Friday, 6 March 2015

6th March 1815: The Corn Bill debate in the House of Commons takes place against a backdrop of riots in Westminster

Amidst scenes of riot at the Palace of Westminster, in opposition to the proposed Corn Bill, Members of Parliament interrupted a debate on Monday 6th March 1815 to recount the disorder taking place outside, as well as relate their experiences in being jostled and subject to violence, and to seek explanations for the Palace and other Police officials (two of whom are directly related to the history of Luddism):

Mr. Baring  was proceeding to animadvert on the observations of Mr. Western, when

Mr. Lambton rose, and stated, that on coming to the House in the discharge of his duty, he saw the avenues to it surrounded by the military force, which appeared to him so contrary to the principles of the constitution, that he should move that the House do immediately adjourn.

Lord Castlereagh said, that if the hon. gentleman had bestowed a little more consideration upon his motion, he would have been aware that it was not in a committee that it ought to be brought forward. The hon. gentleman should also have taken the pains of informing himself, whether this military force which he had seen was or was not under the command of a civil magistrate. [Hear, hear!] He might have also informed himself what was the cause of the civil magistrate having called in the aid of the military, and whether it was not in consequence of the House being surrounded by a numerous and tumultuous mob, who had been brought into the neighbourhood of the House of Commons for the purpose of menacing the members of that House. If this was the true state of the case, that magistrate had done his duty who had brought the military into the neighbourhood of the House. He hoped that the hon. gentleman would feel that it was highly proper to defend the civil power of the country; and what higher duty had that civil power to perform, than to defend the Parliament of the country from the menaces of a mob? If the members of that House were to be intimidated in the discharge of their public duties by the clamour and menaces of a mob, they would soon cease to be the representatives of the people, and would be degenerated and degraded to the condition of being themselves a part of that mob. He hoped, before the hon. member gave the countenance of his name to a complaint; against the employment of the military, that he would be satisfied they had been called out in an unconstitutional manner, and not for the due support of the civil power, and the protection of the independence of Parliament.

Mr. Lambton said, in reply to the noble lord, that in coming to perform his duty in the House, he found himself menaced by a military force, and considering this highly unconstitutional, he thought some explanation was due to Parliament.

Lord Castlereagh said, that the force was called out in aid of the civil magistrate, and not with a view to menace the members, of arliament.

Mr. W. Fitzgerald stated, that when he came down to attend his duty in the House, he saw no military force, but he saw a most tumultuous mob, by whom the members were collared and dragged about. They were challenged to tell their names, and which way they had voted on the former stages of the bill, and how they meant to vote this night. Seeing an hon. friend of his (Mr. Croker) very rudely treated, and with difficulty rescued from this mob, he deemed it his duty to inform the Speaker, as the first magistrate in that House. It was probably in consequence of this information, that a military force was brought into the neighbourhood of the House—not to overawe its proceedings, but to defend its members from violence. He was sorry that the hon. gentleman had not come down to the House a few hours sooner; as in that case, he would have been able to have formed a better judgment of the cause of the military being brought into that neighbourhood.

Mr. Whitbread was not at all surprised that his hon. friend, on discovering a military force in the neighbourhood of the House, should have taken the earliest opportunity of stating that fact in his place; and if he had done so with warmth, he considered that warmth as venial, inasmuch as he was ignorant of the manner in which they had come there. He concurred with the noble lord and the right hon. gentleman, that if a tumultuous mob had insulted the members of that House on their approach to it, and the civil power was incompetent to repel those insults, it was proper the aid of the military should be called in. Bat he thought it was due to the dignity of the House to be informed what had taken place, to induce the Speaker to issue the mandate to which allusion had been made. With this view of the case, he thought the best course to be pursued would be for the chairman to report progress, and ask leave to sit again. The Speaker would then have an opportunity of taking the chair, and explaining, no doubt to the satisfaction of the Mouse, how it was that the military had been called in. The hon. gentleman concluded by moving,—That the chairman report progress, and ask leave to sit again.

Lord Castlereagh concurred in the propriety of this suggestion, and said it would certainly be proper for the House to be informed of the facts which had occurred, from due authority.

The question was then put and carried, and the Speaker took the chair.

Mr. Lambton then rose and complained to the House, that, in his way to the House this evening, he had been nearly rode over by a squadron of horse, who had formed themselves in front of the door of the House, and that the avenues thereto were beset by a military force; and that he thought it his duty to make this complaint, as he conceived it to be a breach of the constitution, and of the privileges of the House, that the military power should be in a situation to overawe their deliberations.

Mr. Croker said, that in coming to the House his carriage was surrounded by a tumultuous mob, who demanded his name, and requested to know how he proposed to vote, or how he had voted upon the Corn Bill? But to these questions he declined to make any reply. However, on his arrival at the door of the House, both doors of the carriage were opened, and he was dragged out by the collar. He then received several blows, his assailants exclaiming that they would not let him, go, unless he declared his name and promised to vote against the Corn Bill. This promise, however, he refused to give, and endeavoured, with all the strength of which be was capable, to release himself; which he did not think he should have succeeded in effecting, if it were not for the violence and confusion that prevailed among the mob, who struck at one another. Thus he contrived to escape from them, and made his way into the House through the coffee-room of the House of Lords, there being no other avenue unimpeded by the mob. At the time he was so treated, he saw no soldier whatever about the House; and he was sorry to say, that he derived no projection from any constables, who did not indeed seem competent to afford any adequate protection. Upon coming into the House he thought it his duty to communicate to the Speaker what he had just stated, adding, that he understood several other members had also been ill treated by the mob, and he believed that the introduction of a military force to aid the civil power had been the consequence of such communication. Were not such means taken for the protection of the members, he agreed with his noble friend in thinking, that it would be quite absurd to talk of the independence of that House, or to calculate upon the maintenance of its dignity, or capacity for free deliberation.

Mr. Speaker then desired to state to the House, his knowledge of the several steps taken in the course of this day, which had terminated in calling in the aid of the military, for the protection of the House and its members:—That before the House assembled this day, seeing the possibility of some tumult or obstruction to the passage of the members to or from the House, he had directed the Serjeant at Arms and Deputy Serjeant, with their messengers, to keep the lobby clear of all strangers, before the House met, and so long as it should continue to sit: That he had sent the Deputy Serjeant at Arms to the High Bailiff of Westminster, to signify to him the necessity of his special attention, this day, to the execution of the orders delivered to him at the beginning of each session, for keeping free the approaches to the House during the time of its sitting: That he had also desired that a Middlesex magistrate, belonging to one of the public offices, might attend with a sufficient number of constables, to keep a free passage from the lobby to the entrances from Westminster-hall and old Palace-yard respectively; and that if the civil power should ultimately prove to be inadequate for the protection of the House and its members, he should then, and not till then, call in the military, to maintain the peace: That some time in the course of this evening, before the House resolved itself into the committee upon the corn laws, he received a complaint from a noble lord, a member of this House, that he had been grossly insulted by a mob in Palace-yard, who had demanded his name, and his promise to vote against the Corn Bill; neither of which demands the noble lord had complied with; and that he had, with the greatest difficulty, and at the imminent hazard of his life, made his way into the House; and that thereupon he (the Speaker) had sent out his directions to the civil officers to call in the military; and for these directions he accounted himself to be responsible to the House; who, he doubted not, would be satisfied that he had done no more than his duty.

Mr. Whitbread said, after this statement, the House must be satisfied that a military force had not been called in without sufficient cause. The hon. Secretary of the Admiralty, however, having stated, that the civil power had neglected to perform their duty, he thought it was essential that the House should examine into that circumstance. He should, therefore, propose that the High Bailiff of Westminster should be called to the bar, to render an account of the steps he had taken to provide for the protection of the members on their approach to the House.

The Speaker suggested the propriety of also calling Mr. Baker, the Marlborough-street magistrate, to the bar, as, besides the communication which he had made to the High Bailiff of Westminster, he had also applied to that gentleman.

Mr. Croker explained, that when he said he had not seen any peace-officers, he meant on the outside of the door; for when he came from the House into the lower lobby, he then found abundance of them.

Mr. Fitzgerald, on hearing of the danger to which his hon. friend had been exposed, had proceeded with ten or twelve peace officers to his rescue. With this force he had attempted to effect his passage as far as the carriage-way, but such were the numbers and the strength of the mob, that they could not be penetrated.

Mr. Whitbread said, it appeared the police officers were placed where they ought not to have been, instead of the place in which they could have been of service.

Mr. Ponsonby conceived that the first step to be taken was to ascertain what had been done by the civil power which had the charge of the avenues without the House, and what degree of civil force had been called in. On constitutional principles, the military force ought not to have been called in, if the civil power were sufficient for the protection of the House and its members.

The Attorney General said, it so happened, that he was perhaps the last member who had entered the House by its usual avenues. To avoid passing through the throng, he drove to the entrance-gate of Westminster-hall. When his carriage arrived there, the door was opened, and he was asked who he was, by numbers, who also insisted on knowing how he meant to vote on the Corn Bill. He was aware, that for years past he had been too well known in Westminster to be able to disguise himself. He was never ashamed of his name, nor could he conceal it; and many, probably, knew him well enough. He said to the people, 'I won't deceive you, nor will I state what my vote will be. I shall certainly act according to the dictates of my conscience, after hearing this measure fully discussed. Unless you pursue a different conduct, you, and all of you, may regret your present attempt to overawe members of parliament; and if my life were in danger, I would sacrifice it in such a case as this.' Some of the mob said, he had always been the friend of the people. He thought that among so many, all might not think of him so handsomely. Some, however, formed an escort for him through the hall to the steps ascending to the lobby. There again he found an immense number, not to be resisted by mere peace officers. There again, they called upon him for a pledge; they urged the sufferings of the poor during a long war, and desired not to be offered up to the interests of the Irish. He told them there, that he had no objection to state his sentiments; that parliament would certainly do its duty; but that if something were not done, they might have soon to depend for their existence on foreign bread. He asked them to let him return home. Some of them who were friendly to him, told him he could not do that, as several members had been very roughly handled. He succeeded in a kind of bargain with his friends on the outside, and they permitted him to get in. The assemblage altogether was of such a nature as to excite serious alarm. The House ought unquestionably to need no aid but that of the civil power; but the case became quite different when an additional force was absolutely required.

Mr. Finlay said, that coming down with a noble friend of his, they were surrounded by a tumultuous assemblage, just as they were getting out of the carriage. He himself was assailed with sticks, and his friend had his coat and waistcoat torn. The mob was such as could not be dispersed but by a military force.

Sir Robert Heron shewed the skirt of his coat, which hung nearly torn from the body, and said, that besides this he could shew other visible marks of the treatment he had received. Instead of finding the mob as patient and mild as the hon. and learned Attorney General, he had experienced nothing but the most brutal treatment, and after having been buffeted about like a shuttlecock between two battledores, he escaped, with great difficulty, to tell his tale. [A laugh.] He said, he had not intended to deliver any sentiment on the subject, though his opinion on it had been long decided. But now, when it was attempted to terrify the House into submission to a mob, he should think himself unworthy a seat in that House, did he decline expressing his unqualified approbation of the measure; to which he should give his warm support.

Sir Frederick Flood declared, that he had been carried above a hundred yards on the shoulders of the mob, just like mackarel from Billingsgate-market, and that he thought they meant to quarter him. [A laugh.]

The Speaker entreated the hon. member, in a matter of such deep importance, to abstain from all argument or narration, unless he had something material to say on the subject.

Mr. Wynn thought, that as the proper course of proceeding was now before them, it was best to postpone all observations for the present.
The question for calling in Arthur Morris, esq. the high bailiff of Westminster, was then put, and carried nem. con.
Mr. Morris was then called in; and in answer to the questions put to him by Mr. Speaker, stated, "That yesterday he received a note from Mr. Becket (the under Secretary of State in the Home department); and, as directed, took measures for calling out all the civil force in his jurisdiction. That he ordered the high constable to issue precepts to call out all the petty constables, appointing them to be in attendance this day in various parts of Westminster: that the whole number of constables under his authority is about 80; and as many came as could come: they came between two and three o'clock; and are here now; he placed them himself, and has been here ever since; some were stationed in Westminster-hall, some in the stone lobby, some within the entrance doors; and they remained in their places as far as he could see.

"That the civil force under him is a small part of the civil force of Westminster: and during every afternoon of the session, and till the House separates, some of his constables (as many as appear to be necessary) are in constant attendance.

"Of his 80 constables, about 50 attended to-day, or between 40 and 50; he found this force, joined with all the force of the police offices, quite insufficient to restrain the mob; he did not take any step to remedy this, because knowing the Bow-street magistrates were also here, he relied on them to do so. He had no power over any constables but his own: he did not inform any officer of the House, that the civil power was not strong enough; he relied on Mr. Baker and Mr. Birnie, whom he knew to be at hand; but he had no communication with them: he had seen a military force here, within a quarter of so hour or half an hour; and he did not hear of any before.

"A written return of the constables who attend, is made daily to Mr. Wilson, who acts under him: he does not know that any person has been taken into custody, for any breach of the peace within the avenues of the House." And then he was directed to withdraw.

Mr. Baker, a magistrate of the Marl-borough-street Police-office, was then Called in; and, in answer to the questions put to him by Mr. Speaker, stated, "That he is a police magistrate of the Marl-borough-street office; that inconsequence of the direction of the Speaker, as well as from lord Sidmouth, he attended at the House of Commons at two o'clock, with 50 constables; he understood the particular duty assigned to him by the Speaker to be, the care of the stone lobby, and the stone stair-case, and that the avenues between were kept clear.

"None of his constables were outside; but a party under Sir Nathaniel Conant; he was aware of the difficulty of restraining the mob outside, but found no difficulty inside; much difficulty for the last hour and half: was fully satisfied that the civil force was insufficient, and advised to call in a military force: having received a message from the Speaker to that effect, he went to the Horse-guards himself, and brought down with him two troops of horse for that purpose. That at different times the constables within assisted those without, when their services were wanted. ‘That he does not know that any person has been taken into custody for a breach of the peace, within the avenues of the House: that he had not seen any actual assault; but there was a great deal of hooting and hallooing in the street opposite to the Abbey.’ Being asked, how many constables were with sir Nathaniel Conant, and what degree of assistance they gave? He replied, That he did not know the exact number, 20 or 30 at least; and that there was a general concurrence amongst all the constables, in trying to give assistance where most needed: he does not know the total number of constables. Sir Nathaniel Conant was called to another part of the town two hours before the military force was called in; but Mr. Kinnaird came to relieve sir Nathaniel Conant with another party of constables: he himself went to look outside of the door once or twice; saw a great crowd at the entrance of the members' waiting-room; he saw members obstructed; the constables attempted to get them in safely, and were principally occupied in that: they did not take any rioters into custody; his own exertions were directed to providing for the personal safety of the members; he did not send a message to recall sir Nathaniel Conant; he was gone, and he did not know where to send for him." And then he was directed to withdraw.

Mr. Kinnaird, a magistrate of the Thames Police-office at Wapping, was then called in; and, in answer to the questions put to him by Mr. Speaker, stated, "That he is a magistrate of the Thames Police-office at Wapping, and received orders last night to bring up the establishment to-day, to preserve the peace at Westminster: it was ordered by lord Sidmouth, that one magistrate from each office should attend him at twelve o'clock this day; he had himself been here the greater part of the day; some of his constables waiting from two o'clock at the Temple-bar, and the rest of his party was stationed from Parliament-street to Charing-cross: the establishment of the Thames Police-office is about 50 constables or thereabouts; some of them were placed in Westminster-hall, some at the side entrance and other avenues near the House: he observed the disturbance and anxiety of the mob to get into the avenues to the House; he saw no obstruction to members, and was not called upon to give assistance to any other magistrate: he was at the bottom of the stone stairs within side, about 10 o'clock; when outside he saw no pushing, shoving, or hooting: he did not come in the place of sir Nathaniel Conant; his station was sometimes inside, sometimes outside; when occasionally outside, he was attended by some of his peace officers; he is uncertain whether he saw any members go in or come out; he saw no persons obstructed." And then he was directed to withdraw.

Mr. Birnie, a magistrate of the public office Bow-street, was then called in; and, in answer to the questions put to him by Mr. Speaker, staled, "That he is a police magistrate at the Bow-street office; he attended at three o'clock with 40 constables; most of them were placed in Palace-yard; some were at the side entrance, where he saw a great mob, and many members justled, hissed and hooted: he and his constables did not apprehend any person for breaking the peace; he saw no ringleaders; a mere mob without direction; and he was occupied, as the first object, in protecting members of parliament; one of his constables has been wounded with a stone; but the offender escaped through St. Margaret's churchyard: the civil force was insufficient; he brought 40 from Bow-street; each of the other police-offices sent 7 or 8; he believes 7; the Thames Police-office sent a larger number than the rest." And then he was directed to withdraw.

Lord Castlereagh rose again and said, that the evidence appeared quite sufficient to establish the necessity of the interposition of the military for the protection of the members of parliament. Whether the conduct of the magistracy had been as vigilant as possible, was a point that might become a question of inquiry. A future day might be appointed, with a view to inquire into that matter, and to provide more certainly for the security of members upon future occasions. He then moved that the minutes be printed.

Mr. Lambton expressed himself satisfied with the explanation which had been afforded with regard to the employment of the military on this occasion, but vindicated his motives in bringing the business under the consideration of the House.

Lord Castlereagh was convinced the hon. gentleman had no other motive for the course which he had pursued than that just jealousy which ought to be entertained of the employment of a military force, where the exertion of the civil power might be deemed insufficient.

Mr. Wynn thought the House under great obligations to the hon. gentleman. The discussion was necessary, that the House might show its just constitutional jealousy. Though satisfied on the chief point, yet he thought the conduct of the magistrates open to inquiry. They did not appear to have been sufficiently active, and he thought they should be admonished by the Speaker, and desired to pay a strict regard to their duty in future, since a similar inconvenience might recur even to-morrow.

Mr. Whitbread was convinced that the military were not called in till it was necessary, but perhaps the civil power had not done its duty. He thought they had better continue this business then, and proceed with the Corn Bill on another day.

Lord Castlereagh was adverse to any such proceeding this evening, as the attendance of these magistrates might he necessary at their several stations. He however observed, that no absolute blame appeared to him fairly imputable to the conduct of the magistrates.

Mr. Addington concurred in this opinion, observing, that the principal magistrate, sir N. Conant, had been called away by riots in another quarter of the town. The right hon. gentleman vindicated the measures taken by the Executive.

Mr. Whitbread thought that the Executive had done its duty, but was inclined to believe that the civil power had not been sufficiently active.

The minutes were ordered to be printed, and taken into further consideration on Monday next; also that the said high bailiff and magistrates do then attend. It was likewise ordered, That the said high bailiff and magistrates do repair to their several posts forthwith, and prevent any further outrage or disorder in the passages to and about the House, during the time the House shall continue to sit this evening, and until after the departure of the members.

This is from Hansard.

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