HL Deb 22 July 1839 vol 49 cc586-97
The Duke of Wellington

seeing the noble Viscount in his place, would ask him whether or no, when he stated to the House on Thursday last that the conduct of the magistrates of Birmingham, in reference to the riots that had taken place there, was to be inquired into, he was in possession of any information respecting the letter from Mr. Hebbert, who had written to the Secretary of State for the Home Department, on behalf of certain inhabitants of Birmingham? [Viscount Melbourne.—No.] Then it would be necessary for him to call the attention of their Lordships again to the subject, in consequence of the mariner in which he had been misrepresented in another place and out of doors, as to what he had stated to the House last week. He had been accused of exaggeration. It might be a Parliamentary phrase; he would not presume to decide that it was an unparliamentary term, but he believed it was a term not much used among gentlemen. It was used, however, in a privileged place that must be nameless, and he should advert to it no more than to notice the conclusions which might be drawn from the use of that term in reference to what he had said. He trusted their Lordships would excuse him for troubling them for a few moments upon this subject, because he really thought he had been most unjustifiably made the subject of personal attack for what he had said in their Lordships' House in respect to the late riots at Birmingham. What he had said was founded on the same amount of information which it appeared was in possession of her Majesty's Government; for neither the noble Viscount nor any other of the noble Lords opposite knew any more of the subject than he did; they knew nothing beyond what they saw in the newspapers, and he stated at the time that he knew nothing beyond that himself with respect to the facts. But he had compared the transactions at Birmingham with certain other transactions of which certainly he had more knowledge than most other noble Lords in that House—matters of which he had a certain and positive knowledge, and he had said, and he firmly believed that it was true—and that in making the comparison he had not in the least degree departed from the truth, that the peaceable inhabitants of the town of Birmingham were worse treated upon that occasion than the inhabitants of any town he had ever known or seen taken by assault. That was what he asserted, and that was the fact, according to his opinion. He would tell their Lordships how it was the fact. In the first place, the town was plundered, the houses were plundered; secondly, four houses were stripped and set on fire; and thirdly, the houses were gutted; that was a term which perhaps many of their Lordships did not understand, but he explained what he meant by it on the first occasion he had used it—the furniture was taken out of the house by the mob and placed in the middle of the street, and there destroyed by fire, and then the burning embers were carried into the houses in order to complete the work of destruction. Those were the facts upon which he had grounded the comparison he had made; and he would now state and affirm again, that he had never known a town taken by storm, he had never seen a town taken by storm, so treated as the accounts from Birmingham stated, that that town bad been treated. So much, then, for exaggeration, Exaggeration? Yes, that was the term which had been applied to him. He was the person charged with exaggeration for having made that comparison. He could not help thinking, that it was most extraordinary, that in the year 1839, after nine years of liberal government, after nine years' enjoyment of the blessings of liberal government, their Lordships should be discussing whether or not the amount of destruction completed in a peaceful town in her Majesty's dominions was equal to the mischief done to a town when taken by storm. And yet that was clearly demonstrated. It was clear, that in peaceful, happy England, which had carried on a war for 22 years, and which had mad the most extraordinary efforts to maintain that war, and had carried it on with circumstances of glory and success in all parts of the world, in order to avoid these miseries, as it was hoped, so that no such mischief's might ever approach her shores—in this same happy and peaceful England, after nine years of liberal rule, here was a town plundered and its peace destroyed; and yet he was accused of exaggeration, because he said he never knew any town taken by storm to be so ill-used as this one town had been. He confessed he was not at all surprised at the conduct of the noble Lord who had so liberally applied the term "exaggeration" to what he had said, when he reflected who were the followers and supporters of that noble Lord. But he was now about to call the attention of their Lordships to certain documents connected with this subject. He begged their Lordships to recollect that the town of Birmingham in the course of last year had a charter granted to it by the noble Viscount's Government. After the grant of the charter, the noble Viscount thought proper to go a little further, and made a grant to the corporation of what was called a Quarter Sessions and a bench of justices. Now that grant was made in January last, and he begged their Lordships to recollect the date. It was well known that at the time the body called "Chartists" were moving through the country. Arms were purchased by them—pikes and all sorts of dangerous weapons were in the course of being manufactured, and there was a good deal of terror and alarm pervading the country with respect to these bodies of Chartists. The Government at that time exhibited some intention of going further, as he had already stated, by granting Quarter Sessions. At that period a large number of gentlemen residing at Birmingham presented a memorial or address to her Majesty, in which, among other things, it was stated, that the Government had been pleased, under the authority of an Act of Parliament passed in the 6th year of the reign of his late Majesty King William 4th., to grant a charter of incorporation to that town; that in pursuance of the provision of the said charter, an election of town-councillors for the different wards had recently taken place, in the course of which much asperity and party feeling was manifested; that the election terminated in the return of persons of extreme political opinions to the exclusion of all persons of moderate principles; that the memorialists were informed that it was intended to form a Quarter Sessions in Birmingham, and do away with the jurisdiction of the county magistrates within the borough. The memorialists, represented that the administration of justice had hitherto been intrusted to justices of the peace for the county of Warwick, of whom there were eighteen gentlemen of all political opinions, all residing within the distance required by the Municipal Act, and who had been selected from men of the best reputation, being persons who were most worthy of the confidence of the inhabitants. Those gentlemen had been found most amply sufficient for the proper administration of justice. The petitioners most humbly represented further, that it was most important to keep the administration of justice free from every imputation of party bias, particularly in a town large and populous like Birmingham, where manifestations of public feeling had frequently been carried to a lamentable extent. They, therefore, prayed that the Royal prerogative would be exercised in the appointment of justices of the peace for the borough from among those only who at that time discharged the duties of justices of the peace for the county of Warwick. That memorial was presented immediately after the granting of the charter, and the noble Viscount had those statements before him. Still the Government had thought proper to advise the appointment of a great number of magistrates, three or four of whom only had been magistrates before, the majority having been selected or recommended by the town council. He refrained from animadverting on the conduct of the magistrates; he spoke only of the conduct of the noble Viscount. He entered not into the question now whether the magistrates had acted right or wrong on the occasion alluded to; but it would appear, that the magistrates had been appointed contrary to the clause in the Act of Parliament. That affair happened on the 15th, and on the 16th Mr. Hebbert, a gentleman of Birmingham, forwarded a memorial from the inhabitants in the following terms:— To the right hon. Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for the Home Department. We, the undersigned inhabitants of the borough of Birmingham, and chiefly resident or having property in High-street and the Bull- ring, in the said borough, beg to represent to your Lordship that, from about half past eight to a quarter to ten o'clock last night, Monday, the 15th of July, the properly and lives of your memorialist, were left unprotected to the violence of an organized mob, although full and authenticated information had been early given to the mayor and magistrates of the borough of the intentions and plans of the rioters. Your memorialists, therefore, feeling that the mayor and magistrates have been guilty of a gross dereliction of their duty, request your Lordship forthwith to institute such proceedings as are necessary for bringing them to trial for their misconduct, and that you will, in the mean time, suspend them from any further control and interference in protecting the lives of your memorialists and their fellow-townsmen, and in preserving the peace of the borough. On the 17th the following letter was written in reply to the memorialists:— Whitehall, July 17, 1639. Sir,—I am directed by Lord John Russell to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 16th inst., transmitting a memorial from certain inhabitants of Birmingham, complaining that their lives and property were left unprotected to the violence of an organized mob, although full and authentic information had been early given to the mayor and magistrates of the borough of the intentions and plans of the rioters,' and to request the memorialists will transmit to his Lordship any evidence or proof in their power to show that previous information was given to the magistrates of the intentions of the rioters. I am, Sir, your obedient servant, S. M. PHILLIPS. J. B. Hebbert, Esq. Temple-st, Birmingham.

The noble Lord had said, that he had no knowledge of these matters. From these letters it was obvious, that the intention on the part of the Government to inquire into these unfortunate affairs was dependent on the answer which they might receive from the memorialists, in reply to the letter written under the direction of the Home Secretary, as to any knowledge they had that the magistrates had full notice of the intentions of the rioters. He would now draw their Lordships' attention to the answer of the memorialists, because that answer showed what sort of confidence in the Government existed in the place where these unfortunate occurrences had taken place. In answer to the letter from the Home-office, these Gentlemen, the memorialists of Birmingham, wrote as follows;—The letter was dated Temple-street, Birmingham, July18,1839. My Lord—I have the honour, on behalf of the Gentlemen who signed the memorial which I had the honour of transmitting to your Lordship last Tuesday night, to acknowledge the receipt of a letter from your secretary, dated the 17th inst., and to express their gratification at finding, from the report of the proceedings in the House of Commons last night, that your Lordship is of opinion that the single acknowledged fact of the property of the inhabitants of the town having been left unprotected for upwards of an hour and a-half on Monday night, is of itself sufficient to make an inquiry into the conduct of the magistrates absolutely necessary. When the inquiry takes place the memorialists will be prepared to adduce the fullest evidence in support of their own charges against the town, authorities; but they cannot but remember that when on a former occasion other of their fellow-townsmen thought fit to represent to your Lordship the disgraceful conduct of the civil and military authorities, your Lordship submitted those representations to the parties accused, and received from them personal explanations, with which your Lordship professed to be satisfied, without communicating to the complainants the answers which you so received. The only result of what was then supposed to be a discharge of public duty was a censure from your Lordship, and, in one instance at least, a challenge to fight a duel from one of the persons whose conduct had been impugned, sent to a most respectable inhabitant of the town, who joined in that representation. Under these circumstances, therefore, your Lordship will not be surprised if the memorialists respectfully decline to make any private communication to the Home-office; at the same time that they reiterate their readiness to adduce the fullest proofs of the truth and justice of their charge before any legally constituted tribunal, and when they can do so with safety to themselves and the confidence that it will not be done in vain. I have the honour to be, my Lord, Your Lordship's most obedient Servant, JOHN B. HEBBERT. To the right hon. Lord John Russell.

Now, upon the course which was here alluded to, he should make no observation, as it appeared that in the present case they were to have an inquiry, when the whole matter would be brought under consideration. But he must say, that certainly the paper he had just read showed that even when the letter of the 17th had been written, no one in Birmingham felt assured that inquiry would be made. And what was the reason of that want of assurance? Why the conduct of the Government on a former occasion, to which allusion was made in Mr. Hebbert's let- ter. He would not allude to what was said in that letter as to this extraordinary mode of conducting business, but he must say, that these proceedings—that the calling for the evidence which Gentlemen might have acquired for the purpose of substantiating a charge against the magistrates for neglect of duty, and then turning round upon them when it was communicated, and instead of proceeding in the Court of Queen's Bench, or before the assizes at Warwick, against the persons complained of for having been guilty of corrupt and improper neglect of duty, communicating the information received by the Government to the parties accused, gave to one party a most unfair advantage and tended to produce private revenge and other evil consequences. These remarks again might be called "exaggerated," he might again be charged with exaggeration, but here were the papers which proved that the course which he complained of had been pursued by the Government on a former occasion. And what would be the consequence of their communicating to the accused the information furnished to the Government by the accusers? In point of fact, it would be that a magistrate who misconducted himself would be exempted from punishment, unless the Government consented to become a party to the prosecution, for if the course complained of by the gentlemen of Birmingham were followed on other occasions, no private individual would come forward to complain of the conduct of any public authority, however grossly unjust that conduct might be. Now, he apprehended that according to the law of England, any individual was at liberty to complain of the conduct of a magistrate, and to proceed against him in a court of law. No one had ever doubted that in this country every individual had a right to complain of, and to proceed against, the magistrates, when the magistrates misconducted themselves. It was in accordance only with the Code Napoleon—with the code of laws of that high priest of liberalism, the Emperor Napoleon—that the consent of the Council of State should be given before a justice misconducting himself could be tried and punished. Hitherto, in this happy country, the practice and the law had been different, and he hoped they should hear no more of such proceedings. But follow out the system laid down in the letter from the Home office, and the result would be that no man, particularly if he had to complain of the conduct of a magistrate, would without the consent of the Home Secretary go into a court of justice to obtain redress. To such a course, he trusted, he should see some check put before it was further established by precedent. He should refrain from any further observations upon this matter at present, and he would now ask the noble Viscount whether there was any objection to the production of the documents he had read, as he conceived it was necessary that those papers should be laid before their Lordships.

Viscount Melbourne

said, that with respect to the observations which had been made in another place, and to which the noble Duke had alluded, he was not well informed. Of this, however, he was perfectly assured, that whatever comments had been made upon the remarks of the noble Duke, whatever observations had been adduced by his noble Friend in the other House of Parliament, there was no intention to impute to the noble Duke anything improper or unjust. There was, he was sure, no intention on the part of his noble Friend to give offence to the noble Duke any more than there was on his own part when he observed in that House at the time that the noble Duke saw the matter in an exaggerated point of view. The noble Duke complained of the word "exaggeration," and, unwilling as he was to revive the arguments on this unfortunate affair, unwilling as he was to urge anything which might irritate or offend, he could not help stating, that there was no real offence in the arguments of his noble Friend, and that no offence could be inferred. He would ask whether the word complained of was not one of the mildest and most common expressions used to express that a strong view had been taken of any matter? He would not go back to examine with what propriety he himself had used the word exaggerations, but certain was that if the observations of the noble Duke were not exaggerations of the subject to which he alluded, then must war be a much milder affair than he had before imagined. The noble Duke had said, that it was an unfortunate and melancholy consideration, that in the midst of profound peace they should be called upon to discuss questions of this kind, and that occurrences such as those which had happened at Birmingham should thus be forced upon their notice. He perfectly admitted the truth of that observation, but he feared, that during profound peace, and while a country was in a prosperous and flourishing condition, such a period would not be found to have been always remarkable for domestic tranquillity. On the contrary, he much doubted whether that was not the very season when domestic disturbances were most likely to occur. He scarcely knew what charge the noble Duke intended to bring against the Government, with respect to the magistrates of Birmingham. The noble Duke seemed to complain that he and his colleagues were, when this matter was first alluded to, totally uninformed on this subject, and in relation to events which had only taken place a few hours before,—upon a subject, in regard to which it was desirable that the fullest information should be obtained, on which no hasty conclusion ought to have been formed, and on which it behoved the Government not to speak, without the fullest and most ample knowledge. If that was the charge against himself and his colleagues, it was a charge to which he could not attach the least degree of importance. He could see no force in that charge, for the course which had been followed was the same which had been adopted in a much more grave and serious case, but to which the noble Duke had strangely enough not alluded. He alluded to the Bristol case. On the occasion of the Bristol riots, several lives were lost, and a great part of the town burnt, while the town, instead of being only for an hour or two, was, for a considerable time in the possession of a lawless and infuriated mob. He did not remember that such observations as had been made in reference to Birmingham had been made in Parliament in reference to Bristol, or that such a desire to censure the Government or the magistrates had been manifested. But on the occasion of the Bristol riots, an inquiry had been made into the conduct of the magistrates, and the result was, that an information had been filed in the Court of Queen's Bench against them, and the consequences had been, that they were tried and acquitted. On the present occasion, the Government had followed the same course. An inquiry had been instituted, with a view to ascertain what the conduct of the magistrates had been, and to see whether there were any good grounds for ulterior proceedings. With respect to the papers alluded to by the noble Duke, he was perfectly ready to acquiesce in any motion for their production, as he was most anxious to have every possible information before the House, which could tend in any way to the full understanding of the subject. He admitted, that it might be, that the memorial which had been read by the noble Duke, showed a want of confidence in the Government. The matters alluded to by the memorialists had reference to a general election, on which occasion some riots took place at Birmingham, in regard to which, both the civil and military authorities had been charged with neglect of duty. He was not, however, prepared to go into the case, as he had not a perfect recollection of the circumstance, nor was he perfectly aware of the reasons for the course which, on that occasion, had been followed by his noble Friend, the Home Secretary. But this he would say, that there was no evidence given on that occasion from which it could fairly be inferred that his noble Friend would pursue a course contrary to justice, or that it was his intention to communicate the information which had been conveyed to the Government to those persons who were accused of misconduct. It was necessary for the Government to know all the facts before it came to a conclusion as to the proper course to be followed, or before adopting the course which the noble Duke seemed inclined to pursue. In respect to whether granting a charter to Birmingham was a proper or an improper step, that also was a subject for the examination of Parliament. He begged again to assure the noble Duke, that by the remarks to which he had alluded, no offence was intended. These remarks implied no imputation against the veracity of the noble Duke, but only that he had given a stronger colouring to these unfortunate transactions than his noble Friend had thought they deserved.

The Duke of Wellington

said, the acquittal of the Bristol magistrates showed that they had done their duty, and the case was not, therefore, in point. That which he complained of was, that the Birmingham magistrates were not appointed according to law, but on the nomination of the town council. The Home Secretary was responsible for the conduct of these magistrates; and the ground of his complaint was, that they were appointed in an unconstitutional manner. Government had, on one occasion, communicated the information received from persons, complaining that the magistrates had not done their duty, and it mattered nothing what the occasion was. The result was the same, whatever was the occasion. The memorialists concluded that the Secretary of State, judging from their past experience, was unwilling to prosecute when a complaint was made, and they had not confidence that the information they might furnish would not be communicated to the parties accused.

Viscount Melbourne

explained, that Parliament was not sitting when the Bristol riots occurred, and the reason why they had not been noticed in Parliament was, that people had had time to reflect upon the matter. Time had been afforded for consideration, and it would, in his opinion, have been more prudent to have reflected more on the present occasion. With respect to what the noble Duke had stated, as to the magistrates having been virtually appointed by the town-council, in violation of the Act of Parliament, that he entirely denied; because he remembered, that in all the debates upon this subject, it was said to the Government, "We are depriving you of no power that you possess; you may take the advice of the town-council if you please." What could be more natural than that the Secretary of State should take the opinion of the town-council upon an appointment of this nature?

The Duke of Wellington

recommended the noble Viscount to consult the clause in the Act of Parliament, and not to trust to his memory respecting what passed in debate.

The Earl of Ripon

said, that in a conversation which took place the other day respecting the grant of a charter of incorporation to Birmingham, his noble and learned Friend on the woolsack had alleged, that gross frauds had been practised on the part of those who were opposed to the charter. Since that time, he had communicated with those Gentlemen, and they assured him, in the most positive manner, that so far as they were concerned, and so far as the town of Birmingham was concerned, no such transaction whatever, as had been represented to have occurred, had taken place. No fictitious names had been appended to the memorial against the charter, and no streets bad been put down which were not in existence. The opponents of the charter had also forwarded in every possible way the inquiry which had been instituted, and, in fact, they were the persons who had called for an inquiry, and it was the greatest absurdity to suppose that such persons would throw obstacles in the way of its prosecution. He was sure that what his noble and learned Friend said the other day, was not quite correct, and he wished to know whether his noble and learned Friend could now say, whether his observations did or did not apply to the town of Birmingham.

The Lord Chancellor

said, that be found that he had applied to Birmingham what really belonged to Manchester.

Papers ordered.

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