HL Deb 25 February 1886 vol 302 cc1174-81

in rising to ask Her Majesty's Government, Whether they intend to declare illegal all public meetings and processions in the squares and the parks on Sundays, as they inter-fore with the comfort of all classes, and may lead to disturbance? said, with respect to the very disgraceful riots which arose out of the meeting in Trafalgar Square, he thought the police and Sir Edmund Henderson had been very hardly treated indeed. On other occasions of monster meetings in Trafalgar Square he believed that the mob went away by different streets, and no not or breaking of windows had before occurred in connection with those meetings. On this occasion they went away, as they had done so many times previously, by different thoroughfares, so that when the not occurred both the police and Mr. Childers were equally taken by surprise, as they did not anticipate any disturbance. He should like to know how it was possible for either the police or anyone else to follow crowds of people dispersing in different directions. The real cause of all that which subsequently followed on the Monday when the riots took place was in allowing such immense gatherings to take place. It was said that there were 20,000, 30,000, or even as many as 50,000 persons assembled at the late meeting. Was there any city in Europe in which a similar thing would be permitted? In the French capital did they think 100 men would be allowed to assemble in a public square? In Berlin or Vienna did they suppose that 40,000 or 50,000 would be permitted to assemble to endanger the safety of the Metropolis? The whole thing was a disgrace to any English Government—be did not care to which side of politics it belonged—that such proceedings should be tolerated. That the whole of Pall Mall, St. James's Street, and Piccadilly should be blocked by an assembly of peope like that was perfectly monstrous. Moreover, by what rule were lorries allowed into the parts of the Park were carriages were not permitted? And Mr. Hyndman and his followers were allowed to build up platforms and to make these abominable speeches. It was time to put an end to such a state of things. It was disgraceful that a man like Hyndman—be was said to be a gentleman, but nobody would believe it—should be allowed to do as he had done. Mr. Quelch, who moved the first resolution, said—"They must seize all land, machinery, and capital for the benefit of the community." Mr. Burns said— The seeds of a bloody revolution were germinating. The Trafalgar Square meeting had affected Vienna and Paris, for when London moved the world moved. Mr. Hyndman said— People like the Duke of Devonshire (Cries of 'Shoot him!')—well, if they did there would he another to-morrow. (Cries of 'Shoot him too!') The upper classes robbed the working men to debauch their daughters and sisters. They were the lazy, loafing, and criminal classes. They wanted a social revolution. They would bring it about peaceably if they could; it rested with the upper classes whether it should be peaceable or not. London was the centre where all the great vampires of the commercial world were gathered together. Another said— The money now subscribed at the Mansion House had been stolen from the working classes. He asked whether on a Sunday afternoon such a scene should be permitted? That on Sunday evening the streets should be made impassable for respectable people, who were afraid to leave their houses, was intolerable. He did not know what the law might be upon this subject; but if it was not strong enough it ought to be strengthened. Large sums had been voted for the preservation of the public Parks, and it was really monstrous that they should allow them to be occupied in the way they had been, to the exclusion of people who de- sired to frequent them for enjoyment. He had limited his Motion to restricting the right of meetings on Sundays, because that was a day when all desired rest from their weekly toil. They had done themselves an immense amount of harm by the occurrence in question, by the credence which it seemed to have given to the idea that their various institutions were in a state of decay, and from the idea, also, which was prevalent, that the Government had neither the strength, the will, nor the authority to put down meetings of this kind. He felt that unless the matter was taken in hand the end would be a social and terrible revolution.


said, he regretted that in the Report of the Committee over which Mr. Childers presided, and in the Memorandum which the right hon. Gentleman had since published with regard to his future intentions as to this great question, no reference was made to the special branch of the subject mentioned by the noble Lord (Lord Lamington) who had just sat down. He (Viscount Midleton) ventured to think that this part of the question went to the very root of the matter. It was a question whether such meetings, especially when they were held on a Sunday, were any longer safe or desirable in the Metropolis. The Military Authorities, he believed, had arrived at the conclusion that, considering the enormous increase of the population of the Metropolis, it was a question of very great doubt whether any more military displays should take place in the heart of London—not because of any danger which the military were likely to produce, but because of the danger that might arise from the large crowds collected together on such occasions. Surely, if that was the case, gatherings of the kind which recently took place had become completely out of date. He had hoped that, considering the many representations that had been made to the Home Office, Mr. Childers would have seen the gravity of the question, and would have taken some steps to inquire as to what means could be adopted to prevent the peril to which the Metropolis was constantly exposed by the recurrence of these demonstrations. The result of the inquiry had been the retirement of Sir Edmund Henderson; but what struck him was the extreme ingratitude of the Home Office in this matter. The penultimate Predecessor of the present Home Secretary cost £1,500 a-year for police protection. If a sum of that kind had been spent, ho thought the present Home Secretary (Mr. Childers) might have behaved a little more generously to those to whom his Predecessor owed his existence. His own opinion was that the public services of Sir Edmund Henderson in the preservation of law and order had been considerably more than had been rendered by five Mr. Childerses in the past. There was no reason whatever why this question should not at least be investigated. Sir Richard Mayne, he knew, felt a great difficulty in controlling large bodies of men when they had been brought together in a limited space; and it should be remembered that that officer had to deal with a population very little more than half of the population under the charge of the Chief Commissioner at the present time. Every year made the difficulty greater, because with an increase of population must come also an increase of the criminal classes; and they also found that a largo portion of the criminal community attended demonstrations for the purpose of carrying out the objects for which they existed—plunder and destruction. An inquiry such as he suggested would not cast the slightest slur upon the working classes, as no one for a moment would suppose that they had anything to do with the recent outrages. The time had come when they should make up their minds whether it was profitable or safe that these gatherings should be permitted to take place except under very stringent regulations as to control and as to the numbers attending them. If it should be found impossible to place restrictions either upon the numbers attending the meetings or upon the manner in which the meetings were held, then they must come to the conclusion that such demonstrations ought to be prohibited altogether. No one was more unwilling than he was to say or do anything to check the full expression of public opinion; but at the present time every class of Her Majesty's subjects had facilities for expressing their views in a legitimate manner upon any subject which did not exist in former times. He doubted whether there was a single district in London in which there was no building capable of being used for large public meetings. That being so, he did not understand why a small and comparatively insignificant class should be allowed to monopolize open places of public resort which were intended for the use of the inhabitants of the Metropolis generally. He held that a definite conclusion ought to be come to upon the question of open-air meetings, so that in future Governments might not be left without guidance.


said, that the Government ought to accede to the views of the noble Lord (Lord Lamington), who had brought the subject forward on the ground that those views were prompted by a desire to effect the happiness of the greatest number, a rule which they were inclined to follow, sometimes even at the expense of principle. The number of those who took part in the late riots was very small, not more than 2,000. The Government had explained the numerous executions in Burmah by the necessity of suppressing dacoity and of protecting the innocent villagers, and were they not equally bound to protect shopkeepers in London and innocent villagers in Ireland from the violence of the ill-disposed?


said, that he was unable to agree with the noble Viscount in his remarks as to prohibiting public meetings. It was quite clear that from time to time the police organization required looking into, in order that they might have the proper proportion of officers and men, and that arrangements might be made to secure the efficiency of the force. This was a proper matter for consideration by a Committee of Inquiry; but the subject which was dealt with in this Resolution was more a matter for legislation, and it was impossible to deny that the same arguments which were used to prohibit Sunday meetings were equally applicable to meetings held on any other day. The Government of which he was a Member endeavoured to mitigate the inconvenience by limiting the space in Hyde Park on which those meetings could be held. It should be observed that less inconvenience was caused by meetings on Sundays than would arise on other days. If enormous processions were to march through the principal thoroughfares of the towns on week days, with the object of influencing the higher classes of society, all traffic would be impeded. He doubted whe- ther it would be possible to prohibit public meetings in Hyde Part. The processions were generally arranged with a due regard to order, and the leaders of such demonstrations, as a rule, informed the Commissioners of Police of the intended line of march, and asked that adequate measures might be taken to insure order. Steps of this kind had been taken by the people who called the meeting in Trafalgar Square on the 8th instant. Although he was of opinion that meetings in the Park and other large open spaces could not be prevented, he thought that attention might well be turned to the question whether demonstrations should be permitted in Trafalgar Square, were meetings were frequently held, to the great inconvenience of the public, with the special object of overawing the Houses of Parliament. If meetings were held, he agreed that steps should be taken to minimize the public danger and inconvenience as much as possible.


said, he held that the public had a right to be protected against such dangers as were incurred through the agglomeration of immense masses of people in the neighbourhood of places like Trafalgar Square, where shops were open, and people were employed in their ordinary daily avocations, and where there was a congestion of traffic. It was remarkable that the direction in which the flow of people set after meetings in Trafalgar Square was generally that of Whitehall. Colonel Pearson had stated before Mr. Childers's Committee that the flow of the crowd from such meetings was very largely down Whitehall, and that he had often been obliged to block Whitehall with police in order to prevent the crowd from surging down that thoroughfare. It should be remembered that the Public Offices and Houses of Parliament were in this direction, and ought not to be thus exposed. Anyone who happened to be in Hyde Park on Sunday last could see that respectable people were driven out of the Park, that at every 10 yards peaceable citizens were confronted by policemen, and that the place had all the appearance of being in state of seige. Was it decent that a state of things should exist which rendered it necessary that soldiers should be confined to barracks on the Sunday, and that every policeman not on duty should remain at home or at the headquarters of his district, in order to be ready to protect harmless people against others who chose to resort to the Park for purposes of no public utility? The Legislature had decided that nominations at elections should no longer take place in the open air in consequence of the disturbances that used to accompany the proceedings, and it would be well to consider whether the precedent might not be applied to the occasions to which the debate referred. Such great masses of people as assembled in these cases could not hear what the orator said, and there was always turmoil and noise which were opposed to reasonable discussion. In Trafalgar Square on the 8th instant, the respectable working men who met to ventilate their grievances were opposed by a mob of a totally different character, and a collision was expected. The danger that he feared was not revolution; but that one day in the Park or Square two masses of men of opposite views would come into conflict, and that a bloody massacre might ensue. What would be said if anywhere out of London such demonstrations were organized in one town and were extended to another town by processions passing from one to the other? Yet the people taking part in the demonstrations in Hyde Park did not belong to the neighbourhood of the Parks, but they came from distant parts of London, and their object was to strike terror into the people who lived or occupied property about the Parks. In consequence of the terror produced by what happened in London on the Monday night, on the Tuesday 10 miles of shops were shut up, and all business was brought to a standstill. It was impossible with the best police arrangements to prevent disturbances and panic unless you could so dispose of and use your police as to prevent rioters proceeding collectively in certain directions in which they would be disposed to commit injuries. It was quite possible to deal with this matter without interfering with the right of public meetings; nobody wished to do that. There were plenty of places where people could hold meetings if they desired to do so, and where addresses could be delivered with the prospect of the speaker being listened to and heard. There were such places that were not surrounded by dense populations, and where danger would not attend the holding of an out-door meeting. If we allowed persons from all parts of London to assemble in Trafalgar Square and in the Parks, and this was especially true in reference to Sunday, we should irritate the police to the last degree, and if a collision did occur it would be impossible that the police should not remember how they had been harassed by these gatherings. We should also alienate the soldiers, on whom, in the last resort, we must rely, by shutting them in their barracks and depriving them of necessary recreation, which was as essential to them as to any other part of the community.


said, that the noble Lord who had asked the Question would appreciate the importance of it as much as anyone, and would especially appreciate the difficulty of entering upon many considerations that affected it at the present time. In these circumstances, he trusted their Lordships would excuse him if he replied as concisely as he could to the exact terms of the Question. He had, therefore, to state, on the part of the Home Office, that it was not the intention of Her Majesty's Government, at the present moment, to declare illegal all public meetings and all processions in the Squares and Parks on Sundays. It might not, however, be inappropriate if he reminded their Lordships that steps were about to be taken with a view, if possible, to improve the hitherto existing arrangements which governed these proceedings; but pending the contemplated inquiry, and the decision at which the Home Office might arrive, it would, perhaps, be wise on the part of the public, and even, perhaps, of Parliament, to refrain from further discussisn.


said, that, in consequence of the unsatisfactory reply which had been given on behalf of the Government, he should certainly, in due time, bring the question before their Lordships again, and take their opinion upon it.