HL Deb 20 May 1842 vol 63 cc553-9
Lord Sydney

said, he had to present a petition from a noble relation of his, to which he was anxious to call the particular attention of their Lordships, not only as it had reference to the interests of the petitioner, but also from the novelty of the case, and likewise from the fact that it was a matter which might affect their Lordships' privileges. The petition was that of Charles Vere Ferrars Townshend, Esq., (commonly called the right hon. Lord Charles Vere Ferrars Townshend), only brother and heir presumptive of the most hon. George Ferrars, Marquess Townshend, Earl of Leicester, &c The petitioner stated, that on the 12th of May, 1807, petitioner's brother, the said George Ferrars, Marquess Townshend (then commonly called Lord Chartley), was married to Sarah Gardner Dunn Gardner, the only child of William Dunn Gardner, of Chatteris, in the Isle of Ely. Soon after the marriage, the husband and wife separated, and in November in the same year, the Marchioness Townshend instituted a suit in the Ecclesiastical Court, in order to have the marriage annulled on the ground of the impotency of her husband, the Marquess. While this suit was still pending, Sarah Gardner, Marchioness Townshend, in the month of May, 1809, eloped from her father's house, with John Margetts, who then carried on the business of a brewer at St. Ive's, in the county of Huntingdon, to whom she was married at Gretna-green on the 24th of October, 1809. On the 17th of January, 1810, Sarah Gardner, the said Marchioness Townshend, was delivered of a son, who, it is supposed, died a few months after his birth, and whom the Marchioness, in answer to a bill in Chancery, in 1834, styled the right hon. George Townshend, commonly called the Earl of Leicester. In the same month of November, 1810, the Marchioness, accompanied by John Mar getts, removed to the house of her father, in Lower Grosvenorstreet, and while there called themselves, and were called by others, Mr. and Mrs. Margetts. They afterwards went to reside in Hunter-street, in the parish of St. George, Bloomsbury, on or about February, 1811, and continued to reside there uutil the end of 1840, always passing as man and wife, and (until about the month of December, 1823) using and being known by no other names than Mr. and Mrs. Margetts. In July, 1811, the Marchioness gave birth to a son, who received the name of John, and was known by no other name than that of '* John Margetts," until about the month of December, 1823, when he assumed the title of Lord John Towshend. There were several other children, three sons and two daughters, of John Margetts by the Marchioness Townshend; and, on the 26th of December, 1823, those children,—namely, John Margetts, William Margetts, Rosa Jane Margetts, Frederick Thomas Mar getts, and Lavinia Charlotte Sarah Mar getts, were all baptised at the parish church of St. George, Bloomsbury, by the name of Townshend, and entered in the register of that parish as the children of the most noble George Ferrars, Marquess Townshend, and the most noble Sarah Dunn Gardner, Marchioness Towns hend, whose place of abode was stated to be Hunter-street, St. George, Bloomsbury. It could be shown, that since the month of May, 1808, the Marquess Townshend had not lived or cohabited with his wife Sarah; that the children up to the period of the baptism just mentioned, lived with the Marchioness and Mr. Margetts, whom they always called father and mother, as Mr. and Mrs. Margetts. These facts were but an outline of the case which the petitioner was prepared to prove their Lordships, and he was sure it would not be deemed unreasonable that the petitioner and other members of his family should be desirous of doing so, seeing as they did that the Member for Bodmin had assumed the title of Earl of Leicester, the second title of their family. This assumption was unfounded in any rightful claim, and was calculated to impose on the House of Commons, and might hereafter affect the privileges of their Lordships, if the case should not now be gone into, by taking a seat in their House to which he was not entitled. He would read the recapitulation of the heads of the petition, which were as follow: — That the said Sarah Gardner, Marchioness Townshend, many years after the baptism of her said children, and after the assumption by them of the status of children of her marriage, on being interrogated by the Court of Chancery, whether the said children were actually the issue of her husband, evaded the question, and plainly showed that she dared not assert that they were so. When exceptions were taken to her answer on that very point, and when pressed by interrogatories which admitted neither of evasion nor equivocation, her conduct was widely different from that of an innocent woman, eager to seize so favourable an opportunity for clearing her own fame, and for vindicating the right of her children to the rank, title, and station which had been claimed for them. The exceptions having been allowed, she had no other alternative than to declare the truth, or to risk the penalties of wilful perjury; and an arrangement was therefore made, by which the necessity of any further answer was avoided. While every act on the part of the said Sarah Gardner, Marchioness Townshend, and of her family, during a series of thirty-three years, shows that her children were the issue of the adulterer, the conduct of the said George Ferrars, Marquess Townshend, and of the members of his family, proves that both he and they have uniformly, decidedly, and consistently repudiated the said children. That your petitioner is fully prepared to establish each and all the facts which he has stated, by evidence of the most conclusive character, consisting partly of letters, and other documents, and partly of the testimony of living witnesses. That your petitioner is advised that there are no means whatever by which he can dispute the legitimacy of the said John Margetts, the younger (calling himself 'Earl of Leicester') in a court of law; that some of the witnesses, by whom only many of the most important facts can be proved, are now far advanced in life, and in uncertain health and there are other persons whose testimony is material, but who refuse to make any disclosures unless com- pelled by a court of justice; but if any of these persons should happen to die in the lifetime of the said George Ferrars, Marquess Townshend, it may be impossible to prevent an individual notoriously begotten and born in adultery from succeeding to the honours of your petitioner's family; that in consequence of there not being any property involved in the succession of your petitioner as heir to his said brother George Ferrars, Marquess Townshend, your petitioner is advised that he cannot file a bill in the Court of Chancery to perpetuate the testimony of the witnesses alluded to; and he respectfully submits, that it would be not merely an anomaly, but an injustice to the families of the Peers, if, while the law has provided means for securing the rights of inheritance of the humblest person in the kingdom to every kind of property, however small (by enabling the party interested to perpetuate the evidence of witnesses in case of their death), no such means should exist with respect to the highest and most important right of inheritance known to the constitution (except the Crown itself),—namely, the dignity of a Peer of the realm. That your petitioner, at the same time that he is naturally anxious to secure to himself and his family the enjoyment of his and their legal rights, and to prevent the same from being lost by the success of an imposition so audacious as to be absolutely without precedent, nevertheless feels that your Lordships have at least an equal interest in the question. By the loss of the testimony upon which your petitioner now relies, it may happen that your petitioner and his family will be deprived for ever of the honours conferred upon their ancestors; but in that case, the spurious issue of an adulterer will, against all moral conviction, become entitled to a seat in your Lordships' House. Your petitioner, having thus brought before your Lordships the facts of a case in which the right of succession to several peerages is actually involved, and having stated his anxious desire, as heir presumptive to those dignities, to establish before a competent tribunal all that he has herein alleged, humbly submits the difficulties and impediments under which he labours, and the injustice which may arise, as well to your Lordships and the Peerage, as to himself and his family, to the consideration of your Lordships, and humbly prays your Lord ships to provide such remedy, or adopt such proceedings as in your Lordships' wisdom may seem meet. He fully concurred in the prayer of the petition, and he trusted their Lordships would not permit this audacious attempt to impose on them and the other House of Parliament by the assumption of a title to which the party who had assumed it had no claim. He did not press this subject on their Lordships' attention, solely on the ground that it affected the interests of the petitioner. There were other and most important interests,—namely, those of their Lordships, which might also be affected by the assumption to which the petition referred, inasmuch as a proper investigation now might prevent an unjust claim to a seat in their Lordships' House. He would again assert, that the petitioner could prove most satisfactorily that the as sumption of the title of Earl of Leicester by the Member for Bodmin, was an imposition on the other House of Parliament, which ought to be exposed and treated as it deserved. He would now move, that this petition do lie on the Table.


Lord Brougham

wished to ask what course his noble Friend (Lord Sydney) meant to pursue with respect to the petition? From the extraordinary nature of that petition, and the extreme importance of the facts which it set forth, it was obvious that it could not be allowed to remain on the Table without having some motion founded upon it. Having been brought under the consideration of their Lordships, it was clear that it could not remain without some further notice, and this, not only in justice to the interests of the petitioner, and for the sake of the privileges of that House, which it might affect, but also in justice to those parties against whom its allegations were directed. He would venture to suggest to his noble Friend that he should move for a committee to search for precedents, because the case at present appeared at least unprecedented. There was no case within his knowledge which could be considered a precedent for this, but there might be cases found, the principles, or the mode of proceeding in which, might be applicable to it, and with that view he had suggested the appointment of a committee.

Lord Sydney

fully concurred in the suggestion of his noble and learned Friend. He had waited, without taking any step beyond that of moving that the petition do He on the Table, in order to hear the opinions of others as to the course which it would be desirable to pursue. He concurred in the opinion of his noble and learned Friend, and would now move that a committee be appointed to search for precedents in the case of the petition.

Motion agreed to.

While the noble Lord was nominating the committee,

The Earl of Minto

said, that it would be more consistent with the practice of the House to have given notice of the intention of the noble Lord to move for a committee.

Lord Brougham:

Notice was given before the holidays that this petition would be presented to-day.

The Lord Chancellor:

The motion for the appointment of a committee has been put and agreed to. If the noble Earl wishes, he may move that the naming of the noble Lords who are to constitute the committee should be deferred to another day.

Lord Campbell

said, that he could not help feeling some regret that more deliberation had not taken place. He agreed with the noble and learned Lord near him, that the case was quite unprecedented. He thought that it was as clear as anything could be, that without a reference from the Crown their Lordships had no jurisdiction in such a question. If that were so, where was the necessity of a committee to search for precedents. With one exception, the case of the Banbury peerage in Queen Anne's time, he believed no precedents could be found for proceeding in such a case, without any reference from the Crown. In that case the House proceeded without any such reference; but what were the consequences? The Court of Queen's-bench held the decision of the House of Lords as void, and all the proceedings as coram non judice. Lord Holt said, that the House had no more jurisdiction than any twelve porters assembled in any public-house in Westminster. Why then, he would ask, should they search for precedents, when even if any such were found nothing could be done with them? He acknowledged the great hardship complained of by the petitioner; but be thought they ought to consider whether there ought not to be some new legislation on the subject, some general or particular law to remedy the grievance of the petitioner. He would suggest to the noble Lord who presented the petition, whether it would not be better for him at once to move, or give notice of his intention to move, for leave to bring in a general bill, or a bill applicable to this particular case. He saw no use in a committee to search for precedents, and he wished to ask his hon. and learned Friend whether the House could take any steps in such a case as this without a reference from the Crown.

Lord Brougham

said, that the difficulty was, that the case was as unprecedented as the argument of his noble and learned Friend, which unfortunately came after the House had consented to the appointment of a committee. It was true his noble and learned Friend might move to have that motion rescinded, though the committee had been appointed on good grounds; for their Lordships would not take for granted that any particular course should be adopted as the result of their inquiry. There were some precedents—for instance the well known case of Savage, in which a precedent had been laid down which he should not wish to see followed. However, the inquiry was, he thought, the first step which ought to be taken.

Lord Sydney

said, that he had thought it better to have the matter referred to a committee in the first instance, and before any legislative measure should be introduced. If no precedents could be found which could guide their Lordships, it would then be time to consider whether some general or special measure might not be required.

Committee named.

House adjourned.

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