HL Deb 11 July 1836 vol 35 cc79-89
Viscount Melbourne

having moved that the passage in the Speech from the Throne relative to the disabilities of Dissenters be read, the same was read by the clerk as follows: The noble Viscount then said, he rose to move the second reading of the Births Bill and the Marriages Bill. There were two Bills under these heads, but it appeared convenient to him, and he trusted it would seem convenient to their Lordships also, that their provisions should be explained and considered together. These questions had been brought under discussion with a desire to relieve those who dissented from the rites and ceremonies and doctrines of the Established Church from the necessity, in performing the most solemn ordinances of religion, of being compelled to express their acquiescence in, and conformity with, opinions and doctrines with which they could not conscientiously concur. Their Lordships were, doubtless, aware that no difference of opinion had existed on this subject on any side; that the adoption of some such measure with reference to marriages contracted in England had been recommended from the Throne in the Speech which the former Government had advised his Majesty to deliver in the year 1835, as well as in the passage from another Speech, which he had already desired the clerk at the table to read to their Lordships. Therefore there had prevailed among all parties an opinion that the grievances complained of were not without reason and foundation, and that it was an act for the wisdom of Parliament to afford those who suffered under them the relief they desired, if that relief could be afforded consistently with the maintenance of the purity and doctrines of the Established Church in this country. Various measures with this object had been introduced into the other House of Parliament by various persons. Into the details of those measures he would not then enter; but he believed it had been always felt to be matter of great difficulty, if not of utter impossibility, to afford the Dissenters relief in the performance of those solemn contracts which had always been accompanied and sanctioned by the rites of religion without entirely disconnecting the civil register from the ecclesiastical ceremony, and until a general register of births, marriages, and deaths was established throughout the country. This was a measure which their Lordships would at once perceive, as a matter of general policy, as a matter of general convenience, as a matter of general interest, was in the highest degree desirable, independent of any question relating either to Dissenters or to the Established Church. No one of their Lordships conversant with the business of life, or engaged in its transactions, could have failed to experience at some time or other the difficulty of ascertaining some facts of importance to his property and his family. Those who were conversant with the administration of justice and the nature of the cases which were brought forward for legal adjudication were well acquainted with the imperfections of the system of registration adopted in this country, and the great inconveniences which had arisen from the impossibility of ascertaining facts of great and vital importance. At present nobody could tell what period might have elapsed between the birth of a child and the date of its baptism; nobody could tell how many children were not baptised at all. The register of marriages was only a register of marriages according to the Church of England; whereas they all knew that by the Marriage Act, marriage contracted according to other religious rites was made lawful. The register of burials, too, was only a register of burials performed by ministers of the Church of England, though it was well known that many religious sects had burial places of their own, where they deposited their dead with all the rights of sepulture. It was to provide relief for these grievances, it was to protect rights which in all the transactions of human life and in all the affairs of man were of paramount importance, that these Bills were now presented to their Lordships. He must express his sincere and earnest hope that the measures now proposed would be found sufficient for the great object they were intended to effect. The second Bill treated of a subject that had always been found of much greater difficulty and importance than either the registration of births, or the registration of deaths, affecting as it did not only the present but posterior generations, wounding, as any doubt or obscurity connected with it necessarily must, the feelings, and blighting the prospects of those who should be far beyond the reach of any ill consequences of the act, as they had been unconscious at the time of its commission. No man was more sensible than he of the long train of evils attendant upon clandestine marriages; the affording any facility to them was a mere incentive to the formation of unhappy and ill-assorted alliances; for none but such marriages were celebrated covertly and secretly, in opposition to the wishes and remonstrance of those who, from longer experience of the world, were better able to judge of their probable consequences. Sensible as he was of the evils that arose from marriages so contracted, he could not but be sensible that there was a deeper and a heavier evil—the evil of incumbering the ceremony with so many formalities as to endanger its being at a distant time declared null and void, thus entailing nothing but shame and disgrace on the unconscious offspring, clouding their prospects, blighting their hopes, and irreparably affecting their condition and station in society. It had been very generally felt that much of the law regulating marriages in England was imperfect, insufficient, and inapplicable to the times in which we lived. With this view the first clause of the Bill abolished entirely the ancient mode of giving public notice of a marriage by the publication of bans, which had prevailed, perhaps, for a very long period of time, and which, perhaps, when the population was less extensive, congregations smaller, and people better known to each other, might have been sufficient for the purpose, but which of late years had become nothing more than a cover to fraud and deception. He had received letters from clergymen who stated that nothing was more common than for persons who resided in country villages, or in villages not immediately in the neighbourhood of large towns, to have the bans published in the latter, thus obtaining the means of contracting marriage, which they could never have secured had the bans been published in the place where they lived, and were well known. For the publication of bans, they substituted a notice to be given to the registrar, accompanied with a declaration that no lawful impediment to the marriage existed. The noble Viscount concluded by expressing his hope that the provisions of the Bill would be considered sufficient for the purpose for which they were intended, and considered sufficient, without in any degree trenching on the rights and privileges of the Established Church in this country. He begged to move that the two Bills be read a second time.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

said, that the object of the Bill appeared to be to afford relief to the Dissenters in respect to the registration of births, burials, and marriages, and also to provide for them a form of marriage which would relieve them from the hardship of coming to a church from which they dissented. To this he had no objection; and he had that day had the satisfaction of presenting petitions from bodies of Protestant clergymen in the metropolis and its vicinity, who had expressed the same opinion. At the same time they entertained strong objections to many parts of this Bill, and he felt these objections so strongly that nothing but a desire to afford relief to the Dissenters could induce him to consent to the second reading of a measure that embodied such principles. Were he to follow the noble Viscount through his statement of the advantages of these Bills, which he would not do, it would be a perpetual contradiction of the noble Lord's statements, for according to his views some objection existed to almost every clause. He was anxious to give to the Dissenters all the relief they could possibly desire, provided it was done without depriving the members of the Church of England of any of the advantages which they now possessed. He might say, that both the clergy and laity of the Church of England were satisfied in general, as far as they themselves were concerned, with the present state of the law, both as regarded registration and marriage. They were perfectly sensible that there were parts requiring amendment; but still those corrections might be applied without going the length which the Bill before their Lordships went. The first thing to be remarked with regard to the Bill was, that it was a compulsory measure. It was to be carried into effect by means which would interfere with the privacy of families; in fact, in an inquisitorial manner; subjecting persons and families to great annoyance, and enforcing compliance with its terms by penalties which would be grievous and ruinous to the poor persons on whom they might fall. The system of registration as now proposed could never be carried into effect in this country. It would press so very hard upon the poorer classes of the people that the system would not work. The Bill for the Registration of Births involved a principle which separated things which always had been united since the establishment of a Christian Church—the naming of the child when it was received into the Church by baptism. There was not one petition which he had received from the clergy which did not insist most anxiously upon that point. The practical effect would be, that when persons had once named their children without going to the church, it would make them careless and indifferent about bringing them to the font. Why should the existing arrangements with the clergy of the Church be disturbed? They had originally had the custody of the registers, and he never understood that they had been accused of faithlessness or negligence in making and keeping the registrations. Certainly, as far as the Dissenters were concerned, the registers were imperfect, because Dissenters did not come to the Church. That was a reason, therefore, why they should have a register of their own; but it was not a reason why the keeping of the registers of the births of members of the Church should be taken from the clergy. He could not see any reason why there should not be a general registry-office, to which should be transmitted duplicates of the registers to be still kept by the clergy of the Church, and and also of the registers which were kept by the Dissenters. If this were done, all the complicated machinery of the measure then before them might be avoided. With respect to marriages, the Legislature had hitherto avoided any interference with the arrangements made by the Jews and the Quakers, and wisely so, because those arrangements were so perfect that it was impossible there could be any clandestine marriages among them. But by the present Bill they were interfering with the Jews, as the Jews were required to give notice to the registrar of any marriage celebrated by them. He had no objection whatever to give to the Dissenters any liberty they might desire, if they gave the same security to the country against the violation of the marriage laws as the Jews and Quakers did. But he had read over these Bills with attention, and he could not say that they gave any such security. Another great objection to the Marriage Bill was, that instead of the parochial divisions which had hitherto prevailed, there was now to be district divisions which would include several churches, so that so far from giving additional security, this alteration would take away that security which the country at present had by the publication of bans in the parish church. It had been said, that under cover of publishing bans all sorts of improper marriages took place. That was a mistake. It was one of the provisions of the Marriage Act, that by publishing bans the parties were not obliged to marry in their own parish. Now there was a sort of fashion in this matter. Some parishes were preferred to others. For instance, the parish of St. Martin and the parish of St. George were favourite parishes, and many marriages took place in them, while, on the contrary, the parish of St. Giles was a most unpopular parish, and nobody married there. This was not done because the parties wished to conceal their marriages, but because they did not like to marry there. In his own parish in the country, in the course of eight years there had been but one marriage. Parties who had been living together without being married, but who were finally driven by their consciences or by other causes to marry, were afraid to expose to their neighbours that they had been living together in their former state of connection, and they would therefore go to some distant parish to be married. Servants also were sometimes afraid of having it known to their masters that they were married, and would, therefore, go to another parish to contract marriage. He was not now speaking against the present Bill. He had been endeavouring, in answer to the noble Viscount, who had attacked the present marriage law, to show that most of those clandestine marriages which took place under bans, were, in fact, very innocent in themselves, and such as he should not wish to prevent. He would now address himself to another point, that of effecting marriages without any religious ceremony. That was a point which was mentioned in every one of the petitions that he had presented on this subject. There was a strong feeling throughout the country against such a plan being authorised. For who were the persons to accomplish those marriages? They were the registrars. This Bill gave them very large powers, such as that of determining who were persons prohibited by law from intermarrying, and many other points which very often puzzle clergymen, and would, of course, much oftener puzzle the registrar. If it were necessary to authorise marriages of this description, let them be done before a magistrate, before a man of education, who could form a judgment of the matters before him, and whose respectability would give a security to the country that no indecency or improper conduct would take place. It was his intention, therefore, when the Bill went into committee, to propose such amendments as would bring the Bill into what he considered to be its legitimate form and object—that of giving relief to the Dissenter. For although he agreed in what the noble Viscount had said as to the necessity of getting a more perfect register of births, he did not think that was an object worth obtaining at the expense of all the complicated machinery proposed by the Bill. He therefore considered it in the simple light of giving relief to the Dissenters, and that relief he would give as far as it did not interfere with the religious scruples of the members of the Church, as far as it did not disturb the marriage laws, and as far as it did not interfere with those formulae which had long been held sacred by the people.

Lord Ellenborough

agreed very much with the Most Reverend Prelate in all that he had offered upon this subject. He considered the Marriage Bill to be intended for the relief of the Dissenters, and the other Bill he supposed to be for the general benefit; but he thought that that benefit had been most grossly exaggerated. He was disposed to give every relief to Dissenters in matters of marriage, to their conscientious scruples, but he did not think, that any of the cases produced justified them in making any alteration in the form of solemnizing marriages. He understood that the rite itself was not altered; but still there was an alteration in the proceeding, in one respect, for instead of proceeding by bans there was to be a proceeding by notice. The noble Viscount had spoken of the uselessness of the bans as now published. This arose out of a proviso in the Marriage Act which enacted that, after the bans, no inquiry should be made as to the actual residence of the parties. Now, it could not be said to be necessary to alter the law on account of the uselessness of the publication of bans, because especial care had been taken to transfer the very clause which rendered the publication useless into this Bill. What he complained of was, that it was proposed not only to take away the publication of bans, but to substitute a notice, in which case there was no chance of publicity. Again, this Bill would make marriage to the poor man more expensive and inconvenient than under the present law. It should be understood that this was a law peculiarly for the benefit of the poor, because the rich could derive no benefit from it. They had no grievance to complain of under the present law. With respect to the poor, this Bill was very onerous, particularly with regard to marriage. Marriage was now attended with very little expense; but it would not be so under this Bill. In addition to all the in. formation the poor man was now called upon to give, he must state his profession or condition in life, the church or other place where he intended to be married, declare whether he or the woman was of age or under age, and state whether he knew of any impediment to the marriage, of which of course he could know nothing at all. But this was not enough. He was required to find two persons who knew him, and also knew the registrar, who were to go with him to the registrar, to declare that they believed what he had stated in his notice was true. The difficulty of this was obvious. Then let their Lordships look at the expense imposed by this Bill. He now paid nothing for the bans; but by this Bill he would first have to pay a shilling for entering the notice; next he would have to travel it might be five or six miles to the registrar: thus would he lose a day's work. The two persons that went with him must be paid for their loss of time, so that the expense by notice would be 3s. 6d. or 4s., whereas by bans there was no expense. [Lord Holland: They pay for publishing bans.] There was another thing which might under some circumstances be of rather serious importance. At present every stranger might forbid a marriage who knew that it was incestuous; but there was no provision in this Bill to prevent any incestuous marriage. He did not impute that to intention; but it was a gross error; and when men took upon themselves to legislate upon matters of so much importance, they ought not to commit such errors. Then, with respect to the Registration Bill—how would that operate upon the poor man? He was required within eight days of the birth of his child to give notice of the birth to the registrar. Now, in no eight days in the year was it more inconvenient for a poor man to be absent for a day from his home. The notice would not be given; but what would be the consequence? If he did not give notice you inflicted upon him a penalty of 20s. No less than three weeks' wages; and for what purpose was the notice to be given? It was for no benefit to him. What did it signify to him whether the birth was registered or not? It was required to be done just to gratify the statistical fancies of some few philosophers, in order that they might know how many persons died, and how many were born in a year. If they wished to obtain that information they ought to pay for it, and not make the poor man pay for it, with a penalty. But supposing the poor man omitted to give notice, he was told, that for some reason or other the child should be afterwards registered. Now, observe the peculiar correctness and care of the framers of the Bill not to give trouble. If, after fifteen days, the child was to be registered, some person who was present at the birth must attend the registrar to testify to the birth. It often happened that only three, and sometimes only two persons were present at the birth—the mother being one. How was it possible to get the nurse several weeks afterwards to meet the registrar, who had duties to perform that required him always to be going about the country. Besides this, the poor man, by attending the registrar, would be convicting himself of not having given notice of the birth within eight days; and he would be liable to a charge of 7s. 6d. for the delay. That was not all; for at the time the notice was given, it was required that the name of the child should be given. Now, it was perfectly well known, that, in point of practice, it was not usual to determine within eight days what the name of the child should be. It very often happened, too, that the name was changed. This change the Bill treated almost as an offence; for if notice were not given of any change made in the name of the child, the poor man was liable to an additional penalty of 5l. Was not that a monstrous provision? But it was worse than that; for although he must pay the 5l. penalty, he could not get the child registered at all. The Bill positively said that he should not. Surely this was not the way to prepare Acts of Parliament. Their Lordships desired to receive Bills in a shape in which they might pass them. There was one provision of a very offensive nature, and which ought not to be suffered to become the law. It was required that within three days of the death of a person, notice should be given thereof to the registrar, and within eight days the registrar was authorised to obtrude himself on the widow—on the very day, it might be, of the funeral, to answer all sorts of questions, merely to gratify the curiosity of a few individuals who were wedded to statistics. All this was vexatious, and more than vexatious. In his belief more injury was done to the credit of Parliament, and to the respectability and influence of the Legislature by these violent and ruthless interferences with the poor, than any other legislative interference whatever. Having lived a little in the country, and talked somewhat with the people on these matters, he knew what their feelings on these subjects were. But supposing these provisions to be right, how could they be carried into effect by the machinery of this Bill? He had looked into the population returns, and it appeared that the total remuneration, exclusive of what might be received for bans and licences, amounted to about 6,750l. per year, and that sum was to maintain about 1000 registrars. The registrar-general would have to receive in every year 88,000 separate papers, all of which he must classify. Taking the average amount of population of an union to be 15,000, and supposing there to be four registrars in the union, these receipts would be 11l. l6s. It was perfectly impossible to get a man having nothing else to do to perform these duties for the money. But, observe, it was further directed, that the registrar should be continually going about to obtain information with respect to births and deaths; and yet by another clause it was practically required that this identical man should be always at home for the purpose of receiving notices. It was quite impossible, therefore, that the duties of a registrar of marriages, births, and deaths could be done by the same person. Moreover, the Bill enacted, that register-books should be kept in iron boxes, of which two keys should be kept, and no more; but when once the books got into those boxes, he did not see how they could be got out again without the commission of a misdemeanour by some party: for it was a misdemeanour to disobey the directions of an Act of Parliament, and by this Bill it was proposed, that when the books were put in "the register- box shall always be kept locked." How they were to be got out of this locked box would puzzle those who dealt much more in Acts of Parliament than he did to explain. There were many other points on which he had objections to make, but he would reserve them till in the Committee. His wish was, if possible, to make them good Bills, and on that ground he would not oppose their going into Committee.

Viscount Melbourne

had admitted that there were difficulties in the Bills, but he did not think they were such as could not be got over. He did not agree with the most rev. Primate, that these Bills would take any power from the clergy which they now possessed, but the best place to discuss the details was in Committee.

The bills were severally read a second time.