Tuesday, 10 July 2012

10th July 1812: Preservation of the Public Peace Bill introduced to the House of Commons

On Friday 10th July 1812, the government responded to the report of the Committee of Secrecy into the Luddite disturbances by introducing the Preservation of the Public Peace Bill, which aimed to give magistrates greater powers, in particular to search for and confiscate arms from the public.

Two MPs in particular - Samuel Whitbread and Sir Francis Burdett - used the opportnity of discussing the Bill to raise concerns about the conduct of the Bolton Magistrate, Colonel Ralph Fletcher. Extracts of their contributions on this subject follow:
Samuel Whitbread

…A great deal had been said of the meeting on Dean Moor, on the night of the 19th of April, immediately previous to the burning of the mill; but of the 40 persons who were present on the moor, it appeared from the evidence of the colonel and adjutant of the Bolton Local Militia, that 10 were local militiamen, disguised with blackened faces, who described themselves as having passed two by two, before the general of the assembly, whose name was Hurst, and who, except the 10 militia-men, was the only person in disguise there. He could not but testify his dislike of this system of espionage. It appeared that one of these militia-men, in the effervescence of his zeal, endeavoured to instigate another person to burn the work-house, who immediately said, “If we burn the work-house, we shall burn a number of poor people who are in it.” “Oh, the devil care for that,” replied the militia-man, “let us only do all the mischief we possibly can.” It appeared, therefore, that these misguided people have been frequently induced by such means to go greater lengths than they would otherwise have thought of. Here were men employed as spies, abetting and inciting the multitude to daring and desperate acts of violence; and on account of these acts, the House was applied to for the purpose of arming the government with new laws, and investing them with extraordinary powers hitherto unknown to the constitution.

Sir Francis Burdett

...He was informed by a gentleman of great credibility, who came from the neighbourhood of Houghton Mills, that the account of that case had been very much exaggerated. This gentleman he had recommended to go before the committee; but they refused to receive any evidence but what coincided with their own views. Of the forty persons who met on the moor, ten of whom were spies, twelve were afterwards convicted, a pretty considerable proportion. As to the executions at Lancaster, there were many at the recital of which he was shocked. Women executed for stealing potatoes; and children, as he might call those of sixteen years old. Executions of this nature appear to him much more likely to produce disgust than any beneficial example. Indeed, if those cases had been laid before the Prince Regent, he had little doubt but that his humanity would have prompted him to extend his mercy to them, as he had done to many who had been convicted at Chester, where but two persons were executed. The hon. member for Yorkshire attributed those disturbances, not to the want of employment, or high price of provisions, but merely to political causes; and yet, when they recollected the evidence given before the Committee on the Orders in Council, stated the utmost degree of human misery to prevail among the poor manufacturers, there was no need to look to other causes to account for the disturbances.

This is from Parliamentary Debates, vol.23 (pp.973-981)

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