HC Deb 23 July 1869 vol 198 cc620-33

Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Amendment proposed to Question [23rd July], "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair;" and which Amendment was, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the right of free speech is one of the most important safeguards of good Government, and that attacks upon this right are, therefore, dangerou3 to the welfare of the State:—That the recent conduct of the Secretary of State for the Home Department in preventing free discussion of important topics was, in fact, an attack upon this great safeguard of freedom; and is, therefore, deserving of reprehension by this House:—That this conduct of the Secretary of State for the Home Department has proved especially mischievous, since it has led to breaches of the law on the part of official persons, more particularly by the Mayor of Birmingham, who caused the arrest of an innocent person for the purpose of preventing what to him was distasteful discussion,"—(Mr. Newdegate.) —instead thereof.

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

Debate resumed.


said, he adopted every word that had fallen from the noble Lord the Member for Liverpool (Viscount Sandon) on this subject. He was one of those who would be sorry to see the right of public meeting encroached upon; but if the House considered the nature of the placards produced that day by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and the feelings with which they must have been read by the Roman Catholic population, it must be apparent that they were eminently calculated to lead to a breach of the peace. There was no part of their doctrine to which Roman Catholics were more sincerely attached than to that of the Confessional; and when the character and conduct of the clergy and of ladies were attacked in connection with that subject, it was no wonder that they should be exasperated. He would put it to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Whalley) himself to say how he should like to have doctrines which he believed vital attacked in placards similar to those which had been posted through Birmingham. If the Protestants of the North of Ireland were subjected to such insults they would resent them. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) had accused the Catholic clergy of Birmingham of having incited a Catholic mob to attack the lecturer.


I made no such charge.


I am ready to make that charge.


said, he hoped the hon. Gentleman would give the names of the Catholic clergy who had done so. If a man took a hall or room he would be perfectly at liberty to lecture on such subjects as he thought proper; but he contended that it was unjustifiable to post those offensive placards through the town. The Secretary of State would have been condemned by every impartial man if he had not taken precautions to prevent scenes of violence and bloodshed which a firebrand like Murphy was likely to provoke.


said, that he knew of an instance in which Armagh had been visited by some persons who preached anti-Protestant doctrines, but in no case had they been met by their Protestant hearers in such a way as to cause disturbance. The question involved in this matter was simply whether the British privilege of freedom of meeting and freedom of speech was to be overthrown. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, in dealing with this subject, had prefaced his remarks by some observations on the sacredness of this right to freedom of speech; but as he went on he blamed the maltreated party for their acts, and spoke of them as the authors of the lawless outrages complained of to-night; not a single word of blame did he use as against those who broke into the building, resisting the constituted authorities, and dispersing a meeting assembled in a legitimate manner; he had simply said he did not stand there to defend them. If by faint praise we damn, surely by slight reproof error is condoned. The Secretary of State had described how Murphy, having proposed to give a lecture in a public hall, was proceeding to keep faith with his hearers, when bodies of Irishmen—some of whom had come by train for the purpose— marched, armed in military array, upon the Odd-Follows Hall, forced the door which the police on duty had barred against them, demolished some portions of the building, and dispersed three-fourths of the meeting. Without entering upon the question of Murphy's character, he asked whether that was not an assault upon the right of public speech and public meeting. As long as Murphy remained within the law he should be protected; if his lectures were marred by indecencies, as had been suggested, he should be prosecuted; if he simply argued, his opponents must be taught to content themselves by meeting him with arguments, and not by throwing brickbats at him. Englishmen loved fair play, and could not understand on what grounds this ruffianly mob could be excused from the consequences of their conduct when they came to the building on purpose to be insulted, and commenced their assault before they could, have heard a single word of what was being said withing the building. The junior Member for Birmingham (Mr. Muntz) had made rather a remarkable speech upon this matter; he complained that Murphy was a violent agitator, who had forfeited his right as a British subject; but did he know nothing of the career of the senior Member for Birmingham (the President of the Board, of Trade?) Was not he an agitator against the law which saved hundreds and thousands of women and children from the tyranny of their employers? Was he not an agitator against the Corn Laws? Surely he was. Had anyone proved that Murphy had violated the law? He was said to have been the cause of riot and of the gutting of houses, but his friends had been the sufferers; and the rioters were not wholly to blame, because they only carried out orders. The Roman Catholics were amiable and Christian like in private, but they belonged to a magnificent organization, and, when ordered, committed acts of violence. In so doing they were only carrying out a principle the reverse of that which Murphy contended for; they were only carrying out the spirit of a decree by Pope Clement VIII, which declared that liberty of conscience was a curse. How a Protestant Legislature could approve a system organized to crush expression of opinion he could not understand. It was gratuitously assumed that Mr. Murphy had been the cause of riots; but suppose he had been let alone where would the riots have been? He did not make a riot, but those who opposed him. ["Oh! Oh!"] He (Lord Claud Hamilton) invited hon. Gentlemen who interrupted him to adduce a single instance in which Murphy had aided a riot, broken into any person's house, headed a mob, broken people's heads, or used bludgeons and brickbats instead of arguments in discussion. Had not the President of the Board of Trade been in a minority very often, and would he have considered it fair if his arguments had been met by brickbats? If Murphy had been treated as he ought to have been—if the law had not been violated by others, if he had been left free to say what he had to say, the peace of the country would not have been disturbed by him or his friends.


said, that the remarks he had made had been incorrectly quoted. What he said was that Mr. Murphy was an itinerant agitator, whose course had been always followed by bloodshed and riot, and it was the knowledge of these facts which justified the interference of the Mayor of Birmingham.


said, it was important to bear in mind a distinction between two questions—whether it was desirable to retain or to repeal an Act of Parliament, and whether it was proper that the Executive should carry out an existing statute. The Secretary of State for the Home Department might have a private opinion that it was scarcely expedient to maintain a statute; but it did not follow he was to take upon himself to say that under no conceivable circumstances should that statute be enforced, for that would be practically to repeal an Act of Parliament. As long as an Act remained on the statute book it was not for the Secretary of State or the Law Officers of the Crown to declare that it should not, under any circumstances, be enforced. The statute in question was spoken of as old and obsolete, and one that had been forgotten; but in the year 1846 it was considered by Parliament, which came to the conclusion that it was desirable to maintain it, with a modification of its provisions. Therefore the Law Officers of the Crown could not assume the responsibility of saying that the statute was one which should not be acted upon. If ever there were any circumstances in which it was proper to put the Act in force they occurred in the case of Murphy. It was not asserted that he was a housebreaker, or that he went sword in hand, and attacked people; but he went about for the purpose of exciting religious animosity; he used language that was indecent and offensive; and he roused into a violent state of excitement—compared with which that of the noble Lord opposite (Lord Claud Hamilton) was nothing—those whose religion he outraged and whose feelings he purposely set at naught. Murphy was rightly described as a firebrand, for wherever he went there were tumult, excitement, and almost insurrection. He was not proceeded against because he was a Protestant; and if a Roman Catholic or a Presbyterian of a hundred-lecturer power went about the country exciting animosity and ill-will he would have to be dealt with in the same manner. Fortunately, there was but one Murphy; there was no man who came near Murphy; this was entirely an exceptional case; and the questions for the Secretary of State in this case were —Will the peace of the country be seriously endangered by Murphy returning to this town? and how is the peace of the country to be maintained? Two courses were open to the Secretary of State—one was repression, the other prevention. He might have directed that police and soldiers should be in readiness to put down the riot if it occurred; or he might prevent the possibility of a riot by acting under the provisions of this Act and preventing the delivery of the lecture. His right hon. Friend took the latter course, and he contended that it was the right course. Mr. Murphy had been described as a man who was sincerely desirous to promote the cause of Protestantism, and who was independent of any considerations of profit. But this statute only gave the authorities power to interfere where lectures were given for money, and if, therefore, he was animated by such Protestant zeal he might have avoided interference by delivering his lectures gratuitously. Instead of this, the price rose in proportion to the excitement occasioned by the lec- tures, and the highest price was charged for the kind of excitement which was produced by a visit to Dr. Kahn's museum. The fact seemed to be that if Mr. Murphy loved Protestantism much he loved profit more. The Secretary of State might have resorted to repression and coercion and the use of force, though probably not without serious riot, bloodshed, and plunder. Instead of this he threatened to put the Act into force, and the threat was effectual. If a Roman Catholic or Presbyterian lecturer had gone about exciting tumult of this description, and the Secretary of State had not interfered, in all probability the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) would have moved a Vote of Censure upon him for not putting the provisions of this very Act into execution. The Solicitor General and he took their full share of responsibility for the course that had been adopted here; and that was the wisest course which prevented tumult and bloodshed.


said, this question now assumed a most serious aspect. It had nothing to do with Popery or Protestantism, religion or politics. The question was whether a person was entitled to express his own opinion in a public meeting convened by himself without being put down by force of riot or force of law. Now, after listening attentively to every word uttered by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, he had come to the conclusion, not as a Protestant or a Liberal, but as a lawyer, that his right hon. Friend's own statement put him out of court. Who were the parties concerned? On the one side was a man whom he never saw or heard, but who was an English citizen. This man proposed to deliver a lecture, and why should he be sneered at for fixing a low price for admission in order to cover expenses? Did the Attorney General mean to say that this person was outside the protection of the law when he proposed to lecture on such subjects as the Seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, or the practice, doctrines, and principles of Confession? Nobody could deny that herein he was exercising the rights of an English citizen, and had a right to claim the whole force of law for his protection against violence. Nobody need go to his lectures who disapproved them; but at North Shields there was an attempt, not by a sudden, but by a concerted riot, to prevent him from delivering them. People came from a distance, across a ferry, with that deliberate object. Well, were they within the law? Of course they were breaking it. As each one joined the others for the purpose of taking a journey to create a tumult, every word they uttered and every step they took in furtherance of their object was a breach of the law. They were guilty of conspiracy to make a riot, and all the force of the law might be fairly invoked by any English citizen against whom they thus put themselves in array. Now, he agreed with the noble Lord opposite (Lord Claud Hamilton) that in the speech of the Secretary of State all the language of extenuation and excuse was for the rioters, while all the language of rebuke and reprimand was for the innocent man; and he defied any man to draw from the argument of the Secretary of State any other conclusion than that the privilege of free speech depended entirely upon the fact of how many people disagreed with you. The position of his right hon. Friend and the Attorney General seemed to be pretty nearly this—"If the people who disagree with you are numerous enough and strong enough and unscrupulous enough, wherever you go, to combine together for the purpose of putting you down, there is an end to free speech and the exercise of the rights of a British citizen. You are not to reckon upon the absolute omnipotence of the law to protect you in the exercise of those rights; but your freedom of speech will depend upon the strength, for the time being, of the party who is opposed to you in opinion." Now, it might be true, though it was not to his knowledge, that Murphy might be personally unworthy of this discussion in the House of Commons, and of any interference in his behalf. But how many great constitutional questions had been fought in the person of an unworthy representative? It was, therefore, nothing to him how far Murphy might be guilty of bad taste and extravagance of language, though not a word had been quoted during the debate to prove this extravagance. It was said that he should never have lectured on these subjects at all. That is, our religious liberty was to be measured by that of a Church which had always denied such liberty. With the Home Office, however, the question appeared to be not who was in the right, but which side would be the easiest to put down. The Secretary of State came to the conclusion that it would be the easiest to put a gag upon this man's mouth. True, it was not legal to do so. [The ATTORNEY GENERAL: It is legal.] Well, the Act of 1799 was entitled—"An Act for the more effectual suppression of societies established for seditious and treasonable purposes, and for better preventing treasonable and seditious practices." He asked any candid man whether an Act of Parliament passed for such a purpose as that could, except in some technical sense, be used for the purpose of preventing a man from lecturing upon a religious subject? He maintained that a man so lecturing was entitled to call upon the whole authority of the State to protect him, no matter how much force might be required for that purpose. It was the weakness of the Executive that gave strength to mobs, and the persons who had engaged in those riotous assaults upon individuals and private property had reason to thank the Home Office and rejoice in their success. Murphy was within the law and the law ought to have protected him. The rioters were without the law and the law ought to have put them down. The man who ought to have been protected was put down, and the persons who ought to have been put down were protected. These were his opinions; but as his right hon. Friend had acted with the best intentions and under the advice of the Law Officers, he would not join in censuring him, and therefore he could not support the Amendment of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire.


said, that Murphy came to Tynemouth and delivered lectures which were exceedingly insulting to a large number of the inhabitants. The result was a riot. Murphy left the town, but returned again, and the Mayor thought it his duty to apply to the Home Secretary, and, under the authority of an Act which was not obsolete, the right hon. Gentleman put a stop to Murphy's lectures in Tynemouth. That act of the Home Secretary had the approbation of the whole of the orderly and well-disposed inhabitants, whatever religious denomination they belonged to. Had Mr. Murphy confined himself to vindicating the doctrines of Protestantism his lectures would have been popular in Tynemouth; but he had insulted the Roman Catholics in a gross and aggravating manner.


said, that in this case there was a great question of principle altogether apart from that of the doc-trines preached by Mr. Murphy. It was, however, necessary to mention Mr. Murphy's name, because he was the victim of an act of tyranny. He had supposed that every man in this country was entitled to deliver his opinions without interference so long as he kept himself within the bounds of the law. If Mr. Murphy had said anything illegal the House of Commons ought to be told what it was. It might be that Mr. Murphy was unpopular with a class, but if the liberty of an Englishman were to depend on his popularity, we might say farewell to liberty. In former days, as they had been reminded, minorities had held opinions which subsequently came to be the opinions of the whole country; but, if these opinions had been put down by a strong hand, they would not have occupied the position which they now held. Suppose a Roman Catholic lecturer had been treated as Mr. Murphy was, there would have been half-a-dozen Gentlemen opposite ready to take up the case. There would have been a burst of indignation from every Gentleman immediately opposite had a Conservative Government attempted to stop a lecturer by means similar to those employed by the present Home Secretary, and they J would have been told that Tory tyranny had been put into operation to check discussion. He asked what would be said by the Liberal party in that House if at a Tory meeting in Tynemouth or Birmingham a Tory Mayor caused a Liberal gentleman to be arrested for moving an amendment to a Tory motion? It appeared from a report in the Birmingham Daily Gazette that at the meeting in that town Dr. Sebastian Evans endeavoured to make his way to the chairman with the object of protesting against a motion being put before an amendment to it was seconded, and that the only answer the Mayor made to his protest was to order him into custody. As he understood the Secretary of State for the Home Department, a large number of Irishmen in Tynemouth said they would kill Mr. Murphy; but instead of these Irishmen being arrested, Mr. Murphy was prevented from delivering his lecture. The persons who committed an illegal act were protected, and the innocent man was punished. If this were to be the rule of conduct for future Home Secretaries, a man might be imprisoned because Homebody else had threatened to murder him, and he did not know that a Secretary of State might not justify himself in committing a judicial murder by the plea that it was done in order to prevent bloodshed on a larger scale. If a man were to be locked up because a mob of Irishmen chose to break his windows, he should like to ask the Home Secretary whether, on the occasion of the late election, when his political opponents in North-east Lancashire broke the windows of the building in which he was addressing his constituents, the right hon. Gentleman would have felt justified in preventing him from proceeding by locking him up, or by other methods of coercion? Certainly his party had not charged for admission, but surely a man's liberty ought not to depend upon 2d. The question was whether every Englishmen had not a right in a private room to deliver his opinion in such language as he thought fitting to the occasion. The right hon. Gentleman had complained of the strong language that Mr. Murphy had used, but he thought that such a complaint came with a bad grace from the opposite Benches, on which sat hon. and right hon. Members who were in the habit occasionally of expressing their opinions out-of-doors in rather strong language. It was not because a man had used strong language that he was to be put outside the pale of the law. The right hon. Gentleman had said that it was known that Mr. Murphy was about to give a mere repetition of his former lectures; but the right hon. Gentleman had forgotten to show that there was anything illegal in those lectures, or anything which justified the course which was adopted. The Act under which Mr. Murphy was arrested was intended to be applied to cases of seditious language, and not to religious lectures. The hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Muntz) had told the House that Murphy was known as an itinerant agitator, whose course was marked with bloodshed and riot. He did not stand up as the defender of Mr. Murphy: he was unable to say whether the course adopted by him was a wise or an unwise one; but he thought that the hon. Member should have been prepared to show that bloodshed and riot took place at the instigation of Mr. Murphy. What had been the effect of the course taken by the Government in this matter? Why, the mob had already begun to take advantage of it. At a place called Patricroft a mob of Irishmen assaulted some Methodist preachers who were about to preach, and drove them away with the cry—" You're not going to do as you like any longer; we'll have things different… We'll let you that we are under a Liberal Government now." Bible teachers in Ireland were generally pelted — and that, in the belief that such conduct would be upheld by the present Government. That was the conclusion that the masses had drawn from the action of Her Majesty's Government, and such an opinion was not likely to be conducive to either personal liberty or to liberty of speech. It was to that House that the people looked for the defence of their liberties. During the Session hon. Members on opposite Benches had been kept apart by a subject on which they had taken different views, but upon this subject they might join hands and unite, not for the purpose of defending any particular man, or any peculiar theological principle, but for the purpose of defending the principle of personal freedom and of free discussion—a principle in which all, whether Englishmen, Scotchmen, or Irishmen, Churchmen, or Nonconformists, were equally interested.


said, that they must all agree with the first part of the Motion, which merely propounded the truism that free speech was one of the most important safeguards of good government; but the next part of the Motion went on to propose a Vote of Censure upon the Secretary of State for the Home Department. Now, it was always a very grave matter to propose a Vote of Censure in that House upon anybody, and the greatest caution should be observed in bringing such a proposition forward. The last part of the Motion applied to the conduct of the Mayor of Birmingham and others. Upon the latter point he should merely observe that if the Mayor of Birmingham and others had done anything contrary to the law they would be amenable to the law, and might be made to pay for it without the matter being brought before that House upon an ex parte statement. It would be very unjust for the House to pronounce an opinion on a matter which was or might be sub judice. He then came to the really important question of what had been called an attack upon the freedom of discussion. No one was more jealous than he was of the interference of arbitrary power in any form, whether that of a Secretary of State or a policeman; but he could not help feeling that the freedom of discussion might be injured as much by being abused as by being arbitrarily interfered with. Abuse of that freedom had led to such enactments as that under which the Secretary of State had acted. It had been alleged against the Secretary of State for the Home Department that, being a party to the repeal of this Act, he had on the eve of its repeal put it into force for the purpose of oppressing Mr. Murphy. The right hon. Gentleman himself had pointed out how little it mattered whether an Act of Parliament were moribund or not. As long as it was in existence he had a right to put it into force. He questioned whether the Act of Parliament under which the right hon. Gentleman acted had been repealed by the Newspaper Act. The Act of Parliament which had been referred to by the hon. and learned Member for Marylebone (Mr. T. Chambers), and which was passed in the last year of the last century, was applicable solely to matters of sedition and of the public peace. But there was another Act, 57 Geo. III., passed in the time of the Regency, which, following precisely the clauses of the former Act, was also applicable to meetings held for immoral purposes. The Act 57 Geo. III. was referred to in that of 9 & 10 Vict., which provided that prosecutions could only be conducted by the Law Officers of the Crown. Now, what had the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State said? He had produced a handbill setting forth a great many matters which were of such a nature that there was a notice that women were requested not to attend, and that male persons under eighteen years of age would not be permitted to attend the lectures. Well, it was not a very unfair inference to draw from that that the subject of the lecture must have been somewhat special. What it was the House had not been exactly told, except that it was something relating to the Confessional. At all events, if it were not suitable for women and male persons under eighteen years of age to hear, it was not a violent conclusion to draw that it might have been something which at least was not of a highly moral nature. If his memory was not treacherous, there existed in London not many years ago an anatomical museum into which women and young persons were not admitted, and he believed that somehow or other that establishment came into contact with the law as not being an extremely proper exhibition. This would almost lead him to the conclusion that there was fair ground for considering that the lecture to which he had just referred was not likely to be of a very proper kind. If so, there had been no straining of the law on the part of the Home Secretary. These were the points which had struck him with reference to this matter. Other persons might not, perhaps, have come to the same conclusion as the right hon. Gentleman, but the question for the House now to determine was whether a man honestly acting to the best of his ability for the public service had any fair grounds for putting the Act in force. Under the circumstances, he was unable to join in a Vote of Censure on the Home Secretary. There was a responsibility on that right hon. Gentleman, and he was unable to say that he had not acted to the best of his ability. The right hon. Gentleman had not strained the law, and, therefore, he, for one, could not support a Vote of Censure upon his conduct.


rose to address the House, whereupon—


inquired: Does the hon. Member desire to make an explanation?


No; I am going to reply.


The hon. Member having moved an Amendment, has no right to reply.


I beg to state— ["Chair!"]


The hon. Member may ask permission to withdraw his Amendment, but he cannot reply.


I wish to put a question to you, Sir. It is not my intention to move the last paragraph of the Resolution. What am I to do?


The hon. Member having moved the whole, it is in the possession of the House, and he cannot withdraw any part of the Resolution without the permission of the House.


Then I ask the permission of the House to withdraw the last paragraph. [" No! "]


The House declines to permit it.


I am in the I hands of the House. It is not the usual course to take a Resolution out of the hands of an hon. Member. [" Order! "]


The Resolution has been moved, and is in the possession of House, and it is for the House to decide whether it will permit the whole or any part of it to be withdrawn.


I beg to move that the last paragraph of the Resolution be now omitted.


The original Question was, that I do now leave the Chair, since which an Amendment has been moved, and it is not competent for the hon. and gallant Member (Colonel Barttelot) to rise to make another Motion. That which is before the House must be first disposed of. If it be negatived, then will be the time to move the insertion of words as an Amendment. I must, therefore, put the original Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

Question put, and agreed to.

Main Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair,"