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Effects of the French Revolution - England page 2


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The history of the Chartist petition was the most extraordinary part of this whole business. It was presented on the 10th of April, by Mr. Feargus O'Connor, who stated that it was signed by 5,706,000 persons. It lay upon the floor of the House in five large divisions; the first sheet being detached, the prayer was read, and the messengers of the House rolled the enormous mass of parchment to the table. A day was appointed to take its prayer into consideration; but in the meantime it was subjected to investigation, and on the 13th instant, Mr. Thornley brought up a special report from the Select Committee on Public Petitions, which contained the most astounding revelations. Instead of weighing five tons, as Mr. O'Connor alleged, it weighed of cwt. The signatures were all counted by thirteen law-stationers' clerks, in addition to those usually employed in the House, who devoted seventeen hours to the work, and the number of signatures was found to be only 1,975,496, instead of nearly 6,000,000. Whole consecutive sheets were filled with names in the same handwriting; and amongst the signatures were " Victoria Rex" Prince Albert, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Russell, &c. The Duke of Wellington's name was written thirty times, and Colonel Sibthorpe's twelve times. Some of the signatures were not names at all - such as "No Cheese," "Pug Nose," "Flat Nose," &c. There were also many insertions so indecent that they could not be repeated by the committee. Sir Archibald Alison describes how the signatures were got up in Glasgow: - " Six persons sat down, three on each side of a high mercantile desk, furnished with pens of various ages and degrees of softness, inkstands of different colours, and a set of old directories, which they transcribed on the parchment. Having exhausted the directories, they went out into the streets, and copied all the names they found on the sign-boards."

The London Chartists contrived to hold their meetings and to march in procession; and as this sometimes occurred at night, accompanied by the firing of shots, it was a source of alarm to the public. There were confederate clubs established, consisting chiefly of Irishmen, who fraternised with the English Chartists. On the 31st of May, they held a great meeting on Clerkenwell Green, There, after hearing some violent speeches, the men got the word of command to fall in and march, and the crowd formed rapidly into columns four abreast. In this order they marched to Finsbury Square, where they met another large body, with which they united, both forming into new columns twelve abreast, and thus they paced the square with measured military tread for about an hour. Thence they marched to Stepney, where they received further accessions, from that to Smithfield, up Holborn, King Street, and Long Acre, and on through Leicester Square to Trafalgar Square. Here the police interfered, and they were gradually dispersed. This occurred on Monday. On Tuesday night they assembled again at Clerkenwell Green, but were dispersed by a large body of horse and foot police. There was to be another great demonstration on Wednesday, but the police authorities issued a cautionary notice, and made effectual arrangements for the dispersion of the meeting. Squadrons of Horse Guards were posted in Clerkenwell and Finsbury, and precautions were taken to prevent the threatened breaking of the gas and water mains. The special constables were again partially put in requisition, and 5,000 of the police force were ready to be concentrated upon any point, while the whole of the fire brigade were placed on duty. These measures had the effect of preventing the assembly. Similar attempts were made in several of the manufacturing towns, but they were easily suppressed. In June, however, the disturbances were again renewed in London. On Whit-Monday, the 4th, there was to be a great gathering of Chartists in Bonner's Fields, but the ground was occupied early in the morning by 1,600 policemen, 500 pensioners, and 100 constables mounted. There was also a body of Horse Guards in the neighbourhood. Up to the hour of two o'clock the leaders of the movement did not appear, and soon after a tremendous thunder-storm came, accompanied by drenching rain, which caused the dispersion of all the idlers, who came to witness the display. Ten persons were arrested on the ground, and tried and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.

It was thought time to put a stop to such proceedings, and several of the leaders were arrested, namely, Mr. Ernest Jones, John Russell, J. Williams, A. Sharpe, and Y. Yernon. They were committed for sedition, but bail was accepted. At Ashton-under-Lyne, Birmingham, Liverpool, and other places, Chartist and confederate disturbances took place. The police hunted up their leaders, and in some places seized the papers of the clubs as well as the pikes and fire-arms which they had concealed. There had, in fact, been an extensively ramified conspiracy, the head-quarters of which were in the metropolis. On the 11th of August the police, acting upon information they had received, assembled at the station in Tower Street, 700 strong, and suddenly marched to the Angel Tavern in Webber Street, Black- friars. Surrounding the house, Inspector Butt entered, and found fourteen Chartist leaders in deliberation. Noticing some signs of resistance, he exclaimed, "If any man offers the least' resistance, I will run him. through. A large force surrounds the house." In a few minutes they were all quietly secured, and marched to Tower Street. On searching the place, the police found pistols loaded to the muzzle, swords, pikes, daggers, and spear-heads, also large quantities of ammunition. Under one man was found seventy-five rounds of ball cartridge. Some of the prisoners wore iron breastplates. Similar visits were paid to houses in Ormond Street, Holborn, and York Street, Westminster, with like results. In the last place the party got notice and dispersed before the police arrived. One man leaping out of a window, broke his leg. Tow-balls were found amongst them; and from this and other circumstances it was believed they intended to fire the public buildings and to attack the police in every part of London. The whole of the military quartered in London were under arms on the night of the threatened attack, and an unbroken line of communication was kept up between the military and the different bodies of police. Twenty-five of the leaders were committed for felony, bail being refused; their principal leader being a man named Cuffey.

The Chartist trials took place at the September Sessions of the Central Criminal Court. The facts disclosed on the trial revealed, to a larger extent than is usual in such cases, how completely the men who are betrayed into such conspiracies are at the mercy of miscreants who incite them to crime for their own base purposes. The witnesses against Cuffey, Lacy, Yeay, and Mullins, were all voluntary spies, the chief of whom was a person named Powell, who joined the Confederacy, aided in its organisation, and had themselves appointed "presidents" and "generals," with the sole purpose of betraying their dupes, in order that they might be rewarded as informers, or, at all events, well paid as witnesses. It was probably by those double traitors that the simultaneous meetings of the clubs were arranged, so that the police might seize them all at the same time. " In fact, so utterly depraved were the principal conspirators, that it may almost be supposed that, excepting a few heated democrats or Red Republicans, the councils of the Chartists were composed of men whose sole purpose was to betray each other." The trial lasted the entire week. On Saturday the jury returned a verdict of "guilty" against all the prisoners, who received the announcement with explosions of ridiculous violence. The sentence was transportation for life. Others were indicted for misdemeanour only, and were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment, with fines. About a score of the minor offenders were allowed to plead not guilty, and let out on their own recognisances. The judge who tried them was Mr. Justice Erie. The proceedings were enlivened by encounters between Mr. Kenealy, the prisoners' counsel, and the Attorney- General. The latter had said he blushed for Mr. Kenealy, and Mr. Kenealy demanded what right he had to say that. " The Attorney-General," he said, "had spoken in the venerable presence of the judge; if he had said it elsewhere, I should at once have chastised him."

The disorganised state of Ireland, occasioned by the famine and the enormous system of. public relief, fostering idleness, and destroying the customary social restraints which kept the people in order, naturally led to a great deal of outrage and crime in that country. At the close of the ordinary session of 1847, the Parliament, which had existed six years, was dissolved. The general election excited very little political interest, the minds of all parties being concentrated upon the awful visitation of Providenco in Ireland, and the means necessary to mitigate its effects. The first session of the new Parliament commenced on the 18th of November. Mr. Shaw Lefevre was re-elected Speaker without opposition, some leading Conservatives expressing their admiration of the impartiality and dignity with which he had presided over the deliberations of the House. The Royal speech was delivered by commission. It lamented that in some counties in Ireland atrocious crimes had been committed, and a spirit of insubordination had manifested itself, leading to an organised resistance to legal rights. Parliament was therefore requested to take further precautions against the perpetration of crime in that country; at the same time recommending the consideration of measures that would advance the social improvement of its people. In the course of the debate on the address, the state of Ireland was the subject of much discussion; and on the 29th of November Sir George Grey, then Home Secretary, brought in a bill for this purpose. In doing so, he gave a full exposition of the disorganised state of the country. He showed that " the number of attempts on life by firing at the person, which was, in six months of 1846, 55, was in the same six months of 1847, 126; the number of robberies of arms, which was, in six months of 1846, 207, in the same six months of 1847, was 530; and the number of firings of dwellings, which, in six months of 1846, was 51, was, in the same six months of 1847, 116. Even this statement gave an inadequate idea of the increase of those offences in districts which were now particularly infested by crime. The total number of offences of the three classes which he had just mentioned amounted, in the last month, to 195 in the whole of Ireland; but the counties of Clare, Limerick, and Tipperary furnished 139 of them - the amount of offences in those counties being 71 percent, on the whole amount of offences in Ireland, and the population being only 13 per cent, on the whole population of Ireland." It was principally to those counties that his observations applied; but as the tendency to crime was to spread, they must be applied in some degree also to the King's County, Roscommon, and part of Fermanagh. The crimes which he wished to repress were not directed against the landlord class alone, but against every class and description of landowners. Their ordinary object was the commission of wilful and deliberate assassination, not in dark or desolate places, but in broad daylight - of assassination, too, encouraged by the entire impunity with which it is perpetrated; for it was notorious that none but the police would lend a hand to arrest the flight or capture the person of the assassin. He referred with pride to the different spirit which pervaded the population of England, in case of the perpetration of any act of violence, and reminded the House that on a recent occasion, when Dr. Baring and his brother were robbed in South Wales by two Irishmen - after the true fashion of certain parts of Ireland, in open day, with loaded firearms - the whole population of the district turned out, and lodged them in gaol before midnight.

The murder of one landlord was sufficient to spread terror throughout the whole class, the most recent and horrible case being used for this purpose in the threatening notices. Thus, when Major Mahon was shot, a letter was sent to the wife of another landed proprietor, warning her that if her husband did not remit all the arrears of rent due by his tenants, two men would be sent to despatch him as they had despatched the demon Mahon. The Lord-Lieutenant had increased the constabulary force in the disturbed districts, and called out the military to aid in the execution of the law. But it was the opinion of the magistrates in those districts that the powers of the executive were not sufficient. The object of Sir George Grey's measure was to extend those powers - not to create any new tribunal, for trial by jury had worked satisfactorily. What he proposed was that the Lord-Lieutenant should have power to "proclaim" disturbed districts, to increase in them the constabulary force to any extent he might think fit out of the reserve of 600 in Dublin, to limit the use of firearms, and to establish nocturnal patrols. He thought that by such a measure the Government would be able to put down the crimes that were disorganising society in Ireland.

Mr. Horsman observed that the prevalence of crime and outrage in Ireland was as familiar to their ears as coercion bills were to their memories. Sir R. Peel had been driven from the Government because he had asked for the very powers which Sir George Grey now demanded. He was afraid that " the poor creatures who committed the outrages were not the parties most to be blamed. The poor man shoots his victim and is hanged; but the party who hired and paid him is spared." "Again," said Mr. Horsman, " the rich man ejects the inhabitants of whole villages, and burns their houses over their heads. Some of the victims take the law into their own hands; they are tried and executed, but the rich men remain unscathed. The same story had been told by every Irish secretary at no very distant intervals since the Union, and they had all traced the outrages to the same source, which was neither political nor religious, but agrarian. Unless other measures accompanied this bill, we should merely be eradicating the symptoms, and leaving the malady untouched." He implored Ministers to show themselves equal to the occasion, by bringing in immediately measures for the amelioration of Ireland. Sir Robert Peel supported the Government measure. Mr. Feargus O'Connor divided the House against it; but was supported by only twenty members. It was soon after read a second time, having been strenuously resisted by some of the Irish members. It rapidly went through committee, and was read a third time, when the majority against it was only fourteen.

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