§ MR. PICTON (Leicester)
I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether his attention has been called to the case of George Waller and Charles Street, both of Hitchin, who were recently convicted by the local magistrates of unlawfully taking pheasants' and partridges' eggs, in which case the fines imposed amounted in all to £145; whether there is any precedent for such a penalty; and whether he will use such power as he possesses to obtain a mitigation? Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to add this—whether he has received a Memorial in favour of the prisoners signed by upwards of one thousand persons, some amongst them being magistrates?
§ MR. MATTHEWS
I have not yet received the Memorial to which the hon. Member refers, but I have received a Report from the Clerk to the Magistrates concerning this case. The prisoners, one of whom was the landlord of a public-house, were convicted of being in unlawful possession of 235 partridges' eggs and forty-five pheasants' eggs unlawfully obtained, and, in default of payment of the fine of £70 allowed by the Statute, were each sentenced to two months' imprisonment with hard labour. The prisoners at the trial were tried separately, and were each defended. The magistrates informed them of their right to appeal to Quarter Sessions, and allowed them seven days to pay the fine and to obtain advice as to the steps they should take. I am not aware whether there is any precedent for the amount of penalties, but I should think that the number of eggs stolen is unprecedented. I am informed that in the neighbourhood in question a regular system exists by which well-known receivers of this stolen property employ and give good prices to small receivers in the villages, who in their turn employ men and boys to obtain the eggs. The fines, in case of conviction, are in most cases paid by the 219 principal receiver. I am told that in this case, had the penalty not exceeded £20, it would have been paid by a receiver. The two magistrates, who are gentlemen of considerable experience in magisterial work, held the case to be fully proved, and, upon the information now before me, I see no sufficient reason for any interference with the sentence which in the exercise of their discretion they have imposed.
§ MR. PICTON
In view of the amount of excitement which has been created in the neighbourhood, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether anything was proved but that these eggs were in the possession of these men, whether these men did not give a straightforward account of their coming into possession of them in the ordinary way of business, as parcels the contents of which they did not know; whether he is aware that when the case was tried three of their employers were in Court ready to give evidence as to character, but that they were not allowed to by the Magistrates on the ground that character had nothing to do with the case; and also whether Street is not an elderly man with an unbroken character, and whether he has not received a police notice that he will lose his licence and livelihood?
§ MR. MATTHEWS
I think the hon. Gentleman can hardly expect me to answer a number of questions of a minute character such as those, of which he has given me no notice whatever. I have looked through the evidence in this case, and the evidence appears to me, so far as I know, to be absolutely clear upon the point as to how the prisoners came to be in possession of the eggs, and that, so far from their having given a straightforward and true account of how they came by them, one of the prisoners, the publican, stated that he received them from a woman whose name he mentioned, and that woman when called as a witness said the statement was totally untrue.
§ SIR WILFRID LAWSON (Cumberland, Cockermouth)
Can the right hon. Gentleman say what class of people buy these eggs?
§ MR. MATTHEWS
As to what market they ultimately come to I have got no information; but there appears to be a regularly-organised system for dealing in these eggs.
§ MR. SHAW LEFEVRE (Bradford, Central)
Can the right hon. Gentleman say under what Statute these men were convicted?
§ MR. MATTHEWS
The Statute was the 1 & 2 William IV., under which, I think, as I mentioned to the hon. Gentleman opposite, being in possession of the eggs unlawfully is sufficient to convict.