Chapter XX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 4
A speaker at the great meeting of the Birmingham Political Union, anticipating this conduct of the bishops, expressed the popular feeling in the following terms: - " It is said the reverend fathers in God, the bishops, will oppose this bill; if they do, their fate, which even now is exceedingly doubtful, will be irrevocably sealed. The haughty remnants of the establishment will be buried in the dust, with a nation's execration for their epitaph: the splendid mitre will fall from the heads of the bishops; their crosses will fall as if from a palsied hand; their robes of lawn will be turned into garments of mourning; and my lord bishop of London may shut up his episcopal palace, and take out a licence for a beer-shop!"
Lord Eldon described the progress of the debate from day to day in letters to members of his family. Lord Dudley and lord Haddington quite surprised and delighted the zealous old man - they spoke so admirably against the bill. Lord Carnarvon delivered a most excellent speech; but lord Plunket's speaking disappointed him. The fifth night of the debate was occupied by the lawyers. Lord Eldon - following lord Wynford and lord Plunket - solemnly delivered his conscience on this momentous occasion. He was ill and weak, and being an octogenarian, he might be said to be speaking on the edge of the grave. He expressed his horror of the new doctrines which had been laid down, with respect to the law of the country and its institutions. He could not consent to have all rights arising out of charters, and all the rights of close boroughs, swept away. Boroughs, he contended, were both property and trust. Close corporations had as good a right to hold their charters under the great seal as any of their lordships had to their titles and their peerages. He said that he was a freeman of Newcastle-upon-Tyne; he had received his education in the corporation school of that town on cheap terms, as the son of a freeman; he had a right to it; and he had hoped that, when his ashes were laid in the grave, he might have given some memorandum that the boys there, situated as he was, might rise to be chancellors of England, if, having the advantage of that education, they were honest, faithful, and industrious. But this bill was to do away with corporations. He concluded by saying that he feared in his soul the bill would go the length of introducing in its train, if passed, universal suffrage, annual parliaments, and vote by ballot. It would unhinge the whole frame of society. It was altogether incompatible with the existence of the house of lords. He thus concluded: " I, my lords, have nearly run my race in this world, and must soon go to my Maker and my dread account. What I have said in this instance, in all sincerity, I have expressed out of my love to your lordships; and in that sincerity I will solemnly assert my heartfelt belief that with this bill in operation the monarchy cannot exist, and that it is totally incompatible with the existence of the British constitution."
Lord Campbell states that as a member of the house of commons he was present on the steps of the throne during this memorable debate, and heard lord Eldon's impressive speech, which was listened to with the most profound attention on all sides. "Nothing could be more affecting than the allusion by the octogenarian ex-chancellor to the days when he was a poor boy at the free grammar school at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and no one considered whether he proved very logically that the reform bill would cut off from others the chance of following in the same illustrious career. He was much exhausted before he sat down, and a noble earl from a distant part of the house very indecorously requested him to raise his voice; but this interruption excited a strong expression of sympathy and respect in his favour, as well from those who thought that he was haunted by delusive terrors, as those who believed that his vaticinations were inspired by the mystical lore which gives to the wizard in the sunset of life a glimpse of coming calamities."
The closing night of the debate brought out the two most illustrious law lords in the house, who had long been rivals and competitors in the arenas of professional and political life - lord Brougham and lord Lyndhurst. Each was holding back in order to have the opportunity of replying to the other; but lord Lyndhurst managed to have the last word, the more excitable chancellor having lost patience, and flung himself into the debate. Mr. Roebuck contrasts their styles happily: - " The style of lord Brougham, though vigorous and sometimes happy, was too often diffuse, loose, and cumbrous, and always wanting in that exquisite accuracy, simplicity, and constantly equal and sustained force of his more sedate and self-collected antagonist. Looking back, however, and calmly weighing the merits of these celebrated efforts of these, the two most distinguished orators of that day, we cannot, I think, fail to feel that, although in lord Lyndhurst's speech there was nothing superfluous - that all was severely, and, if I may use the expression, serenely great - yet that, in the higher, I ought to say the highest, excellence of impassioned reasoning, his rival was eminently superior. The cold sagacity of lord Lyndhurst shines steadily throughout the whole of his discourse; but we feel no enthusiasm - we are not touched by any appeal to a generous sentiment - we never appear to ourselves exalted by being called upon to share in and sympathise with any large and liberal policy. The speech of the lord chancellor produces effects of a very different description. Discursive, sometimes even trivial, it contains splendid and exciting appeals, wise and generous sentiments, cogent, effective argument; and we are anxious to believe him right, because, while he attempts to satisfy the understanding, he enlists in his favour the emotion of his hearers, by exhibiting an earnest solicitude for the well-being of his country and his kind."
The last night's debate continued till between six and seven o'clock on the morning of Saturday, the 8th of October. It was a night of intense anxiety, both in the house and out of doors. The space about the throne was thronged with foreigners and members of the other house. There was a number of ladies, peeresses, and their daughters, sitting there the whole night, manifesting their excitement in every way consistent with decorum. Palace Yard, and the space all round the house, was thronged with people waiting to hear the result of the division. The nigh£ was wet, however, and the debate was so protracted that the crowd had dispersed before morning. This was a matter of consolation to the opposition peers, who dreaded a mobbing. It was now broad daylight, and no sound was heard outside except the rolling of the carriages of the peers, who passed up Parliament Street as quietly as if they had come from disposing of a road bill. The fate of the bill was that day decided. For it, 158; against it - 199 - leaving a majority of 41. " The night was made interesting," wrote lord Eldon, " by the anxieties of all present. Perhaps, fortunately, the mob on the outside would not wait so long." '
The result produced intense excitement, and led to rioting and outrage in the metropolis, and in some of the provincial towns. In London, the duke of Wellington, the duke of Cumberland, and the marquis of Londonderry, were assaulted in the street, and rescued with difficulty from the fury of the mob. Lord Londonderry, who had signalised himself during the debate by the violence of his opposition, was struck senseless from his horse by a shower of stones at the gate of the palace, amidst cries of " Murder him! Cut his throat! " Persons respectably dressed, and wearing ribbons round their arms, took the lead on these occasions, giving orders, and, rushing forward from the crowd. The houses of the duke of Newcastle, lord Bristol, and all other anti-reforming peers, had been visited by the mob, and left without glass in- their windows. All the shops in town were shut. "The accounts from Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, and other places," wrote lord Eldon, "are very uncomfortable. I heard last night that the king was frightened by the appearance of the people outside of St. James's."
Although the division took no one by surprise, as the rejection of the bill by the lords was expected, yet the shock to society was very violent. The funds suddenly fell, and there was that feeling of vague anxiety in the public mind which often portends some great calamity. At Derby, they broke open the gaol, and demolished the property of the anti-reformers of the place. At Nottingham there was serious rioting, which ended in the utter destruction by fire of the ancient castle, once the property of the duke of Newcastle, who had given violent offence, by his rash declaration with regard to his voters at Newark, 14 that he had a right to do what he pleased with his own." The popular fury, however, soon subsided, and the public mind regained tranquillity, in the full assurance that the carrying of the bill was only a question of time, and that the popular cause must ultimately triumph. What most materially contributed to the restoration of public confidence was the fact that the king, alarmed at the prospect of a revolution, implored the ministers to retain their places, and to shape their bill so as to disarm their opponents; and on the following Monday, in the house of commons, lord Ebrington moved a vote of confidence in the government, to the effect that, while the house lamented the present state of a measure in favour of which the opinion of the country had been so unequivocally expressed, and which had been matured after the most anxious and laborious discussions, they felt imperatively called upon to re-assert their firm adherence to its principles and leading provisions, and their unabated confidence in the integrity, perseverance, and ability of the ministers, who, in introducing it and conducting it so well, had consulted the best interests of the country. This motion was carried by the large majority of 131; the numbers being 329 to 198. Thus supported by the commons, the ministers retained their places; and the king, on the 20th of October, prorogued the parliament in person, in a speech which the lords might take as the king's answer to their note, telling them in effect that by their obstinate bigotry they were setting themselves in antagonism to the two other estates of the realm, and that in their conduct and position lay the real danger to the constitution. His majesty said: " To the consideration of the important question of the reform of the house of commons, the attention of parliament must necessarily again be called at the opening of the ensuing session; and you may be assured of my unaltered desire to promote its settlement by such improvements in the representation as may be found necessary for securing to my people the full enjoyment of their rights, which, in combination with those of the other orders of the state, are essential to the support of our free constitution."
Under the trying circumstances in which they were placed, lord Grey and his colleagues displayed a firmness and courage which entitled them to the everlasting gratitude of the country. The pluck of lord John Russell in particular had quite an inspiriting effect on the nation. Replying to a vote of thanks to him and lord Althorp, which had been passed by the Birmingham Political Union, the noble paymaster of the forces used an antithetical expression, which has become historical, and which, considering that the faction to which he alluded was the majority of the order to which he himself belonged, must be admitted to be one of extraordinary boldness. He said: "I beg to acknowledge with heartfelt gratitude the undeserved honour done me by 150,000 of my countrymen. Our prospects are now obscured for a moment, and I trust only for a moment. It is impossible that the whisper of faction should prevail against the voice of the nation."
Encouraged by language like this from ministers of the crown, the voice of the nation became louder and more menacing every day. Meetings, attended by vast multitudes of angry and determined men, were held in Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and most of the large towns, especially where the democratic element was predominant. The worst and most destructive of all the riots was at Bristol. Its recorder was Sir Charles Wetherell, noted for his vehemence in opposing reform. Considering the excitement and desperation that had been recently exhibited throughout the kingdom, it was scarcely prudent for Sir Charles Wetherell to appear in Bristol at all on that occasion. At all events, he should have entered the city privately, and discharged the duties of his office as quietly as possible. Instead of that, he made a public and pompous entry into the city on the 29th of October, accompanied by the magistrates and a cavalcade of the tory gentry. This offensive pageant was naturally followed by a mob of disorderly characters, hissing and groaning. They soon began to throw stones and brickbats, especially when the respectable citizens at the commercial rooms received their polemical recorder with three cheers. They assailed the mansion-house with a shower of missiles. The mayor having called upon them in vain to retire, the riot act was read, but the military were not called out to enforce it. Instead of dispersing, the mob overpowered the constables and drove them back, forced open the doors of the mansion-house, smashed the furniture, and armed themselves with the iron rails, which they tore up in front of the building. Sir Charles Wetherell and the magistrates providentially escaped by a back door, and the recorder made an undignified retreat from the city. The military were at length called out, and after some time the disturbance seemed to be quelled, and the dragoons, who had been much fatigued, retired for the night. Bristol, it is said, has always been distinguished for a bad mob. There are foul elements in most large seaports, which it is dangerous to stir up. In Bristol, on this occasion, the mob became the very incarnation of the genius of destruction, which ran riot in such a way as to indicate the rule of literal madness. The rioters got the impression that the military would not act, and multitudes of the worst characters assembled next day, bent on mischief and plunder. The bargemen from the adjoining canals - desperadoes with the wild, fierce aspect of banditti - coal- heavers, porters, contingents from all the dangerous classes, the reprobates of society, thronged forth from cellar and garret, from the lurking places of professional thieves, and the haunts of the vile of every description, like birds of prey flocking to the battle-field on the morning after the fight, with a ravenous appetite, to feast upon the dead. Such classes are always too glad to have some opportunity for outrage, some excuse for breaking down the fences of property, and preying upon their neighbours. Accordingly, they first proceeded to the mansion-house, broke open its cellars, and regaled themselves with their contents. The military were again brought out to quell the now intoxicated rioters; but there was no magistrate there to give orders, and the troops were marched back to the barracks. The mob then proceeded in detached parties, each having a work of destruction assigned to it. One party went to the bridewell, broke open the doors, liberated the prisoners, and then set the building on fire. Another went to the new gaol, and performed a similar operation there. The Gloucester county prison was next broken open and consigned to the flames. The principal toll-houses about the city shared the same fate. The bishop's palace was pillaged and burned to the ground. Becoming more maddened as they proceeded, their passions raging more furiously at the sight of the conflagration as it spread, the mob resolved that no public building should be left standing. The mansion-house, the custom-house, the excise office, and other public buildings were wrapt in flames, which were seen bursting forth with awful rapidity on every side. The blackened and smoking walls of buildings already burned were falling frequently with terrific crashing, while Queen's Square and the adjoining streets were filled with a maniacal multitude, yelling in triumph and reeling with intoxication; many of them lying senseless on the pavement, and not a few consumed in the fires which they had raised. In addition to the public buildings, forty-two dwelling-houses and warehouses were burned. The loss of property was estimated at half a million sterling. This work of destruction commenced on Sunday, and was carried on during the night. The sky was reddened with the conflagration, while the military, who had been sent into the country to avoid irritating the people and the paralysed authorities, looked on helplessly from a distance at the progress of destruction. On Monday morning, however, they recovered from their consternation, and resolved to make an effort to save the city. The magistrates ordered the military to act, and under the command of captain Wetherell, of the 14th, the dragoons charged the rioters in earnest. A panic now seized the mob, who fled in terror before the flashing swords of the troops and the trampling hoofs of their horses, some of them so terror-stricken that they rushed for safety into burning houses. The number of persons killed and wounded during this terrible business was ascertained to be 110, and it is supposed that many more lost their lives in the burning houses that were never heard of. The ringleaders were tried in December, when many persons were convicted, of whom three underwent the punishment of death. The lord chief justice Tenterden, who presided at the trial, expounded the law with regard to riots, which he declared to be this: "Every citizen has a right to interfere to prevent the destruction of life or property without waiting for orders from a magistrate. Soldiers do not cease to be citizens, and they, too, have the right to defend themselves, and, without waiting for orders from the civil authorities, they are, in extreme cases, bound to use their arms in defence of the lives and property of the inhabitants."
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