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Chapter XLVI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 2


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Another action was brought by Stockdale; the printers were directed to plead the privilege of the House. The court gave judgment against the plea, and damages were afterwards assessed, which the House of Commons ordered the Messrs. Hansard to pay. On the 31st of July those gentlemen again communicated to the House, that similar legal proceedings were threatened by Mr. Polac, on account of alleged defamatory matter in a Parliamentary report on the state of New Zealand. The House of Commons passed another resolution, re-affirming its privilege, and directing Hansard not to take any defence to the threatened action, which, however, was not proceeded with. But Stockdale, on the 26th of August, 1839, commenced a third action for the publication of the report, which continued to be sold. The printers then served him with formal notice of the resolutions of the House and of their intention not to plead. Stockdale, notwithstanding, on the 26th of October, filed a declaration in the said action, wherein the damages were laid at 50,000; and on the 1st of November, interlocutory judgment was signed for want of a plea. On the 2nd of November, notice was served that a writ of inquiry of damages would be executed before the Sheriff of Middlesex on the 12th of the same month. The writ of inquiry was accordingly executed, when the sheriff's jury assessed the damages at 600; the consequence of which was that the sheriff took possession of the printing-office, premises, and stock-in- trade of the printers of the House of Commons. But he was placed in a dilemma with regard to the sale, which was ultimately prevented by the amount of damages being paid into the sheriff's office on the night previous. On the 16th of January following, Lord John Russell presented a petition from the Messrs. Hansard, which recited the facts of the case, and prayed for such relief as, under the circumstances, the House might think fit. The course which Lord John recommended was, that the persons who had violated the privileges of the House should be summoned to their bar. He therefore moved that Stockdale, with Burton Howard, his attorney, William Evans, the sheriff, the under-sheriff, and the deputy-under-sheriff, be summoned to the bar of the House. There was a long discussion on the legality of the course to be pursued. The motion was carried by a majority of 119. On the 17th of January, therefore, Stockdale was called to the bar, and interrogated by the Attorney-General, as to the facts of the different actions. He was then ordered to withdraw, and in the course of the discussion that followed a scene occurred.

Sir Robert Inglis, who spoke after Mr. O'Connell, asked, "But was it for the honourable and learned gentleman, who had so traduced the women of England ----- " Mr. O'Connell, interrupting, exclaimed, "That is a lie." Sir Robert Inglis appealed to the Speaker, who called upon Mr. O'Connell to withdraw the expression, which he did, stating at the same time that the charge against him of having traduced the women of England was totally false.

The House then resolved that Stockdale should be committed to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms. It was also resolved that the sheriffs should be called to the bar. They were accordingly brought in by the serjeant- at-arms, dressed in their scarlet robes. On the 21st of January they petitioned the House, expressing their sorrow for having incurred its displeasure, and stated that they believed that they had only done their duty towards their Sovereign and the Queen's Bench, whose sworn officers they were. They prayed, therefore, that they might not be amerced or imprisoned. Lord John Russell moved that the sheriffs, having been guilty of a breach of the privileges of the House, should be committed to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms, which was carried by a majority of 101. The same course was adopted with regard to Mr,, Howard, the attorney, who was called in and reprimanded by the Speaker.

But the Queen's Bench was by no means disposed to surrender its own privileges, even to the House of Commons. On the 24th of January Sir William Gossett, serjeant-at-arms, appeared at he bar of the House, and said that he had last evening been served with a writ of habeas corpus, commanding him to bring up the bodies of the sheriffs, William Evans, Esq., and John Wheelton, Esq., then in his custody. The Attorney-General rose, and said he had no hesitation in advising the House to direct the serjeant-at-arms to return answer to the Court of Queen's Bench, that he held these two individuals in custody by the warrant of the Speaker. That was the safe, the dignified, the constitutional course. Let it not be supposed that they thereby submitted their privileges to a court of law. It had been determined by a long series of authorities that that House had the power to commit for contempt, and that when it did so commit, no court of law whatever had the power to inquire into the cause of the committal. He apprehended that on the warrant being read, the Court of Queen's Bench could do nothing else than say that the prisoners must return to the custody from which they came. He then moved a resolution to that effect, which was adopted.

On the next day, January 25th, the serjeant-at-arms appeared in the Court of Queen's Bench, with the two sheriffs in his custody, dressed in their robes of office. The affair excited the liveliest interest, and the court and passages were crowded to excess. They were loudly cheered as they passed into court. The bench was then empty, the whole of the fifteen judges having been engaged elsewhere during the day, hearing a point argued which had been reserved at the trials of Frost, Williams, and Jones. In a short time, however, Lord Denman, the Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Littledale, Mr. Justice Williams, and Mr. Justice Coleridge took their seats, when Sir William Gossett handed in his return. Counsel having been heard, the judges gave their opinion seriatim, and held unanimously that the return to the habeas corpus was good and sufficient, that they could not presume anything, but must take it that the sheriffs had in some way or other committed a breach of the privileges of the House of Commons, and that, therefore, they could only remand them to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms; and Sir William returned from the court with the sheriffs in his custody.

On the 3rd of February, Mr. Darby brought forward a motion that the sheriffs should be discharged from the custody of the serjeant-at-arms. This gave rise to a long and animated debate. The Attorney-General opposed the motion, contending that until they made their submission, the House could not dismiss them with due regard to its dignity. Sir William Follett replied to the arguments of the Attorney-General, and was answered by the Solicitor-General. The debate was adjourned, and was resumed on the 7th. At its conclusion the House divided on the question that the sheriffs be discharged, which was negatived by a majority of 71. On the 12th, Mr. Sheriff Wheelton was discharged on account of ill-health, a motion for the release of the other sheriff having been rejected.

The House, meantime, seemed to have been getting still more involved in the meshes of these difficulties. Stockdale commenced a fourth and a fifth action against Hansard; an order was issued for the arrest of his attorney for contempt, and he was ultimately lodged in Newgate. But he afterwards brought actions against all the officers of the House that had been concerned in his arrest and had searched his premises. On the 17th of February Lord John Russell informed the House that he had a petition to present from Messrs. Hansard to the effect that a fifth action had been commenced against them by Stockdale for the same cause as before. It was then moved that Stockdale, and the son of Howard, his attorney, by commencing this action, had been guilty of a contempt of the House. This was carried by a majority of 71.

Ultimately the second sheriff, Mr. Evans, was released from confinement. Stockdale, and the Messrs. Howard, senior and junior, were also set at liberty. These vexatious proceedings, including a great number of debates and divisions, led to the passing of an act for more clearly defining the privileges of the House of Commons, which had made itself unpopular by its course of proceeding towards the sheriffs, who had only discharged duties which they could not have evaded without exposing themselves to the process of attachment. The House having once submitted the case to the Court of Queen's Bench, by pleading in the action, was bound to respect the judgment pronounced by that court, or to bring it under the review of a court of error, in a legal and constitutional manner.

On the 5th of March, however, Lord John Russell moved for leave to bring in a bill relative to the publication of Parliamentary papers. He said, in the course of his speech, that at all periods of our history, whatever might have been the subject - whether it regarded the privileges of Parliament, or the rights of the Crown or any of the constituted authorities - whenever any great public difficulty had arisen, the Parliament in its collective sense, meaning the Crown, Lords, and Commons, had been called in to solve those difficulties. With regard to the measure he was about to propose, he would take care to state in the preamble of the bill that the privilege of the House was known only by interpretation of the House itself. He proposed that publications authorised by either House of Parliament should be protected, and should not be liable to prosecution in any court of common law. Leave was given to introduce the bill by a majority of 149; the House went into committee on the bill on the 13th of March, and it passed the third reading on the 20th of the same month. It was read a second time in the Lords on the 6th of April; and the royal assent was given to it by commission on the 14th of the same month.

At the commencement of the session a notice of a motion of want of confidence in the Ministry was given by Sir John Yarde Buller. He assigned as reasons for bringing forward the motion, the disturbed and unsatisfactory state of the country, which he ascribed to the system of popular agitation, "nurtured and fostered," as he alleged, by the Ministers during the preceding two years. He cited as proofs the riots at Birmingham, and the insurrection at Monmouth. In Ireland a similar system had been pursued. The family and connections of the chief agitator had been placed in situations of emolument, and he had himself been received as a guest at the Lord Lieutenant's table. Ministers had also entered into an apparent collusion with the enemies of the Established Church. On coming into office they had declared that they would put an end to all pensions and sinecures. They had endeavoured to bring all former governments into disrepute, by denouncing their corruption and extravagance in these matters. They passed a resolution that 1,200 a year was the whole amount which the Queen could distribute among her subjects, to encourage literary attainments, improvements in art, and discoveries in science. And yet in spite of all their professions, he said they had really made a more corrupt use of the patronage of the Crown than any of the governments that preceded them. Another ground of complaint was the uncertainty attending all their measures. Among the alleged misdeeds of the Government, the honourable baronet referred to the introduction by Lord Melbourne to the Queen of Mr. Owen - " an individual of infamous notoriety, on account of the pernicious doctrines which he had been the means of disseminating among the people." He concluded by moving " that Her Majesty's Government, as at present constituted, does not possess the confidence of the House." The motion was seconded by Alderman Thompson.

Sir George Grey, while meeting the motion with a direct negative, most sincerely rejoiced that the Conservatives had at last mustered sufficient courage to abandon the course of policy they had pursued for the preceding five years; and, instead of waging a perpetual warfare of detail, had at last come boldly forward with a motion which brought under review the whole policy of the Government, legislative and administrative, and demanded of the representatives of the nation, aye or no, whether Ministers possessed their confidence. They had been charged with fomenting Chartism. But could it be maintained that the late insurrection in Wales was chargeable on the Government? Was there no ground for suspecting the real cause of complaint to be that, while Her Majesty, in the speech from the throne, had lamented the existence of insubordination, and while the House in their address to the Crown had unanimously expressed their concern at those events, the Government had not felt it necessary, as former governments had done, to propose to Parliament to increase the severity of the laws for repressing or punishing the insurgents? They had relied on the efficiency of the law as it stood, which had been strictly, but at the same time mercifully, enforced. The right honourable baronet adverted seriatim to all the topics on which the preceding speakers had addressed the House, and certainly made a very able and ingenious defence of the general policy of the administration. After explaining away the objections to Admiral Fleming's appointment as Governor of Greenwich Hospital, and to Sir John Newport's pension, he began to carry his attack into the quarters of the enemy, and commented in very severe terms on a speech delivered by Mr. Dawson, the brother-in-law of Sir Robert Peel, to his friends in the borough of Devonport.

After congratulating the House on the successful administration of affairs in Canada, Jamaica, and India, respectively, the hon. baronet returned again to the attack, and drew a contrast between the opinions of Lord Lyndhurst and Sir Robert Peel. The former had, in a speech at the end of the preceding session, declared that the Queen's Government could not be carried on so long as the representation of the country continued in its present form. Now Sir Robert Peel, and the party generally, seemed to pride themselves in a peculiar degree on their adherence to the Reform Bill. "Indeed," said Sir G. Grey, " one can hardly help smiling at their new-born zeal for reform, and at the warm profession of attachment to the Reform Act so frequently heard from the other side of the House. The attachment is, however, evidently to the defects of this act, to whatever in it impedes its successful operation, and tends to deprive the people of some portion of the benefits which they anticipated from it. If any proposal is made for the improvement of that measure, or the removal of any faults in its machinery, hon. gentlemen opposite rise up in large numbers to declare their intention to maintain that act in its integrity. Here, however, is Lord Lyndhurst, one of the chief Conservative leaders, maintaining that the reform measure is the great impediment to the progress of legislation. The question, then, is, "Are the opinions of Lord Lyndhurst, or those of the right hon. baronet, to prevail in the future Cabinet? " Sir George Grey next referred to the conduct of the Conservative party in the battle of the privileges, which their leader, Sir Robert Peel, had to fight single-handed on that side of the House. The course which he adopted was in his opinion essential, and which he had declared he would rather abdicate his seat than abandon. He was obliged to pursue it amidst the cold looks and averted regards, if not the open opposition, of those who professed to follow him as their leader. What chance, then, had he of forming a Government, with but a small fraction of the Conservative party agreeing with him in matters that he deemed essential?

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