HC Deb 21 February 1872 vol 209 cc837-61

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Thomas Chambers.)


, in moving that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, said, he supposed from the proceeding that had just taken place, that the hon. and learned Gentleman had no new arguments to produce in favour of the Bill, of which he had just moved the second reading in silence. The history of the Bill was somewhat remarkable. Up to the year 1866, the Bill had been uniformly rejected. In 1869, the second reading was carried by a majority of 99; but since that time the majorities in favour of the measure had been uniformly diminishing; in 1870 the majority was 70; and in 1871 the majority dwindled to 41. Therefore he thought he was justified in saying that though the feeling of the present Parliament was more favourable than that of the previous Parliament to the Bill, yet that feeling was diminishing, and that its opponents were justified in resisting the passing of it. We were told sometimes that we ought to be encouraged by what had occurred in other countries, and especially in the United States of America, in which the population was akin to ourselves, these marriages were legal. He did not think the example of the United States should encourage us on this subject. That was the only civilized country in the world in a portion of which the question of polygamy had been distinctly raised. In one of the States of that country the Government had actually to take strong and stringent measures against what he supposed was repugnant to the feelings of every hon. Gentleman in that House. But was it probable that if this Bill were passed we could stop here? In Protestant Germany, where these marriages were allowed, uncles and nieces, and aunts and nephews, were allowed to intermarry. That was the case also in Holland and Denmark. The question had already been referred to in this House by the hon. Member for the University of Cambridge (Mr. Beresford Hope) who, in 1870, asked if these marriages were allowed the restrictions should not be removed between other degrees now forbidden. He thought that was a strong reason for the House to pause before passing a measure of this revolutionary character. There were two grounds on which this Bill was pressed on the attention of the House, and two grounds on which it was opposed—namely, a religious and a moral ground. It had been said that the opponents of the Bill had abandoned the religious ground. He entirely denied that they had abandoned the religious ground. He was not going to discuss that passage of Leviticus upon which it was difficult to comment; but there was a view of the religious question which he should like to put before the House, and on which he would venture to quote the words of the Bishop of Peterborough. That right rev. Prelate said in the House of Lords, in May, 1870— There is another Scriptural argument on which I do lay some stress. I allude to the words of Him whom we all acknowledge to be the Supreme Lawgiver, who, while He in some degree set aside the Levitical enactments, affirmed the broad principle on which they were based. He did lay down distinctly the principle that when a man marries a woman the twain are 'one flesh.' From that I deduce the principle of the law forbidding marriages of affinity—namely, the principle that the relations of the wife are the relations of the husband, and that the relations of the husband are the relations of the wife; a man cannot, therefore, marry a relation of his wife in the same degree as that in which he is forbidden to marry his relation in blood. This, indeed, appears to be a definite and distinct principle on which we can found our legislation. It has a finality. If you do not maintain this principle, you put another and an opposite one in its place—namely, the principle that the relations of the wife are no relations of the husband. Well, supposing you do this, you must, if you wish to be consistent, go on and abolish the whole of the prohibited degrees of affinity."—[3 Hansard, cci. 936.] On that principle he (Mr. J. Talbot) called upon the House to reject this Bill. But he would ask them to consider the question in reference to its social aspects; and in that view he would take the liberty of quoting the words of Dr. Brown, a Presbyterian minister in Edinburgh, who, arguing on the meaning of the word "sister-in-law," said— What does the term mean? It means that, according to the law of the land, and, as I hope to demonstrate immediately, the law of God in his Word, when a man marries a woman having sisters, they become in that hour his sisters in effect—they enter his house and live on terms with him of a familiar intimacy and endearment, which were wholly improper and unjustifiable, save on the ground of the sisterly relation. But then, conversely, if a change in the law shall make it possible for him to marry one of them, then the whole legitimate ground of the intimacy and endearment has been swept away. The very idea, in fact, of sisters and brothers-in-law is abolished. A woman who may become a man's wife is not, and cannot be, his sister. He is not entitled to regard or treat her as such. She is not entitled to accept the familiar attentions of a brother at his hand. She has passed for ever out of the shelter and sacredness of the relation of a sister. I repeat, that the Marriage Affinity Bill once passed must revolutionize the entire home life of our country. And the rather, because there is scarce a relationship by affinity nearer than that of sister. That seemed to him to put that aspect of the matter in a clear and convincing manner to anyone who had heard it. If they passed this measure for the sake of fancied grievances, they would introduce unfortunate disturbances into the intimate connection which now existed between the relations of wife and husband, and he thought the House would do well to pause before—in order to gratify the passions of a few—they introduced into the legislation of this country so revolutionary a principle. Happily, he might say, this was not a party question in the House, for the opponents of the Bill had the support of a considerable number of hon. Gentlemen opposite. They had the support of Gentlemen from Scotland, Presbyterians from whom they differed on many other questions. They had, he believed, the support of the Members from Ireland, with the exception of a few. He was told that the bulk of the Roman Catholic Members were against the Bill; but that a few Roman Catholics, led by Cardinal Cullen, would vote for it. But on what ground? Because they preferred to retain the dispensing power of the Pope. They did not like marriage with a deceased wife's sister to be one forbidden by the law, but preferred that it should be one of those questions on which ecclesiastical decisions were to be taken. The House was sometimes told that this was a poor man's question. To show how monstrous was this assertion, he would quote the words of one from whom he differed on political matters, though he had long had the honour of his private friendship. The speech of the Lord Chancellor in the same debate to which he had already referred was one of the strongest against this measure. That noble and learned Lord said— I know something about the poor, and I am confident they will be the class least affected by the Bill. The poor marry early, and it is very seldom among the poor that the widower finds a sister of his wife unmarried. I am told that in the northern manufacturing districts, owing to accidents and the unhealthiness of employment, husbands die more rapidly than in the agricultural or ordinary town districts; and it may happen in these manufacturing districts in one case in a hundred that the wife may die while a sister is unmarried. But it is interesting to get at facts. Everybody has a right to make philanthropic statements, and no one likes to be cross-examined upon such statements. The first time I opposed this Bill 'elsewhere' a clergyman wrote to me saying, 'You have ventured to say that the poor do not desire this Bill. I know 20 or 30 cases in which widowers were ready to marry their deceased wives' sisters.' I replied that I would recant all I had said if he would state on his own authority that he was prepared to furnish names and addresses, so that I might inquire into the facts. I never heard anything more from him."—[3 Hansard, cci. 950.] Again, the noble and learned Lord said— I inquired in my own neighbourhood, in two parishes containing 60,000 people and 40,000 poor, and, after employing a very active person to search, I could only hear of one such marriage. However, one of the newspapers which objected very strongly to my view, said that a City missionary, who had made inquiry in the same district, had found two more. So, after scouring the whole field, we found three such marriages among 40,000 poor. He had quoted these words because they must have more weight than anything he could say. He trusted that it would be long before the House sent up this Bill to the House of Lords, sanctioned by such a majority as to give it any prospect of being passed into law.


, in seconding the Amendment, said, the subject had been debated to the very end, both in its religious and social aspect, and that the House and the country were weary of the discussion. It was not in its religious view, but in its social view, that the Bill had seriouly alarmed him. The present proposal met a part, and a part only, of a very large subject. If the promoters of this Bill believed that a change in our marriage law was necessary, then, he said, they should have moved for the appointment of a Committee to consider the whole question of the marriage laws, who, while striving to remove the objections, would endeavour to see whether there were not other classes of relationships which came within the category of things to be amended. If these marriages were to be permitted, he did not see why marriages with the wife's nieces were to be precluded. The direct relationship was less; and, he believed, the inconvenience, in a social point of view, was less also. But he objected to this Bill on other grounds. He objected to it because it dealt retrospectively with the question. That House had never, or very unwillingly, sanctioned any attempt at retrospective legislation. He also objected to the Bill on the ground that those who were most intimately concerned with this question—the women of England—were almost unanimous in their opposition to it. The women were, or they ought to be, important witnesses in this question. There was a strong feeling in their minds of hatred against this Bill. It was not the wish or feeling of women that the present law of marriage should be altered. One of them had, in writing, expressed great surprise that any of her sex should approve of the Bill; and this might be taken as an indication of the unwillingness of our countrywomen to support this measure. The Bill was not a poor man's Bill—the Bill was promoted by a certain small number of people who, after having, for the gratification of their own passions, broken the law, now asked Parliament to condone their faults, by making the law to accord with their interpretation of it.

Amendment proposed to leave out the word ("now"), and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. J. G. Talbot.)


said, that three or four years ago he had occasion to attend a meeting of his constituents at Hull. The meeting consisted of the middle classes, and many of the wives accompanied their husbands. He thought he would take that opportunity of ascertaining the views of the women on this question. Having explained the Bill to them, with which they were already well acquainted, he took a show of hands on the matter. 700 or 800 women were present, and all, with the exception of five or six—who were against the Bill—held up their hands in favour of the Bill.


said, that when the hon. Member opposite (Sir Henry Selwin-Ibbetson) said the Bill was promoted by men who wished to gratify their own passions, he slandered men at least as good as himself. He had very rarely met with a lady who had objected to this Bill. A distinguished Member of that House, who was now dead, had two sisters, one of whom was married to a man second to none in one of our provincial cities as to respectability and character. That lady had very poor health for a considerable length of time. Her younger sister came into the house for the purpose of acting as her nurse and bringing up her children. She conducted herself admirably during the life of the wife; and on her death-bed the wife requested the husband, in the event of his marrying again, to marry her sister. He did, after a considerable time, marry the sister of his deceased wife. At that time such a marriage, solemnized as it was in a country where such marriages were legal, was in accordance with the law of the country. But the hon. Member spoke of those who sought a change of the law as men who only desired the law to be so altered as to shelter them from the consequences of gratifying their passions in violation of the law. The Bill had been always favourably received by this House, and had been passed by considerable majorities. If the country were polled from end to end he believed a large majority would be found in its favour, and he trusted the Bill would soon become the law of the land. He did not suppose that those who had systematically opposed every reform would be found favourable to this change of the law; but the intellect and conscience of the country was in favour of the measure.


said, he hoped their legislation would not be affected by the results of political experiments such as that with which the hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Clay) had diverted himself. That hon. Member went down to meet his constituents, and, as a matter of course, the leaders in his borough whistled up his supporters to meet their Member. Women were not electors at Hull, but women ruled those who were at Hull, as elsewhere, and women were brought together to hear the speech of so distinguished a Gentleman, and of course were told to keep cheering the Member. The holding of the meeting was a species of canvassing. The House knew how agreeable the hon. Member for Hull was, and the women of Hull, who were brought to cheer so amiable a Member and to pat him on the back, were there for the single object of giving him encouragement with reference to the next election. When he asked them what he was complimentary enough to call their opinions about this Bill, probably not eight of them had ever thought of the question. It was as new to them as the solution of the asses' bridge in Euclid. Of course they held up their hands for the side they were told to back, and that greatly gratified the hon. Member; but that he should now come down to the House to dwell upon such rubbish passed comprehension. As to the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Gilpin), who had no kind of fear of denouncing his hon. Friend the Member for Essex (Sir Henry Selwin-Ibbetson) as a slanderer, because he asserted that people who were promoting this Bill were persons who had transgressed the law——


I complained of the hon. Member because he said that those who were moving in this question were those who desired the law to be altered in order to cover the indulgence of their guilty passions.


said, there was no great discrepancy between the two statements; but he dared the hon. Gentleman to get up and say the promoters of this movement were not notoriously men who, having done this, wished to get condonation.


I am one of the promoters, and I never did anything of the sort.


said, the reason why the Marriage Reform Association was anonymous was, that it would not do to publish the names of all who were promoting the Bill. It had been dared for more than a score of years to publish the name of any one of its members; but the world never could get beyond a secretary, who labelled himself M.A. In the meanwhile the identity of the principal promoters of the change was a matter of undisguised and uncontradicted private conversation. His hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Gilpin) had said that the Bill had always passed this House, or, at all events, that it had been only once rejected. But the fact was, it had been four times thrown out of this House, and had three times broken down before it reached the Lords. It went up to the Lords once and was withdrawn; it was rejected in that House twice in 1858 and 1859, and again in 1870 and 1871. In the 11 years between 1859 and 1870 it was three times rejected by the House of Commons. The Bill was first introduced to the House in 1842 by one long since departed—a man who might be said to have made only one mistake, and that was in this matter—he meant the late Earl of Ellesmere. It was rejected on the first stage by 123 to 100. It was brought in again in 1849, when it was read a second time by 177 to 143, but it foundered in Committee. In 1850 the Bill was read a second time by 182 to 170, a greatly diminishing majority, and was withdrawn after a division in Committee. In 1858 it passed a second reading in this House by 176 to 134, and in 1859 by 135 to 77. In 1861 the second reading was lost by 177 to 172; in 1862 the second reading was carried by 144 to 123, but the Bill was lost on the Motion that the Speaker do leave the Chair by 148 to 116. In 1866 the second reading was lost by 174 to 154. It was carried in 1869 by 243 to 144, but dropped in this House. In 1870 the Motion that the Speaker do leave the Chair was carried by 184 to 114, but the Bill was thrown out in the Lords by 77 to 74, and in 1871 the second reading in the Commons was passed by 125 to 84, or only 41 majority. Well, what happened on the rejection of the Bill last year by the House of Lords by a signal majority? The hon. and learned Member (Mr. T. Chambers) summoned a meeting by advertisement in the public papers in the following terms, which, it should be observed, were words deliberately drawn up and published, not hastily uttered in the heat of debate:— An indignation meeting will be held in St. James's Hall, on Tuesday, April 4, 1871, to protest against the unconstitutional policy of the Lords in rejecting Bills repeatedly passed by the Commons, and to demand the immediate removal of the Bishops from the House of Lords. The chair will be taken by Thomas Chambers, Q.C., M.P., at 8 o'clock p.m. That meeting came off; there was no more distinguished person present at it than the Common Serjeant, and it terminated in a disgraceful and scandalous riot. The hon. and learned Gentleman meant to denounce from the chair of the meeting the Bishops and the Lords, for having rejected the Bill; and he found a Serjeant-at-Law to put down his name for a Motion in this House of an unconstitutional character—the same hon. Gentleman who, the other night, was the only lawyer who defended the Ministry for a recent judicial appointment. In the face of conduct of that nature, it was deserving of the severest censure that the learned Common Serjeant should now get up, and, without a word of explanation, blandly move that the Bill be now read a second time. That was playing fast and loose with a great question. If the hon. and learned Gentleman was right in 1871 in urging on the mob to overthrow the House of Lords because of their action in the matter, he was not justified now in treating the question as if no more dangerous consequences were attached to it than were contained within the four corners of the Bill. As to the measure in itself, the opponents of the innovation had often been met by the count that they had abandoned the Scriptural argument. He now desired to give an unqualified denial to the assertion. The argument was not one which was pleasant to urge in a mixed assembly like this House, and therefore they did not put it prominently forward; but whenever the occasion came they were prepared to vindicate it. At present he should only say that the fact of so large a portion of the community believing that these marriages were in themselves absolutely wrong and inadmissible was a politic strong argument against them being legalized, for the utmost which those who took the opposite view could urge was, not that they were right and necessary, but only that they were not wrong. To the "must not be" of one party the other party would only urge "may be," and in such an unequally weighted conflict of opinion he thought that the "must not be" of ostensibly the majority of the people ought to prevail against the "may be" of the other side. Assuredly if the present barriers were broken down the innovation could not be stayed at the point of the present Bill, as even Lord Russell, when he changed his vote, had publicly confessed. The old morality of England, and all its traditionary marriage law was at stake. On the other side was the rank debauchery of countries, old and new, in which prohibited alliances were only elements of a wider system of social corruption. The question which they had really to decide was, whether they were prepared to make Paris their model, and plunge into the dissolute shamelessness of New York.


said, he rose to explain. The hon. Gentleman who had just sat down, stated that he had been put up last Session by his hon. and learned Friend who had moved the second reading to give Notice of an unconstitutional proposition. But there was not the slightest foundation for such an assertion. He was not only not put up by his hon. and learned Friend, but had had no communication whatever with him on the subject; and the reason why his Notice was not proceeded with was because he could not get a night for it. He had ballotted for two months without success. With regard to the subject before the House, he wished merely to observe that the state of the law at present depended on the Canons of the Established Church, which were themselves founded on the Canons of another Church; and he protested against being bound by the regulations of a Church of which he and others were not members. There was no ground for continuing the law on the basis of the religious regulations of the Established Church. When he found that these regulations interfered with his free action in a matter which should be left to his own judgment and conscience, he must protest against it, and he felt bound to say that, in the interests of the Church itself, the law ought to be repealed.


said, that on this question reason, justice, and the interests of morality were on one side; and, as it seemed to him, on the other, little more than prejudice and sentiment—no doubt sincerely entertained and therefore deserving of all respect. The House of Commons was not the place for theological discussion, or for minute criticism on the value of certain Hebrew expressions; but as differences did exist as to the right interpretation of the passages of Leviticus—as there did unhappily on many others, around which any controversy had raged—this only he would say, that it was his personal conviction, after diligent search and consideration, that there was a great preponderance both of argument and authority on the side of those who maintained that the Divine law did not prohibit those marriages, but, on the contrary, by clear implication and inference allowed them. And if not prohibited by the Divine law, what right had we to import prohibition into the English law? The hon. Member for West Kent had attempted to found an argument on this expression, "They twain shall be one flesh." But that was so obviously a mere figure of speech, and any attempt to apply it in its literalness would lead to such gross absurdities, that he could hardly think the hon. Gentleman could have been serious when he brought it forward. [Mr. J. G. TALBOT said it was the Bishop of Peterborough's argument, not his.] But the hon. Gentleman, he supposed, adopted the Bishop's argument, otherwise he would not have submitted it to the House. What were the other arguments employed by hon. Gentlemen opposite against the Bill of his hon. and learned Friend? Arguments they could scarcely be called; they consisted chiefly of wild, vague, extravagant prophecies, and apprehensions of the evil consequences which were to flow from a change in the law, such as hon. Gentlemen were accustomed to indulge in when opposing every kind of reform in Church and State. It was said the proposed change would injure our social and domestic morality, and pictures were drawn of what would take place in our family life—not very complimentary to the honour of Englishmen, or the purity of English women. But what class was most interested in our social and domestic morality? Was it not the religious bodies, and were they opposed to the change? No such thing. There was no doubt that a section of the clergy of the Church of England were opposed to it; but, on the other hand, there was also a section quite as much entitled to respect, who strongly advocated the change. Every Nonconformist Body in England had in some form or other, protested against the continuance of the law in its present state, some by Resolutions passed, or Petitions presented to this House, and others in a manner, if possible, still more significant, by refusing to pass any ecclesiastical censure or disapproval on those who transgressed the law. The law, as it existed, was not supported by public opinion; and the best proof of that was that people did not refuse to associate with those who had violated it. He had listened as he always listened with interest to the hon. Member for the University of Cambridge. It was impossible not to admire the gallant spirit with which he always rushed into the front to oppose every reform that was opposed in that House, especially on subjects that had any canonical or ecclesiastical hue about them. If he might be forgiven a pun, he should say that he deserved to be called the forlorn "Hope" of Ecclesiastical Toryism. But to-day he had done manifest injustice to the statement of the hon. Member for Hull, as to that remarkable testimony given by women in favour of the Bill. He said that it was a political meeting called to pat the Member on the back, and to endorse whatever he said. But the hon. Member for Hull distinctly prefaced his remarks by saying that the meeting in question was not a political meeting. He would not trespass further on the attention of the House. Believing as he did, that the prohibition they were anxious to remove had no warrant in any law of nature or of God, that it was not sustained by the opinion of the best and most religious portion of the people of this country, that it inflicted cruel hardship upon a large and most honourable and worthy class of people, and especially that it was productive of great misery and social evil to the lower classes of the community, he would on this occasion, as he had on former occasions, without hesitation and with the utmost confidence give his vote in favour of the second reading of the Bill.


said, as he had never before taken part in discussions on the Bill except in Committee, he wished to be allowed to make a few remarks now upon the second reading. If he agreed with the statement of the hon. Member for Merthyr (Mr. Richard), he would no doubt be on his side. The hon. Member told the House that all the reason, justice, and morality were on one side, and all the prejudice and sentiment on the other. But, at all events, those who were opposed to the Bill opposed it upon what they believed to be grounds alike of religion and reason; they held that social reasons were most materially adverse to the unions contemplated by the measure, and also that the transgression of the law was a crime against society. He confessed he was astonished every time this Bill came before the House that there should be found Gentlemen to get up and say that this was a question whether you were to obey the law of God or man—because there was surely no compulsion, for the persons who contracted these marriages did so with their eyes open, against not only the canon law of the Church, but against the law of the land, which existed long before 1835. When his hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Gilpin) said that somebody had contracted a marriage of the kind contemplated by the Bill, that person knew that he had done an act which could be set aside by law. The view taken by hon. Gentlemen of the law before 1835 was quite mistaken, because if a man had then married his own mother or sister it would have been just as legal a marriage as if he had married his wife's sister:—both marriages were alike against the law, but before 1835 they could only be set aside by a suit in the Ecclesiastical Courts. Both were against the law—notoriously against it—ever since Christianity was in a position to control Christendom. The law on the subject dated practically from the 4th century, when Christianity was able to lay down the law. Were hon. Gentlemen to assume that this was a new law? It was the law which governed Christians up to that time, and when they were in a position to make laws to govern Christendom that law was laid down—and it was laid down on this principle, that degrees of consanguinity and affinity were to be treated in the same way. That was a clear and distinct rule—the moment they broke through that rule they did not know where they were to stop—once violate the definite rule and he defied any man to say what the ultimate result would be. The hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Mr. Serjeant Simon) had asked why should a man be bound in this matter by religious laws at all, why not be left to the dictates of his own conscience? The answer to that is that marriage is too sacred a thing; it affects too vitally our social interests that the idea can for a moment be entertained that it can be left to every man to do as he pleases. He now came to an argument that had frequently been pressed upon the House without any evidence—the argument that this was the special case of the poorer classes of society. He (Mr. G. Hardy) denied it most emphatically. He said not only had we no evidence, but that no such evidence was to be found. [Mr. T. CHAMBERS: No, no!] Well, all he would say was if there was any evidence let there be inquiry—let us test the matter to the bottom. Heretofore all inquiry had been resisted. The only general inquiry that had been made on the subject was by a firm of attorneys who were sent out for a particular purpose, and they made a report which was wholly inconsistent with the Returns of the Registrar General, and was, indeed, a fiction. But the Lord Chancellor had made an inquiry in Westminster, a place with which he was well acquainted, and the result was that, though he found incestuous marriages of the most abominable kind, he did not find a single instance of a marriage with a deceased wife's sister. The noble and learned Lord's statistics were, however, corrected by a City missionary, who said that he had found one. So that here, in one of the densest populations in this great metropolis, and with the most diligent search by disinterested parties, there was only one solitary instance of such a union among so many thousands of people. And yet they tell us that this is the special case of the poorer classes. He protested most emphatically against the transgressors of the laws of their country coming to that House and asking to have the law changed for them. He could respect the man who said he must obey God rather than man—he might think him wrong, but he should admit his conscientiousness—but when a man wilfully took a woman whom he loved, made her a concubine, and begot bastards, he could not be regarded as obey- ing God rather than man, and had no claim for consideration from this House. That was a clear plain statement of the case. If hon. Gentlemen said that public opinion was not against such marriages he regretted it, for sure he was that there ought to be a protest against such violations of the laws of the land and of society. Gentlemen admitted that they had been guilty of bribery, and yet he had not seen them suffer from public opinion. Some persons might think that smuggling, for instance, ought not to be punished by the public opinion of society. But if a person had wilfully and notoriously bribed or smuggled, surely no one would say that he had a right to come to the House of Commons to set aside the punishment which he had brought upon himself. Now, the law of 1835—though he would have made some objection to it had he been in Parliament at the time it was passed—was a wise one in this respect—that instead of leaving persons to get up collusive suits, it said distinctly—"The meaning of the law of this country has always been that these marriages are invalid; we will not say anything about what is pased"—he doubted whether that was wise—"but, with respect to the future, if a man enters into such a marriage he must know that the law of the country forbids it." Under the 1st clause of the Act such a marriage was no marriage at all—it was a mere ceremony—a mockery—a derision of the law, and persons who contracted it must not come to the House of Commons and ask to have it condoned. He had come to the conclusion that such marriages were contrary to religion, because where marriages, within degrees of consanguinity, were forbidden they were also forbidden within degrees of affinity. He trusted the House would not condone transgressions of the law wilfully and openly made, but would reject the Bill on the second reading.


said, he desired to make a personal explanation. He was afraid he had used words capable of giving offence to several hon. Members, when he remarked that those who had contravened the law of the country to gratify their passions were the principal movers in this agitation. If he did say anything which could be construed as offensive, he deeply regretted having done so, apart from the fact that it had called forth a rebuke from the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Gilpin).


observed that the explanation was no more than he could have expected from the well-known courtesy of the hon. Baronet, and he hoped the expressions used by the hon. Baronet, as well as the word "slander" he had himself applied to them, might pass into oblivion.


said, that he had no sympathy with persons who wilfully broke, under whatever excuse, the marriage law of the land; but he voted for the Bill because he had found that in a special degree it was popular among the working classes—as he had found by personal experience. It was a poor man's question. No doubt the alteration of the law would be a blow at the wealthier classes, and would alter the relations in which men in that class stood towards their sisters-in-law; but that consideration ought not to prevent justice being done. If this was not a working man's question, it was difficult to understand why almost all the City missionaries, and so many of the City clergy belonging to the Established Church, were driven, by the experience of their daily work, to be in favour of this Bill; and it would be remembered that last Session a remarkable Petition was presented in support of the repeal of the law from South Lancashire, to which the names of a large number of clergymen of the Established Church were appended.


said, the hon. Member for Merthyr (Mr. Richard) had said that as these marriages were not forbidden by Divine law, it was not right to impose the restrictions by Act of Parliament. But it was no argument that there was no express prohibition of these marriages. By the same reasoning you might justify an Act authorizing polygamy, which was certainly not forbidden in the Old Testament, and he doubted very much whether, if they looked through the New Testament, they would find any passage expressly forbidding a man to have more than one wife.


said, that the hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Clay) had referred triumphantly to the public meeting that had lately been held in favour of the Bill; but, on the other hand, he (Mr. Collins) was at a crowded public meeting in Yorkshire, of which certainly four-fifths were opposed to the proposed alteration. He wished the hon. and learned Common Serjeant would consent to discuss this question judicially, by withdrawing the retrospective operation of the Bill altogether, and enacting merely that those marriages shall be legal for the future. At present, the question of condoning the conduct of persons who had wilfully broken the law was inextricably mixed up with the other and larger subject. The Bill was also incomplete because it did not deal with the question of the deceased husband's brother and of the deceased wife's sister's daughter. If a man were allowed to marry his deceased wife's sister, why should he not marry his deceased wife's niece—a more remote connection? And why should not a woman marry her deceased husband's brother? If a man might marry two sisters in succession, why might not a woman marry two brothers in succession? When he had called attention to this inconsistency in the Bill on a former occasion, he received letters from all sorts of women who had either contracted such marriages, or wished to contract them. Again, surely, on the principle of the hon. and learned Member, marriage with the child of the wife's sister ought also to be permitted, for the relationship in that case would be more remote. He objected to the Bill because it would unsettle the foundations of our marriage law, and would operate—as the divorce law had operated—in making the poorer classes feel that there was practically one law for the rich and another for the poor; because they would find, in the case of this Bill, as they found in the case of the Divorce Act, that the expenses of obtaining the benefit of the law altogether exceeded their humble means. The learned Common Serjeant would not satisfy the sense of the public by legislation of this kind—it would be far better to legalize all these marriages, than to pick out a particular class and legalize that. At any rate, if this legislation was to be sanctioned, there ought to be two distinct Bills—one to authorize these marriages in future, and the other to make legal such as had been contracted in the past, and then the House would be able to deal with each of these points on its own merits.


said, the reason he moved the second reading of this Bill without remark was because he thought the House had heard his voice so often on the subject that it was not fair to trespass upon their attention. At the same time it was not strictly true to say that nothing new could be urged upon this question, for since the close of the last Session two new features in connection with this question had been asserted to which he would briefly advert. In the first place, he believed that since the matter was last argued in the House the religious objection had been substantially withdrawn—["No!"]—at any rate it certainly seemed to him that the religious objection could no longer be maintained, at least by the members of the Anglican Commission. As far as he was concerned, if the religious objection could be sustained to his satisfaction, there would be an end to this Bill; but since last Session the Speaker's Commentary had appeared—a work sanctioned by the two Archbishops and by the Bishops of Llandaff, Gloucester, Bath and Wells, Chester, and by Anglican clergy and laity of the highest authority; and this work contained a note to the text of the Pentateuch upon which the religious objection was founded— The rule as it here stands would seem to bear no other meaning than that a man is not to form a connection with his wife's sister while his wife is alive. It appears to follow that the law permitted marriage with the sister of a deceased wife. A limitation being expressly laid down in the words 'beside the other in her lifetime' it may be inferred that when the limitation is removed the prohibition loses its force, and permission is implied."—[P. 601.] Surely if any philological or verbal criticism could set such a point at rest it was done here in the most authoritative manner, for the editors and contributors to this book, having the whole scholarship of Christendom at their command, came to the conclusion that no room was left for any reasonable doubt as to the sense of this passage; and though probably well disposed to put another interpretation upon the text, they felt that, as scholars, no other interpretation was open but one which allowed such marriages. Another point was new in the discussion of this question. Since the last Session of Parliament Her Majesty had been advised to assent to a law legalizing such marriages in South Australia. Now, if any frag- ment of moral support remained in favour of the existing law in England founded on the alleged general sense of the people, what could be said when Bills like his own having been again and again passed by the South Australian Legislature, Her Majesty had actually allowed such marriages in that colony? How could they be prohibited in England when already in one of our colonies, and ultimately no doubt in all of them, the opposite course was taken. "Incestuous marriages" indeed! Why, men who had contracted these marriages would come over here from South Australia and perhaps sit in this House—men would come over here and take orders in the Church—they would mix with men who had married under circumstances precisely similar. Yet in the one case there would be the stigma of an "incestuous" marriage and the children would be bastards, and in the other case it would be a valid marriage and the children would be legitimate. Was it possible, as a matter of general policy, to maintain a law under such circumstances?


said, he must protest against the hon. and learned Member (Mr. T. Chambers) reserving to the close of the debate the arguments that he had just laid before the House. In common fairness and in accordance with the regular usage of Parliament they ought to have been brought forward at the opening of the debate. In regard to the passage in the Speaker's Commentary, what was the real state of the case? The hon. and learned Gentleman wished it to be inferred that Mr. Clarke's note in the Speaker's Commentary had received the sanction of all the dignitaries of the Church whose names were connected with the book. A more unfounded impression was never attempted to be palmed upon the credulity of the House of Commons. The note of Mr. Clarke was submitted to the inspection of a single gentleman connected with the editorial portion of the work, and might have received his sanction; but to leave it to be inferred that it had also received the sanction of the Prelates whose names were attached to the book was a rhetorical feat which must not go unanswered. The Bill was introduced for the purpose of making legitimate alliances contracted against the known intentions of the Legislature, and he submitted that it would be of evil example if the Legislature acceded to such an invitation. The other point of the hon. and learned Gentleman was, that because the Government had sanctioned a Bill authorizing these marriages in South Australia, therefore it was the duty of Parliament to sanction them in Great Britain and Ireland. That was certainly a new view of the duty and functions of the Imperial Legislature. The House had witnessed of late a good many instances where the Royal Prerogative had been exercised contrary to the opinions of Parliament; but it had been reserved to the Common Serjeant to press that argument home. According to the hon. and learned Gentleman, the English Legislature were no longer at liberty to maintain the Christian law of marriage, which had existed since the 4th century, because the Government had advised the Crown to grant a dispensation to one of our colonies. In the name of the Imperial Legislature he protested against any such dishonouring conclusion, and he trusted that the House would not allow Australian examples to influence their opinion, guide their vote, or drive them from the defence of an immemorial law upon a religious and social question of this importance.


Sir, I do not take exception to the Bill of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Marylebone (Mr. T. Chambers) upon what may be described as religious, or, more properly speaking, Scriptural grounds. Indeed, I go further, for I frankly own that, so far as I can apprehend the meaning of the words relied on by those who oppose its proposal as being at variance with the Divine command, I do not believe there is anything serious in their argument; and that did the opposition to the Bill rest solely on the strictly religious or Scriptural grounds, the hon. and learned Gentleman and his Friends would have an easy victory over their opponents. I do not believe such marriages as are now proposed are contrary to the Divine command, nor do I believe them to be contrary to the law of nature. I do not believe them to be un-Scriptural, and I cannot regard them as incestuous. Therefore on neither of these grounds do I oppose the Bill. But are there no other grounds of opposition?—are there none which come home to the feelings and convictions, nay, to the very instincts, of the vast majority of the women of these kingdoms? Are there no social and moral—are there no family reasons why this proposal ought to be rejected; or, why, if this Bill is to pass into law, it is certain to introduce a new and fruitful element of danger and discord in the family circle? But, Sir, I would first of all ask—is this great, this vital change in the dearest relations of domestic life demanded by the nation, or by the majority of the nation? If so, where are the proofs of this universal, this general, or even this partial, but influential demand? What single election, for instance, has turned upon the triumphant candidate's advocacy or support of this Bill? Where is the solitary Member of this House who has been returned by a constituency clamorous for the questionable privilege of marrying their deceased wife's sisters? In a word, what have we as the proof of this question having taken hold of the mind or the heart of the nation? No doubt we ascertain the existence of a highly artificial agitation; we have some few thousands of signatures attached to Petitions carefully got up—not more than for or against some Turnpike Bill; and last, but certainly not least, we have had, as conclusive proof of the alleged wide-spread feeling in favour of this most dangerous innovation, an "indignation meeting" of a formidable character, in whose service was enlisted an army of placard bearers, and whose intention and object was, either to convert or overawe the other House of Parliament. Beyond these spontaneous and irrepressible manifestations of popular feeling, we look in vain for the proof of that strong and general sympathy which could alone excuse or justify the proposal of such a change. As to any enthusiasm on the question, the public is as unmoved as a rock, as frigid as ice; and not all the indignation meetings ever held or imagined could shake that obduracy, or thaw that utter frigidity. Even at that memorable meeting, the poor deceased wife's sister was treated with chilling indifference. And why? Simply because the thing proposed is obnoxious and unpopular. ["No, no!"] It is not popular either with men or with women; and women would not be true women were they generally in its favour. Now this is essentially a women's ques- tion—a question of questions vitally concerning the peace of their homes, and the happiness of their married lives; and I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman if he will venture to assert that any considerable number of the married women of these countries are in favour of his proposal? If so, let us have the evidence of the existence of this new form of unfeminine insanity—some other evidence besides that displayed at Hull. I declare, as my deliberate conviction, that, out of the lunatic asylums of Ireland, the hon. and learned Gentleman could not in that country obtain 500 female "ayes" in support of this Bill. I certainly cannot find any appreciable number of my constituents in its favour. On the contrary, I have heard this great boon to women spoken of by female members of my constituency—and these among the most cultivated and enlightened of its members—with disgust and detestation; and I venture to assert that this is the spirit in which it is regarded by the overwhelming majority of my countrymen. Others have spoken similarly of the women of Scotland; and until I see Petitions in favour of this Bill signed by hundreds of thousands of Englishwomen, I shall continue to believe that not only are they of the same flesh and blood, but of the same feelings and passions and instincts as their sisters of the sister countries. So far as I can understand the feeling of women on this question, it is this—they are unwilling that the beautiful and sacred relation now subsisting between the wife's sister and the wife's husband should be disturbed or endangered, much less destroyed—they are unwilling that the most tender and most sacred relation between the wife's sister and the wife's children should, on any pretence whatever, be imperilled—they are unwilling that the perfect and entire confidence now reposed by the wife in her unmarried sister should be replaced by suspicion and mistrust, by heartburning and agony of soul. Next to the relation of the husband to the wife, and the wife to the husband, what on earth is more beautiful and tender, what more pure and unselfish, than that of the unmarried sister to the husband of the sister, and vice versâ? It is now free from the very shadow or suspicion of impurity or impropriety. The wife's sister is also the husband's sister—he is her brother and her protector; and should it happen that she lives under his roof, and that she grows to womanhood under his care, he takes pride in her beauty and her accomplishments, her grace and her gaiety, and he looks forward with pleasure to the hour when he may hand her over, pure and stainless, to one worthy of her beauty, her virtue, and her innocence. But once pass this dreadful measure, once make it the universal law of the land, and you shatter for ever the greatest charm of the domestic circle, by establishing a new and dangerous relation between the husband and the sister of his wife. At one fell swoop the sister-in-law and the aunt are practically blotted out, and in their place you have the possible rival of the wife in the affections of her husband, the possible successor to the wife in that home which is the throne of the woman's empire. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Gilpin) who says that all the intellect and all the conscience of the country is on his side—a statement which, were I to make it on my side, would somewhat savour of Parliamentary insolence—my hon. Friend asks us to arrive at a philosophical decision on this question. Sir, if men were all philosophers of the hardest moral grit—were they automata, to be wound up like so many clocks—were they as insensible as was the marble statute of Galatea before the false compassion of the gods warmed it into life—in fine, were man not man, and woman not woman, then you might safely trifle with relations that are holy and sacred, tender and delicate; but it is because man is man, and woman is woman, that the Representatives of this nation should guard the domestic hearth from a new and terrible temptation! Either way in which you can regard it, it is fraught with peril. It involves the brutal disruption of cherished ties, or it must be a source of ever present danger. No reasonable man—certainly no one deliberately legislating for the future—can shut his eyes to the temptations suggested by the totally new relations proposed to be established between the husband and the wife's unmarried sister. ["Oh, oh!"] Gentlemen may affect indignation at what I say; but which of us can say he believes in the perfection of the human heart?—which of us who knows human nature that does not also know its weakness and its liability to err? Our grandest prayer—that which links all Christian men in a common brotherhood—our grandest prayer to the Father of all created things, ends with this touching acknowledgment of our poor human weakness—"Lead us not into temptation!" But this Bill of the hon. and learned Gentleman demands that temptation, in its most dangerous form, shall be introduced into the now untroubled home, and that it shall there set up its permanent dwelling-place. This proposal involves peril to the peace of the wife; it also involves injury to the welfare of her children. Much is said of the aunt's love for her sister's children, and how she is the best person to take the place of her deceased sister, because of the great love. As to the aunt's love for her sister's children, it is now a reality; but with the change which this Bill would work, it would prove to be unreliable, and, at best, precarious. So long as you, by leaving the law of the land untouched, allow the aunt to be the aunt, and the aunt only, all is right between her and her sister's children; and should anything happen to the wife, no one could better replace her than her unmarried sister. I will go farther, and say this—were the Bill passed, and the husband to marry his wife's sister, and that she had no children of her own, in that case her sister's children might and possibly would retain the full measure of their aunt's former love. This must, however, be on the supposition that you can guarantee her against fruitfulness. You say that the aunt is her sister's best successor, and I say yes, provided you allow her to remain as she is—the aunt and that alone. But once let her become a mother herself, and there will arise in the mother's heart the fierce selfishness of the mother's love and the mother's jealousy; and from that moment she is a step-mother to her sister's children. Her maternity has destroyed in her all the tenderness of the aunt. Sir, I have no objection that a Bill, similar to that passed some years since, should now be carried, so as to undo, as far as possible, the individual mischief or inconvenience that has been already done by marriages of this description—I shall not say contracted through passion, for I have not the least desire to question the purity of motive that may, in many instances, have led to these unions. It is not my duty or my feeling to cast reproach on any of those marriages, and I would, on the contrary, now afford the same relief as was given by the Act of 1835. But I oppose the passing of a law which would bring confusion and misery to countless houses. Sir, because I regard this Bill as delusive in its promise of good, and dangerous in its certainty of evil, I cordially say "No" to its second reading.

Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 186; Noes 138: Majority 48.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for To-morrow.