§ MR. JAMES STUART (Shoreditch, Hoxton)
I rise to call attention to the interference with public meetings in open spaces in London. I do so at the present moment because there are very few opportunities for any private Member to call attention to a matter of this kind, and also because the present is a very apt opportunity for doing so, inasmuch as the old formula of grievance before Supply is particularly applicable in this instance. I believe that there is a real grievance in this matter, as I hope to be able to show to the House before I have done. I may also say, in my own behalf, and on the behalf of thos9 for whom I speak, that I am not bringing forward this matter from any sympathy with the views of those who are most concerned in it —I mean the Socialists. It is the misfortune of those who have to contend for any important principle that they frequently have to contend for that principle in the persons of those with whom they do not agree. I do not propose to follow that point farther at the present moment. All I say is that the action of the Socialist body, which is mostly interested in what I have to deal with, has been as lately in Northumberland to the detriment of interests which I, for one, deem to be important. At the same time, I feel that I am bound to maintain, as far as I can. the right of public meeting when I believe that that right has been violated in any way. I believe that, whatever may be the views of any body of persons, there is great advantage to the community in allowing those views to have free expression, and that injury is done to the community if there is any prevention of, or even appearance of preventing, that free expression of opinion. I think, also, it is necessary to call attention to anything we may believe to be an interference with the right of public meeting in the open spaces of London on account of the peculiar situation of London itself, and of the few facilities which it affords for the holding of public meetings. There is no town in England so badly off in regard to facilities for the holding of public meetings as London. Take Bradford with its great St. George's Hall, capable of 1747 holding 5,000 or 6,000 persons, and used as a large meeting place for the people of that town. Go to the East End of London, and you will find that probably the biggest hall is that of Shoreditch, which is only capable of containing 2,000 persons, whereas the population drawn from, on the occasion of a public meeting there may amount to six or seven times the population of the entire town of Bradford. I am sorry to say, also, that the School Board of London does not afford those facilities for the holding of public meetings in the board schools which is given by the authorities of Birmingham, Bradford, and other large towns. I merely mention this fact in order to show the importance of the question I am about to bring forward, and I may add that I have myself given Notice of my intention to move a Motion upon the subject of the application of board schools, under proper conditions, to the purposes of public meetings. I think that it is especially the duty of those hon. Members who, like myself, represent the populous districts of London, to draw the attention of the House to what has recently taken place with respect to meetings which have been held in the open spaces of London, and especially in regard to the relations of the police with such meetings. In the case of a meeting held at St. George's Hall, Bradford, the duty of the police is simply to protect the meeting, and not to interfere with it. What we desire is to be placed in a similar position in respect to the meetings which we are compelled to hold in the open spaces of the Metropolis, so long as such meetings do not interfere with the ordinary traffic. There is also another matter with respect to London to which it is necessary for me to call attention in connection with the right of public meeting. It is this—that whereas the police of other towns are under the government of the Municipality, and thereby under the government of the people themselves, the police of the Metropolis are in no sense whatever under the government of the ratepayers of the Metropolis. On the contrary, they are under the government of the Chief Commissioner, and are directly under the Home Office. The head of the police of London is, therefore, a member of a political Party in this House, and, therefore, he ought to avoid 1748 the appearance of any partizanship with respect to the control of political meetings in London, as far as the interference of the police may be concerned. As a matter of fact, the Secretary of State for the Home Department is ultimately the responsible party for the action of the police in London, and that fact may be regarded as a further apology for my bringing this matter before the House. Whereas the ratepayers of other towns have an opportunity of appealing to their Town Council or their Watch Committee, in London, if they desire to raise a question of the kind, they are compelled to bring their complaint under the notice of this House. I will, however, pass from that point without further comment, in order to get to the special matter with which I desire to deal this evening, and I shall in no sense wander into the general question of the right of public meeting in London, but I will confine myself to one particular case. There have been several instances occurring lately in regard to such meetings, and I wish particularly to refer to two meetings which have been held in San-croft Street, near the Kennington Road, on May 1 and 8. These were meetings of the Socialists, and I am informed that meetings of that body have been held for a considerable time on Sundays. Those meetings have not been disturbed until of late, when disturbances began to arise in consequence of the interference of a body calling themselves the Primrose Society. In an answer given by the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Stuart-Wortley) to a Question put to him recently, he referred to the meeting which was held on the 8th of May, and spoke of two rival meetings being held. I have made what inquiry I could into the matter, and I have not been able to find that the society calling itself "The Primrose Society" has in any sense endeavoured to hold any public meeting at all. I am unable to trace their meetings as existing in any way other than as an endeavour to disturb the meetings which have been held by the Socialists. The principal mover, as far as I can make out, in the Primrose Society is a greengrocer and a boxing man, connected with a school of arms in Lambeth Walk, and I take it that the supporters of the society generally partake very much of the same character. The 1749 result of the interference of the Primrose Society with the meetings of the Socialists has been, that a disturbance has taken place on several Sundays between the two rival bodies, as they are called. In the week preceding the meeting of May 1 an application was made by the Socialists to the Lambeth Police Court in regard to an interference which had occurred at one of their meetings; the case was reported fully in The Daily News and The Standard, and the report says—A disturbance took place between the rival bodies on Sunday week, and during the week an application was made by a Socialist at the Lambeth Police Court with regard to the interference with their meetings, and Chief Inspector Chisholm then informed the magistrate, that in order to stop these disturbances, neither party would be permitted to hold these meetings.There is a point to which I shall refer a little later on. But this is a statement made by Chief Inspector Chisholm in reference to the meeting of the 1st of May. A considerable gathering of Socialists took place in the Sancroft Road on that day, and Superintendent Brennan and Inspector Chamberlain were both present. After the meeting at the corner of Sancroft Street, where it joins the Kennington Road, there were seen marching down Sancroft Street from the other end a body of the Primrose Society with yellow favours and a large primrose coloured banner with an inscription on it. It was known beforehand that they were coming, and it was perfectly well understood why they wore coming. They approached quite close to the Socialists who had attended the meeting, and then orders were given by the Superintendent and Inspector to 100 police, stationed about 50 or 100 yards off, to come up to the place. This body of police charged the crowd, charging first against the body of Socialists. If the facts, as I state them, are wrong they can be easily contradicted. I am only stating them as they have been represented to me. The Daily News says—Finding it was impossible to quell the opposing force, Superintendent Brennan forced his way into the ranks of his men, and the police then charged in a compact body, scattering-members of both bodies right down the street, and dispersing them in all directions …. Some of the leading Socialists were severely handled by the police, and one of their members, after a sharp chase down the Kennington Road, was taken into custody. Small bodies of men assembled in the Kennington Road, but were immediately dispersed by the police. The mem- 1750 bers of the Primrose Society, however, succeeded in re-assembling in Regent Street, and forthwith marched to Saville Place, Lambeth Walk, where a large crowd had assembled, in the expectation that the Socialists would hold a meeting there. No meeting was held, but the members of the Primrose Society came across two Socialists and chased them down the Lambeth Road into Church Street. The men were overtaken and a fight ensued. One of the Socialists was knocked down and kicked, but the police put in an appearance, and the injured man was put in a cab and taken home with two fellow Socalists.This is what took place on the following Sunday, and here I quote again from The Daily News—Having regard to the possibility of a renewal of the previous Sunday's disturbance in Sancroft Street, Kennington Road, the police, under Mr. Superintendent Brennan, of the L Division, made ample arrangements yesterday to prevent a collision between the Socialists and their opponents, the Anti-Socialists. For some time past the Lambeth Branch of the Social Democratic Federation has held peaceful meetings at the head of the street. After the occurrence on the previous Sunday it was resolved to hold a meeting at the same place yesterday to protest against the conduct of the police. It would seem, however, that the proposal was abandoned. The Battersea Branch alone appeared in organized form, and, finding that access to the street for the purpose of a meeting was barred by the police, made no attempt to assort their claim.Now, what I wish to point out is that, in my opinion, it would have been proper in regard to the first meeting on the previous Sunday for the police to have barred the approach of the threatening crowd in Sancroft Street. And this leads me to make the remark that we have here an instance of a meeting prohibited, practically, by the police, because, in addition to the newspaper report that no meeting was held, I find this report of it in the Socialists' own paper—We were not allowed to hold our meeting on Sunday morning at all. There was a strong force of the police and a good muster of our comrades and sympathizers, but we were kept continually moving. Chapman, on his arrival, was immediately arrested. Afterwards we made a move to the Albert Embankment, followed by mounted police and constables who emerged from the stable yard of the London Tramway Company. Arrived at the Embankment, Rossiter had no sooner mounted the box to open the meeting for Ward than we were hustled from our position. A temperance meeting was not interfered with, and a religious meeting was going on the whole time at the corner of a street at Vauxhall Cross. The police would give us no explanation. Bail for Chapman was refused.And now let me refer the House to what 1751 took place in 1882 at Weston-super-Mare when the Salvation Army was frequently assaulted by a body called the Skeleton Army. I quote from the case of "Beatty v. Gillbanks, "reported in The Law Journal of 1883, vol. 51, page 117, which was an appeal by the Salvation Army against the decision of the magistrates. The report says—A riotous mob had assembled on the 23rd March, 1882, to prevent the Salvation Army meeting. This caused great terror and alarm in the minds of the peaceful inhabitants of the town, who believed, and had good reason to believe, that the procession would lead to a repetition of disturbance, and would endanger life, property, and the public peace; and who in consequence brought the matter to the notice of the sergeant of police in charge of the town, and made divers complaints to him thereon. The Justices in consequence placarded a notice stating that, 'as there are reasonable grounds for apprehending a repetition of such riotous and tumultuous assembly in the public streets of Weston-super-Mare, we do hereby require order, and direct all persons to abstain from assembling to the disturbance of the public peace in the public streets.'In the appeal it is further stated that—The appellants intended to parade their procession through the principal streets and public places of the town and to collect on their march a large mob of persons to accompany them, and they had good reason to expect that they would come into collision with the Skeleton Army and the other persons antagonistic to themselves, and had good reason to expect that there would be the same fighting, stone throwing, and disturbance as there had been on previous occasions, and intended, on meeting such opposition, to force their way through the streets and places as they had done on previous occasions.The hon. and learned Gentleman the present Solicitor General (Sir Edward Clarke) contended for the appellants that—There was no intention to commit an unlawful act, nor to do a lawful act in an unlawful way. No definition of an unlawful assembly goes so far as to include a case where the assembly is with a lawful intent, and not in its nature tumultuous or riotous, but where, by reason of the riotous conduct of others, a tumult is likely to ensue. An act which is right in itself does not become wrong by reason of the apprehension of misconduct in other persons.In giving the judgment of the Court, Mr. Justice Field said—They certainly did assemble in great numbers, but such assembly to be unlawful must be tumultuous and against the peace. The finding of the Justices," the Court declared, "comes to this —that a man may be indicted for doing a lawful act if he knows that his doing it will cause another to do an unlawful act. There is no authority for such a proposi- 1752 tion, and I, therefore, think the appeal must be allowed.The result is that—A lawful assembly is not rendered unlawful by reason of the knowledge of those taking part in it that opposition will be raised to it, which opposition will in all probability give rise to a breach of the peace by those creating it.I have already shown that in the case of the Salvation Army at Weston-super-Mare there was a formal proclamation by the Justices of the Peace, and that the endeavour to prevent the meeting in London was made by an application from the Superintendent of Police to the magistrate in the terms I have already read, when he "informed the magistrate that in order to stop these disturbances neither party would be permitted to hold these meetings." There had not in any sense been an offence committed, nor had it been hinted, in the reply to a Question given in this House by the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary of State for the Home Department, that there was anything at all in the nature of a riotous proceeding in connection with the meetings of the Socialists in Sancroft Street, other than had arisen from the attacks made upon them by the Primrose Society as it is called. On the 5th of May the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary of State for the Home Department, in reply to a Question put by the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) said—The Commissioner of Police informs me that Inspector Chamberlain did not call upon the meeting held in Kennington last Sunday to break up, and that he did not direct the police to break it up. The mere contemplation of violence by Primrose Societies gives to the police no additional power of interference with peaceable meetings.I take that to be a correct statement of the law. I put a further Question to the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary of State on Friday last, and his reply to me was—Except a general police order, which has been public property for many years, and the substance of which is that the police are not to interfere with persons attending political meetings unless specially ordered by the Commissioner, there are no general instructions upon which the police are authorized to act in respect to public meetings in open spaces. Each case must depend on its own particular circumstances, and must be left to he dealt with according to the discretion of the Chief Commissioner.On Tuesday last, in reply to a Question put by the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. 1753 Picton), the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary stated—I have before informed the House that the police have no special instructions to prevent Socialist meetings as such, and I am assured that no such instructions, nor any special instructions at all, were given in the case of last Sunday's meeting.Now, what I want to ask is this—that if no general instructions were given with regard to that meeting, and the Socialists were acting in accordance with what the Government admit to be the law, how was it that the police interfered to prevent the holding of a meeting when the only danger to the public peace arose from a possible attack upon it by other persons? In the same reply to the hon. Member for Leicester the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary said—I am informed that meetings have been held in Sancroft Street on Sundays for about six months past. Chapman and Kemp were arrested under a warrant issued by a magistrate sitting at Lambeth Police Court charging them with unlawful assembly.I maintain, judging from what I have quoted of the law, that the assembly was in no sense an unlawful assembly, and that it is a very dangerous thing indeed that the police of London should get into the habit—whether for (Socialists or any body of persons—of considering an assembly to be rendered unlawful because of the knowledge of those taking part in it that opposition will be raised to it, which opposition will, in all probability, give rise to a breach of the peace. If the police hold this view, and act upon it, it is particularly dangerous to the general political life of the Metropolis. When, for instance, I stood for the borough which I now represent, I should think I am not wrong in saying that two-thirds of the meetings which I held had to be held in open spaces. Had a threat been held out by any opponent that those meetings would be disturbed, and the public peace endangered by their opposition, I should apparently have been in danger of having my meetings suspended. I take it, therefore, Sir, that, at any rate, I have a right to hope that, in the future, we may see given to the police of this Metropolis some directions in regard to their duty in the matter of public meetings in open spaces—some intimation that it is part of their duty to prevent interference with orderly public meet- 1754 ings in the open spaces of London, and that it is not their duty to prevent the holding of such meetings on account of threatened opposition, which may give rise to a breach of the peace by those creating it.
§ MR. PICKERSGILL (Bethnal Green, S. W.)
As a Metropolitan Member, and one, therefore, especially interested in this question, I desire to make a few remarks. It cannot be denied, I think, that the opinion very extensively prevails in the public mind that recently the police have unduly interfered with the right of public meeting in London, and also that the action of the police has been inspired from very high quarters. Of course, I accept most fully and implicitly the statements which have been made from the Treasury Bench, that in particular cases no explicit instructions have been given from the Home Office. It would be quite unnecessary that such instructions should be given, and, as it would be unnecessary, I can quite believe that to give them would be an indiscretion, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Matthews) would not be guilty of such indiscretion. But, Mr. Speaker, this suspicion in regard to the conduct of the police undoubtedly prevails, and—even though it should be ill-founded—the existence of it is mischievous, and justifies us in calling the attention of the House to this subject. I desire, Sir, to confine my attention to one particular case, and I am anxious not to put before the House any facts in regard to which there may be possibly a conflict of evidence. Now, in regard to the meeting of the 1st of May, in Sancroft Street, these facts were admitted in evidence by Chief Inspector Chamberlain. It is admitted, in the first place, that meetings have, for several month?, been peaceably held in that street; it is admitted also that during the week preceding the 1st of May a gang of roughs had publicly threatened to break up the meeting on the following Sunday; it is admitted that just when the meeting was on the point of starting a gang of roughs, calling themselves the Primrose Society, were seen advancing, obviously with the intention of carrying their threat into execution. Then, it is admitted in the evidence of Chief Inspector Chamberlain that he called upon the Socialists to 1755 break up their meeting. I submit that that order, which Chief Inspector Chamberlain admitted in the Lambeth Police Court, was clearly illegal. The law was settled, as my hon. Friend the Member for the Hoxton Division of Shoreditch (Mr. James Stuart) has already informed the House, in several cases, of which the "Queenv. Beatty" is the most important, and in which the Salvation Army was concerned. This case most clearly decided that a lawful meeting does not become unlawful although it is certain to be resisted by force. I say, then, that to give the order which is admitted was given was illegal. These Socialists, who appear to be better acquainted with the law than are the Metropolitan Police, declined to disperse, and the police then cleared the street. Well, looking at the broad facts of this case, what do they amount to? They amount to this—that a gang of roughs publicly threatened that they would break up a peaceable meeting, and that, with the assistance of the police, they succeeded in effecting their purpose. How would it be possible, Sir, to give greater encouragement to rowdyism? The right of public meeting is no right at all, unless it is held to imply a right to protection in the exercise of that right of public meeting. In this case you have this gang of roughs, who had threatened to break up this meeting, who were at the time advancing—they had. in fact, begun to put their threat into execution—and I submit it was the clear duty of the police, under such circumstances, either to keep off the Primrose Society from the Socialist meeting, or, if it were necessary, to disperse the Primrose Society altogether. Now, I desire, Sir, to call attention to one consequence arising out of this business. I asked a Question to-day of the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Stuart-Wortley) with regard to the arrest of two men. I admit that the reply that I received was perfectly courteous, as far as I was concerned; but it seemed to me very unsatisfactory as regards the police. Now, what are the facts as regards the man Chapman? Chapman, it is admitted, was present at the meeting on the 1st of May. For some reason—which, apparently, is not known to the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary—he was not arrested on that day. 1756 Nothing, in fact, was done in regard to him until the 4th of May. On the 4th of May a warrant was obtained against this man Chapman on a charge of having taken part in an unlawful assembly. Now, an unlawful assembly is only a misdemeanour, and a misdemeanour not of a very heinous character; and I submit that the natural, proper, and usual course would have been to take out a summons against this man Chapman. But, Sir, if the offence was so serious as to render it necessary that the police should take the somewhat extraordinary step of obtaining a warrant, one would naturally suppose that the police would have immediately put that warrant into effect; but they do nothing of the kind. Nothing was done in regard to this warrant until the 8th of May; and on the 8th of May, when Mr. Chapman was about to take part in the meeting in Sancroft Street, he was arrested. Well, now, what is the natural inference from that? I think it is that the warrant was obtained in order to be held in terrorem over the head of Mr. Chapman, and that a particular moment was chosen for putting the warrant into execution when the arrest of Mr. Chapman would be likely to strike terror into the minds of all those who, within the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police, might be disposed to exercise what I thought was a Constitutional privilege—the right of public meeting. The conduct of the police in itself is serious enough; but it does not stand alone. There are, upon many sides, indications of an attempt—which may be, perhaps, a last and despairing attempt—on the part of the privileged classes to put the people down. There is, if I may so express it, a spirit of coercion in the air, which finds its chief embodiment in a Bill upon which much of our time this Session has been expended, and which also takes on many other forms. We see it in the Boycotting and intimidation which is practised by the Primrose Party, and one cannot travel, oven for a quarter of an hour in a carriage on a suburban railway, without hearing expressions of the same spirit in the terms in which the readers of The Globe and The St. James's Gazette refer to their fellow-citizens— terms which I do not hesitate to characterize as inhuman and most unwise. Well, Sir, in such circumstances as these, I conceive that it is peculiarly the 1757 duty of this House to maintain the right of public meeting, a right which has been, and is, one of the chief safeguards of the liberties of the people; and I think it is the duty of this House to guard that right all the more jealously, and all the more vigorously, in the persons of men from whose political opinion we may very widely dissent, and whose conduct in some respects we may condemn.
§ MR. CUNNINGHAME GRAHAM (Lanark, N.W.)
Mr. Speaker, I claim the indulgence of this House for a few moments to say a few words on this question, which I consider a most important one, and I do so all the more readily as I am not in the habit of trespassing often, or at great length, upon the patience and time of this House. I can quite imagine hon. Gentlemen opposite will say—What is the good of making a row about a lot of poor devils of Socialists? I do not think that anything very serious has been charged against these Socialists, though your Socialist is a fearful wild fowl. It is not long ago that the hon. Gentleman the junior Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh) was looked upon as Lucifer or Beelzebub, and hon. Gentlemen opposite said they could never sit with him in this House. Now they manage to take their dinners with him, and digest them very well; and I dare say the day is not far distant when we shall see the hon. Gentleman the junior Member for Northampton occupying a place above the Gangway, and not below it. I believe that those Socialists have been dispersed in their meetings simply and solely because they are poor, because their doctrines are not popular, and because no one cares to stand up and incur the odium of speaking for them. England is a free country— thanks to Heaven! It is a free country for a man to starve in—that is a boon you can never take away from him —but it appears in the future it is not going to be a free country to hold public meetings in. What with the closure in the House of Commons, coercion in Ireland, and the suppression of meetings in London, we are getting to an almost Russian pitch of freedom. And, Sir, should we succeed in arriving at the priceless boon of that freedom, we cannot wonder if the people at last shake themselves clear of their apathy, and take the 1758 matter a little into their own hands; I think it is not unlikely that, while we are talking here, the people will make a determined effort to assert their undoubted rights. I do not suggest that the people of England are ripe for revolution yet; they will be soon enough, especially in face of the Bills which are now presented to this House; but I do say that I can see no just motive whatever that—because a man's doctrine, or political faith, differs in some measure from that held by the rest of the community—free speech, which has always been considered the birthright of an Englishman, should be denied to him. Neither do I say that the police have acted on their own motion in this matter; we know perfectly well who stands behind them; we know that by the way in which questions have been dealt with, by the paltry, shuffling manner in which they have been put off—and I am not here to say one word against the police of London; I consider them to be one of the finest bodies of men in the Kingdom; I am here to compassionate with them in having to do such dirty work as to break up meetings, and to behave in a manner which cannot but be repugnant to their feelings. Now, I think every hon. Member of this House knows Buffalo Bill—Colonel Cody—and I would suggest, very respectfully, to this House that a select deputation of the Unionist Party should wait upon Colonel Cody to ask him for the loan of a few thoroughbred Unionist Indians to coerce the people of London. As this House, after all, represents but a small portion of the community, and as nothing is gained nowadays without agitation, I hope the public will not let this matter rest, but will agitate and bring it before the attention of this House, so that we shall be obliged to concede freedom of speech and the right of meeting to every class of the community.
§ THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. MATTHEWS) (Birmingham, E.)
Mr. Speaker, I agreed with the hon. Gentleman the Member for the Hoxton Division of Shoreditch (Mr. James Stuart), when, in the temperate speech in which he introduced this subject to-night, he said that considerable inconvenience is felt in London from the want of suitable places of meeting. It is quite true, as the hon. Gentleman said, that open 1759 spaces are few and separated by considerable distances, and that there are very few halls which can accommodate large meetings, especially of the character of the Socialist gatherings to which people in all parts of the Metropolis are invited to attend. Now, Sir, it seems to have been assumed by some hon. Gentlemen opposite that there is at the Home Office, or in my mind, some particular animus against Socialist meetings. I assure the House that that is absolutely untrue; I have not troubled myself a bit about Socialist meetings. all that I know of them is from what I have read and heard. I have never given any directions of any sort or kind with regard to Socialist meetings. The only directions I have given have tended to prevent obstruction in the streets; and here let me point out one fallacy, if I may use the expression without discourtesy, entertained by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Stuart). He said that Sancroft Street is an open space. It is nothing of the kind; it is an ordinary street. The hon. Member knows perfectly well that many of the open spaces of the Metropolis are vested in the Board of Works, and that the Parks are, by special regulations, appropriated to public meetings. As a rule, there can be no objection to large public meetings held in the Parks, because they do not tend to obstruct the ordinary traffic of the Metropolis. If any body of men, whether the Socialists or the Primrose Society, chose to hold large meetings in streets, and inconvenience arises, and interruption of traffic takes place, they ought to be dispersed.
§ MR. JAMES STUART
I think I stated, Mr. Speaker, that there have been no complaints of these meetings interrupting the traffic, and that, what is more, the ground given for the opposition on the part of the police to their being held was not that of an interruption of traffic.
§ MR. MATTHEWS
I do not think any ground was alleged by the police. Now, the hon. Member has said—and said, I believe, with truth—that for six months meetings have been held every Sunday in Sancroft Street, and not interfered with by the police, and not interfered with by anybody, and held in a perfectly peaceable manner. Sancroft Street is a street in which, I believe, on 1760 Sunday mornings, there is very little traffic; consequently, these meetings for the last six months have not impeded the traffic, and, therefore, the police did not interfere. The meetings were held peaceably and quietly; but, unhappily, on the 1st of May, that happened which the hon. Gentleman the Member for North-West Lanark (Mr. Cunninghame Graham) described in very classical language—namely, that the people took the matter into their own hands. The people living in Kennington, strongly opposed to the views of those who form the Socialist meetings, disliking their eloquence, and disliking the presence of these Socialists in their midst, determined to take the matter into their own hands, and not to allow the meetings; and, accordingly, on the 1st of May what occurred was this—that a crowd of 2,000 or 3,000 persons appeared, marching in a body on the Socialist meeting then assembled in Sancroft Street, with obviously hostile intentions. As I am informed, the police, seeing this body of men approaching with obviously hostile intentions, advanced and stopped them in their advance on Sancroft Street. Meanwhile the Socialists, very wisely, and with commendable prudence, withdrew from Sancroft Street down Kennington Lane, and the police having stopped and dispersed the people who call themselves the Anti-Socialist Primrose Society—[Ironical cheers]—I say they call themselves the Lambeth Anti-Socialist Primrose Society; but I know nothing of their composition; all I know is that they are inhabitants of the district and dislike the Socialists—having encountered and stopped the Anti Socialists, the police followed, no doubt, in the rear of the Socialist meeting, always remaining between them and those who proposed to attack them. Upon that, I regret to say, some members of the gathering, which had originally been a Socialist meeting, became extremely violent to the police, and two men —Chapman and Kemp—called upon their followers and supporters to turn back and fight. The police, in. preventing them doing this, were assaulted, and one man, as the hon. Member has stated, was taken up for assaulting the police in the riot which ensued in consequence of the incitements which were given by Chapman and Kemp to their followers, and one man. named 1761 Blackwell. Warrants were forthwith applied for against Chapman and Kemp for the part they had taken in the riot. That is what occurred on the 1st of May. The police applied for the warrants, and the hon. Member for Bethnal Green (Mr. Pickersgill) has complained that that was an unusual procedure. Whether rightly or wrongly—I think rightly—the police applied for warrants instead of applying for summonses, because, as the hon. Member knows perfectly well, when a warrant is asked for, it is in the discretion of the magistrate to grant or to refuse it. An information on oath must be made, and the magistrate has an opportunity of hearing what is deposed upon oath, and exercising his judgment upon the case before anyone is called upon to appear at all. The police thought that would be a fair and proper course; they thought that in a case which might boar a political complexion the fairer course was to bring the facts before a magistrate in the first instance, before the defendants wore called upon to answer the charge, and let the magistrate say whether it was a proper case to be brought before the Court. That is the reason why the police resorted to the process by warrants instead of by summons. The warrants were not executed at once, for the very simple reason that the residences of Messrs. Chapman and Kemp were not known to the police, and were not contained in any of the ordinary publications relating to residences. Therefore, the police were unable to execute the warrants until the 8th of May, when Mr. Chapman came again to address another meeting in the same locality. Under the circumstances, I put it to the fair and candid consideration of the hon. Members for Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, whether the police could have acted otherwise. In the interval between the 1st and the 8th of May the meetings were held of both parties. At the meeting of the Socialists it was announced that boxes of cartridges had been provided; that there would be a regular fight next Sunday; and that, if the people who had come the Sunday before for the purpose of attacking the Socialists came again, they would meet with a warmer reception. On the other hand, the Anti-Socialists, also meeting in Kennington, determined that non-residents of Sancroft Street and the locality 1762 should not be allowed to meet there again. A Petition signed by 63 people living close to Sancroft Street, was presented to the First Commissioner of Police, objecting to these meetings in the street as being a great nuisance to them and praying him to prevent the gatherings. In consequence of that, I think, the First Commissioner of Police acted strictly in accordance with his duty in ordering double patrols to be on the spot the next Sunday. Accordingly, there were some 200 police sent down to Sancroft Street, and the street very soon became tilled with an angry crowd which never assumed the character of a meeting on either side, because the Socialists and the anti-Socialists were more or less mixed. Accordingly, the police prohibited no meeting, and stopped no meeting; but they did what was a wise and sensible thing to do, they kept the crowd constantly on the move in order to prevent a conglomeration of persons on either side to take place on one spot, because there is no doubt that if these two bodies, so filled with inflammable material, had come together the consequences would have been terrible, for a breach of the peace would have been inevitable. This further occurred, that Chapman appeared on the scone; he was then got at for the first time by the police, who arrested him under the warrant they had. These are the simple facts as they are laid before me, and I think that if the state of things which I have described had been allowed to continue, the First Commissioner of Police and the Home Secretary would have deserved the severest censure. There has not been the slightest political bias in the action of the authorities; the same measure of justice has been meted out to the anti-Socialists as to the Socialists. The crowd was kept moving, and the intervention of the police was caused solely by the imminent danger of a breach of the peace if these hostile bodies had been allowed to come together. They certainly would have come to blows if the police had not interfered, and compelled the one party and then the other to move on. In any of the proceedings there has not been the slightest partiality shown on behalf of either party. The sole duty of the police is to keep the peace in the Metropolis; their duty is not to interfere, 1763 I quite agree, with any public meeting held in a place where the traffic of the street, or the convenience of the inhabitants, are not interfered with. Of course, when they have such good and substantial grounds for believing that a serious breach of the peace is going to be committed, the police would be neglecting their primary duty if they did not take measures to prevent such an occurrence.
§ MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)
The subject of public meeting in the Metropolis is one in which I have taken considerable interest and made great exertions for some 40 years of my life. I will first put to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Matthews) what I conceive to be the law on the subject. By the Metropolitan Police Act, I understand, that the Chief Commissioner of Police, and no other person, has the right to make such regulations as, in his discretion, he may think fit, for the regulation of traffic in every thoroughfare, making special regulations when he considers, from the processions announced, or from the probability of large assemblies of people, such regulations may be necessary. I do not understand that there is any other power whatever put by Statute in the Home Secretary or in any other person. As far as meetings in London are concerned—and when I speak of London I mean the Metropolis—I think I am right in saying that, with the exception of some few occasions when great feeling has been evoked in connection with some special question, large public meetings have been more orderly during the last 50 years than probably they have been in any other city in the world, and that the tendency of the people has been to preserve order. I would suggest that it is the interest of every Government in this country, whatever its politics may be, to allow the widest latitude with reference to holding reasonable public meetings, and that the exercise of this right constitutes a kind of safety-valve for the expression of public opinion. The House should bear in mind that there are many people who have taken part in such assemblies who would have been excluded from a meeting held in a public building by the mere impossibility of hiring a public building for the purpose, and I maintain that it is to the 1764 advantage of the public peace that these persons should have reasonable opportunities of meeting and discussing any matters of grievance. There has been considerable difficulty in my mind in speaking on this matter, because I fear there are men who have during the last few years done much to imperil the right of public meeting by the needless provocation offered sometimes to the authorities and sometimes to persons with whom they disagreed. Although I regret that, I think it ought not, on the other hand, to influence our judgment in dealing with the general question, and I think that a great deal is due to the hon. Member for the Hoxton Division of Shoreditch (Mr. Stuart), who has raised the question this evening, and I would point out what seems to be a great want of attention to their duties as guardians of the peace on the part of the police. According to the statement which we have listened to, of the Homo Secretary, I understand him to say that a number of inhabitants, hostile to the holding of meetings in Sancroft Street, took the law into their own hands and announced that they intended to prevent by force, if necessary, the holding of such a mooting. Now, the meeting was either lawful or unlawful. If the meeting was unlawful, these inhabitants were not the persons to de-clave the law and enforce it; if the meeting was lawful, the police had knowledge of it, and it was their duty to take steps in order to restrain those who threatened to break the peace. I do not go to the length to which the hon. Member for the Hoxton Division of Shoreditch wont, who said that the right to public meeting involves the right of protection on the part of the police of the meeting. I cannot say that I accept this as a matter of law, or as a matter of policy. I am inclined to think that the less the police have in any way to do do with public gatherings on political or social questions, until a breach of the peace has commenced, the better for all concerned. I have never needed the assistance of the police, and I have never given the police more trouble than I could help in connection with any meeting that I have held. I have always tried to keep within the law, and I hope that I have done so. Although I have sometimes disagreed with the Home Office as to what the law was, I have never admitted 1765 the right of the Home Office to interfere with a public meeting convened for a lawful purpose in London. I remember on one occasion, about 15 years ago, a meeting announced to be held in Trafalgar Square was forbidden by a proclamation from the Home Office. I replied to the Home Office proclamation by a notice to the Home Office and the Chief Commissioner of Police that I intended to hold that meeting, and that it was a lawful one, and that any attempt to interfere with it would be illegal and would be resisted. The meeting was held. The Chief Commissioner of Police was present, and I presume that he was satisfied with it, because I have never heard anything on the subject since. I am of opinion that any kind of interfering by the police in gatherings of this kind often provokes disorder which might otherwise be escaped. Although I have no love for those persons who call themselves Socialists—they are not complimentary to me—yet I am bound to say that since they have hold their meetings in and about London, there has been a great deal of harsh treatment shown to them which has never been shown to street preachers, who very often assemble in places where they stop the traffic and cause inconvenience to the neighbourhood. I will undertake to drive the Home Secretary round in a Hansom cab next Sunday morning, and show him 200 or 300 such meetings in places where the traffic in the streets is certainly greatly impeded. While I am claiming the right of public meeting to the fullest extent, I would also claim a generosity of construction with regard to what may be the light to hold public meetings, and that it should not be tied down by exact legal technicality; because I think that if you give the public—especially the poorer classes of the public—any sort of notion that you deal a harsher measure to them than you do to other classes, you provoke feeling which otherwise would not exist, and you give them power which they would not otherwise command. The police in the East of London interfered with a meeting at a corner of Dodd Street; the conduct of the police was undoubtedly in that ease, if their own expression may be judged, prompted somewhat by their disapproval of the opinions expressed there, and I suggest that this was no business of the police whatever. They 1766 have nothing to do with the views expressed at meetings, whether by Socialists, or the Salvation Army, or by those people who habitually gather a number of persons around them to sing—whatever their opinions may be, it is no part of the duty of the police to consider them. At Dodd Street the audience used to number about 20; after the police interfered they increased rapidly to 2,000 or 3,000; and it is in this way that interference gives prominence to men who would otherwise have to stand or fall by their own arguments. What happened in Dodd Street will always be the result in similar cases of interference on the part of the police with public meetings. The meetings which have taken place since the Chartists' movement up to the present time may be said, on the whole, to have tended to make a people wiser, and better, and more law-abiding. There is, at the present moment, danger of contagion from abroad, where repressive laws have been resorted to against a class of people bearing the name of Socialists, and if those to whom that name is applied in this country are given the same ground of complaint, we shall be playing into the hands of a class of men, and assisting them in sowing the seeds of mischief among the people.
§ MR. J. ROWLANDS (Finsbury, E.)
Having regard to the neighbourhoods in which public meetings are held, there are few questions of more importance than that of the right of public mooting in open places. There is, I believe, no one of us who represent East End constituencies on this side of the House who has not had to avail himself of open spaces in that district for the purpose of addressing his constituents. I am pleased to hear that the Home Secretary has given no directions whatever to the police with regard to these meetings, and the statement coming from him is one which we welcome with the utmost satisfaction. Meetings at street corners in London are not at all exceptional; you find them in streets where there is a small amount of traffic, and where, I venture to think, they do very little harm. The noticeable circumstance in the present case is that the party who wanted to break up the meeting alluded to by the hon. Member for the Hoxton Division of Shoreditch, and who succeeded in doing so, had no de- 1767 sire themselves to hold a meeting. They did not declare that they wanted to hold a meeting; but that they wanted to pre-vent the other side from doing so, and the moment the police kept the people on the move, they succeeded in their object. I think it would have been better to prevent the two parties coming together, and to have allowed one party to hold its meeting, rather than to keep both parties on the move. I do not think the police did well to give as a reason for applying for warrants against Mr. Chapman and Mr. Kemp, that their addresses could not be found. I find that when the case went before the magistrate, the detectives admitted that the men were well known to them, and that they were allowed to go away on bail without sureties; and I say it is an extraordinary thing, if they were so well known, that the police should have had any difficulty in tracing them. I do not know of one instance of such persons being out of the way when called upon by the authorities, and I have no doubt that the whereabouts of these men could easily have been ascertained by the police. I was sorry to notice, while my hon. Friend was seriously discussing the right of public meeting, a levity on the Ministerial Benches, which, I think, warrants us, as Members having the right of open-air meeting at heart, in thinking that it would be better at once to fight out this question in the House of Commons. There was an article which appeared in one of the public journals in relation to public meetings, which, among other things, said that this question was of so serious a nature that unless it was settled at once "we should find ourselves in the throes of a social revolution." That was said with reference to the Hyde Park demonstration that took place on Easter Monday, and which was one of the largest and most orderly gatherings ever drawn together in the country. If such language is written with regard to a meeting of that kind, I ask how long it would have taken writers in the public Press to inflame the people still more, if that meeting had been interfered with, and how long it would have been before they went one step further? I am bound to express my belief that the right of public meeting has in other times been the salvation of the country, and that the people should be allowed 1768 to meet for the purpose of discussing their grievances in the light of day, because, under those circumstances, those who hold extreme opinions have those opinions modified, and in that way public attention is directed to grievances which exist. I believe that all hon. Members will admit that in this way the public weal is benefited. I hope we shall soon find that these disturbances in London will cease, and that the right of public meeting will remain as sacred in the future as it has been in the past.
§ MR. CREMER (Shoreditch, Haggerston)
I have listened attentively to the observations addressed to the House by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary, and I am not so clear in my interpretation of his views, with regard to the instructions given to the police, as the hon. Member for East Finsbury (Mr. J. Rowlands) seems to be. I hope, however, that the interpretation which my hon. Friend has placed on those utterances is correct. And if the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not rise and deny them, we shall, of course, consider that his remarks were faithfully interpreted by my hon. Friend, and feel more secure that no attempts will be made hereafter to suppress the meetings of Socialists, or any other class of our fellow-citizens. I have no particular love for the doings of the Socialists, and I think that ought to be made clear, because, otherwise, we might hereafter be accused of sympathizing with their actions. Most of us on this side of the House, especially Members of the Party to which I belong, have been roundly and scandalously abused by the men who have been imprisoned through the action of the police, and who are now posing as martyrs. But this question of public meeting is dear to us, no matter whether it be in connection with street preachers, Socialists, the Salvation Army, or any other class of our fellow-citizens, and we shall feel bound to defend their right of meeting, because we have seen the beneficial results which have followed its exercise. I am surprised that the Government have not profited by past experience in this matter. It is not more than 23 years ago since a Tory Government entered upon a crusade of this kind against the people of London. We were not then enfranchised, and the masses were not represented in this House. It was in the year 1864 1769 that a Tory Government attempted to put down a gathering of peaceable citizens on Primrose Hill. For a time they succeeded, and my ribs for weeks afterwards bore testimony to the efforts of the police engaged in that operation. The crusade continued until those famous riots occurred in Hyde Park. We know that the Government attempted to suppress the right of the people of London to meet in their open spaces and express their opinions with regard to the great Constitutional changes they desired; we know that the people were shut out from Hyde Park, but that by some accident the railings fell down and the people went into the Park. the Government failed then to put down the meetings on Primrose Hill, in Hyde Park, and elsewhere. And what was the result? An enormous impetus was given to the Reform movement of that day, and the people shortly afterwards entered upon their political heritage. If it had not been for the attempts to suppress the meetings on Primrose Hill and Hyde Park, we should have gone on toiling, year after year, to attain that position which the Government speedily secured for us by their hostility. The hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Brad-laugh) has referred to the advertisement which the Government are giving week after week to the Socialist Party. In consequence of the action of the police, thousands of people now flock to hear what the Socialist have to say, and the result is, that a large number of converts are made to what some persons regard as very pernicious doctrines. If the Government do not want to continue this advertisement, they will certainly discontinue the prohibition of meetings in open spaces. They should remember the words of Scripture—"If this work be of man, it will come to nought"— and allow the Socialists to go on preaching to their hearts' content. The same result has followed the prohibition of public meetings in Germany. I have been present in Berlin, and have witnessed the efforts made there to suppress the right of public meeting, and, during the last few years, I have seen the number of Socialists doubled and trebled through the efforts of Prince Bismarck to put down their meetings by force; whereas, if they had been free to preach their doctrines, I venture to say, from practical acquaintance with the Leaders of the 1770 Social Democracy in Germany, that the strength of the Party would not have increased as it has done. Now, Sir, I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary or some other Member of Her Majesty's Government will, before this debate concludes, give us distinctly to understand that these open air meetings will not be interfered with. A large number of our constituents who have not the slightest sympathy with the doings of the Socialists, knowing as they do that their object is to advertise themselves—to get upon a pedestal in order to propagate their doctrines, are nevertheless anxious that free speech should be preserved. I sincerely trust that we shall receive a distinct pledge from Her Majesty's Government that this persecution will cease. If they desire to prevent these men from propagating what they conceive to be pernicious views they will give the pledge for which I ask.
§ Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.