HC Deb 20 February 1873 vol 214 cc733-43

Sir, in rising to address the House on a Question of Privilege, I may say I wish to do so with the utmost diffidence and hesitation, and I should not venture to take the step I am now taking were it not that I am sure the House will extend to me, as a comparatively young Member, that patience and consideration which it has always shown on similar occasions. Did the matter to which I am about to direct attention affect simply and solely the honour of this House as a body, I should not have presumed to bring it under notice; there being hundreds of other hon. Members within these walls who are more fitted than myself to defend effectually and satisfactorily the honour of the House of Commons. But in the case to which I am about to refer not only has the honour of a section of the Members of this House been attacked—a section of which I am a Member—but, in addition to that, threats have been held out against them as to the consequences that would occur if they were to take part in the proceedings of this House. The statements and the threats to which I refer are made in a book which, being somewhat of a professional character, may not have been read by a number of hon. Members, and therefore it is that I have felt it to be my duty to bring this matter forward. I can assure the House that I feel in a peculiar manner the loss which the House has sustained in the person of the late Member for Liverpool (Mr. Graves) whose abilities and honour were so highly regarded by hon. Members, and more especially so by those connected with commerce, who were accustomed to look to him for guidance and support in all matters that affected mercantile interests. Now, this book which I am about to bring before the House is one which has been published this year. It bears the title of Our Seamen—An Appeal, and the name of the junior Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) is given as its author. It is dedicated "To the Lady gracious and kind, who, seeing a labourer working in the rain, sent him her rug to wrap about his shoulders." I do not know whether that dedication is "by permission" or not, for the book does not state. I shall ask you, Sir, to allow extracts from the book, which I have selected, to be read by the Clerk at the table. They commence at page 71 of the work.

The Cleric at the table then read the following extracts:—

"You must remember large fortunes arc being made by them; they are the most energetic and pushing men in the trade, and it should not be matter of surprise if three of them had even got into Parliament (remember Sadlier and Roupel were both in Parliament).

"Now I don't want to say a single word disrespectful to Parliament; it has been a matter of constant surprise to me, since I became acquainted with the amount of work a Member has to do, that so many men of ample means should be willing to devote their whole time in the best part of the year to gratuitous labour, all of them too (but two or three) men of high character and humane feeling; but, nevertheless, owing to the fact that two or three of what they call in the North the greatest simmers in the trade' having got into the House, it is there, and there only, that opposition to reform is to be expected, or is found.

"Without mentioning names perfectly well known in the sea-ports, I will give you an idea of what I mean.

"In the year 1870, when my Bill was before the House the first time, the evening appointed for the Second Reading arrived. I was standing in the Lobby, when a Member accosted me thus:—'Do you expect your Bill will come on to-night?'

"'Yes, I hope so,' I said.

"He said, I am sorry for that, as I have a dinner engagement; but I should not like to be absent.'

"'I think you should not be absent,' was my reply.

"Why?' said he, sharply.

"'Because,' I said, I may have to tell the House of a man, whose name you will hear in any coffee room or exchange in Yarmouth, Hull, Scarborough, Whitby, Pickering, Blythe, Shields, Newcastle, Sunderland, or any port on the northeast coast, as one notorious for excessive and habitual overloading, and a reckless disregard for human life, who has lost seven ocean-going steamers, and drowned more than a hundred men, in less than two years, and whose name I have myself seen as one of those whose ships insurance brokers at Lloyd's at length warrant the undertakers they will not ship goods in, before the Underwriters will take a line upon them, and I may tell the House that that man is the Member for—.'

"I thought the man would have fainted. He answered never a word.

"Now he had put on the paper a notice to move an amendment to the Second Reading of my Bill, viz., that it be read a second time that day six months. Every Member knows that if such a purpose is abandoned, it is only necessary for the Member who has given notice of the amendment to absent himself, or to sit still when his turn comes to speak,—that is all.

"Some twenty minutes after this interview (and another I shall speak of soon), I was in my place in a state of strong excitement, because I had just made two powerful enemies. I felt utterly alone in my work, and so sick with excitement and fear, that I was compelling myself to think of the poor widows I had seen to keep up my courage, when a hand was put upon my shoulder. Much startled, I looked round, and there stood this man, with a face like that of a dead man, and this is what he said:—

"'Mr. Plimsoll, I have been to Mr. Palgrave, and taken my notice off the paper.'

"Why did he go to Mr. Palgrave? Why did he trouble to tell me he had done so?

"The Bill came on too late that night for consideration, and was put forward; and when, early next day, I looked at the fresh issue of the Order Book, and looked amongst Notices relating to Orders of the Day, that Notice of Amendment was not there.

"I may say here that the Bill, though frequently put down afterwards, never did come on that Session, owing to the dreadful waste of the time of the House by incessant speech-making of Members who cannot really speak, but don't know it.

"Those who can't, and do know it, seldom address the House but when they feel it is their plain duty.

"After turning away from the Member I have referred to I encountered another, and told him that I thought he would do well to stay, because it was probable that I should refer to a case of a spar-docked ship being sent to Cronstadt in November with a cargo of iron, nearly twice as many tons as her register tonnage, with her main deck between two and three feet under the water line. He threatened me with an action for libel if I did; but the voters of Derby had made me strong enough to defy him. He said I had no right to name a matter relating to a Member without giving him notice. I reminded him that I was then giving him notice. He said he would not take it; and finally, with a dark and deadly, look, said, if I dared to allude to the case I must take the consequences. I was obliged to tell him that my duty was plain, and as to the consequences, I thought he was likely to take his share of them with me.

"You will see, therefore, that I had sufficient reason for the agitation I was in when the first Member made the astonishing and unnecessary (!) announcement that he had been to Mr. Palgrave, and had taken his Notice off the Paper.

"In 1871, when I brought in my Bill a second time, it was most anxiously debated by me with myself whether or no I should allude to these cases. Hoping to succeed without doing so, I did not allude to them in my opening speech, and of course was then precluded from doing so in my reply, and these two men actually took advantage of this omission to speak against the Bill, and put up another Member, who would, I am afraid, find it very embarrassing to answer some questions that might be put to him. (I recommend those gentlemen to be more discreet next Session, if they wish to preserve their incognito.)"


The House is now in possession of the extract to which I allude, and I wish to assure the House that in entering upon this question I am not actuated by any personal or vindictive feeling. I have carefully read the book through more than once, and I have been unable to find any allusion which I could regard in any respect as a personal one. Had I found any insinuations against myself, I think I should have been able in justice to my own conscience to regard them with the contempt which I believed they deserved. But it is because I feel I am not personally alluded to that I venture to bring this matter before the House. The House ought to be aware that this book has been very largely circulated, copies have been sent to various public bodies and to a largo number of Members of this House. I have not been able to discover that any copy has been sent to any Member connected with the shipping interest. No one specially interested in the question has had a copy sent him; but I do not wish to dwell upon that, because this book has been got out with all the advantages of excellent printing, good paper, and strong language. It is not to be expected that an author would hinder the sale of his book by sending a copy of it to anyone who was likely to buy it. I am not going to occupy the time of the House by quoting a large portion of what has been read by the Clerk at the Table. A good deal of it applies, or may be supposed to apply, to two Members who have already taken steps to obtain a legal remedy for what is published, and I am not going to follow the hon. Member for Derby through his sensational language; such as, for instance, "I thought the man would have fainted," "sick with excitement and fear," "this man, with a face like that of a dead man," "dark and deadly-look," &c. These hon. Gentlemen have appealed to a Court of Law; and in a Court of Law they must obtain their redress. But there are several passages which apply more especially to the House as a collective body, and to a section of its Members also as a collective body. There is an extract to which I wish to call the special attention of the House—namely, You must remember large fortunes are being made by them; they are the most energetic and pushing men in the trade, and it should not be matter of surprise if three of them had even got into Parliament (remember Sadleir and Roupel were both in Parliament). Here we come to a definite charge against three Members of this House, who belong to a small section, numbering only six or seven persons. There are only six or seven professional shipowners in this House; and here is a strong and severe accusation against three of them. Two of them, as I have said, have gone to a Court of Law for their remedy; but we all know that Courts of Law are very tedious in their operation. We know it has been said that "the greater the truth the greater the libel, "yet the converse of that is also true, and there is no amount of inaccuracy of statement in which a clever man may not indulge without bringing himself under the operation of the law of libel. Therefore it was not to be expected that hon. Members who are not so distinctly alluded to by name should sit still for a length of time under the imputation which the hon. Member for Derby has cast upon them. The principal inconvenience which arises from the course which the hon. Member has taken is that, while he alludes to only three Members, every shipowning Member of the House has become liable to the suspicion that he is one of those three. I have myself heard the name of every shipowner in this House sug- gested as that of the third Member to whom the hon. Member alludes. I have heard every name except my own; and it is not for me to say whether when my back is turned my name may not have been mentioned also. Now, I do think that when these rumours are going about so extensively as not even to spare the memory of the dead, it is time some notice should be taken of them in this House. If the hon. Member for Derby had had the good fortune to have been a director of some large commercial establishment—say, a Director of the Bank of England—and had published that half of his colleagues on the Board were habitually insolvent, he would at once be called upon to justify the statement that he had made by giving the names of the parties to whom he had alluded, and would not be allowed to leave them waiting for a remedy in a Civil Court. I do not see why this House should be less jealous of the honour of its Members than any mercantile corporation would be. I know it may be said that the hon. Member has given Notice of a Motion for the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into this matter, and that before that Royal Commission he is prepared to justify the charge he has made. But what is a Royal Commission? The hon. Member knows perfectly well that a Royal Commission has nothing to do with regard to any libellous statement which he or anyone else may make. And yet the hon. Member proposes to ask this House for a Royal Commission to suspend the law of libel and to enable him to scatter his insinuations broadcast over the land without incurring any responsibility for them. That this is not a mistaken view on my part will be seen at page 42 of his book. He there speaks copiously of "the terrible law of libel" as one of the things that prevents his bringing forward the facts he wishes. Now, I believe it is quite an exceptional thing for a man to make an ex parte statement, and then to ask for a Royal Commission to investigate its truth. We have had cases of Royal Commissions at Sheffield and elsewhere, but there has been always some preliminary investigation. There has been always some primâ facie evidence to show that crimes are general. Never has there been a case in which an hon. Member has published strong statements in a book, and then asked for the appointment of a Royal Commission to enable him to prove the truth of those statements. The real extract to which I wish to call attention is— Owing to the fact that two or three of what they call in the North the greatest sinners in the trade' having got into the House, it is there, and there only, that opposition to reform is to be expected, or is found. Now, I would ask, what right has the hon. Member for Derby to bring such an accusation against this House? He does not pretend that these offences, the accusations of which are spread so widely around, are merely committed by hon. Members. He says they go on in all the ports of the country, and that it is a common crime that ought to be put down; and yet he says that this is the only place where opposition is to be found. The only inference which can be drawn from the remark of the hon. Member for Derby is that interest and private feeling have so much influence in this House, that in this House an opposition dares to raise its head which cannot venture to find utterance in any other public place in the kingdom. The next extract to which I shall call attention is of a more serious character, because if there is one thing which distinguishes this House more than any other constitutional Assembly in the world it is its jealousy with regard to the right of freedom of debate. From the highest to the lowest this House has always tried to shield its Members from any consequences which might arise from taking part with the utmost freedom in any debate. With this preface, let me now read what the hon. Gentleman says in his book— In 1871, when I brought in my Bill a second time, it was most anxiously debated by me with myself whether or no I should allude to those cases. Hoping to succeed without doing so, I did not allude to them in my opening speech, and, of course, was then precluded from doing so in my reply; and these two men actually took advantage of this omission to speak against the Bill, and put up another Member, who would, I am afraid, find it very embarrassing to answer some questions that might be put to him. (I recommend those gentlemen to be more discreet next Session, if they wish to preserve their incognito.) Now, what is the meaning of this "incognito?" It cannot be the incognito of these gentlemen as Members of this House, or as shipowners, because their names can be discovered by the register of every ship belonging to them in the country. But the incognito he threatens to drop is the fact of their being the men against whom he has brought serious and grave charges; and he threatens them that if they speak against his Motion he will expose them still fur her. If that is not a distinct threat against Members of this House, and a distinct interference with the liberty of debate, for one, confess that I am ignorant of the meaning of the English language. The crimes with which the hon. Member charges other hon. Members are too serious for any of us to hesitate to speak respecting them. We all feel that these crimes are most outrageous; that if they be true—if the hon. Member has the facts to justify these statements, he ought to have brought forward at once the names of the persons he accuses, and have taken the consequences. That would have been the honourable, courageous, and more manly course. But if he had not sufficient evidence upon which to make the charges, he should not say that very strong language might be used with regard to them, following up this statement by asking for a Royal Commission, under the shadow of which he might make further statements. I do not want to occupy the time of the House any longer. The hon. Member for Derby is a young Member of this House, and it may be that he has not calculated the full weight and effect of the expressions he has used. But I felt I should be wanting in respect for the dignity of this House, in respect for the character of the mercantile world, and in respect for my own honour, if I had not brought this subject before the House. I will now conclude with moving my Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That to accuse, in a printed book, Members of this House of grievous offences, and to threaten them with further exposure if they take part in its Debates, is conduct highly reprehensible, and injurious to the honour and dignity of this House."—(Mr. Eustace Smith.)


Mr. Speaker—In rising to address the House to-day, I do so under very considerable disadvantage, for, until they were read from the Table, I was not aware for what passages in my work I was to be called upon to answer. It is possible that had I had Notice of theme I might have examined the context and been able to show that the passages admitted of a modified construction. I do not, however, for one moment, wish to screen myself behind any ambiguity or mere form of words, and having consulted the highest authority, I am advised that I have committed an inadvertent offence against the House. Sir, I am deeply concerned that such should be the case—that any language of mine could possibly convey any meaning which could be deemed lacking in that high respect for the House to which alike its honourable traditions and its high character give it so just a title. I beg to assure you, Sir, and every hon. Member of this House, that nothing whatever could possibly have been further from my intention. As, however, it does appear possible that my meaning and intention may have been so far misunderstood, I have to offer to you and to the House the sincere expression of my regret that, in the earnestness with which I sought help for the helpless, coupled with my inexperience as a Member, I should have left anyone room to doubt that for the House I entertain, and ever have entertained, feelings of the very highest respect. For my most unintentional fault, I offer to you, Sir, and to the House, the most ample apology it is in my power to make; and I assure the House that to have become one of its Members I esteem, and ever shall esteem, to be the greatest honour and the highest distinction of my life.

And the hon. Member then withdrew.


I am sure that after the very proper speech to which we have just listened the House cannot desire that this matter should proceed any further. My hon. Friend behind me (Mr. T. E. Smith) has discharged what he thought a public duty in bringing this question before the House, and the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) has made the amplest apology which, as a Member of this House and as a gentleman, he could make. Any man may commit a great offence; but the real man is the man who makes the amende, and what the hon. Member has said to the House on this occasion has shown that the offence was unintentional, and it ought not to be remembered further by the House. Under these circumstances, I am sure my hon. Friend will not think it necessary to proceed further with this Motion, and will, in accordance with the general wish of the House, at once withdraw it.


I have already stated that I was not influenced by any personal or vindictive feeling in bringing this matter before the House; and after the full and ample apology which the hon. Member for Derby has made, I feel that I should only be acting in a manner contrary to my professions if I were to proceed further, and therefore I will withdraw the Motion.


I feel that every Member of the House is bound to accept the apology that has been made; but I believe that the House will think that, having consulted my legal advisers, I ought not to address the House upon the matter. Neither will I refute any of the assertions and allegations which have been apologised for by the hon. Member for Derby. But inasmuch as this House has always guarded the honour of its Members, however humble, I hope that the House will not consider the statements made by the hon. Member to be true because I have not refuted them. I should have been perfectly willing to do so if in the opinion of the House I ought; but if the House thinks that I ought to remain silent, I will readily submit to the feeling of the House.


I wished to say, before the speech of the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, that I quite agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Liskeard (Mr. Horsman) in thinking that, in the difficult circumstances of this case, the speech of the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) has left it upon a footing on the whole fair and equitable. An issue is raised between himself and certain Members of this House. That issue is to be tried elsewhere. We must feel that my hon. Friend (Mr. Plimsoll) is in a position of difficulty with regard to them, and that they also are in a position of difficulty with respect to him. But the frank language in which my hon. Friend the Member for Derby has recognised and acknowledged the fact that he has—from the motives, doubtless, which he has described—been misled into the commission of a serious error, must make us feel, I think, that the House can ask for no more at his hands. I think my right hon. Friend expressed the general feeling of the House when he said that it is not necessary to proceed with the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.