HL Deb 09 July 1840 vol 55 cc571-5
The Earl of Warwick

rose to move for the production of Mr. Dundas's report, and the evidence taken on the investigation held at Birmingham respecting the riots of the 15th of July, 1839, and also for the letter of Mr. Alston to Lord John Russell, dated the 11th of July, 1839, with the answer returned thereto. He was unwilling to revert to any of the circumstances connected with the riots at Birmingham, but be was sure, that in the observations he had to make to their Lordships' he should avoid the use of any expressions which Could possibly offend any one. The case was simply this—certain persons in Birmingham had complained of the conduct of the magistrates of Birmingham, during the riots in that place, and in consequence an investigation into those complaints had been instituted by the Government. When that inquiry was finished the complaining parties were told by the noble Marquess the Secretary for the Home Department, that no case had been made out against the magistrates. Now, he thought it was hard that those persons should be told they had made false charges against the magistrates, and yet when they asked for the report of Mr. Dundas, and the evidence taken before him, that that request should have been refused by the noble Marquess. It was on their behalf, therefore, that he was induced to move for the production of those documents, because it was upon the report of Mr. Dundas the noble Marquess had formed the opinion, that no case had been made out against the magistrates. He wished to state the whole facts to their Lordships, and to ask for the papers which the Home-office had refused. In doing so he thought the best course he could follow Would be to read a part of the correspondence which had passed between the complaining parties and the Home-office, as by that means the whole case would be fully explained to their Lordships. From a paper which he held in his hand, he found that a memorial had been transmitted to the Government, containing a list of the names of all those persons whose property had been burned or destroyed, and in that memorial it was stated, that from half-past eight o'clock, on the evening of the riots, till ten o'clock, the lives and property of the inhabitants in the vicinity of the scene of those disturbances had been left at the mercy of an organized mob, although the mayor and magistrates had been duly informed of what was taking place. They, therefore, considered that the magistrates had been guilty of a dereliction of duty, and prayed for investigation. It had been urged that the memorialists had made use of very strong language, but their Lordships would recollect that the riots took place on the evening of the 15th, and the memorial was Written on the 16th, when the town was in a state of the greatest alarm. They also stated, that the magistrates had had due information of what was likely to take place, and if the investigation were permitted, that they felt they would be able to substantiate those charges. The investigation was granted, and the noble Viscount op- posite made that circumstance an excuse for suspending his judgment upon the subject when questioned about it by him (Lord Warwick). He asked the noble Viscount if there was a sufficient military and police force in the neighbourhood to carry the orders of the magistrates into execution, and the noble Viscount said, he had no doubt there was, adding, however, that he was surprised something of this sort had not occurred long before. Various applications were made by letter for Mr. Dundas's report, but in vain. At length, in the month of December, the noble Marquess caused a reply to be written, stating, that having considered the evidence which had been taken on the part of the memorialists before Mr. Dun-das, he was of opinion that the memorialists had altogether failed to establish the charges they had made, and that the evidence showed that they were not warranted in calling for any such proceedings against the mayor or magistrates of Birmingham. This was the letter of which he complained. How the noble Marquess could have come to that conclusion he knew not, if there was any truth in the evidence as published in one of the country papers. It was still more surprising to find that the noble Lord (J. Russell) had received a letter four days previous to the 15th of July from Mr. Alston, a magistrate, informing him of the expected riots, and yet that no steps had been taken by the magistrates to prevent them. Notwithstanding all this, the memorialists were told that they had made out no case of expected riots, and the danger that was likely to ensue from them. If the report and evidence of investigations were to be thus withheld, he could see no utility in such investigations; and if the noble Marquess intended to refuse them, he hoped he would at least favour their Lordships with his reasons for doing so.

The Marquess of Normanby

said, that there was nothing whatever contained in the papers moved for that rendered their production inconsistent with the public service? If the noble Earl had made his motion the day after the opening of Parliament, the papers would have been produced without the slightest objection. They were now ready to be produced, but considering, as he had reason to believe, that all angry feelings were subsiding in the town, he could not but think it unfortunate that the noble Earl had postponed his motion to the present time, as it might tend in some degree to revive those feelings. He could assure the noble Earl, that he had no intention of dealing either hardly or harshly with the individuals upon whose memorial the investigation took place. He was ready to make every allowance, considering the time and circumstances under which they made the application, and that they might have been labouring under an unusual degree of irritation, for the strong expressions which they made use of upon the occasion; but in sending his answer, he was obliged to deal with the facts as they had been stated to him. The memorialists stated that the magistrates had been guilty of a gross dereliction of duty; that they had had full and authentic information of the intention of the rioters; and that they had by gross misconduct actually brought those riots on. Now, if the magistrates had been guilty to the extent stated by the memorialists, who called for their dismissal, they ought not only to have been dismissed, but put upon their trial, and if found guilty, severely punished. Mr. Alston had certainly written to Lord John Russell, stating that a certain meeting for a specific object was to be held; but the information which he and others communicated did not at all correspond with what had occurred. Ha did not mean to say that the magistrates would have been exempted from blame if they had not guarded against what they had been warned of, and had a right to expect. But their Lordships would find, from the papers moved for, that all proper precaution necessary to guard against the expected evils had been taken to meet those evils, if they had assumed the shape which it was announced they would. When the whole of the evidence was laid before their Lordships, it would be found that the charges made by the memorialists against the magistrates had not been made out. It would be seen that the letter of Mr. Alston fully proved that the magistrates had no previous knowledge with respect to the meeting of the rioters, and that both the charges and the Censure of the memorialists were greatly exaggerated, and that there was nothing in the conduct of the magistrates to warrant either. If it had been otherwise, and that the charge against the magistrates had been substantiated, he should have felt it his duty to call them to account.

The Duke of Wellington

said, that though an opinion on the question could not well be formed without having the whole of the papers, still it appeared that the magistrates had been furnished with more information than the noble Marquess seemed inclined to admit. It was evident that notice of the intended riot had been furnished to them, and yet they had not taken care to have two magistrates in attendance, and the consequence was that the police could not act in the absence of the requisite number of magistrates.

The Earl of Warwick

in reply said, that nothing but Providence saved the town from destruction, as the wind, which previous to the firing of the houses had been rather high, sunk into a dead calm. With respect to the riot, though the magistrates had previous information, no preparations were made to resist the rioters.

Lord Lyndhurst

said, it was evident that the magistrates were aware of the intended gathering, as a meeting had been held for the purpose of discussing whether or not it would be prudent to disperse it. That there was neglect was evident from the fact of the military being in readiness to repress the outrage if called upon. A bookseller of the town, too, had a conversation with the mayor, in which he gave information of a proposed meeting of the Chartists on the following night for the purpose of possessing themselves of the Bull-ring at St. Thomas's church, and that they were advised by their leaders to come prepared for the police. To this the mayor answered, "Let them come, we shall be prepared for them." Yet, notwithstanding this, no preparation had been made, though there was a police force in the town sufficient to repress the riots. When the police were called upon to act, Mr. May said that they could not act without the direction of a magistrate, but there was no magistrate present. When these facts were before their Lordships, how could they possibly acquit the magistrates of the gross neglect of which the memorialists complained? In his opinion a case of gross dereliction of duty had been made out, and the noble Marquess opposite was rather too hasty in his acquittal.

Motion agreed to.