HL Deb 28 April 1834 vol 23 cc95-103
The Duke of Newcastle

presented a petition from East Retford, praying for the adoption of some measure by the Legislature for enforcing the better observance of the Sabbath. In doing so the noble Duke said, he would take that opportunity to call the attention of the noble Viscount opposite to the disgraceful proceedings of certain bodies of persons calling themselves Trades' Unions, who were in the habit of congregating upon the Sabbath in the metropolis, in great numbers, under various pretences, to the great alarm of the respectable and peaceable inhabitants, and to the great scandal of religion. He hoped the noble Viscount would feel the propriety of taking some step in the matter.

Viscount Melbourne

strongly reprehended the practices referred to by the noble Duke, and especially of the Sabbath being selected for such exhibitions. There could be no doubt that the whole proceeding was highly improper. At the same time, he was bound to add, that there were no means of legally arresting those proceedings so long as those taking part in them were not guilty of any direct violation of the laws. It was to be hoped that the parties would, of themselves, cease to continue proceedings so objectionable. If, however, that hope should be disappointed, and the conduct complained of should assume a more serious aspect, it might become necessary that some step should be taken by the Legislature. It was his most anxious hope, that the deluded persons who were guilty of the acts complained of by the noble Duke would return to better feelings, or rather to more sense than their present conduct exhibited. When the impropriety of their conduct should be represented to them, it was to be hoped, that the processions and gatherings of which the metropolis had lately been the theatre, would be abandoned by those who were heedlessly led to engage in them.

The Marquess of Londonderry

concurred with the noble Duke in thinking, that the serious attention of Government ought, without delay, to be directed to the alarming and illegal, as he should apprehend, conduct of the Trades' Unions. In his neighbourhood, on Sunday last, there were not fewer than 6,000 or 7,000 men congregated, and moving in procession and array, to the great terror of the peaceable and well-disposed inhabitants. His Majesty's Government, he believed, were of opinion, that these Trades' Unions would die a natural death, and that they were even now on the eve of expiring. In this he could assure them they were mistaken. It was only that very day that 15,000 names had been enrolled. So, at least, he had been credibly informed. On Monday last he had witnessed a force of 30,000 men move in procession through the principal streets of London, putting an effectual stop to all business during the period of their march, and inspiring alarm in the minds of all the respectable inhabitants through whose neighbourhood they passed. Surely there might be no Government at all if they could not protect the metropolis from scenes such as this. He implored the noble Lord to take some steps to arrest the progress of these proceedings, and to protect the peace and happiness of the country.

The Earl of Eldon

could not refrain from offering a few observations to their Lordships on this subject. It seemed to him as if they were losing sight of all the settled principles on which a country ought to be governed. The multitude assembled the other day, whose aspect was that of force, could not but weaken the Government; and he was of opinion, that the assembling of large numbers in this menacing manner was in itself an offence. He knew, too, if such an opinion had been stated from the mouths of the Judges of England, that it would have been of infinite use; it could not have failed to produce a most important effect. He knew, that the Government had their reasons for not doing this; and being aware of those reasons, there was no man who was more inclined to make liberal allowance for them. He remembered, when a noble Lord had said, that, no matter in what numbers people met, if they did not meet for an unlawful purpose, the mere numbers would not make their meeting illegal. He agreed, that if the subjects of the country lawfully met to discuss their grievances, their numbers would not make such a meeting illegal; but if they met, as their Lordships were told in those sources of authority which they had the misfortune to refer to every morning of their lives, these men did meet, their purpose was unlawful. They were told, that meetings had been held to refuse the payment of certain taxes. They should, perhaps, soon be told, that meetings had been held to refuse the payment of all taxes whatever. He asserted, that these meetings superseded the authority of the Government. The people had a right to a discussion of their grievances; but that any class of men should join together to declare, that they would disobey the law was, he asserted, an offence against the law. Neither had any men a right to meet together to constrain others to adopt a particular course in their business. He would illustrate his meaning by a case. He had a right, as an individual, to say, "I live in a certain street, and I will not employ a single tradesman in that street;" but he should have no right to come down to that House, and say to every noble Lord in it, "Let us agree not to deal with a single tradesman in that particular street;" for that would be a conspiracy, and all who joined in it would be liable to be punished for a conspiracy. He hoped their Lordships would not allow those meetings. He solemnly declared it to be his opinion—and he considered, from the high judicial station which he had had the honour of holding, he would not be justifiable in withholding that opinion,—that such meetings were illegal, and, if not opposed, would be attended with mischief.

The Lord Chancellor

thought, that he should not discharge his duty—especially when he considered the high and responsible situation which he had the honour to fill,—if he suffered the present occasion to pass without stating his opinion to their Lordships on some points which had been thrown out in the course of the present conversation. Feeling, as he undoubtedly did feel, just as much as any noble Lord who had addressed their Lordships,—feeling just as much as his highly respected and learned friend who had that moment sat down felt, as to the great and deep importance of the subject which had been introduced, he would at once say, that he entirely agreed in the sentiment, that it was illegal, for vast and unnecessary numbers of men to assemble together. If he were wrong in this opinion, he could only say, that it had been so decided; if he were wrong, then was he wrong with all those who had entered and recorded their opinion on the question, whether that opinion came from those who were on the Bench, or from those who, having a perfect knowledge of the law, had given their opinion in private. His opinion distinctly was,—and he had not for one moment concealed from any party that his opinion was clear and decided,—that it was not lawful for men to assemble in vast bodies, disproportioned to the necessity of the occasion, and unjustified by peculiar circumstances. Those assemblages were, he conceived, illegal, where men were brought together in multitudes infinitely greater than was demanded by any apparent necessity for such a convocation. Why was it so? Because such meetings tended to produce great public mischief,—because they tended to the intimidation of the peaceable subjects of the King. Further, he would say, that in a great mercantile and industrious country like this, such meetings tended to effect extraordinary mischief, because they interfered with the peaceable pursuits of life, and caused a serious interruption to the quiet labours of industry. Such assemblages had, besides, an almost inevitable tendency to endanger the peace of the kingdom, by choking the ordinary channels of communication, and preventing that circulation of individuals which was essential to all the business of life. Such were the necessary consequences of the assemblage of large bodies of men. But, in stating this, he hoped he should be allowed to add, and his noble and learned friend must himself be aware, that a Minister was placed in a most difficult and delicate situation when he was called on to act with respect to the proceedings of large public meetings. He had always to ask himself this question,—he had always thus to reason,—"It being the undeniable and sacred privilege of the King's subjects to assemble and meet together for the consideration of their own interests, for the consideration of what they might deem grievances,—it being their undeniable and sacred right to assemble for these purposes,—it is a difficult point for me, even after due deliberation, to decide, when, in any particular instance, they pass the proper point; it is difficult for me to decide how far they may go, and where they must stop." As a general principle, it was manifestly wrong to draw together a large assemblage of people—to form an immense procession—for the mere purpose of doing that which six people could execute just as effectually as 60,000. This he confidently laid down as the legal rule. It was, certainly, lawful for men to meet together to consider of their grievances, and of the best mode by which they could be remedied; but it was a different thing when large bodies paraded together for the purpose of doing that which could be as well done by a few, and which looked more like an assemblage for intimidation than for any really useful object. Let their Lordships, however, look to the peculiar situation in which his noble friend (Viscount Melbourne) was placed. If ever there was a case in which a feeling not to strain or to press the law might fairly be entertained,—if ever there was a case in which, more than another, any excess that might have been committed under a mistaken sense of public rights might be overlooked, it was that to which allusion had been made. It assuredly was in this case, where the object of the assembled multitude was not selfish,—where they were not looking after their own views,—where they were not considering their own private interests,—but where they, at all events, declared, that they came forward to seek for mercy in behalf of a certain number of their fellow-countrymen who were suffering under the sentence of the law. That these men were lawfully convicted, that they were justly convicted, he entertained not the shadow of a doubt. The Judges who seriously considered the case,—the lawyers who were best acquainted with the subject, did not, indeed they could not, entertain the shadow of a doubt, that these men were justly and properly convicted, and that, too, of a very grave and serious offence. It was the most preposterous thing,—it was the most audacious assertion,—it was the foulest and the most unpardonable calumny against the Judges of this country and the laws of this land, to say, as had been falsely and industriously asserted, (by some, too, who knew better) that these six men had been convicted, and sentenced, and punished, because they were members of the Trades' Unions. It was utterly false. Not one of these men was accused of being a member of a Trades' Union,—not one of them was tried for that, which was hitherto no offence; no; they were tried and convicted, and were now suffering punishment, for one of the worst offences that could be conceived,—an offence most dangerous in itself, and fraught with worse danger still in its more remote consequences; leading to conspiracy,—leading to a violation of the rights of property,—leading to effects the most repulsive to human feelings and the most inexcusable amongst human beings,—leading, as he would emphatically say (because he knew it from the way in which many of those secret oaths were framed), even to assassination itself. These men were tried for taking unlawful oaths—an offence until within these few years past unknown in this country,—a system which, he believed, bad as it was in itself, bad as it was in its first object, had a decided tendency to lead to offences of a deeper and more deadly die. He felt himself called upon to say thus much in vindication of those friends of his on the Bench who had to do with those trials, and against whom the foulest and the vilest calumnies had been vented, because they had dared to proceed fearlessly in the conscientious discharge of their duties. Under these circumstances, he felt it to be his duty, placed as he was at the head of the Law Department of the Government, to state what those men were not tried for, and to state what those men were tried for. But their Lordships had got into a digression relative to the general topic of Trades' Unions and Processions, whereas the noble Duke had called then attention to processions of a different nature—processions attending funerals. Now, he did not know to what number those who attended funerals should be restricted; that he had yet to learn. If funerals, however, were made a pretence for the assembling of numbers whose purposes were different from those which had been openly stated, then it became another question. He, for one, felt unspeakable regret, when he heard, for the first time, that funerals were to be made a species of excuse for assisting the purposes of Trades' agitation. He had no great apprehension, indeed, that such a system could endure—he did not think, that it ever could be carried to any extent—he could not believe, that Englishmen would convert the opportunity of showing their respect and veneration for the dead, into a means of exhibiting political hatred and hostility towards the living. In consequence of his feeling on this subject, he had been at some pains to ascertain the numbers which attended the funeral of yesterday, as compared with the numbers that attended the Procession on Monday last. He had been informed, by an authority upon which he could place every reliance, that in the Procession on Sunday last, the numbers had fallen off in a great proportion, as compared to former processions. He trusted, indeed, that the good sense, the good feeling, and, if he might use an ordinary expression, that the good taste, of his countrymen, or at all events, that their kindly and decent feelings, would induce them to abstain from such displays; and that those attempts which were made against their own good, and this trick which was intended for their own delusion, would fail soon of having any effect. He spoke on this subject, with a sincere desire to promote the best interests of the country—of the people themselves. In expressing these sentiments, he spoke for, not against, the humbler classes. Of this he was certain, that the worst enemies of the people, the worst enemies of the trades themselves, the most pernicious counsellors that they possibly could have, were those who had advised them to adopt the line of conduct which they had followed since the period of the repeal of the Combination-laws. The Combination-laws had been repealed ten years ago, but though they had been repealed, there was no law whatever that countenanced the proceedings which had since, in many instances, been adopted by the Trades' Unions. He gave his advice sincerely to his humbler fellow-countrymen on this subject; he had often been their counsellor; he had been their fellow-labourer in obtaining a repeal of the Combination-laws; for though he had not supported that measure in all its parts in the other House of Parliament, yet it was one, of which, upon the whole, he had approved. He trusted, that the members of the Trades' Unions would listen to the wholesome and wise advice of those who had no interest in deceiving them, and who counselled them no longer to follow those men, who, for their own private advantage, wished to lead them astray. He hoped, that their own good sense would show them that such proceedings were diametrically opposed to their own best interests, and that they would no longer continue to contribute the hard-wrung pittance from their dearly-earned wages, for the purpose of supporting a set of idle, good-for-nothing agitators; who got them to engage in those proceedings—nominally against the masters, but in reality against themselves—nominally for the good of the working classes, but in reality for the gain of those worthless, idle, and mischievous agitators. Having said so much on this point, he would just advert for a moment to a remark made by the noble Marquess, and he hoped, that the noble Marquess would consider what he was about to say, not as a breach of the truce which had been made some time ago between them. He would say, in the spirit of amity, not of defiance, that the noble Marquess was totally mistaken—indeed, he could not go further, when he said, that the noble Marquess was never more mistaken in his life, than when he said, that the existence of those Trades' Unions was attributable to his (the Lord Chancellor's) noble friend at the head of the Government not putting down the Political Unions. If that were the case, the cause must have been preceded by the effect by at least six years, for the Trades' Unions had existed five or six years before the Political Unions were thought of. The very first thing that his Majesty's Government had their attention called to in coming into office in November, 1830, was the dangers that had arisen and were arising from those Trades' Unions. He was sure it would give the noble Marquess great satisfaction to be informed, as he could inform the noble Marquess, on the best authority, that, at the period to which he referred—namely, November, 1830—the state of the Trades' Unions, looking at their extent and their activity, was infinitely worse and more dangerous than at the present moment. That fact afforded a consolatory proof that the good sense of the people was inducing them to abandon such associations. They had also found, by sad experience, the folly of adopting the proceeding which wicked advisers had suggested to them, for, in every case, where the masters had firmly discharged their duty to themselves, and to their men—for it was not only a duty to themselves, but to their men, to resist such proceedings—they had succeeded, while the wrong party, the men, had been defeated. The men had uniformly been defeated, with a great loss of time, with the total loss of their wages, and often after they had been reduced to great distress. He knew of but one case where the men had been successful, and in that instance, the master, contrary to his own principles, had given way. He begged pardon, for having occupied so much of their Lordships' time on this subject. He had received from different persons communications on it, for which he thanked them and for the kind spirit in which they were conceived towards him. In those communications, the writers had expressed a hope, that whoever might be inimical to them, he (the Lord Chancellor) would not be the enemy of Trades' Unions. Now, in answer to that appeal, he would say, that it was because he was the sincere friend of the working classes of the country, that he was an enemy to Trades' Unions; and he would add, that of all the worst things, and of all the most pernicious devices that could be imagined for the injury of the interests of the working classes, as well as the interests of the country at large, nothing was half so bad as the existence of those Trades' Unions.

The Duke of Newcastle

was convinced, that the noble Lord, the Secretary for the Home Department, would do whatever was right, and he had perfect confidence in him. He had referred to those sham funerals, because they were violations of the due and decent observance of the Sabbath-day.

Petition laid on the Table.

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