife's sister, but not his deceased wife's daughter? It was following an unintelligible line to say that a man might marry the blood relations of his wife, but that a woman should not marry the blood relations of her husband. He should offer every opposition to the Bill, because it did not proceed upon a principle which could be defended.


said, he wished merely to state that it was a mistake to suppose that the Church to which he belonged — the Roman Catholic Church — was opposed to these marriages. He had received a requisition from Roman Catholic theologians of the diocese of Dublin, urging him to support the Bill. It was true that the Roman Catholic Church required a dispensation in the case of marriage with a deceased wife's sister, but a Roman Catholic could have no dispensation for anything that was not in itself essentially lawful.


said, he wished to remind the House that in discussing this question it was scarcely possible to avoid a review of the entire marriage law of England, Scotland, and Ireland. About four years ago, a Royal Commission, composed of the very ablest men of both Houses, of the Bench, and the Bar, was appointed to inquire into the whole question of the marriage law. The Report of that Commission had been made last November, and it would be sufficient to say that it was drawn up by the hon. and learned Member for Richmond (Sir Roundell Palmer), to indicate that it was characterized by remarkable ability and research. He thought the present Bill ought to be postponed. What he objected to was partial legislation on the subject of the marriage laws.


said, he thought that the hon. Member for Boston (Mr. Collins) was exceedingly adverse to going on late at night with business to which he was opposed, but very anxious to go on with any matter he was anxious to forward.


said, he did not rise to support the Motion of the hon. Member for Boston (Mr. Collins). He merely wished to call attention to the fact that the marriages proposed to be legalized by the Bill were detested in Scotland, though the hon. Member for Forfarshire (Mr. Carnegie) had risen to defend the speech of the Prime Minister, who had spoken as if he wished to propose that the word "not" should be struck out of the Seventh Commandment.


said, he must express his opinion that the Bill was a proper Bill, and if the hon. Member for Boston should propose to add his clause to the Bill and withdraw his opposition he would support the hon. Gentleman.


said, that all the information which he had been able to gather from different parts of Scotland convinced him that the great majority of the people of that country were hostile to the Bill.


said, that if the Bill were to be advocated on the ground that marriage with a deceased wife's sister ought to be permitted because it was not prohibited by Scripture, that principle should be carried to its full extent, and it should be contended that all marriages not prohibited by Scripture should be legalized. He would not vote for the Bill, which was opposed to the religious feelings of the people of Scotland.

Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 143; Noes 57: Majority 86.

Main Question again proposed.


moved the adjournment of the Debate on the ground that some hon. Members had misunderstood the question as put from the Chair. In. particular he had noticed that the Lord Advocate had voted in contradiction to his speech.


said, he could assure the hon. Baronet that his vote was entirely consistent with his sentiments on this subject.

Motion made, and Question put, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Sir John Hay.)

The House divided:—Ayes 43; Noes 145: Majority 102.

MR. MONK, in moving that it be an Instruction to the Committee that they have power to make provision for a man to marry his deceased wife's brother's or sister's daughter said, that he was glad of the opportunity of explaining his reasons for placing his Instruction on the Motion Paper, as he had been placed in rather a painful position in consequence of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade having found fault with him for not deferring his proposal until the Bill got into Committee. He had, however, consulted a higher authority on the rules of that House than the right hon. Gentleman, and he had been informed that the course he had taken was the preferable one. For his part he felt bound by the decision of the House, on the second reading, when the principle of the Bill was affirmed by a majority of 99, that principle being that it was expedient to amend the law as to marriage with a deceased wife's sister; but he considered it to be not only within the province but the duty of those opposed to the Bill and to exceptional legislation on marriage to endeavour so to amend it in Committee, as to make it consonant with justice and common sense. Upon those grounds he appealed to his right hon. Friend the First Minister of the Crown whether he was prepared to give his sanction to an alteration of the law of marriage that rested on no fixed or definite principle, at the very same time that the Report of the Royal Commission recommending the establishment of uniformity in the laws relating to marriage had now lain upon the table for seven or eight months. He always understood that the law of marriage so far as it related to cases of affinity and consanguinity was based on a clear and intelligible principle. Marriage was prohibited between persons so related within the fourth degree, and permitted in the fourth or a more distant degree. His Motion had reference to the basis on which the hon. and learned Member for Marylebone proposed to legislate. That basis he (Mr. Monk) maintained to be unsound. What did the Bill do? Of the thirty prohibited degrees the Bill proposed only to deal with one, which was in a nearer degree of affinity than many others, including those to which his Instruction referred. A more extraordinary proposal it would be difficult to imagine, though after thirty years' warfare Parliament was becoming accustomed to it. He ventured to say, if the present Bill were passed it would lead speedily to the abolition of half the existing prohibitions. Was it not monstrous to begin by removing the impediments to marriage with a deceased wife's sister, at the same time maintaining the obstacles to marriage with a deceased wife's niece?—to remove restrictions as regarded a near degree of affinity and allow them to remain as regarded a more distant one. That was a species of exceptional legislation, which he trusted Parliament would never sanction. Whatever was done in this matter ought to be done with sincerity and honesty; yet, if this Bill passed, it plainly could not be a final measure. His Instruction affected a deceased wife's niece, and he would remind the House that that marriage was not expressly forbidden in the Scriptures, but by implication only. In Leviticus, a man is forbidden to marry his aunt; by parity of reason a woman may not marry her uncle: therefore a man may not marry his niece. His (Mr. Monk's) contention was that it was contrary to the true spirit of the Constitution and repugnant to reason and sound sense that marriage should be legalized between persons in a nearer degree of affinity, while the law prohibited them in a more distant degree, and declared the children of such a marriage to be illegitimate. Did not the touching appeals on behalf of the offspring of an union between a man and his deceased wife's sister apply equally to the children of a marriage between a man and his deceased wife's niece? He could have wished that the House would pause before proceeding with so exceptional a measure; but if it decided upon going into Committee, common sense as well as justice demanded that it should throw the aegis of its protection over the deceased wife's niece at least as much as over the deceased wife's sister. He begged to move the Instruction of which he had given notice; but if the sense of the House were opposed to it he should not put them to the trouble of dividing.

Motion made, and Question, That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Marriage with a Deceased Wife's Sister Bill, that they have power to make provision for a man to marry his deceased wife's brother's or sister's daughter,"—(Mr. Monk,) —put, and negatived.

Bill considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

Clause 1 (Marriages with deceased wife's sister before the passing of this Act not to be void or voidable, and such marriages to be legal in future).


moved that the Chairman report Progress. After many years' opposition, the Prime Minister, for the first time, had spoken in support of the Bill. That might be a valid reason on the other side of the House for passing this measure, but Members on the Opposition Benches retained their old objections to it. The right hon. Gentleman made one remarkable suggestion; that the marriages should be legalized where they were solemnized, but that their actual cele- bration or non-celebration should be a matter left to the religious community in such case. A more direct casting down of the apple of religious discord among all bodies, whether of Churchmen or Dissenters, it was impossible to conceive. How was the necessary consent to be given in each case by the religious body, or by the ministers; in either case was it not plain how clergymen and individuals would all be at daggers drawn with each other, and what an amount of acrimony would be introduced into every locality? The suggestion having been thrown out by so high an authority as the Prime Minister as a sort of obiter dictum, they ought to pause and give the country time to examine the downward path down which it was invited to go. It was now one o'clock, and he begged to move that the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again.

Motion made, and Question put, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again."—(Mr. Beresford Hope.)

The Committee divided:—Ayes 39; Noes 129: Majority 90.


moved that the Chairman do now leave the Chair. The hour was very late, and as the House would resume business at noon it was but reasonable that Members should have a night's rest and a good breakfast before they met again.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


moved, in Clause 1, page 1, line 8, to leave out "which has been celebrated since the passing of the fifth and sixth of William the Fourth, chapter fifty-four," and insert "heretofore celebrated or contracted."


said, it was proposed to make these marriages valid when celebrated before the registrar, but not when celebrated in church. That was a most anomalous state of things, and they ought to have the opinion of the Government upon it.


said, the object of his Amendment was to render the law in respect to these particular marriages uniform in Scotland and all the other parts of the Empire.


said, the Bill proposed to make a total innovation in the principle on which our marriage law was usually governed, because it would make the validity of the marriage depend on the place of contract and not on the place of domicile of the parties.


said, the measure was adverse to the feelings of the most religiously disposed people in Scotland, and he would use the forms of the House in every way to prevent its introduction into that country.


maintained that there was a growing feeling in Scotland in favour of these marriages.


denied that there existed in Scotland the strong and general aversion from these marriages which was alleged to exist.


maintained that the people of Ireland of every class and every rank regarded these marriages with utter abhorrence. Certain excellent but misguided Catholic divines certainly did support them, in order that the Catholic Church might be enabled to grant dispensations in certain cases; but not deeming this a sufficient reason for passing the measure, he should give it all the opposition in his power.


said, he would support the Bill, as he hitherto had done, because it was not a Bill intended, as some appeared to think, to compel a man to marry his deceased wife's sister, or to provide a dead wife's sister for every man to marry.


said, that although willing to support the Bill as far as it related to England, he regretted that he could not assist his hon. Friend (Mr. T. Chambers) in extending its provisions to Scotland.


read extracts to show that the first draft of the Bill only made such marriages legal for the future, whereas it was now proposed to legalize all these marriages where they had occurred.


observed that it was impossible to discuss a subject of this importance at that late hour —a quarter to two.


said, he was willing to make the measure non-retrospective as far as Scotland was concerned, if the Scotch Members wished the children of the unhappy few to remain illegitimate.


moved that the Chairman report Progress.

Motion made, and Question put, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again."—(Mr. George Moore.)

The Committee divided: — Ayes 48; Noes 94: Majority 46.

House resumed.

Committee report Progress; to sit again To-morrow.