§ Mr. Otway Cave moved the third reading of this bill.
opposed the measure, because he was convinced, if it were passed, that no man's freehold would be safe. He should move "That the bill be read a third time this day three months."
seconded the amendment. He would contend, that all corporations had a right to use their own property in any way that to them seemed good, provided such property were not specifically destined to the support of charitable foundations; and in this he was backed by the opinions of three chancellors. He could see no more impropriety in a corporation expending part of its funds to return a townsman, who was acquainted with the interests of a borough, to parliament, than there was in the voting of swords and snuff-boxes to gallant officers by the city of London.
§ Mr. Capel
described the tyrannical conduct of the mayor of Queenborough, who had ruined the poor fishermen of that place, because they would not vote as he pleased; and contended, that, with such a case of the misappropriation of Corporate Funds before them, they were bound to adopt the present measure.
§ Mr. Hudson Gurney
said, he should not follow the hon. gentleman who immediately preceded him into any discussion of the merits or demerits of the right worshipful the mayor of Queensborough; but should directly address himself to the arguments of the noble lord (Lowther)—backed, as the noble lord asserted himself to be, by the opinions of three Chancellors; but which very remarkable opinions he could not but think must, of necessity, 1648 wherever given, have been, in the public journals, somewhat misrepresented.
The argument of the noble lord was, that all Corporations had a right to use their own property in any manner which to them, seemed good, provided such property were not specifically destined to the support of charitable foundations. Now, as to the funds of charitable foundations, there was no question any where; but the noble lord's fallacy rested on confounding the select body, to whom, as trustees for the community, the management of the common property was deputed, with the incorporated body to which that property belonged.
This, in the preceding debate, had been placed on its true foundation, by the hon. member for Bodmin (Mr. Davies Gilbert), in the distinction which he had drawn between civil and eleemosynary corporations. It was not a question of the latter; but the question now to be met was, whether it should be tolerated, that the ruling body, in civil incorporations, should be considered to be entitled to divert their funds from the purposes of the incorporated community, whose concerns they were deputed to manage, to purposes of their own—possibly in direct opposition to the will of the real proprietors, and against which malversation, by the notable declaration of the three Chancellors, as stated and appealed to by the noble lord, it should seem that there existed no present means of redress.
Now let us look to the origin of the property of the Corporations of all the cities and boroughs of England. It can have been derived from only four sources. First, purchase: in which case it must have been bought with the accumulations of public money, for public purposes. Secondly, bequest; which must have been without exception, for purposes of the community; for who ever left by will a property to be divided as a bonus amongst aldermen and common-councilmen? Thirdly, grants from the Crown; which have invariably been made for the purposes of the incorporated community. Fourthly and lastly, the ancient town-lands, held by a prescription, anterior to the charters of incorporation, and of which those charters could not possibly transfer the right of possession.
All these properties are necessarily, and have hitherto always been understood to be belonging to the community, and only applicable to common purposes. Petty 1649 jobbing there has always been, and always must be; and a certain degree of looseness and favoritism, in the management of these Funds. The noble lord had instanced some of the proceedings of the corporation of London. He would give up to the noble lord the vote of money to the Greeks; which was a mis-appropriation so great, as a Subscription to Insurgents in arms against a power in alliance with the government of the country, that he did not know whether it might not have involved the forfeiture of their charter; but, in the main, the City of London appropriated their Funds nobly; and any thing of charity, any thing of magnificence, any thing for the credit of a great city and its citizens, he should be the last to complain of, and the last to endeavour to prevent. Indeed, it was to preserve the means of meeting these very purposes, that he wished some law to be passed to prevent those sweeping spoliations, which, in the miserable party conflict of the day, would, if suffered, dilapidate the revenues of every city in England.
Until the cases of Northampton and Leicester had occurred, no corporation had ever dreamt that they possessed the power to divert their funds avowedly Jo election purposes. None had dared openly to do it. Even the men of Northampton did it with fear and trembling, and retaining the hopes of the transaction being concealed. But this notable and inconceivable declaration of high law authorities will now, unless parliament interfere, be relied upon by others, with the same confidence with which it has been rested on by the noble lord.
Now, it should seem to be impossible, that two boroughs could exist where the right of property was more clearly in the commonalty and not in the select body, otherwise than merely as their trustees, than the two boroughs of Leicester and Northampton. Northampton received its first charter in the 31st of Henry 2nd., when the burgesses fined two hundred marks, to hold in capite of the Crown. They had charters of the 41st of king Henry the 3rd., and 27th of Edward the 1st.; the mayor's and bailiffs being annually elected in St. Giles's church-yard, by "all freemen." In the 4th of Henry 7th, on the allegation of riots in these elections, a new charter narrowed the election to the mayor and his brethren, late mayors, to choose forty-eight to elect the mayor and bailiffs. There is also another charter of confirma- 1650 tion of the 15th of Charles 2nd.; Northampton being one of the earliest parliamentary boroughs, the electors are, by prescription, the freemen and inhabitants.
The electors of Leicester are the freemen and inhabitants. Leicester was a borough under the Saxon earls, before the Norman Conquest. At the Conquest it had many burgesses, who paid thirty pounds to hold three hundred and twenty houses in capite. It received its privileges chiefly from the Bellemonts. Its charter of incorporation was from John, to the burgesses, originally a guild of merchants. The charter of Edward the 4th, in 1464, is to the mayor and burgesses. The inspeximus of Henry 7th, has the mayor, "comburgy and burgy." In the reign of Henry the 8th, it is the mayor and his brethren, twenty-four—and the forty-eight "elected of the comyns." By the charter of the 30th of Elizabeth, these persons were given the right to sue and be sued, to purchase and sell. And those of James the 1st in 1605 and 1610, under the privy seal, extended their powers of leasing. But, can any person in his senses conceive that this succession of charters, altering or narrowing the popular rights in the municipal elections of the boroughs of Northampton and Leicester, could divert the property of the original possessors, the burgesses, into an absolute and exclusive possession of a select and something like a self-elected body, which they might legitimately make over to a favoured candidate, at an election for members of parliament, to purchase votes withal?
That this is, and must be, clearly against the common law of the land—in spite of all the opinions that could be adduced of all the chancellors that ever existed, quoted correctly or misquoted—could scarcely admit of a doubt. But what he feared might be too truly deduced from the declaration of the noble lord's authorities was, that let the law be what it might be, whenever or however violated, it practically afforded no means of redress. As, if attacked at law for any malversation, how flagrant soever, the corporations would employ, in their own defence, the funds of the injured to the aggravation of the injury.
§ Mr. Gurney
said, that the effect of this assumed power of recurring to corporate funds in contested elections, on the freedom of the representation, was with him 1651 a minor consideration; yet it could not but be obvious, that it opened a door to a profuseness of corruption hitherto unheard of. You could get at an individual, but who could succeed in a petition against bribery at second hand, organized by a body, with the funds of the public at their disposal?
He sincerely wished that the present bill had undergone more discussion in its earlier stages; as he was afraid the clauses, as they now stood, would be found to be obnoxious to legal objections. Still, as he thought, under existing circumstances, it was of imperious necessity, that the House should pass some measure of the nature during the present session, he should vote for the third reading, in the hope that the Lords might introduce any required emendation, instead of throwing the bill out, as they had done that of the hon. member for Northampton last year.
But, in thus voting, Mr. Gurney said, he by no means wished to be understood as thinking that this bill could be so altered as to meet every point which might be conceived to be desirable. He had more than once expressed himself in that House as being no enemy to corporations. On the contrary, he was convinced that they afforded the best possible form of municipal government for the condensed population of large cities; and he considered the want of estimation in public opinion, into which the corporations of this country had fallen, as a national misfortune; whilst any thing that should go towards bettering their composition, and towards restoring them to the respect in which they were formerly held, would, in his view, be a great national benefit. Many of them possessed large revenues; and the conservation of these revenues to purposes of public utility and to the maintenance of those institutions of which they were the patrons and guardians — indeed, he might say, to the maintenance of the corporations themselves—was an object of the extremest local importance. Possibly the publication of corporation accounts, and the election of auditors, by the body whose affairs they administered, might be the best check that could be devised. But as, of all misapplications of the public property, the using it for purposes of election in all large and populous places, — where there is always a never-ceasing strife between two 1652 parties—would be that to which there would be the greatest and most constantly recurring temptation, a bill confined as the present was, to this specific object, might, under the existing exigence, be that which it would be most beneficial immediately to pass. If no measure were taken, and if, in consequence, Corporations were to act as they were now encouraged to do—it was very clear that any questions concerning their funds would, in the lapse of a very short period, be perfectly nugatory; that all institutions committed to their superintendence would fall into decay; and, in all human probability, the extinction of the Corporations themselves might be expected very speedily to follow.
conceived that it was no part of the duty of corporate bodies to support the return of members of parliament. He should therefore support the bill.
§ The House divided: for the third reading 35; against it 10; majority 25. Colonel Sibthorpe again divided the House, on the question that the bill be now read a third time; for the motion 35; against it 4; majority 31; The bill was then read a third time, and passed.