Friday, 13 July 2012

13th July 1812: Samuel Whitbread & Henry Brougham raise more concerns about Colonel Fletcher in the House of Commons

On Monday 13th July 1812, there was further debate in the House of Commons about the government's proposed Preservation of the Peace Bill to give magistrates extensive powers. Once again, Whig MPs used the session to express concerns about the actions and methods of Colonel Ralph Fletcher. Extracts of their contributions follow:
Samuel Whitbread

…As to the persons who had blackened their faces, and disfigured themselves for the purpose of concealment, and had attended the meeting on Deanmoor, near Manchester, it turned out that ten of them were spies sent out by the magistrates; and the only other man present, who was similarly disguised and with fire-arms, was one Hurst, who was now under sentence of transportation. These spies were the very ringleaders of the mischief, and incited the people to acts which they would not otherwise have thought of. Such a practice should not go on; and he would never consent to entrust new powers to magistrates who had thus grossly misconducted themselves. The hon. member for Yorkshire had ascribed the evil to certain inflammatory and seditious publications; but he, and other gentleman who thought with him, had in the same breath, declared, that work, and a lower price of provisions, were likely to render the people tranquil. The hon. gentleman's mind seemed in a state of alarm and consternation; and, of course, his ideas were not likely to be clear.

…It had been stated, too, that these outrages were directed by men of high condition, nay, he had the affidavit of a man tried at Lancaster, to shew that a person had come to him in the prison, with a view to extort from the criminal, a confession that he (Mr. Whitbread) was the very individual who instigated the riots? What was the fact? Why that some of the inhabitants of Bolton being unemployed, wrote to him, asking his advice, whether they should petition parliament; and, in answer, he wrote them word that he thought they had better state the cause of their grievances. This letter was made the ground of presumption, that he was at the head of the rioters! So besotted was the imagination of some of the alarmists, that an idle rumour for some time obtained credit, that the duke of York was about to advocate the cause of these deluded people. Would the House believe that so ridiculous a supposition could enter the heads of any respectable set of men? These ideas of plots were ridiculous in one point of view, but base in another; because there was too much reason to believe that the absurdities had been propagated by some of the magistrates: and this made him come to the conclusion not to grant the magistracy any of the powers provided in this Bill. A magistrate who had heard that a man of respectability in his county was named in the committee as one of the instigators of the riots, though not before suspected, took occasion to promulgate his name throughout the county—this person was a Presbyterian. He could not avoid entering his protest against the Bill, when he saw the operation of the rescinding of the Orders in Council—that the potteries were fully employed, that the men were returning to their work contented and happy, and at Nottingham and other places were also tranquil.

Henry Brougham

…He should now state a few strong instances of the truth of what he had advanced. Bolton-in-the-Moors, in Lancashire, a place which contained a population of about seventeen thousand souls, there were about three thousand persons exposed to the most severe pressure of distress; and in the vicinity of that place, the practice of twisting-in, according to the cant phrase by which the unlawful swearing was designated, was very common. It was by some of the infatuated of this district that the assembly on Dean Moor, of which the House had heard, was composed—that meeting at which spies, paid for their services, had attended—spies, who were the only persons there who appeared in disguise—spies who could not screw their courage up to a pitch such as would enable them to assert that the meeting was composed of more than forty persons, of which number they themselves composed a part, in the ratio of twenty-five per cent. It was worthy of remark that in this place no steps had been taken to diminish, by charitable donations, the sufferings of the poor. This seat of distress, then, became the focus of disturbances in Lancashire.

…He must say, that he had another very strong objection to granting these extraordinary powers to the magistrates; and that was, that he suspected some of the magistrates as men not fit to be entrusted with such powers, and likely to abuse them. In this he alluded merely to Lancashire, not to Yorkshire, and principally to that one magistrate, a clergyman, whose representations appeared to have had so much influence on the Report of the committee. His correspondence was so inflated with fear and fancy, and evinced so much precipitation and bigotry, that he could not conceive him a man of sound judgement; and in a court of justice, he would doubt any fact stated by such a visionary. In one of his letters he talked of the restoration of peace “when the present generation of disturbers should be swept into oblivion.” Although, from his expression he should consider him a man of sound judgement, he considered his acts as of much more consequence. He had absolutely charged with a capital felony a most respectable dissenting clergyman, whom he asserted to have been present, aiding and abetting at the destruction of some mills; and when afterwards he was called upon for his authority for so saying, his answer was, that he had the story from a dying man. He must take the liberty to doubt that the dying man ever did say such a thing; and even if he did, the assertions of men at the gallows were known to be very bad evidence indeed. He could give other statements illustrative of his preceding positions; nay, in giving them he could go to greater length than the hon. member had done in the speech which he had just delivered. The next case to which he would allude was that of a Methodist preacher. From his statement, it appeared, that while preaching in the centre of his flock, one Saturday evening, light was observed in his dwelling by one of these useful gentleman, the spies, who happened to be travelling that way. This individual instantly gave notice of a nightly meeting, and but a very little time had elapsed before the poor parson was surrounded by eight of the Scotch Greys, who led him off in a most indecorous and insulting manner. Now what was the consequence of such a proceeding? Why, that by this unnecessary interference, the minds of this clergyman's flock became irritated; they now were enemies who before dwelt in peace. But the motive of this preceding doubtless was an antipathy to the sect, or the expectation that it would not be unacceptable to higher persons. The sect, however, had proved themselves lovers of peace. The charitable association before alluded to, had offered its assistance to a particular place in one of those disturbed districts. The answer was, that the distress was so extensive that the whole fund of the association could not give the required relief; that it resulted from the total want of work; that no disorders whatever had taken place, notwithstanding all this distress; but this latter circumstance, they said, was to be attributed to the happy prevalence of the principles of Methodism.—Yet the men professing these principles of peace were to be insulted and disturbed; and those who so insulted and disturbed them were to have more extensive powers! A man of the name of Haynes, who unfortunately lived in one of those disturbed neighbourhoods, was actually compelled to join one of the unlawful meetings, and to take the oath. This man was impeached by the spies who attended the meeting. He was not rich enough to employ a counsel; and, if he had, such counsel could not have addressed the jury on his behalf. The jury, however, on his own plain, unvarnished, simple statement of his case, and from the activity and bustle which they saw among those spies, in the court and about the jury-box, acquitted the man; and saved him from the machinations of these attendants on the magistrates. There was another mischief, also, to which the unhappy people in those disturbed districts were liable, and which the House should be careful how it enlarged the means of increasing. This was the danger of insulting a spy. These gentry had of late been raised to such extraordinary consequence, that to insult one of them was scarcely one degree removed from the crime of insulting a magistrate. A poor schoolmaster had been taken up and punished “for insulting one of his Majesty’s spies.” A woman of the lower order was met in a public street by one of those spies, who taunted her with her husband's conduct; and on her expressing her resentment of his unmanly behaviour in rather warm terms, she was seized, taken before a magistrate, and punished, for insulting this spy. But why was all this done; why did such cases occur? They resulted from active zeal of pettifogging magistrates, in the hope of recommending themselves to the attention of government. A late right hon. friend of his, whose loss to the House, as well as he himself, would long deplore (Mr. Windham) had never mentioned this race (for he talked of them as if they were vermin) without expressing sentiments of disgust, contempt, and mistrust. He meant the meddling, the over-busy magistrates, by this description. To these men, however, the House were called upon to give new powers. As to the spies, they were busy because they thought they ought to do something for money; for certainly no one would suppose, that they took up this calling from mere love for it. No one would believe that they were amateurs, especially when it was considered, that they were paid a very great price for their services, some of them 30s. others 40s. and some two guineas and a half a week, besides all their expenses. It was not to be wondered at that the magistrates were their strenuous supporters. If the member for the university of Cambridge wished to know what became of the secret service money, he might now guess how hundreds went; for how great a sum must go to pay this immense troop of spies! And when wagons were travelling about the nothern counties loaded with money to pay for this host, was it nothing to have the disposal of it,—was it to be supposed that all this money passed through certain hands without some of it sticking to their fingers? The House should also consider the vast source of patronage it created, and how that patronage might be made particurly available almost on the eve of a general election. These spies had endeavoured, on various occasions, to induce unhappy man who had been arrested, to make allegations against the highest and best of characters. He instanced the name of the member for Bedford, and himself, in comparison, he would allow, a very humble character. They, however, from their station in life, might smile at the malice and baseness of these miscreants; but persons who were not so happily situated, and who lived unfortunately in disturbed neighbourhoods, were liable to be exposed to the most dreadful injustice, and frequently to ruin. A manufacturer was constantly exposed to the hardship of having his property broken in upon, and his grounds and premises ridden over and taken possession of by parties of Scotch Greys, if any one chose to go to a magistrate and say, that in the manufactory there were suspicious persons. These spies were the active agents of the magistrates, and the House should be cautious how they enlarged powers which might be used to such mischievous and oppressive purposes. In one instance a poor fellow had been arrested as a rioter, who was in the employment of a manufacturer of a very good character and large property, who had been to him a most generous and kind master. As soon as possible after he was in their power, the spies applied to him with an assurance of “drawing him through,” if he would inform them of any thing his master had ever said against the government. He answered them, that he had never heard any thing of the kind. “What,” said they, “did you never hear him say any thing against the King?”—No. “Nor against any of the royal family?”—“No.” At length, after assailing him in various ways, they offered to “draw him through,” if he would say that his master told him, if he (the man) would take against the King, he (the master) would back him. The poor fellow burst into tears at being supposed capable of so base a return to the kindness of so good a master, and resolutely refused all their offers. But this shewed what base arts and means had been resorted to; and it was, in his opinion, too great a trust to enlarge powers, and trust in the hands of a set of men who had already shown themselves too busy in invading the rights and privileges of Englishman, their fellow subjects.

This is from Parliamentary Debates, vol.23 (pp.1000-973-1018) .

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