HC Deb 25 July 1887 vol 317 cc2011-5

Order for Second Reading read.

MR. JAMES STUART (Shoreditch, Hoxton)

I will be brief, but it is necessary I should say a few words in moving the second reading of this Bill. Its object is to confirm certain marriages solemnized at Antwerp by a certain Dr. Potts, who was chaplain at a British and American Chapel and Sailors' Bethel there, supported partly by a British and partly by an American Society. He was a minister of the Presbyterian Church of the United States, and officiated at Antwerp from 1880 to May, 1884, and during that time he performed several marriages—I think something like 12 in all—between various parties, and these marriages are all invalid on a technical point. The circumstances are these. In Belgium the only marriage recognized by the State is a civil marriage; and though Dr. Potts performed these marriages in accordance with the law and practice in the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, the parties who were married by him were not aware, and were not informed by him, that the civil ceremony of marriage was necessary. In the depositions made on oath by Dr. Potts it is evident how ho. was misled in the matter. He had, through a member of his committee, consulted the opinion of a lawyer as to the propriety of his action, and received advice, or wrongly interpreted the advice, which led him to suppose the marriages were legal. I may say that Bills of this character to establish the legality of marriages have been not infrequent during the present century. I have been able to observe more than 50 similar in character to this, some for legalizing marriages at home where informality had occurred, and some for legalizing marriages in which the illegality had taken place abroad. For instance, in 1833 there was a Bill introduced for legalizing marriages at Hamburg, performed there by a clergyman of the Church of England. I merely mention this as indicating the character of the Bill. The principal Act for legalizing a large number of marriages of this kind was the Act of 1849, which lays down the circumstances under which marriages, as a rule, are to be performed in foreign countries for British subjects. In that Act, which legalizes marriages conducted before that date with certain irregularities, there was a clause which stated that the Act should not render valid any marriage which, before the passing of the Act, had been declared invalid by any Court of competent jurisdiction. That Act related to marriages that had taken place during a considerable number of years, and the object of this saving clause was to prevent the illegitimacy of the children born of any marriage which had subsequently taken place in consequence of the declaration of the Court. Passing over a great number of Acts, I might refer to one which is very similar to the present Bill for legalizing marriages performed at Morha Velo, in Brazil, and passed in 1867. I refer to this, as these marriages were not illegal because of any informality connected with the provisions of the Act of 1819. These marriages were not solemnized under the Foreign Marriages Act of 1849, but were informal, in consequence of noncompliance with the form of marriage necessary in the country; and the Act then passed, overriding the lex loci, is similar in effect to the Bill now presented to the House. The only point that might be raised is whether the parties concerned in these marriages performed by Dr. Potts considered them to be valid at the time, and whether Dr. Potts did. There can be little doubt of that, for we have the decision of a Court of Law on this matter—namely, that of Mr. Registrar Middleton, in the case of one of the marriages in question, who states that from the evidence it is clear that the belief of all parties was that the ceremony was valid. I refer to the parties to the suit in the Langworthy case, which is one of the marriages to which this Bill refers.

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


I had hoped to hear some indication of the course to be taken after this Bill has been read a second time. I feel it my duty now to move the adjournment of the debate. I cannot now go into the facts at length; but what I want particularly to point out is that this Bill is really very different from most of those that have been brought before the House for somewhat similar purposes, and I may remind the House that the course which certainly should be taken in this case, of referring the Bill to a Select Committee, has been adopted in former instances. I wish to point out that these Marriage Confirmation Bills resolve themselves chiefly into two classes; first, where persons had ground for thinking that the ceremony was duly authorized, such as in the Hamburg case, where the chaplain was, up to a certain date, duly authorized, but the authority had ceased because of the expiration from time of the British Factory; and the other is the case in which the ceremony is invalid by reason of the authority not having been made complete. In this case two elements are wanting. Here we have a gentleman who is not an Englishman, but an American subject, possessing no authority, supported by some charitable societies, assuming authority to contract marriages. There was no reason, that I am aware, why parties should have gone to him when there were the proper and recognized means of obtaining the legal sanction of marriage in Antwerp. Under the circumstances, it appears to mo that further attention should be given to the matter than is now possible; and, therefore, I move the adjournment of the debate.

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

MR. PICTON (Leicester)

I hope the House will not take this course. Supposing that the Bill were read a second time, it might very fairly be referred to a Select Committee, and the objection of the hon. Member for Preston would be met. On that understanding, perhaps, the hon. Member will withdraw his Motion.


The Motion does not allow of our entering into the principle of the Bill, and I am not desirous of saying anything against the Preamble. But, certainly, having regard to the circumstances of the case, and that we are dealing with a question relating to what took place in a foreign country, I think the House ought not to assent to the second reading unless a clear case for legislation is made out. I submit that at this time, on a question of international importance, we ought not to pass the second reading without full discussion.


I hope that the advice of the hon. Member for Preston will not be taken. This matter is one of pressing importance, and it is in the interest of the community that these marriages should at once be declared valid. I trust the Bill will be now read a second time, and that the hon. Member will consent to the reference of the Bill to a Select Committee.


To prevent any misunderstanding, may I be allowed to say that I am perfectly prepared to accept the proposal to refer the Bill to a Select Committee?

MR. SEXTON (Belfast, W.)

As I understand that meets the only objection of the hon. Member who moved the adjournment, surely now he will not persist in his Motion.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 75; Noes 75.—(Div. List, No. 321.)


Under these circumstances, I give my voice with the Ayes.


May I ask you, Sir, is it not in accordance with usage that the reasons for the Speaker's casting vote should be given, that they may be entered on the Journals of the House?


The usual entry will be made in the Votes.

Debate adjourned till To-morrow.