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Foreign Policy of the Government page 3


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He fired a pistol, said to be loaded with ball, against his own body, and also against some of his followers, without injury. He put lighted matches under a corn stack, but the stack did not take fire, because, as the lunatic said, and his companions believed, he had commanded it not to burn. He shot at a star, and they declared it fell into the sea. One of his followers afterwards confessed that so convinced were they that they could not be shot, that they would have attacked 2,000 soldiers. He told them there was great opposition throughout the land, and, indeed, throughout the world; but that if they followed him, he would lead them on to glory. He had come to earth on a cloud, and on a cloud he should return; that neither bullets nor weapons of any kind could injure them, if they had but faith in him as their Saviour. If 10,000 soldiers came against them, they would either espouse his cause or fall dead at his command. At the conclusion of an exciting harangue, one of his followers, Alexander Foad, a respectable farmer, knelt down at his feet and worshipped him; so did another man, named Brankfort. Foad then inquired whether he should follow him in the body, or go home and follow him in the heart. To this Thom replied, " Follow me in the body." Foad then sprung to his feet in an ecstasy of joy, and with a voice of great animation exclaimed, " Go on, go on; till I drop, I'll follow thee." Brankfort was also accepted in a similar manner, and exhibited the same enthusiastic devotion. Thom uttered terrific denunciations of eternal torture against all who should refuse to follow him. To some he pretended that he was 2,000 years old. One woman sent her son to join him with a mother's blessing, and scarcely could the evidence of her son's broken thigh convince her that his followers were not invulnerable. At length, the natural consequences of this insanity appeared in melancholy and fatal results. On Monday, the 28th of May, the pretended Messiah and his followers sallied forth from the village of Boughton. A loaf was broken and placed upon a pole, with a flag of white and blue, and a rampant lion. They proceeded thence to Goodnestone, near Faversham, producing the greatest excitement as they advanced, and hourly adding to their numbers. At the last halting- place Thom stated that he would strike the decisive blow. They next went to Herne Hill, where he demanded and obtained food for his followers. At Dargate Common he took off his shoes, and said, "I now stand on my own bottom." By his desire, his followers fell on their knees, and were engaged in a mockery of prayer for half an hour. They visited Newnham, Eastling, Throwley, Sheldwich, Lees, and Selling, and returned to Bossenden farm, where they arrived on a Wednesday evening. On the following morning, May 31st, at the request of a farmer whose men had been seduced from their work, a constable named Mears was sent to apprehend an apprentice. After a little parley, the "Knight of Malta " inquired which was the constable, and on Mears replying that he was, Thom immediately drew a pistol and shot him, and then stabbed him with a dagger, after which he flung the body into a ditch. There were two other constables, who immediately rode back to the magistrates, and reported the facts. The country was now in such a state of excitement and alarm, that it was deemed advisable to send to Canterbury for a party of military, who speedily arrived, accompanied by several magistrates. By this time the whole body of rioters had retreated to a deep and sequestered part of Bosenden Wood, where Thom shouted and exhorted his adherents to behave like men, and excited them to desperate fury. On perceiving the soldiers, he advanced with the greatest sang froid, and in presence of the troops, deliberately shot Lieutenant Bennett, of the 45th Regiment, who was in advance of his party, and who fell dead upon the spot. The soldiers then immediately fired, and Thom was one of the first killed. In a few moments ten lives were sacrificed, and a number of persons were maimed for the remainder of their days. A coroner's jury on Mears, the constable, found a verdict of "wilful murder" against William Percy Honeywood Courtenay, alias John Nicholl Thom, and five others, of whom one was dead. At the inquest on Lieutenant Bennett, a similar verdict was found against Courtenay and eighteen of his followers, of whom eight had been killed. Thom was buried on the 5th of June at Herne Hill; the portion of the burial service referring to the resurrection having been omitted, from fear of cherishing the delusion of his followers that he should rise from the dead.

The trial of the parties engaged in this unfortunate affair, known as the "Canterbury Riots," commenced at Maidstone on the 9th of August, before Lord Denman, who charged the jury to the effect that if they were of opinion that Thom was of unsound mind - so that if he had been put on his trial, he could not have been convicted of murder - the principal being acquitted, the accessories must also be acquitted on the first count, which charged them with aiding and abetting Thom. But on the second count the evidence was strong against the prisoners, who were guilty of murder, if the jury thought that they armed themselves with dangerous weapons, reckless whether death might ensue in resisting a lawful authority, and death had ensued with their co-operation. The jury, after about twenty minutes' deliberation, brought in a verdict of " guilty " on the second count, with a strong recommendation to mercy on account of the infatuation with which they were led astray by Courtenay. Lord Denman immediately pronounced sentence of death, but added that the lives of the prisoners would be spared. A similar sentence was pronounced upon the murderers of Lieutenant Bennett. Tyler and Wills were transported for life, Price for ten years, and a number of others were imprisoned for one year, with hard labour. The Government gave a pension of £40 a year to the widow of the constable who was shot in the discharge of his duty.

This outburst of folly and fanaticism created a more profound sensation of astonishment than any other example of religious delusion in modern times. There seemed to be no circumstance which was capable of explaining it: neither the time nor the place in which it occurred was such as could be considered favourable to the spread of such a monstrous infatuation. It happened at an advanced period of the nineteenth century, when enlightenment had become widely diffused, and religious teaching had produced fruits which ought to have rendered a belief in such absurd pretensions impossible. The scene was laid, not amidst poverty and destitution, but in Kent, the very garden of England, among those comfortable farm-houses and neat cottages in which it might be reasonably expected that a well educated, and therefore an orderly and a religious population would be found. Nor was it confined to the humbler classes; not only hundreds of the peasantry and mechanics, but some of the superior orders were ready to lay down their lives for an impostor, who, though he pretended to supernatural power, had never done anything which even the grossest ignorance could construe into a miracle, and who had nothing whatever to recommend him but a pleasing appearance and a plausible manner. The extraordinary character of this outbreak, which, notwithstanding the proneness of mankind to be willingly deceived, seemed quite unaccountable, induced the Central Society of Education to make some inquiries regarding its cause; and these led to a satisfactory solution of the difficulty. The locality was, it is true, fertile, and highly cultivated; nevertheless, it was a moral desert: its inhabitants were prosperous and comfortable, but they were almost devoid of religious or intellectual culture. Those on whom the charge of instructing them devolved, appear to have lamentably neglected their duties. In the village of Dunkirk, near Canterbury, there was neither church nor clergyman; there were neither national nor Lancasterian schools in the villages, and those who attended the wretched substitutes for them learned nothing. The results were such as might have been expected. Of forty-five persons above the age of fourteen, who resided at Herne Hill, only eleven could read and write; and of 113 children in Dunkirk, only ten could read or write tolerably. The zeal of the various religious denominations was aroused by these melancholy and surprising revelations. This deplorable state of things was mitigated, if not put an end to; the requirements of public worship and the means of education were supplied in the majority of cases; but there long existed in East Kent villages that were destitute of any public provision for thİ instruction of the children of their inhabitants.

One would suppose that this melancholy affair could have had no sort of connection with political parties, yet it became the occasion of angry party discussions in the House of Commons. By an unlucky coincidence Thom was released from the lunatic asylum just at the time of the last general election. His father voted for Sir Hussey Vivian at the Cornwall county election. Sir Hussey was the Ministerial candidate, and it was insinuated that the discharge of the dangerous lunatic was the result of undue influence. The subject was accordingly taken up by Sir E. Knatchbull in the House of Commons, who animadverted on the conduct of the Home Secretary in connection with the transaction. Lord John Russell defended himself successfully from the charge; he showed that he had exercised his powers merely in the ordinary manner, at the urgent request of the parents of the lunatic, and after ascertaining from the local authorities that it was a fit case for the exercise of the prerogative of the Crown, and asserted that the Cornwall election was never mentioned in connection with the matter. Sir Hussey Vivian declared upon his honour that he was not aware till the previous week that the father of the lunatic had voted at the election. Sir E. Knatchbull had moved for a select committee to inquire into the matter. Lord Howick objected to some of the names, as not calculated to inspire confidence in their decision. One of the gentlemen mentioned - Mr. Praed - resented with indignation the objection, characterizing it as "the superfluous, gross, and unnecessary affront put upon the members to whom the noble lord had alluded." But it was said that Lord Howick's demeanour was courtesy itself compared with Sir E. Lytton Bulwer's, who permitted his excited feelings to betray him into a strange and utterly unprovoked attack upon Mr. Praed, whom he charged with changing his opinions, and as a proof mentioned that when at college he had celebrated the 30th of January with a calf's head dinner. This was distinctly denied, and an altercation ensued, which required the interposition of the Speaker. There were various divisions on the selection of the committee, which was ultimately appointed, with the substitution of some other names.

On the 16th of August the Queen proceeded to Westminster for the purpose of proroguing Parliament. The Speaker addressed Her Majesty in the name of the Commons, giving her an account of the work of the session. He referred to the vigorous and decisive measures which had been adopted for the pacification of Canada, and "to the large and extensive powers given to the Governor in council," which were to be exercised under her control, and on the responsibility of her ministers. He spoke at considerable length on the Irish Poor Law Act, remarking, "If the execution of this most important law shall be watched over and guided by the same prudent and impartial spirit which governed our deliberations in its enactment, we confidently hope that the benefit which it is calculated to confer will be gradually developed." Referring to the Irish Tithe Act, and the Acts for the Abolition of Imprisonment for Debt in certain cases, for abridging pluralities, and for making better provision for the residence of the clergy, he said, " In passing these measures, we have again recorded our conviction that the surest way to maintain respect for our laws and attachment to our institutions is by gradually introducing such amendments as are most likely to recommend them to the improving opinions and increasing knowledge of the educated classes of the community."

The Queen having given the royal assent to a series of bills, read, in a clear, distinct voice, the speech from the throne, expressing satisfaction at the amendment of the domestic institutions of the country, the mitigations of the law, and the Irish measures. Concerning the Irish Poor Law, she observed, " I cherish the expectation that its provisions have been so cautiously framed, and will be so prudently executed, that while they contribute to relieve distress they will tend to preserve order, and to encourage habits of industry and exertion." Concerning the Irish Tithe Bill, she remarked, " I trust, likewise, that the act which you have passed, relating to the composition for tithe in Ireland, will increase the security of that property, and promote internal peace." To the gentlemen of the House of Commons she said, "I cannot sufficiently thank you for your dispatch and liberality in providing for the expenses of my household, and the maintenance of the honour and dignity of the crown. I offer you my warmest acknowledgments for the addition you have made to the income of my beloved mother."

In a review of the session given the same day by Sir Robert Inglis, he stated that it had been one of almost unexampled duration and toil. He found that the house had sat 173 days, of which not less than 1,134 hours had been occupied in public business. It was the longest session, save one, in the present century. In the first session of George IV. the house sat only 111 days, and in the first of William IV. only eighty-four days. He thought that the country would regard with satisfaction this proof of their zeal and devotion; but he lamented the number of bills brought in at a late season, when it was utterly impossible to deal with them, no less than sixty-four having been presented after the 1st of July.

We have already alluded to the care taken by Lord Melbourne in instructing and guiding the youthful Queen in discharging the duties of her high office. This extraordinary devotion, however, was the subject of constant remark in political circles during this first year of Her Majesty's reign. It was said that the incessant attendance of the prime minister upon his Sovereign was not quite becoming his position. It was stated that he became to all intents an inmate of her palace, and a companion of her court. This state of things called forth a pamphlet, in the form of a letter addressed to the Queen, which excited a good deal of notice at the time. The writer says: - " Downing Street and Whitehall are no longer the resort of the cabinet. The official residences are deserted, and one palace holds the Sovereign and the servants of the public. This novel, and inconvenient, and not very seemly excess of royal favour is at once injurious to the public service and personally advantageous to the ministry. For although it must necessarily prevent them from attending to the duties of their several departments, and thus make them far worse ministers than they might, by more diligence and harder work, become, they care mighty little for this, provided they gain a further hold of your mind, and show the country more strikingly how unbounded is their influence. Whatever business they may transact beyond the royal promenades must needs be transatted in writing. When you return to London some months hence, no doubt part of this serious evil will be removed, but only part. The Ministers will be in London, and we will be no longer governed by course of post; yet the chief among them will have their whole time divided between sleeping and attendance at your palace: no time for calm discussions; none for careful preparation of dispatches and other state papers; none for meditation, to form and enlarge their views on the great questions that occur, none for reading."

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