§ Sir S. Romilly
presented a petition from several householders residing in, and by White Horse lane, in the parish of Stepney, complaining of the conduct of magistrates in the licensing of public-houses. All he should ask at present would be, for the petitions to lie on the table, as he intended at a future time to move for a committee on the subject. If his hon. friend, who moved for a committee last session on the subject of the police, should offer any measure on the report of that committee, the present petition might be referred to that; if he did not come forward, he should himself propose a committee on the question. The petition in his hand was signed by 250 respectable individuals, who complained of the injustice of the magistrates in refusing to license a house in that district, which was very much wanted; the house, too, was one of a very superior description. Taking the circumstance by itself, perhaps there was little to complain of, that the magistrates, in the exercise of 496 the very great discretion that was reposed in them, should refuse to license a particular house: but in the very same district the same magistrates had licensed houses of the most notoriously objectionable description. There certainly had been a difference of opinion on this subject, and it had been complained, that the magistrates had had no opportunity to go into their own justification. It was, however, quite impossible for him at present, and in such a manner, to go into the case with any hope of doing justice; he was therefore desirous that the House should choose a committee for the purpose. But the light in which he regarded the subject was, not the inconvenience to an individual in not obtaining a licence he might have a right to expect, or the inconvenience of a neighbourhood in not having a public-house it might be in need of; it was, that this subject was intimately connected with the state of the police, and that the conduct of the magistrates did mainly affect the state of the criminal poor, if he might use the expression. In the district from whence the petition came, the number of public-houses was so great, that in Shadwell every twelfth house was a public-house; in Gravel-lane, every eighth house; in Nortonfalgate there was a public-house for every 73 inhabitants; and these houses were principally of the lowest and most infamous description, the common resort of thieves and prostitutes. It had been imputed to some of the witnesses before the committee, that they had acted from pique; but he would rely on the statement made by Mr. Gifford, in his account of the police of that district, that the conduct of the magistrates was so grossly unjust, they were so inattentive to the complaints that were made, and the complaints were so entirely fruitless, that he had stayed away from the meetings altogether. The evidence of Mr. Markland was to the same effect. Sir S. Romilly then proceeded to read part of Mr. Gifford's evidence. To the question, whether a formal complaint proved against a house before the magistrates was sufficient to cause a refusal of the licence to that house, he answered, no: he had himself reported a most disorderly house, and yet a licence had been granted, as if no such report had been made. Houses of this description were termed "flash-houses," and were the refuge of thieves and prostitutes of the lowest description. 497 He thought them a great cause of the depravity of morals in the metropolis. His reasons for not attending the meetings of the magistrates were, that no complaints were ever attended to. Some of the magistrates were brewers themselves, others were owners of public-houses, others had relations who were brewers or owners: one of the magistrates who granted licences in that district was the proprietor of twelve public-houses, and receiver of the rents of ten others; he was more or less interested in two-and-twenty. He would not take up the time of the house any longer, to show in what manner these licences were granted; he would only add, that one man had obtained his licence after six different convictions! He should not mention names at present, because he thought the circumstances should be more fully inquired into. He wished to ask whether the government had taken any steps in consequence of this report. In one part of the report, it appeared that one of the magistrates had complained of his inability to remedy any disorders in the neighbourhood of Charing-cross, the power of licensing houses in that vicinity being in the board of green cloth; that representations and complaints had been made by the magistrates themselves; but that the board of green cloth had continued to license the houses in spite of all remonstrances. There was much disorder in the neighbourhood of Charing-cross, which could not be put down by the magistrates, owing to the jurisdiction of the board of green cloth. He wished to ask his majesty's ministers whether they had any measures, in contemplation in consequence of this report? He could not omit this opportunity of calling the attention of the House to the enormous increase of crimes committed by children; and he wished also to say something on the rewards that were given to persons who apprehended offenders. In the police report, it appeared, the magistrates had all been examined touching the propriety of these rewards offered by statute on the conviction of criminals, and there was not one of them who did not declare, that no officer of justice was ever influenced by those rewards in the testimony he might have to give; they only thought they might be improper, because they raised up a sort of discredit against the witness. Nay, so delighted was the recorder with this system of pecuniary rewards for the 498 detection of crime, that he wished them by all means to be extended. Now, after all, the report was scarcely printed before a combination came out, the most extensive and atrocious that had ever been devised, for entrapping innocent men out of their lives for the sake of the reward. It appeared that 16l. was the whole amount of the reward for which three lives were to be sacrificed! He only mentioned this to show how far things had gone before the mischief was even known or suspected. He thought it desirable that the committee should be renewed as soon as possible, and he was anxious to know if any measures were in contemplation.
The petition was then read, as well as another from the village of new Haggerston, in the parish of Shoreditch, complaining of similar grievances. In the last instance a public-house had been refused to a new village of 130 houses, while there was no public-house within half a mile.
§ Mr. Bathurst
said, that if this complaint were on an individual case or two, it would not require the interference of parliament; because it was a mistake to suppose that the law did not afford a remedy—the court of King's-bench had a jurisdiction in cases of this sort. The question, however, rested on the report of the committee of last session, which certainly contained charges of a serious nature against the magistrates, and on that ground an investigation had partially taken place; but all the parties had not been fully heard, and therefore he thought the course proposed by the hon. and learned gentleman was the proper one to pursue. The different cases had been submitted to the lord chancellor, who did not think himself justified in applying that discretionary power which was vested in him, but had directed that the opinions of the attorney and solicitor general should be taken with regard to the propriety of instituting a prosecution. These law officers had not discovered sufficient grounds for recommending such a measure; but he could assure the House, that his noble friend and relation lord Sidmouth, had done every thing in his power to attain the ends of justice. He knew that he was animated by an earnest desire to effect some improvement, and that he felt it to be not so much a question of property to individuals, as one affecting the discharge of a very important trust on the part of magistrates, and a trust which appeared, in some instances, 499 to have been abused. He believed it likewise to be the opinion of his noble friend, that at all events some new legislative provision was necessary.
expressed his satisfaction at the communication just made by the right hon. gentleman, and stated it to be his intention, on an early day, to bring the question of the revival of the committee under the consideration of the House. When the magistrates said they were unheard, he must say, unfortunately for some of them, they had been heard. The conduct of one of them had been proved to be so improper, by himself, on his being heard, that he (Mr. Bennett) fell Inclined to blame that charity which had at the time restrained him from bringing the individual in question before the House. He spoke of Mr. Merceron, whose evidence had been such as ought to have drawn down upon him the punishment of that House. After the disclosures made in the last year, it might have been expected that enough had been done to caution the magistrates. It might have been hoped they would have offered some atonement for the past, by acting a more upright part. This, however, they had not done; and the proof of it was, that all the houses complained of had again been re-licensed. For acting thus, he now, in his place, charged the county magistrates with the most corrupt exercise of the power entrusted to them. Another instance of their corruption was to be found in their having re-licensed a house called the Duke of York, in defiance of the most respectable inhabitants of the neighbourhood, and of the churchwardens and police magistrates. A petition against it had been presented by Mr. Markland, but in spite of all the representations that could be made, Mr. Merceron and the other trading magistrates of the county, who were worse than the trading magistrates of other times, had thought themselves justified in renewing the licence, a sort of lecture being read by sir David Williams on the occasion to the landlord, setting forth the rules by which his conduct ought to be regulated for the future in the management of a public-house. But what was the result? Was the house more respectable than formerly? No. He knew that within the last two days it bad been as bad as ever. It was the resort of thieves and prostitutes; and boys were daily assembled there to be instructed in all the varieties of debauchery and crime. 500 If such things were suffered, it must be from the most corrupt motives. He must say, that it was his opinion the lord chancellor had not done his duty in suffering that guilty, that shuffling magistrate, Mr. Merceron, to retain his situation.
The Attorney General
wished to put it to the candour of the House, and particularly to the candour of his hon. and learned friend, whether it could be considered to have been the duty of the lord chancellor to advise the striking out of an individual's name from the commission of the peace, whilst the conduct of that individual was a subject of inquiry before a committee of that House. He would ask, whether it would be becoming in the chancellor to act against any magistrate before his conviction, as if he were already convicted of some offence? The lord chancellor had not, however, acted as if the party had not been at all inculpated; for he had directed the opinions of himself and the solicitor-general to be taken, with regard to the propriety of filing a criminal information against him. But although it was competent to any person complaining of injustice or misconduct in magistrates, either for granting or refusing licences, to apply to the court of King's-bench for a criminal information, the law-officers of the crown had no means of putting themselves in motion until they were perfectly satisfied of the weight and incontrovertibility of the evidence upon which they were to proceed. It was their business, when they filed informations, not to do it by an application upon an ex parte statement, but to do it of their own authority. Such a proceeding, in the present case, would have been to arrest the inquiries of a parliamentary committee, and to anticipate an order to prosecute, which it was possible the House might subsequently vote. With respect to another subject referred to by his hon. and learned friend, that of statutable rewards, he begged leave to assure him, that it had been long under the consideration of government, and that the noble secretary for the home department had at present some measure in contemplation to submit to parliament.
§ Sir S. Romilly
said, the hon. and learned gentleman was mistaken, if he imagined that it had been intended to impute any blame to the law-officers of the crown.
§ Mr. Brougham
desired to know whether the House was to understand, that the rule which the lord chancellor prescribed to himself was, never to recommend the omis- 501 sion or striking out of a name in a commission of the peace, unless the party had been guilty of some offence.
The Attorney General
thought the hon. and learned gentleman extremely well qualified to answer his own question. He could not describe the rule upon which the lord chancellor acted on all occasions, although he was sure that it was from the most conscientious motives; but he had not uttered, and never could have uttered, any thing to justify the interpretation of the hon. and learned gentlemen, without exposing his own ignorance and presumption.
§ Mr. Brougham
said, if he had been mistaken, it was a mistake common to many on his side of the House, who certainly understood the hon. and learned gentleman to have stated that the lord chancellor had not struck out the name of Mr. Merceron from the list of magistrates because he had not hitherto been legally convicted of any offence. He regretted that the learned lord had omitted to strike out the name of that individual, especially as that individual stood openly convicted to the understanding of the world, upon his own evidence; and he regretted also that the chairman of the committee had not deemed it necessary to report that person to the House. He perfectly agreed with the observations on the purity of the lord chancellor's motives; but was sorry that, under the circumstances of this case, he had not thought the same sort of interposition necessary which he had on one occasion exercised in the county of Durham, in which he had of his own authority put an individual on his defence.
§ Mr. Lockhart
observed, that he had ever since the publication of the report, thought it incumbent on his majesty's ministers to adopt some immediate measure for remedying the evils which were there developed. He could not help saying, that ministers generally evinced a much greater anxiety for the collection of the revenue than for any improvement in the morals of the country. Although the House heard frequent congratulations from the throne on the prosperous state of the finances, they never heard any allusion to the growing virtue of the community. He believed, however, that with reference to the interests of the revenue itself, nothing could be more advantageous than a healthy state of morals among the people.
presented a petition from 259 inhabitants of Brentford, in favour of a 502 publican of the name of Joseph Harding, who had kept the sign of the Castle, in that town, but whose licence was taken from him by the magistrates, in consequence, as the petitioners asserted, of some undue bias against him, although, instead of being a disorderly house, the Castle had always been one of the most regular, and well conducted houses in Brentford.
§ Mr. Bathurst
suggested that the case in question was more fit for the consideration of the court of King's-bench, than of that House.
was confident that no undue bias existed in the minds of the magistrates of the division in which the town of Brentford was situated: than whom a more honourable set of men were not in existence.
§ Mr. H. Sumner
deprecated loose charges against the magistracy of the country, made in that House by petition or otherwise; such charges brought in the court of King's bench would not be half so prejudical, as when they were brought forward in that House, where the gentlemen accused could not defend themselves, and by which step the imputations against them, however unfounded they might eventually turn out to be, were circulated more widely than they could be by any other process. For himself, if he were described in any petition in the way in which some of the magistrates were described in the petition which had just been, read, he would immediately request to have his name struck out of the commission for the peace, well knowing that, however unjust the charge, the extensive circulation of it must materially diminish his usefulness and respectability as a magistrate.
§ Mr. Butterworth
, adverting to what had been said about Mr. Merceron, remarked, that it was but justice to that individual to observe, that he had recently obtained a verdict in the court of King's bench against some individuals by whom he had been libelled.
said, that he had no charge to make against Mr. Merceron, but that which Mr. Merceron had furnished himself in his own evidence.
§ Mr. Butterworth
acknowledged that the country at large was extremely indebted to the hon. gentleman for his humane and zealous exertions. What he had observed about Mr. Merceron was merely what he conceived to be an act of justice to that individual.
described Mr. Merceron's conduct before the committee as evincing cool, deliberate, and habitual falsehood. Whenever he was asked a question, his invention seemed immediately to be set to work to get rid of it by artifice. So short was his memory, that he never recollected what he had said ten minutes before and therefore contradicted himself continually.
§ Mr. Brougham
confirmed this statement, and again expressed his regret that the humanity of his hon. friend had prevented him from reporting Mr. Merceron's conduct to the House. As to the petition which had just been read, it was impossible to reject it, consistently with the rules and practice of that House. He allowed that the line ought to be carefully drawn between those complaints that ought to be made to parliament, and those that ought to be made in courts of justice. But there was nothing in the petition under consideration—no imputation of malversation in office, which could warrant an application to the court of King's-bench.
§ Mr. Brougham
said, that the prayer of the petition was for relief generally. As such a doctrine as that now advocated by the hon. and learned gentleman would end in the rejection of all petitions, he requested the Speaker would have the goodness to state whether a petition, praying for relief generally, could, according to the rules and practice of that House, be rejected.
§ The Speaker.
—Not on any such ground certainly. It will be for the House to judge for itself whether any petition presented to it does or does not pray for relief generally.
§ The petitions were ordered to lie on the table.