HC Deb 13 March 1879 vol 244 cc823-30

rose to call attention to the proceedings of the Court of Aldermen on the 18th of February, and to move— That the sale of the Parliamentary franchise by the City Guilds with the consent of the Court of Aldermen is an abuse and should be abolished. The House had already on two occasions discussed the question of faggot votes as acquired by individuals; but the importance of the subject was greatly enhanced when the system was openly recognized by a Corporation so wealthy and holding a position so illustrious and honourable as that of the City of London. He did not hesitate to say it was one of the greatest abuses in the whole of the three Kingdoms. In such a case the practice must be generally, he might say universally, condemned. On the face of it, the Companies and the Corporation had in their hands both the Parliamentary and municipal suffrage. The Companies could not, therefore, be considered private bodies. It appeared that the Master and Wardens of the Company of Fanmakers, which had reached its full number of 60 members, had presented a Petition to the Court of Aldermen stating that a number of respectable persons wished to become freemen of the Company; that the increase of the Livery would conduce to the advantage of the Company and of the City of London; and requesting permission to add their names to the roll. After a somewhat lively discussion the request was granted. Primâ facie, there could be no possible objection to any addition to the members of the Company. The Company, which was established at the commencement of the last century, was a very respectable body, and a year ago they had rather an interesting exhibition, which was attended by many Members of Parliament, and not a few ladies. But why were the Company so desirous to make more Liverymen, except for the purpose of acquiring the Parliamentary vote? He held in his hands a Circular which he understood had been sent to various hon. Members by the clerk of the Company, in which he called upon Members of the House to vindicate the Livery's rights; and it was a remarkable thing that since he (Mr. James) had come to the House that afternoon, one of his hon. Friends had informed him that he had that day received two letters, one of which was the Circular he had spoken of, asking him to attend in his place that evening in opposition to this Motion, and another later in the day, inviting him to a dinner-party the following week, that the Company might have the pleasure of entertaining him. The clerk of the Company in his Circular said there had been no sale of the Parliamentary franchise. He (Mr. James) could not see what else it was. Was it barter, or traffic, or negotiation? The clerk of the Company pointed out that the Corporation had power over these Companies, and could increase the number of the Livery. But when this was increased, the number of persons would increase also, who could exercise the Parliamentary franchise. There was no doubt that the continued existence of this anomaly was due to an omission in the Reform Bill of 1867, and that on a future occasion it would be swept away, along with other peculiar privileges, like that at Newcastle-on-Tyne, where the possession of a share in the Theatre Royal gave a vote for the Southern Division of the County of Northumberland. It was impossible that such privileges could be sustained. Mr. Sewell, the clerk to the Fanmakers' Company, denied that the Company was a political Company, and said that the application to the Court of Aldermen was made for the purpose of increasing the interest in the trade. But he (Mr. James) absolutely denied that. It was rather interesting to notice what happened on a previous occasion, when the Needlemakers' Company applied with a similar object, and their request was granted. He then looked at the City Directory, and when he saw who were the gentlemen who took an interest in the Needlemakers' Company—prominent amongst whom was the hon. Member for North Durham—he came to the conclusion that there was no knowing what support a new Needlemaker might be to the Conservative Party. These votes could only be defended on the ground he once heard taken by a wealthy banker in the City, who thought the best way to have a satisfactory form of representation and a good House of Commons was by putting the seats of hon. Members up to auction. The population of the Metropolis, within the City, was constantly decreasing; and one would have thought that, so far from there being any grounds for increasing the numbers of Liverymen, there were the strongest possible grounds for diminishing them. Perhaps it might be said that he had brought a small and trumpery matter before the House; but he must take exception to that. The Lord Mayor of London, who was chosen by the Liverymen, held a very important position; he had great influence, social and otherwise; and, recognizing these facts, he could not help remembering a meeting held last year, at the Cannon Street Hotel, and then adjourned to the Guildhall, under the auspices of the then Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Owden, which was said to have strengthened the hands of the Government, but of which he could speak, from his own observation, as one of the most discreditable and disgraceful scenes ever witnessed in the City. If the system of election had been placed on a more satisfactory footing, he could not help thinking that a fairer and more just expression of public opinion at that time might have taken place. In connection with his Motion, he could not but refer to the entertainment which gave so much influence both to the Corporation and also to Companies, which formed one of its most prominent parts. Of these, the most mischievous was the dinner given by the Sheriffs in the dining-room of the House itself. Whenever they presented a Petition or introduced a Bill into the House, Members who came from different parts of the Kingdom received invitations to dine with them, and then when the question of reform came forward they were reluctant to vote against the Corporation. He expressed a hope that, at no distant day, the House would put an end to what he could not but term a flagrant abuse. He begged to move the Resolution of which he had given Notice.


seconded the Motion.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the sale of the Parliamentary Franchise by the City Guilds with the consent of the Court of Aldermen is an abuse and should be abolished,"—(Mr. James,) —instead thereof.

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


said, he begged to give a complete denial to the statement of the hon. Member for Gateshead that the Corporation of London sold votes. Such a statement was altogether without foundation. The Guilds of the City of London existed for the purposes of good-fellowship and hospitality. He was sorry the hon. Member for Gateshead had not availed himself of some of the invitations with which he had been honoured by those Bodies in the course of his political career. Asit was, he watched over the affairs of the City of London, and viewed some of them in the blackest possible light. One would suppose, from the argument of the hon. Gentleman, that all the City Guilds were Conservative, and that every new vote created was a Conservative vote; but the hon. Member ought to know that the Fishmongers' Company—one of the most celebrated—was a Liberal Guild, and that Liberal demonstrations took place there frequently. A vote was not conferred by the taking of the Livery, but by a man becoming a freeman of a Guild; but no one could become a member of a Guild unless he were a man of credit and respectability. His character would be well looked into before he was admitted. One of the motives for increasing the number of the Fanmakers' Company was that ladies were to be admitted as honorary freemen. He was obliged to say "freemen," because the term freewomen was not analogous in meaning. It was the right of the Aldermen to increase the Livery; and he hoped Liberal Members would not conclude for one moment that every freeman and every Alderman of the City was Conservative, although he should be exceedingly glad if they all were. In the olden days the majority of Guilds were Liberal, as were also a long succession of Lord Mayors, and it was only recently that there had been a change in the politics of the Chief Magistrate. He regarded the Motion as frivolous, and unworthy of the hon. Member who had taken in hand the great cause of the reform of the City Corporation. There could be no difference between allowing a man to become a voter by paying a fee and his acquiring a vote by taking a house through a landlord. He would undertake to say that two-thirds or three-fourths of the freemen had votes independently of their freemanship in respect of premises they occupied in the City. Therefore, there was no ground for the wholesale assertion that a number of faggot votes had been created. He trusted that if the Motion of the hon. Member was put to the House it would be rejected by a large majority.


observed, that great latitude was allowed in giving Notices of Motion in that House; but if the hon. Member for Gateshead were to write a letter to the papers containing the same statements, he would expose himself to an action for libel, if not to an indictment. The franchise complained of by the hon. Member was the ancient franchise of the City of London. Down to the time of George I. it was the only franchise. He could not conceive any fancy kind of franchise that was preferable to this. It was preserved by the Reform Act of 1867. It was a mistake to suppose that a Liveryman received his appointment for life, as if he ceased to reside within 25 miles of the City he ceased to be a Liveryman. The number of voters in the Fanmakers' Company had, no doubt, been increased recently; but the increase was made by a vote of the Court of Aldermen, and among those who supported it were some of the most active Liberals of the City of London. It was, therefore, absurd to say that those votes had been created in the Conservative interest. It was also perfectly incorrect to allege that there had been any sale of the Parliamentary franchise. It might be said with equal justice that a landlord sold votes to his tenants because he let houses to them, or that keepers of lodging-houses sold votes to those who resided within their dwellings. If the hon. Member for Gateshead wished to assist the Conservative cause in London, he could not do so more effectually than by Motions of this sort. He could not sit down without asserting, in opposition to the statement of the hon. Member, that the meeting at Guildhall to which he referred in terms of such sweeping condemnation, was of a perfectly spontaneous character, and was in no way open to the strong remarks he made upon it.


wished to observe, as the hon. and learned Member for Salford (Mr. Charley) upheld the character of the Guildhall meeting in question, that on a former occasion he (Sir Charles W. Dilke) had stated that artizans from Woolwich Arsenal disturbed the meeting, and he stated the sums which some of them were paid for disturbing it. Those statements had never been contradicted—so much for the spontaneity of the meeting. The hon. and learned Gentleman also said that such statements as those of his hon. Friend might expose anyone making them to an action for libel, or possibly to an indictment; but, if so, that would be on the principle of "the greater the truth the greater the libel," for there was not a word of the statement made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Gateshead (Mr. James) that was not truth. With regard to his argument relative to the faggot votes, there was this difference in the two cases—that a landholder could not pick out certain tenants to give the franchise to, refusing it to the rest; whereas that was precisely what had been done by the Company. He supported the Motion.


said, he could not see that there was any reasonable pretence for the Motion, and he thought that it ought to be withdrawn. What did the hon. Member mean by "the traffic in votes?" To whom could a vote be sold? The hon. Member seemed to have forgotten that the ballot was in operation. The gentlemen who had been admitted to the freedom of the Fanmakers' Company had made a sacrifice to obtain a right of voting for a representative of the City of London—in his (Mr. Hubbard's) estimation a very legitimate object of ambition, hut one absolutely distinct from a sale of votes. He could only characterize the attack on the Company as trifling and offensive.


thought that if his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Charley) had not believed that the Conservative cause would have been benefited by what had been done, he would not have supported it so strongly. The Motion of his hon. Friend (Mr. James) was directed to an abuse, and the question which it raised was simply this—was it expedient or desirable that the Court of Aldermen should have the power of choosing and determining whether a number of persons, who could not be otherwise voters for the City, might become voters by procuring the franchise by purchase? He (Mr. Herschell) conceived that after the admission which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the City of London (Mr. Hubbard) had just made, there could be no doubt that there had been a purchase of votes in the City. The matter was one well worthy of consideration.


wished to take exception to a remark which had been made by the hon. Alderman who represented the City of London (Mr. Alderman Cotton), that the Livery Companies existed for the purpose of the promotion of good-fellowship and the exercise of hospitality. They existed for very different purposes. Many of them had special duties to perform. For instance, the Goldsmiths' Company had the supervision over the Hall-Marking of all the plate in the Kingdom. The Fishmongers' Company seized and destroyed all fish which was, when exposed for sale, unfit for human food; and the Clothmakers' Company—of which he was himself a member—encouraged technical education in Yorkshire, and other clothmaking districts. But, as had been said, it was only an incidental consequence of membership of one of these Companies that it conferred a vote. Whether language was given to men to conceal their thoughts might be a matter of doubt; but it was certainly an abuse of language to characterize the conduct of the Corporation of the City in this matter as a selling of the right of voting. If the City of London had been represented by three Liberal instead of three Conservative Members, nothing would have been heard of this matter.


said, that the truth was that the Fanmakers' Company was a very poor one, and that they had increased their numbers with the view of obtaining a little more money. In order to calm the fears of hon. Members opposite, he might inform them that two-thirds of the Court of that Company were, he was told, Liberals. All these Companies had done much for the advancement of technical education in their particular branches of trade.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 153; Noes 114: Majority 39.—(Div. List, No. 43.)

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