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Chapter XXV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9

Continued Suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act in Ireland - Debates on Irish. Questions - The Oaths and Offices Bill - Mr. Bruce's Bill on National Education - Extension of the Factory Acts - The Eight of Meeting in the Metropolitan Parks: Mr. Walpole's Proclamation: Meeting of Reformers in Hyde Park - Fenian Rising in Ireland - Preparations for a Fenian Attack upon Chester Castle - Fenian Attack upon a Police-van at Manchester: Murder of Sergeant Brett: Trial of the Prisoners: Execution of three of the Murderers - Explosion at the Clerkenwell House of Detention - Investigation into the Proceedings of Trades Unions at Sheffield.
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Parliamentary Reform occupied nearly all the time of the House of Commons during the first of the two sessions of 1867; but still on the " off days " there were several important discussions and some important legislation. The Reform Bill only applied to England and Wales, and in the unquiet state of Ireland the Government did not propose to make any alterations in the electoral law of that country. To Scotland they wished to apply a measure very similar to the English one - only differing from it, in fact, so far as the exigencies of Scotch law required. Household suffrage in its simple form in the boroughs, in the counties a reduction of the qualification like that effected in England, and a moderate redistribution of seats, were the main features of the Government measure. It was not, however, carried during this year, from want of time.

Although Ireland had not assumed that prominence in the debates of Parliament which she held in 1869 and 1870, there were " Irish debates " in plenty; and political prophets saw clearly that Ireland was to be the immediate question for the first Reformed Parliament to grapple with. First came the proposal of Lord Naas, unfortunately rendered necessary, for the continued suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. The Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant explained that he had hoped to be able to dispense with these extraordinary powers, but that fresh signs of activity had appeared among the disaffected population. When the mysterious " invasion " of Chester happened (an event to be immediately described), a simultaneous attempt at a rising was made at Cahirciveen, in the county of Kerry; and symptoms of revolt made themselves apparent in some of the large towns. He, therefore, with great regret, asked for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act for three months longer; and the gravity of the emergency was shown by the fact, that the seconder of the motion was Sir John Gray. The suspension was allowed by the House, and also by the House of Lords; but it was with considerable alarm that, three months later, the country heard that the Government had found it necessary to apply again to Parliament for a further suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. The Queen's Speech at the beginning of the session had "trusted that Parliament might be enabled to dispense with the continuance of any exceptional legislation " for Ireland, and yet the continuance was twice asked for. This was generally felt to be an instance of a want of foresight on the part of the Ministry; though Lord Naas announced that the disturbances in Ireland were caused by the resolutions adopted at a Fenian meeting held at New York in January, when an attempt at insurrection was decreed. The debate which took place on Lord Naas making his second proposal called forth a great deal of that fund of contradictory opinion on Irish questions which was so richly exhibited in the debates of two years later. The request of the Government was, however, granted without difficulty. Bills tending to the prevention of discontent, as well as to its cure, were also discussed during the session, but they only served to show what was afterwards proved by Mr. Gladstone's Ministry, namely, that the question of Irish remedies was far too complicated, far too debateable, to be disposed of in a casual debate or two thrown in amidst a busy session. No motions of private members, such as was that of Sir Colman O'Loghlen, no ministerial afterthoughts, like the bill of Lord Naas for " promoting the improvement of land by tenants," could solve the Land question; and the House showed its sense of this by allowing those measures to drop after short discussions. In the same way with the Irish Church question. Sir John Gray brought it forward on the 7th of May, in the thick of the Reform campaign, and, of course, his motion - " That the House would on a future day resolve itself into a committee to consider the temporalities and privileges of the Established Church of Ireland " - had no chance of success at such a time. It drew, however, from Mr. Gladstone another of those emphatic statements of disapproval of the existing Establishment which, begun in 1865, had cost him his seat for Oxford University, and which ended in 1869, when he carried disestablishment. In the House of Lords, Lord Russell moved for a Royal Commission to inquire into the revenues of the Established Church of Ireland, and his motion was agreed to. The investigations made by the commissioners appointed in consequence of this motion formed the basis of the action of the Liberal Government two years later.

Other subjects which occupied the attention of Parliament during the year were, besides the various points of foreign policy which will be spoken of in another place, Church Rates, Religious Tests in the Universities, Religious Disabilities on various offices in Ireland, Increase of the Episcopate, National Education, the Factory Acts and their possible extension, the Agricultural Gangs, and the Right of Meeting in the London Parks. In the second and extraordinary session of Parliament, which was called together in the autumn to vote supplies for the Abyssinian expedition, a few other matters were brought forward; but the principal concern of that short session was the subject which had called the House together. That, however, is a matter that may fairly be left until we come to speak of the year 1868, when the whole story of the causes, circumstances, and results of the expedition may be told in detail. On the other questions which we have mentioned, very little actual legislation was achieved, but the tendency of future legislation was foreshadowed. The Oaths and Offices Bill had for its object the removal of the restriction which prevents a Roman Catholic from being Lord Lieutenant or Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and of various small disabilities, relics of the old penal laws, which Roman Catholics still suffered in Ireland. The bill was passed after some discussion. Mr. Coleridge's bill for abolishing religious tests required from members of Oxford University in taking certain degrees and in being elected to certain offices, was not so fortunate. The House of Lords rejected it after it had been passed by the Commons - and passed in an extended form, applying to Cambridge as well as to Oxford. The Lords seem to have thought that their concessions on the subject of Reform were as much as could be expected from them in one session. Nor did they accept with any unanimity Lord Lyttleton's bill for extending the Episcopate; and the bill had to be withdrawn. National Education was approached, but no more, in a bill which was brought in by Mr. Bruce, then a prominent member of the Opposition, but formerly Vice-President of the Council in Lord Russell's Ministry, and afterwards well known as Home Secretary in Mr. Gladstone's. Mr. Bruce based his bill upon many of the same statistics that afterwards lent strength to Mr. Forster's advocacy of a similar proposal - as, for instance, where he showed that in the diocese of London, containing 361,000 children who outfit to be at school, only 182,000 (almost exactly one half) were actually at school. The bill was in some points singularly like Mr. Forster's bill of 1870, and in many points unlike it; it showed the same favour to the local system, and proposed the appointment of "school committees" with the functions, or nearly the functions, of the school boards afterwards established; and it showed the same regard for religious education. It was not proposed with any intention of being carried into law; it was only an instance of the common parliamentary device of inviting a Government to declare itself, and of showing to the Opposition, in case of an unsatisfactory Government answer, what the tactics of their own leaders would be if they were to be restored to power. Other measures, which especially concerned the wage-earning classes, and which were carried into law, were measures for extending the operation of the Factory Acts to certain occupations not included in them, and thus increasing the protection afforded to women and children in the great towns; and also strong legislative restrictions upon what is known as the " gang system." This last, which prevails especially in the eastern counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, &c., is the system by which children of both sexes are gathered together in gangs by a contractor, or " ganger," and let out to the farmers to work in the fields at weeding or sowing. It is obvious that a system of this kind is full of danger, both to the physical and the moral well-being of the children. Too often the contractors were hard men, whose one object was to make as much money as possible out of their gangs; and for this they would overwork the children's bodies and leave them morally uncared-for. An Act was passed applying the same principles to the agricultural gangs as had been applied to the factories, and asserting the right of Parliament to protect the children and limit the powers of the gang-masters. It laid down hours beyond which it was unlawful for the children ta work, and imposed other restrictions on the employment of girls. It worked well even at first; and later on, when supplemented by the Elementary Education Act of 1870, it put it still more out of the power of parents to sell their children's whole time, to give them up body and soul, to the weary drudgery of farm labour.

The time of Parliament was further occupied with discussions on that very modern difficulty, the Right of Meeting in the Metropolitan Parks. The way in which, in 1866, the populace and Mr. Beales took this question into their own hands and marched into Hyde Park across the ruins of the railings has already been recorded; and it has been said how keenly Mr. Secretary Walpole felt the distress of the situation. Again in this year the Reform League was active. The conduct of the Government with regard to Reform had not, at least early in the session, pleased the ardent Reformers; they distrusted Mr. Disraeli's obscure eloquence, they thought the "system of checks and counterpoises" was far too clever to be satisfactory. Accordingly, it was resolved by the leaders of the League to hold another meeting in the Park, on the 6th of May. But on the 1st of May the following proclamation appeared: -

"Whereas it has been publicly announced that a meeting will be held in Hyde Park, on Monday, the 6tli day of May, for the purpose of political discussion; and whereas the use of the Park for the purpose of holding such meeting is not permitted, and interferes with the object for which Her Majesty has been pleased to open the Park for the general enjoyment of her people: now all persons are hereby warned and admonished to abstain from attending, aiding, or taking part in any such meeting, or from entering the Park with a view to attend, aid, or take part in any such meeting. S. H. Walpole.

" Home Office, Whitehall, May 1, 1867."

This was an instance of the " spirit of conciliation and compromise" of which English statesmen are so fond, but which succeeds so poorly in times of high excitement. The Government intended to leave the Park gates open, and not to attempt to disperse the meeting by force, and yet it " admonished " people not to attend. Of course, the proclamation excited much discussion in Parliament; and Mr. Bright made an energetic statement of his belief that the parks were " public places," and an energetic protest against the proposal to swear in special constables - a measure which, he said, always tends to promote class hostility, and to create breaches between the divisions of the people. With this declaration of " the Tribune " to back them, the Reform League carried out its plan in the face of the Government admonition. Seventy thousand persons formed the audience of the speakers in the Park; a hundred thousand more, drawn partly by real interest in Reform, and partly by curiosity, filled the approaches and the open spaces; and " the Ring " was filled with the carriages of rich people, who had come to look on. There was absolutely no disturbance. The O'Donoghue, Mr. Beales, Colonel Dickson, Mr. Odger, Mr. Lucraft, and other well-known Reformers, took the lead and made the speeches, and the meeting quietly dispersed at dusk, with no occasion for the 5,000 police and the soldiers who were in readiness close by to come in and restore order. But the Government felt that they had received a check. Mr. Walpole resigned, " in consequence of the onerous duties imposed upon him," and his place was filled by a man of less susceptibility and more energy - Mr. Gathorne Hardy. He made many attempts during the remainder of the session to pass a Government bill abolishing the right of public meeting in the parks, but without success. The Reform Bill occupied too exclusively the time of the House; and it was felt that there was a certain invidiousness in passing a measure which would seem to be directly aimed at the prominent Reformers at the very time when their demand for Reform was being granted. Immediately after the passing of the Representation of the People Act, Parliament was prorogued; but before the year was over it was convoked again for an extraordinary session, to be described when we come to speak of the Abyssinian War.

The first occurrences outside Parliament that demand our attention are those connected with the Fenian outbreak, which this year were marked by a rare audacity, and occasioned great alarm in the public mind and severe retributive measures. We have already said that in February a rising took place in the county of Kerry. In December a martello tower near Cork was attacked, and the arms carried away; and in more places than one gunsmiths shops were broken into and robbed of their contents. But the alarm caused by these outbreaks on Irish soil was as nothing compared with that caused by certain outbreaks of Fenianism in England. The first of these was a supposed attempt to take Chester Castle, and make off with the arms and ammunition contained in it. Chester Castle, as is well known, is a mediaeval fortress; and in 1867 it was used as a garrison for a small number of troops, and a storehouse for arms. As was afterwards discovered, a meeting had been held in New York early in the year, in which it had been decided to attempt a rising in Ireland; and a band of fifty was sent over in detachments to the United Kingdom to organise the rising. A central " Directory " of fifteen members was understood to be established in London, and branch directories were placed in many of the great towns. In obedience to orders from these authorities, a movement was made upon Chester on February 11th. The Castle contained at the time 9,000 stand of Enfield rifles, 4,000 swords, 900,000 rounds of ammunition, and some arms belonging to the militia; and the only guard consisted of a handful of men belonging to the 54th Regiment. During the night of the 10th, information was given to the Chester authorities by I the Liverpool police that an ex-officer in the American I service - himself a Fenian - had come to them, and made known the Fenian design, which was to assemble in large numbers in Chester the next day, seize the Castle, carry off the arms, break the telegraph wires, and tear up the rails on the railway, and themselves escape, via Holyhead, to Ireland with their booty. Very early in the morning the information began to be verified, and large numbers of young men, apparently of the artisan or labouring class, kept arriving by every train from Manchester, Liverpool, Stalybridge, Preston, and other manufacturing towns. Meanwhile, the civil and military authorities of Chester were actively employed; telegrams were passing between them and the Assistant Adjutant-General at Manchester, and the Government and the Commander-in-Chief were also kept informed. Early in the morning the volunteers were called out; and Mr. Walpole having telegraphed instructions that they ought not to be employed as soldiers in putting down a riot, but that they might as individuals assist the authorities, and even, if necessary, use their arms, they were sworn in as special constables. Still the invaders kept massing in the town. For some reason, though their errand was very well known, they were not arrested in detachments in the places from which they started, but were allowed to come to Chester unimpeded. By five o'clock the. strangers amounted to 1,500 in number, and yet the only force at the disposal of the authorities was a company of soldiers of the 54th, some of the county constabulary, and the volunteers as special constables. Yet, by extraordinary good fortune, this most Inadequate force was not put to the test of fighting. For some unexplained reason - possibly because the Fenians, seeing that some preparations had been made for their reception, suspected that others might have been secretly made - no attack was made upon the Castle, although, between six and seven o'clock, when all the invading force was present, and the great reinforcements had not arrived for the ędefence, there were abundant opportunities, and good hopes of success. During the evening a public meeting of the "friends of order" was held, and 500 special constables were sworn in - a poor defence against thrice their number of desperate men armed with revolvers. But the special constables patrolled the town throughout the night, and by the morning it was found that the Fenians had melted away. They had walked off in small batches to Warrington and the other large towns in the neighbourhood. After they had gone some relics of their visit were found, in the shape of two haversacks, containing privately-made ball-cartridges, and other indications that the invaders were prepared to fight. During the morning of the 12th a battalion of 500 Foot Guards arrived from London - too late to have prevented the attack, supposing the Fenians had made it when they had so fair a chance; but not too late to relieve the anxious minds of the inhabitants of Chester from the alarm and terror of the past day. It is enough to add that sixty- seven " suspicious characters," all of them probably members of the invading force, were arrested at Dublin, on the morning of the 12th, as they landed from the Holyhead steamer. Nothing very conclusive was found upon them to illustrate the history of the Chester fiasco; but the authorities, acting on the powers conferred by the Act which suspended the Habeas Corpus, kept them in safe custody in Richmond Bridewell.

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Pictures for Chapter XXV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9

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