HL Deb 07 May 1838 vol 42 cc944-51
The Earl of Winchilsea rose

pursuant to notice to move for copies of any correspondence which had taken place between the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Lord-lieutenant of the county of Hertford, relative to the reduction of the yeomanry corps in that county. He would trespass but a very few moments on the attention of the House in putting them in possession of the motives which induced him to move for a return of that correspondence. In looking at the printed returns on the table he found that the reduction of the yeomanry corps in England and Scotland had been characterised by one uniform rule, which was this—that in those counties in which separate troops existed these troops had been reduced; and the only exception was afforded in the case of the county of Hertford. He had been led to understand that, in the first communication to the Lord-lieutenant of that county it had been intimated that a separate troop was to be disbanded; but subsequently, on account of something which had passed between the Lord-lieutenant and the Government, the reduction of that corps was abandoned, and two regiments in another part of the county were then reduced. Now, he expected to find in the correspondence some satisfactory statement or ground upon which that first order was cancelled, and whether there was any ground for the opinion very generally established in the county that the separate troop had been continued on account of feelings of a party character, for he was bound to state, that this troop was commanded by a constant and strenuous supporter of her Majesty's Government. He had another object in moving for these returns, because he expected that it might place upon some intelligible principle, the conduct of the Government, and the motives by which they had been actuated in recommending her Majesty to reduce that highly constitutional and useful force. It had been stated, by the noble Viscount, and his colleagues elsewhere, that one ground for the reduction was that of economy. Now that was likely to be a very popular reason, especially at a time when, as he believed, they had not a stiver at their command—but that would not avail them in this case, for it was necessary for him to state, that the single troops were not a twentieth part of the expense of the regiments, with which all the expenses of the staff were connected. In looking at the papers, he found, that in the county of Hants, there were eight separate troops, fifty-four men a troop, whereas a regiment had been retained in which there were 129 men to a troop. He found, further, that a regiment had been retained, which could have been spared better than any one of the single troops; for it was situated between four military stations, Portsmouth, Windsor, Winchester, and Hounslow. In Somersetshire, a body of yeomanry had been retained, exceeding 1,000 in number, larger than that of almost any other county except Yorkshire; and he had learnt that the two gentlemen commanding those two very strong regiments, were strenuous supporters of the Government. In Surrey, he found, that the Government had thought proper to reduce the corps of a gentleman, a highly-distinguished officer in her Majesty's service, and they had kept three troops confined to one district of the country. With regard to Berkshire, he begged to state that, on behalf of a gentleman who was his (the Earl of Winchilsea's) personal friend, that he had been much hurt at the observations which had been made by a noble Lord in another place; and, for himself, he would say, that whatever animadversions the noble Lord might be pleased to pass upon his conduct, he should be perfectly prepared to meet any odium which could be thrown upon him. He was perfectly prepared to stand upon that letter which he had written, and he did contend, that if this Government intended to keep up that force, their conduct had been calculated to give great offence. So far from agreeing in the observations of the noble Lord, he firmly believed, that, in a civil point of view, in case of any local disturbance, the yeomanry was a most useful, lenient, and effective force. In such cases, they were assembled on the spot, and it frequently happened that in consequence of many of the corps being known to the leaders, as well as to the misled peasantry, great mischief was prevented—loss of life as well as property. Then, again, the moral influence arising from the characters of members of these corps, was highly beneficial, for he had heard of instances in which words dropped from one of the yeomanry corps, had prevented the destruction of property, and even the effusion of blood. Upon these grounds, and for these reasons, he had thought proper to move for the returns which he had mentioned.

Viscount Melbourne

had no objection to the production of the papers. He believed that the facts of the case would be stated in those papers; but what principle or motives might there be given, he did not know; nor was he at all aware how far the general principle upon which the Government had proceeded might be explained; but if the noble Lord expected, that that would be fully discussed, he believed he would be considerably disappointed. The facts stated by the noble Earl with respect to the county of Hertford, were undoubtedly true; in the first instance, the Government had directed the separate corps to be reduced; and had subsequently thought proper to retain it upon grounds which, if he were to state them, might draw upon him, as it had upon his noble Friend, the censure of noble Lords, for insulting those gentlemen who might command the troops in question. It was not a particularly gracious thing to particularize the comparative merits of different troops; but he would say, that one ground of the determination of the Government in this particular case, proceeded upon representations as to the state of that part of the county in which that single troop was situated, and accordingly they had thought proper to effect the reduction in the other troops of the county. Could anything be more proper, or more conducive to the peace of the county? And if, in other parts of the county, similar representations had been made with respect to the service of the troops, he had no doubt that his noble Friend would have paid the same attention to them. But the noble Earl opposite said that this was done for party purposes—that it was all done to favour political friends. If that were the case, the Government were very unlucky—very unfortunate; for they had been very generally taxed with a fault of a contrary description: they had been much complained of for reducing, in many cases, troops which were commanded by persons—(he did not mean to charge them with acting from any political motives)—but persons who were supposed to follow the Administration. He did not expect the noble Lord would have entered upon a consideration of the dislocation of all the yeomanry corps throughout the country, and he was consequently not prepared to meet him. But the noble Earl had not gone at all into the case of a county with which he was intimately connected—the county of Northampton; and there, at least, he supposed the reduction had not fallen on troops which were commanded by officers of his political opinions. If he had been aware that it was necessary to make himself master of the subject for the present occasion, he would have been prepared to show good reasons for the reduction of each particular troop. It had been remarked, that what his noble Friend had said in the House of Commons was extremely offensive and insulting; but if the opinion of the noble Secretary of State, that this force was not, in all cases, suitable to the suppression of civil discord, was to be considered in that light, how could there be any free dis- cussion? Or how could any one venture to express an opinion on any subject? Could they be told, that the mere expression of an opinion, which might be erroneous, was an insult to those gentlemen throughout the country, and to those persons whose care it was to provide for the maintenance of the public tranquillity, as to justify them in acting in the manner in which they had acted? The sensibility of those persons was perfectly absurd. It was the right of every Minister of the Crown, or Member of Parliament, to pronounce such an opinion—to declare the reasons upon which it was founded—and why he acted upon it. He had no objection to the introduction of the papers; and if the noble Earl should wish to have the question brought forward, he should have no objection to inquire into, and investigate the facts, and to defend more at length, and in detail, the course adopted by the Government.

The Earl of Malmesbury

thought it was incumbent upon Government, before reducing the yeomanry corps, at least to have consulted the lords-lieutenant of counties on the subject. In that part of the country with which he was more immediately connected the reduction had been particularly inopportune, and might be attended with considerable inconvenience. He regarded the yeomanry as a peculiarly constitutional force, eminently calculated in most cases to repress disturbances; but when he recollected that there were no cavalry or infantry barrack, and no yeomanry force between Dorchester and Portsmouth, a part of the country which unfortunately had not been altogether free from outrage, there was not only ground of complaint, but a heavy responsibility rested on those who had disbanded the yeomanry. The determination of Government to withdraw the yeomanry from that part of the country was particularly unfortunate at the present moment, when the Dorchester labourers had just returned, and he hoped it was not yet too late to beg the noble Viscount, who, he thought, did not altogether agree with his noble Colleague in another place on this subject,—he hoped it was not yet too late to induce the noble Viscount to reconsider the matter.

Lord Portman

said, that the Dorchester labourers had been already paraded through their own part of the country, and with quite as little notice as in London, probably because they were better known. He must say, that he agreed very much with the noble Earl (Earl of Winchilsea) as to the extreme impolicy of the mode adopted for the reduction of the yeomanry. He certainly thought that the measure had been taken not in the most cautious or the most advisable manner. He thought that the measure required something like careful inquiry, and he deeply regretted that it had taken place. He could never forget the services rendered by the yeomanry in 1830 in the suppression of disturbance and riot. The noble Earl who moved for this return stated that in Somersetshire a regiment had been retained on account of the politics of its commander. Now, he could inform the noble Earl that a most active, and zealous, and powerful supporter of the Government in that county was the representative of the western division, and the troop which this gentleman commanded had been disbanded, whereas the regiment that had been retained was commanded by Colonel Tynte, who was no longer a Member of Parliament. There was one point to which he was anxious to call the attention of their Lordships, he meant the acceptance of volunteer yeomanry without pay. He doubted very much, in a constitutional view of the subject, whether it was right to have any force in this country which was not under the full control of Government, by receiving its pay. He happened to know that the services of a troop in Somersetshire had been accepted, which had been recommended by a Gentleman of opposite politics, and it therefore did not arise from party feeling. He thought that great care and discretion was required in accepting the volunteer services of any.

Lord Sondes

said, that as his conduct had been adverted to, in consequence of a letter which he had written on this subject, he begged to assure the noble Viscount and the Government that it was not his intention in writing that letter to attempt in any way to insult them. He had done all he could to render the yeomanry of the county with which he was connected as efficient as possible, but amongst the supporters of the Government he had found so many obstacles thrown in his way that he had come to the conclusion that it was useless for him to go on. He had been accused of issuing political manifestoes to armed bodies; and he, therefore, had been judged unfit any longer to command them. He had no intention of carrying arms or commanding armed bodies, unless her Majesty should call on him to do it; but he might appeal to the Lord Lieuten- ant of the county of Norfolk whether he would be unwilling to trust him with such a command.

Lord Wharncliffe

could not understand if, as had been said by the noble Secretary for the Home Department in the House of Commons, they were not proper troops for quelling disturbance, why they were maintained at all; but the Government did not know the use or advantage of the yeomanry corps. He had known instances in which, if there had been only the regular troops, riots, especially in manufacturing towns, would have proceeded to a very alarming extent. In Sheffield, on one occasion, the soldiers had been called out, and had fired upon the people, many of whom were killed; but if the yeomanry had not been able to protect them the most disastrous consequences must have ensued, and many more persons have been killed. The yeomanry were further said to be an improper body, because they were generally known to those against whom they had to act; but if that were the case what became of the old constitutional bodies of posse commitatus and special constables and magistrates? It had astonished him to hear that the Home Secretary of State should have taken the opportunity of stating in the House of Commons, first, that this was not a proper force to employ on occasions of civil disturbances; and next, to insinuate that their continuance would only be temporary, until another force could be found.

The Marquess of Lansdowne

said, that after the many instances the House had had of inconvenience arising from the practice of discussing, even under disguise, the proceedings of another place, the noble Baron opposite, throwing away that disguise, and speaking distinctly of the House of Commons, had produced the strongest instance of that inconvenience, inasmuch as he had referred to the proceedings of that place in a way the most unsatisfactory: for the noble Baron stated that which was perfectly absurd, if the expression had been used to which the noble Baron, if he referred at all, should have referred with considerable accuracy. He rose, therefore, for the purpose of expressing his decided belief that the terms put into the mouth of his noble Friend were not, and could not be, the terms which he had employed; for these terms neither expressed his opinions or those of his colleagues, for his noble Friend was made to say this—"that it was inexpedient for a Government professing economy to keep up a force which they did not think it expedient to employ." It was not unlikely that his noble Friend might point out particular instances of service in which he might not think this force appropriate; and although he was fully prepared to bear testimony to the general utility of the force in the county of which he was Lord Lieutenant still he could subscribe to that opinion.

The Earl of Harewood bore

testimony to the efficiency of the yeomanry. He must say, that the impression produced on his mind was, that the yeomanry were to be summarily dealt with.

The Duke of Cleveland

said, that at Manchester there was more blood shed by the yeomanry, than there would have been by the regular troops, or by the militia. He protested against the yeomanry cavalry being considered the most constitutional force that could be employed. He preferred the employment of the militia.

The Duke of Wellington

said, that although many noble Lords doubted that the yeomanry were the most eligible force for putting down disturbances, yet he was inclined to a contrary opinion. The first consideration was, in every case to put down any disturbance that might arise with as little delay as circumstances permitted. He should always be for putting down disturbance with the least possible loss of life. He therefore thought, that whatever force partook most of a preventive character must be considered the most eligible. He believed, that the yeomanry best answered to that description, and it was to be remembered, that when troops were present, or supposed to be near the spot, it rarely happened that disturbances arose. This he considered to be a strong argument in favour of the employment of the yeomanry. He further thought, that if troops were to be called, cavalry were to be preferred to infantry.

The Earl of Winchilsea

replied, he should not then go into the question of the loss of life, but limit himself to this observation, that if the case of Bristol were compared with others, it would be found a comparison greatly in favour of the yeomanry.

Motion agreed to.