HC Deb 08 April 1870 vol 200 cc1588-98

said, he would beg to move that the Select Committee with respect to Conventual and Monastic Institutions, to be appointed under the Order of the 29th of March, be nominated by the Committee of Selection.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Select Committee on Conventual and Monastic Institutions be nominated by the Committee of Selection."—(Mr. Newdegate.)


in rising to move the Amendment of which he had given notice, to discharge the Order for the appointment of a Committee, felt bound, in the first place, to protest against the very unusual and, as he considered, most unfair course taken by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire in attempting to bring a Motion so important as this, which he knew would be opposed, and in which the deepest feelings had been excited throughout the whole Catholic body in the country—as was evinced by the Petitions which had been presented from all parts of Great Britain—at such an unreasonable hour as the present—half past one o'clock in the morning—when it would be impossible for the House to listen to a long debate such as the gravity of the question required, and when the speeches made would have no chance of being reported so as to enable the public to judge fairly of the grounds on which it was opposed. He had felt it his duty to ask the House to re-consider the vote which had been given by the narrow majority of 2 the other night, because he believed it did not really express the feeling of a majority of the House. The result on that occasion was wholly unexpected, and he defied the hon. Member for North Warwickshire to state whether he himself was not as much surprised at his majority as the rest of the House. The debate was a most peculiar one; and no one took part in it except the Solicitor General, save four or five Members who had always been notorious for their extreme views on these questions affecting Catholic rights. Many of the right hon. Members who sat on the front Opposition Benches had walked out of the House, and refused to vote; and numbers on that side had actually asked Members on this side of the House not to join in the debate and waste valuable time, as the result would, of course be, that the proposal would be negatived in the same manner as a nearly similar one had been last year, when, after the hon. Member had addressed the House, no one replied to him—the House at once went to a division, and he was beaten. Under these peculiar circumstances, he asked a re-consideration of this question, to be arrived at deliberately, and after full debate on a matter so important, and in which the religious peace and concord of the future of the country, he believed, were seriously involved. He felt it was his duty, in the first place, to show that he did not ask the House, in re-considering a Resolution, to take a step which was not justified by precedent. He would only refer to a few instances to support the proposal he now made. In 1833, Sir William Ingilby carried a Resolution for the reduction of the malt tax by a majority of 10; it was reversed the week after on the Motion of Lord Althorp, by 238 to 76. In 1856 a Resolution on national education was carried by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Chichester Fortescue) by a large majority, in effect rescinding an Address to the Crown of an exactly opposite character, which had been carried a few nights previously by a majority of 10, in a House of over 200 Members. On that occasion Lord John Russell said— There has been found great inconvenience in the rule of the House which allows Addresses to the Crown to go out of our hands upon only one deliberation. If we pass a Resolution upon any matter entirely among ourselves, we may, if we please, rescind it on the following day, and a Bill we re-consider at its various stages before it goes out of our hands."—[3 Hansard, cxlii., 1862.] But he (Mr. Cogan) particularly wished the House to attend to what took place in 1854, when a Committee, similar to the present, was resolved on, upon the Motion of the hon. Member (Mr. T. Chambers), to inquire into convents, &c. On that occasion a similar Motion was made to discharge the Order, as he now asked the House to do, and in the debate a high constitutional authority, Lord John Russell, said— I think it is well worthy the time of the House to consider whether it will persist in the appointment of this Committee. It is not, as the noble Lord (Lord Lovaine) has said because it is a constitutional question that we ought to appoint a Committee upon vague suspicions. There ought to be some sort of case made out.…. Seeing no benefit whatever that can arise from the inquiry that it is proposed to institute; and being of opinion that this House would act much more wisely in saying 'We will not meddle with this subject; we will devote our time and attention to much more important and useful work;' and thinking that such an inquiry as this would be of a very peddling and useless character, I certainly, if I have to give a vote, shall vote with the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Dundalk."—[3 Hansard, cxxxi., 1420 &c 1424.] In the same debate, the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Gladstone), then Chancellor of the Exchequer, said— He had voted against this inquiry because ha could not see his way to any beneficial result that would be at all commensurate with the difficulties and heart-burnings which it was likely to occasion. He was ready, also, to vote to-night for the discharging of the Order for tile Committee."—[Ibid. 1463.] He (Mr. Cogan) would not, at that hour, weary the House with any more instances, nor would he occupy their attention at such length, save that he felt the deep responsibility that was cast on him, on account of the great interests which he believed were now so seriously invaded by the Motion which he asked the House to reverse. He thought he had conclusively shown that the House was free to reconsider this question, and that he asked for nothing unusual in the Motion he was about to make. Now, what was proposed by the inquiry—what were its objects, and what were likely to be the results? It was proposed to inquire into the "character" of conventual and monastic institutions, their existence, increase, and property; its objects were evident from the antecedents of all those who were its chief promoters, and who had, in 1851, 1852, 1853, and 1854, inflamed the religious passions and fanaticism of the people, flooded the country with the vilest calumnies and accusations against those holy women who devoted themselves to the noblest objects, and carried out, in. the highest purity the spirit of Christian charity, educating the young, nursing the sick and the dying, preserving the virtuous, and helping to restore the fallen, seeking out in every haunt, either of wretchedness or crime, how they can help human misery here on earth, or best point out the way to Heaven. It is proposed to subject these ladies to this inquisition, and without any case made, or attempted to be made, against them—such, as would be required in bringing a charge against the meanest malefactor—they are to be dragged from their retirement, and subjected to an inquiry before a Committee of this House, into all the affairs of their private life, and to repel and answer any charge, no matter how vile or disgraceful, which may be recklessly made against them by the vilest or most disreputable persons, who will not be under the obligation of an oath be it remembered; who are not responsible for any statement made before a Committee, either for prosecution for perjury, for false swearing, or for indictment for libel; every privilege and safety is to be given to the accuser, however wanton his charges, and no protection to the accused; and these ladies are to be subjected to, if this Committee be appointed, on no case made out—and this indignity and wrong is to be inflicted on helpless women, many of them amongst the highest in the land by birth, and, what is greater still, by character and goodness. This is deeply resented, and felt as a burning insult, by all the Catholic body. He would remind the House, as an evidence how charges were safely made under the protection of Parliament, of the correspondence of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) in 1865 with Mr. Langdale and Sir Charles Clifford. Both these gentlemen had relatives in the convent at Colwich, of which place the hon. Member had made the gravest charges, amounting to insinuations that murders had been committed there. Both these gentlemen challenged him not to shelter himself under his Parliamentary protection, but to make these charges—to sustain which he had alleged he was in possession of sworn evidence—out of the House, so that they could call him to account in a court of justice, and compel him either to prove Ms case or to stand convicted of having given currency to an unfounded and false charge; and this he had considered himself justified in refusing. Will the House sanction any number of similar calumnious accusations to be thus made with impunity before a Committee, and which can only be refuted by compelling the attendance of the members of the convents against which they are to be made. With respect to monastic in- stitutions they stand in a somewhat different position. By clauses in the Emancipation Act, which are shameful blots in that statute, and so contrary to the spirit of this age that they never have been, nor were over attempted or intended to be, enforced, the existence of Jesuits and members of other religious orders bound by monastic vows are prohibited, and any person assisting in the admission of any person to any religious order, or taking part in the administration of any religious vow or oath, is declared guilty of a misdemeanour, and any person so admitted may be banished, and if found in the realm after three months, may be transported for life. Is it seriously proposed to examine the inmates of these monastic institutions, which he alleges are illegal, and compel them to answer questions which you believe may criminate them and render them liable to these penalties? and, if so, do you propose to put in force these obsolete penal statutes? Would the civilization, the public opinion of this country, that boasts its love of religious freedom, tolerate, at the present day, such a monstrous theory? As Lord John Russell said in 1854, these penal laws have fallen into desuetude, and are better let lie among the relics of less enlightened ages, unless the hon. Member means, which we know he does not, to blot out those pages which the intolerance and prejudices of other days placed upon our statute book. With regard to another object of the proposed inquiry—as to the property of these institutions, and the manner and conditions in which it is held—it was well-known that most of these institutions were sustained by annual subscriptions, and many by the proceeds of their labour, or by teaching; and if, as was alleged, funds were held in sacred trust, it should be remembered that the exceptional legislation against Roman Catholics, and the statutes against what was called superstitious uses—such as masses, praying for the dead, &c.— rendered money left for these objects illegal, and Catholics have been compelled, who wish to leave money for these objects, to adopt these secret trusts, as they were called; and in the statute of 1858 they were on that ground exempted from that Act, and were dealt with in the Act of 1860, by which they were to some extent, but only partially, relieved from some of the penal provi- sions of the law, which, however, still treated Catholic charities in an exceptional manner, and confiscated property if left for many purposes which Catholics deemed essential for religious uses. But property thus alleged to be held is in no respect a legal trust. It is held on the honour of English gentlemen, as was stated by the Solicitor General, and is legally, and for all legal purposes, considered as their property; it pays succession duty upon the death of each who, in law, possesses it, and is not locked up in mortmain, as is alleged; and should the person holding it become bankrupt, it would become as his other property, and go to his creditors; so any money thus held is in no respect a legal trust. But if the desire of the hon. Member is to violate the sanctity of what are really private houses—the homes of unoffending ladies, the transportation of all Jesuits and members of monastic orders, and the confiscation of Catholic charitable property—he hoped the House would pause before it gratified his wishes, and weigh well the consequences which the granting his Motion was likely to lead to. It must not be forgotten that if granted this inquiry cannot logically stop there. They must be prepared for the attempt to extend it to Ireland, and he begged the House to seriously reflect what must be the consequence of such proceedings. Were they ready to take the responsibility of adding this fuel to the flame of discontent and danger which unhappily existed now in that country? He called on the House to discharge the Order for this Committee to inquire into the private affairs of those who claim no special immunity or privilege from the State, against whom no case was shown—an inquiry in which evidence attacking private character could be given, as he had already shown, free from all penalties for perjury or libel, not under the sanction of an oath, and where all sorts of illegal or hearsay evidence might be received—which was regarded as a wrong and insult to a large religious body in the country; and he appealed with confidence to the honour, the chivalry, and the love of fair play of the House of Commons to rescind the Resolution to which it had the other night so unexpectedly and so unfortunately given its sanction.


said, that, as the only Catholic representative of an Eng- lish constituency in that House, he would beg to second the Motion. The Resolution come to the other night had touched the hearts of the Catholics throughout the country; he never knew any question which had so deeply stirred the feelings of his Catholic fellow-countrymen, as was proved by the number of Petitions which had been presented to that House. The meeting held that morning on the subject was attended by gentlemen of the oldest families and the best positions, and they all looked upon that Motion as an indignity and an insult to them, implying as it did that they were unfit to have the charge of those nearest and dearest to them. Convents were merely families on a larger scale; and if that were so, why was not the same arrangement to be extended to families, and a roving Commission appointed to inquire into their condition? Convents were sisterhoods, and the ladies in them required no further protection; they were sufficiently protected—first by the laws of their convents, secondly, by the visitation of their Bishops, by the affection of their families, and above all, by the law of England. The case "Saurin v. Starr" proved it. He rejoiced at the result of that trial, as it showed that the law of England threw its ægis over them, and that there was no wrong without a remedy. If he were merely to consult his own feelings he would rather that this inquiry should take place—so sure was he that the inquiry would show the innocence of these institutions; but they had the feelings of others to take into account,—the feelings of the ladies, and the feelings of the great body of Catholics in this country, and, therefore, he must support the Amendment.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the words "That the" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "Order for the appointment of the Committee be discharged,"—(Mr. Cogan,) —instead thereof.

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


said, he was not in the House when the Motion of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) for a Committee was first carried. It was his intention to vote in favour of the hon. Member's Motion; but not from any feeling of intolerance, as had been proved when he was one of the 21 Members who in that House had voted against the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill. When he looked abroad, and saw that in Roman Catholic countries convents had been either placed under supervision or altogether suppressed, he could have no hesitation as to the course, which he should take on this occasion.

MR. DODDS moved that the House do now adjourn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Dodds.)


said, that so far from his Motion being a surprise, he had given notice of it last Session. In the Saurin case there was evidence enough why this country should not overlook these institutions. All he asked for was inquiry. He trusted the Government would not oppose the Motion, because there was a deep feeling in the country on the subject—a feeling which had been excited by what had come to light in the Saurin case. The very condition of our law, which forbade the jurisdiction of Roman Catholic Bishops, made this inquiry necessary. It was impolitic and unwise of Roman Catholic Members to oppose this Motion, because it gave rise to suspicions. He contended that the institutions in question, notwithstanding the denial of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Cogan), were acquiring property, and he appealed to the House not to stultify itself by refusing to vote for his Resolution.


said, he had relatives himself in convents both in this country and abroad. In no country did the State interfere with these institutions in the manner in which the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) proposed to interfere with them in this country. In no country would it be proposed to have an inquiry made by Protestants into these institutions. Besides, abroad, convents had certain privileges, and vows had a legal and binding authority, and the State had the right to interfere and see that those privileges were not abused; but in this country every vow was a voluntary promise, and revocable at any moment. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire had some time ago referred to some occurrence connected with the con- vent of Colwich in 1865, stating that there were underground cells, and that he had witnesses who could prove that some eight or 10 years before a nun had been forced into one, and had never been brought out alive, but had been buried secretly. Mr. C. Langdale and Mr. Clifford had challenged the hon. Member to prove his statement. The hon. Gentleman, however, gave no proof, and yet it was upon such alleged facts as those that the hon. Gentleman asked the House of Commons to step out of its way to inquire into private life; for this inquiry would be, in reality, an inquiry into the lives of blameless ladies, who were sincere, however mistaken they might be, in their piety. Such an inquiry would entail on those ladies an amount of suffering and indignity which nothing that had yet been shown could justify.


said, that as one of the Members of the Committee of Selection he wished to express the extreme aversion of the Committee to having the duty of choosing this Committee imposed upon them. To have to perform such a duty—which was not within the scope of their proper functions—would impair their credit and efficiency as a body of a judicial nature.


said, he would suggest that the Motion for the adjournment of House should be withdrawn, and a Motion for the adjournment of the debate substituted. It was impossible at a quarter to three in the morning to give that consideration to the subject which it really demanded.


said, he must remind the House that the supporters of the Original Motion had been quite ready to go on with it on a previous occasion; but that course was stopped by the clamour of a small section of Irish Members, who would not allow him to express his views.


said, he would withdraw his Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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

MR. PEASE moved that the debate be now adjourned.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question put, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. Pease.)

The House divided:—Ayes 76; Noes 110: Majority 34.

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

MR. BRADY moved that this House do now adjourn.


wished to ask the Home Secretary whether, after such a manifestation of the feeling of the House, he would not try to settle the question at once? If the Government wished to alter the terms of the Motion, he would attend to any suggestion they might make. It was clear that the opinion of the House was in favour of a full inquiry.


said, he did not wish to offer any unfair opposition to the proceeding of the hon. Member; but he must remind him his Motion had raised religious passion, which could not be easily allayed. He should be glad of a proper inquiry; but the Government could not dictate to the Roman Catholic Members what course they should take in this matter.


was understood to say, that after the statement of the Home Secretary he was willing to agree to an adjournment.


said, that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) had promised not to bring on this question after half-past 12 o'clock. As the result of that statement and some other intimations several hon. Members had left the House, and the question had not been fairly debated.


said, he had voted with the majority on the last Division; but it was evident that a Division on the Main Question was impossible at such a late hour. He would suggest that the Motion should be withdrawn, in order that the debate might be adjourned.


said, the Motion had been discussed two nights, and the House was prepared to come to a decision on the Main Question that night.


said, it had been a matter of doubt as to what time the Motion would be brought on, and some Gentlemen had left the House, not expecting that it would come on that that night. He did not think that at this hour in the morning—3 o'clock—the subject could be properly discussed.


said, he thought that the forms of the House would allow that the Motion for the adjournment of the House should be withdrawn or negatived, and then the Motion for the adjournment of the debate might be resumed. He thought that course would meet with the approval of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire.


said, the difficulty was caused by the conduct of the Government, who had taken almost every night devoted to private Members.


said, he hoped that the present Motion would be negatived, and that the adjournment of the debate would then be agreed to.


said, he was willing that the debate should be adjourned for Thursday, April 28.

Motion made, and Question, "That this House do now adjourn,"—(Mr. Brady,)—put, and negatived.

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


said, the difficulties had arisen in consequence of the Motion having been brought on at so late an hour. The debate could not be resumed on the 28th April, the Land Bill being fixed for that day.


said, he hoped the hon. Member for North Warwickshire would put the revival of the debate on the first day after the Recess.


said, he must complain that the hon. Member had violated the promise he had given not to bring the Motion on at a late hour.

Debate adjourned till Thursday 28th April.