HL Deb 24 July 1866 vol 184 cc1370-5

Before the adjournment of the House, I wish to put a Question to the noble Earl at the head of the Government respecting the deplorable events of last night. As I did not give the noble Earl notice of my Question before coming to the House, I only expect that he will give me exactly such answer as may be convenient to himself and to the public service; but I believe it would be satisfactory to the country if the noble Earl would inform the House, Whether he has any objection to lay before Parliament the instructions which were given to the police and the military; and also whether he can give any assurance with regard to the precautions about to be taken to prevent the recurrence of similar scenes?


Although my noble Friend had not given me any notice before I came to the House of the Questions which he intended to put, I cannot be surprised that he should have been desirous of taking the earliest opportunity of calling the attention of your Lordships and the country to what he has justly described as the deplorable events of last night—events which I am sure all persons in the country, whatever may be their political or their private opinions, cannot regard without feelings of the deepest regret, and also of some shame and humiliation. There is only one source of satisfaction in connection with those occurrences—that we find on inquiries made up to within the last hour that there has been, up to that time, at all events, no actual loss of life. There have been injuries, some of them of a serious character; but from the latest information it appears that there has been no loss of life whatever, and it is hoped no loss of life will ensue. But, my Lords, it is impossible to deny that the proceedings of yesterday were of a very grave character. My Lords, I entirely acquit those who were the leaders of the movement of any intention to produce the consequences which followed from it. I do firmly believe that those who desired to make a great demon- stration had no intention of causing any breach of the public peace. But, on the other hand, I think it is idle to contend, that what they desired was to afford a fair opportunity for public discussion. It was impossible to believe that any such fair discussion could take place under such circumstances; and I cannot but think that the object was, not by a breach of the peace, but by a demonstration of physical force to overawe the Legislature and give a false impression of public feeling upon the subject of Parliamentary Reform. However, though I acquit the leaders of any intention to violate the public peace, I do hope that the experience of last night will show them how impossible it is for those who take upon themselves the responsibility of collecting tens and hundreds of thousands of persons together, and assembling them for a demonstration of physical power—how impossible it is for them to answer for persons who are not in immediate connection with them, but who, half in sport and half in earnest, are ready perhaps to join in any riot and disturbance—or, perhaps, I may say, in any frolic which may arise. I believe that a great portion of those who assembled in Hyde Park last night were boys and young men, who had no serious views with regard to the demonstration, but joined in it merely for the purpose of assisting in any row or disturbance that might take place. There was among them a great amount of good humour, rough jokes were bandied about from side to side, and I really believe that a great deal of the mischief which resulted was not intended in the slightest degree, nor anticipated even by those who were the principal actors. At the same time, it is impossible not to see that the result was of a very serious character. The leaders of the demonstration, I dare say, were sincerely desirous to try the point of law—whether the Parks ought to be open for all purposes and at all times to all Her Majesty's subjects? But that point of law is one on which I believe there can be no question whatever. There can be no doubt that the Crown is the owner of these Parks. It is true they are kept up at the expense of the public, and for the enjoyment and recreation of the public; but the Crown has the undoubted right of exercising such control over the Parks as to prevent them from being diverted from their proper purposes to objects which may interfere with the enjoyment and recreation of the people. I believe this has been laid down at all times. It is a question on which there is not the smallest doubt; and that opinion was emphatically declared by the Home Secretary of the late Government in the most handsome manner when he was expressing his concurrence in the course proposed to be taken by my right hon. Friend the present Secretary for the Home Department. As to the propriety of imposing certain restrictions and regulations in the Parks, I believe no Member either of the late or the present Government, and no one who has considered the question can have the slightest doubt. The measures adopted yesterday for enforcing the rights of the Crown were those which were thought least likely to produce a collision between the police and any number of the persons who might attend. Whether the course adopted was really the most prudent one I do not pretend to say; but there can be no question that it was for the purpose of preventing a collision the gates of the Park were closed. Unfortunately, it happened, partly from the pressure of the vast multitude collected, and partly from a spirit of mischief, that a portion of the railings was pulled down. I am told that not less than 1,400 yards of iron railing were pulled down in the course of last night. The consequence was that the Park was left open, and very considerable destruction has taken place of those ornamental flower-beds and shrubberies which have afforded so much delight to the people, and much injury has been done to the property of the Crown. I believe the leaders, having ascertained that they would not be admitted, desired to withdraw and to hold their meeting in some place where the same objection would not apply as in the Parks; and, whatever I may think of their prudence in assembling where they did, I can safely say that there is no desire on the part of any one to interfere with that which is the right of British subjects—namely, to assemble for the discussion of political and public questions wherever they do not infringe upon public or private rights, or obstruct legitimate traffic. There is no doubt that in this case the leaders endeavoured to withdraw their forces from the scene of action; but after they had done so a multitude of "roughs" and idle characters assembled, and from these in the main the mischief proceeded. My Lords, I believe that the police acted with great forbearance and temper; and I have also to say that the troops, whom ultimately it was found necessary to call out, behaved with the utmost forbearance. Whatever may be the rumours as to charges made on the people, or anything of that kind, such rumours are absolutely and entirely unfounded. The troops confined themselves as far as possible to keeping the crowds moving, and at a not very late hour the Park was comparatively clear, and very little damage was done in the streets. I believe my noble and learned Friend on the Woolsack was an unfortunate sufferer in consequence of his near proximity to Sir Richard Mayne, who yesterday was not a very popular character; and between two and three o'clock in the morning I was honoured with a visit from the mob. But beyond the breaking a few windows, I do not think any damage was done, except in the immediate neighbourhood of the Park. Nevertheless, it is the duty of the Government to use every means in its power to prevent a repetition of dangers of this kind. I have no reason to apprehend that there is likely to be a repetition tonight of the scenes of last night; but, at the same time, it is not to be concealed that there were a number of idle people about the Park this afternoon, probably with no political object, but bent on mischief, and it will be necessary to take precautions for the purpose of interfering with their unlawful proceedings. There will be no attempt to exclude people from the Park, because circumstances have made that utterly impossible, but what will be done will be to prevent assemblages by keeping the crowds in motion. This will be done by the police—for I hope there will be no occasion to call out the military. It may, however, be necessary to patrol the Park and the immediate neighbourhood; and if the spirit of mischief and insubordination should continue, it will be necessary to take those steps which were taken on a former occasion, and call on the well-disposed inhabitants of the district to enrol themselves as special constables for the preservation of the public peace, in which all are interested, but more especially those whose residences are in the vicinity of the Park. I cannot undertake to say what are the precise instructions which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has given, nor whether it will be possible to produce those instructions; but I know that my right hon. Friend has been in constant communication with Sir Richard Mayne, and I believe also with the illustrious Duke the Commander-in-Chief. We have full confidence—as I am sure my noble Friend opposite has also—in the judgment and discretion of Sir Richard Mayne, who I am sure will use all the means at his disposal, should it become necessary for him to do so, to preserve the peace of the metropolis.


The Questions which I put to the noble Earl—though he might have objected that he was taken by surprise—I am bound to admit have been answered with candour. In some points I entirely agree with the noble Earl. I think we must regret with him that these monster meetings should be held in the metropolis, where they cannot be of any use in furthering what is professedly the object of those who call them together. I am as strongly as possible in favour of the right of public meeting; and I think it must be borne in mind that some difficulties have been placed in the way of persons regarding whose conduct observations are now made by the course events have lately taken with regard to the measure of Reform introduced in another place. One of the strong arguments used against the necessity for such a measure was the apathy and indifference shown by the working classes to any such proposals. At the same time, I believe that for the purposes of real discussion these monster meetings are valueless. I entirely agree with the noble Earl that, not only on the part of the leaders, but of the real working classes of the metropolis, their desire was to maintain perfect order; but in these very large meetings numbers make discussion almost impossible, and therefore, whether such be the desire or not, they cannot fail to be taken to some extent as embodying the desire for a display of physical force. I believe there can be no doubt whatever as to the state of the law regarding Royal Parks. It is quite clear that if no legal power exists to prevent these meetings, there must be a great abuse of power in preventing carriages from going through, in shutting the gates at particular hours, in placing policemen to regulate the riding in Rotten Row, in prohibiting preaching meetings and cricket matches—and other things, which are prohibited from being done. These are all restrictions imposed in order to maintain the Parks for the general purposes of the recreation, health, and amusement of the people at large. But I wish to have it clearly understood that Sir George Grey, while stating the other day, entirely in accordance with the sentiments expressed by the present Secretary for the Home Department, that in his view it was not desirable to allow public meetings of this monstrous extent to be held in the Park, gave no opinion whatever as to the mode of proceeding which ought to be adopted. I do not wish at present to discuss the means which should have been adopted for preventing these very deplorable events; but the public will certainly be anxious to know, and I trust on calm consideration the noble Earl will not find it inconvenient to give full information as to the instructions which were given and the mode in which those instructions were carried out. I do not offer any opinion of my own, as to whether it was desirable to bring out troops at the particular moment, or whether they should have been called out at all. But it certainly is an unusual circumstance in this metropolis for the military to be called out, and I think it ought to be clearly known to the public under whose authority they were called out, and under what circumstances the occurrence happened. My real object, however, in rising was to assure the Government that they will have the co-operation, as far as I know, of every single person, not only in this House, but of the public, if necessary, in that most important object of maintaining order in this great metropolis by all modes consistent with the liberties of the people.


was understood to suggest that means should be given to the public by the Government to hold large meetings in such a manner as not to interfere with the public peace.

House adjourned at Six o'clock, to Thursday next, half past Ten o'clock.