HC Deb 11 February 1842 vol 60 cc309-15
Mr. Monckton Milnes

said, it might be in the recollection of some Members of that House, that towards the end of the last Session, he gave notice of his intention to move for leave to bring in a Bill for the repeal of so much of certain acts of Elizabeth and James 1st, as inflicted penalties for the non-attendance on divine worship. The reason why he had abandoned that course and pursued that which he intended to follow on the present occasion, he would presently state to the House. The circumstances to which his motion applied, would be found stated in the sixth report of the Inspectors of Prisons, published last year; the case had attracted great attention, and the vigilant eye of the press, to which public justice owed so much, had been directed to it in such a manner as to render it impossible that the case should not come before Parliament in one way or other. He thought, therefore, that it was better that the case should be brought under the notice of the House by one who, as far as he is known at all, is known as a humble and attached member of the Church of England rather than by any one indifferent or even hostile to that sacred institution. The cases to which he particularly wished to advert, were stated in page 79 of the report, and are described by the inspector as follows:—

"Among other complaints made to me by prisoners, J. C. came forward, and stated, that he was placed in the Ecclesiastical Court, and sentenced to pay a fine of 1s., and 14s. costs; that he had been in prison ten weeks, and had no means of paying, and hoped that a representation might be made of his case, or he must remain a prisoner for ever. Upon referring to this man's commitment, I find that he was summarily convicted before two magistrates, that on the of June, being the Lord's-day, called Sunday, in the township of—, did neglect to attend a church, or at some other place of religious worship, on the said day, he not having any reasonable excuse to be absent, and adjudged to forfeit and pay 1s., together with 14s. costs, and, in default, to be kept in prison until the said sums shall he paid. It appeared that the following number of persons had been committed for a similar offence, and been discharged upon payment of the fine and costs:—

Name. When received in Prison. Fine. Costs. Period of Confinement.
185). s. d. l s d
J. B. February 12 1 0 0 10 6 63 days.
J. S. February 12 1 0 0 10 6 61 days.
W. W. April 15 1 0 0 19 0 16 days.
J. S. April 22 1 0 0 13 0 12 days.
G. B. August 5 1 0 1 4 0 17 days.
J. K. August 6 1 0 0 11 0 2 days.
A. G. November 4 1 0 0 17 6 16 days.
B. K. November 6 1 0 1 7 0 26 days.
P. F. December 13 1 0 0 12 6 3 days.
T. R. December 23 1 0 0 16 0 27 days.
T. S. May 10 1 0 0 12 0 3 days.

The poverty of the prisoner J. C. appearing to be such as to leave no hope of his being able to pay the fine and costs, I decided on making a representation of his case to the Secretary of State, who was pleased to recommend him forthwith as a fitting object for her Majesty's pardon, and he was discharged in consequence."

He believed, that in all those cases the parties proceeded against were simple labouring men, who would have been totally incapable of paying the fines inflicted upon them, if the case had not attracted the attention of her Majesty's Ministers; and it may be remarked, that in the first case the man was kept in prison during the whole hay-time and harvest, and was thus presented from earning the means of his winter sustenance. He knew that there was a strong and natural feeling, above all with young Members of that House when such a case as this occurred, to apply an immediate remedy, and to endeavour to attach their names to some measure for amending the Criminal Law. But he could not conceal from himself the evils of dilettante legislation. Short experience and imperfect knowledge, actuated by motives, however honourable, can never make efficient and stable laws. He therefore felt that it would be unbecoming in a Member of so little weight to put himself forward in a case where he was sure that it was only necessary to mention the evil to induce the application of a remedy by the hand of those on whom that duty legitimately devolved, and he felt this the more strongly at a time when a government was in power in which he had so sincere a confidence. He trusted, that the House would not impute to him a feeling of presumption for bringing the case forward, or of weakness in transferring it from his own hands to the stronger ones of the right hon. Baronet, the Secretary for the Home Department. In a question of abuse of this nature, it was but natural that they should inquire what was the conduct of the magistrates. He had communicated with one of these magistrates, a gentleman who had addressed letters on the subject of this case to the editors of the Manchester Guardian and the Morning Chronicle. This gentleman was a most respectable and temperate man, and expressed his earnest desire that the case should be fully investigated. In one of these letters from Mr. Ashworth, dated September 16, 1841, he says:— A man is brought before the magistrates charged with drunkenness in its most offensive form on the Sabbath, and with neglecting church. On inquiry it is found that this is his habitual practice, and that his conduct, in this state, renders him a pest to the neighbourhood. Perhaps even you will admit that such a character deserves punishment, and that he ought to be fined for drunkenness. Well, fine him. He refuses to pay, and has no goods on which to distrain. What then is to be done? Put him in the stocks, the law says; but we have no stocks, and the vagabond escapes scot free. To prevent this result and in respect to such characters only, recourse has been had to the statute enabling magistrates to fine for non-attendance at public worship, under which committals follow in case of non-payment. For pursuing this course you pronounce me unfit to remain on the bench, and you will, doubtless, think me still more unfit when I tell you, that though I exceedingly dislike the course, I am not prepared to relinquish it entirely, being determined to avail myself of the law, even in its defective state, and thereby punish such infamous characters as I have described.

Mr. Ashworth

thus declared, that the law wanted amendment, and stated that the practice was general among the justices of peace. In a private communication which that gentleman made to him (Mr. Milnes), he stated, that on his appointment to the bench he found these fines regularly imposed by the magistrates for offences of this nature, and that he disapproved of the custom; but, finding the law so defective, and being asked whether he thought it right to allow offenders to escape, and being most anxious to ensure an orderly observance of the Sabbath, he was induced to acquiesce in the proceeding. He added, that he did not know as a magistrate how he could refuse to inflict the penalty when the case was clearly proved, and concluded with stating, that he should be glad of the success of any motion on the subject which would lead to an alteration of the law. He (Mr. Milnes) considered that this letter was honourable to the gentleman who who wrote it. He was sure the House also, now that it was made acquainted with the nature of these cases, would cordially join with him in calling for some alteration of the law. He believed that all he has now to do was to state very briefly the present anomalous condition of the law. The penalty for non-attendance on religious worship was imposed in the clause of the act of Elizabeth, called the Act of Uniformity, which says:— Whosoever, having no lawful or reasonable excuse to be absent, shall forbear to resort to his parish church or chapel accustomed, or upon reasonable let thereof to some usual place where common prayer and such service of God shall be used in such time of let upon every Sunday and other days ordained and used to be kept as holy days, and then and there abide orderly and soberly during the time of the common prayer, preaching, or other service, shall incur the penalties of a Popish recusant. And I need not tell the House how terrible a nature those penalties were. Any person leaving a church during the administration of divine service was equally liable with one who had absented himself altogether. But the summary conviction in these cases was under a clause of the Act of James 1st, which states the penalty for the first offence to be forfeiture of 12d leviable by the churchwardens of the parish where the offence is committed by way of distress, and the penalty may be levied by the warrant of one justice of the peace, and in default of goods to destrain on, the same justice may commit the offender to prison till payment of the forfeiture. By the Acts of Toleration passed in the reigns of William and Mary and Anne, the provisions of this Act are extended to all places of religious worship. He need not say how far the Uniformity Act was adhered to in the present day, nor what would be its operation if generally enforced. If it were carried out to its full extent by the churchwardens of the parish of St. George's, Hanover-square, and St. James's, Piccadilly, by their visiting the club houses during the times of divine worship, and enforcing the law against those they found there, perhaps there might be a great deal more to be said on the subject than in the case of these poor men. It was useless now to debate on the absurdity of such a law in the present day; although much, perhaps, might be said in defence of it at the period when it was enacted, as then the attendance on divine worship in the church might be regarded as a test of political opinion, and as a proof of loyalty and good citizenship. Those times, however, were gone by, and the enforcing such a law as that acted upon by the Rochdale magistrates could only be regarded as a remnant of persecution. He also submitted that this was not the time to put magistrates like Mr. Ashworth in such a situation as they had been by their interpretation of the law. The outcry against the great unpaid had indeed ceased, but it was not right to expose them to unnecessary unpopularity. He did not think it necessary to attack the principle of the Act of Uniformity, as he did not think that it necessarily bore the interpretation which had been attached to it. He thought that in its free interpretation every man should be considered a member of the Church of England unti he committed some act or deed which proved the contrary. He trusted that the right hon. Baronet the Secretary for the Home Department would devise some means of getting rid of the present evil without touching the spirit of that important act. We should be chary of repealing laws merely because we held them to be obsolete. He need not tell the House that this was not the time nor the age to enforce religious belief by the means of penal enactments. If one truth was written on the page of history in more striking characters than another, it was, that when a church or a religious body endeavoured to enforce a belief in its opinions by persecution, it created a totally contrary feeling. Whether to oppress or to uphold religion violence is equally impotent. All the energetic rigours of the Inquisition have not saved the church of Spain from the oppressions and confiscations of an Espartero, all the terrorism of the penal laws has not shaken Romanism in Ireland. He believed that the Church of England was strong by the toleration which she had manifested, and was convinced that such acts as these only brought the Church into disrepute; he therefore called upon the right hon. Baronet, whose executive talents had been admitted by both parties in that House, not to shrink from legislative exertion in this matter, but as speedily as possible to bring forward some measures to get rid of a state of things as obnoxious to the principles of British freedom as injurious to the best interests of the Church of England. He should conclude with moving an Address for Copy of the warrant on which J. C——, or J. Carlton, was committed, at Rochdale, on the 29th day of June, 1840, by Clement Royds and William Chadwick, esquires, for neglecting to attend divine worship at Butterworth, in the county of Lancaster.

Sir J. Graham

was sure that the House would give every credit to the motives of his hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract, who had so ably brought this case before the House. According to the facts of the case the parties imprisoned had had a very severe and unjust punishment inflicted upon them. It appeared that these poor men had been brought before the magistrates for one offence, and had been punished for another. He could not too strongly condemn the practice that should proceed to search and find a statute, fallen almost into desuetude, for the purpose of inflicting punishments on parties not brought before them for the offence for which they were punished. Such a practice he considered to be unjust, nor did he think that the infliction of such penalties was, in any degree, applicable to the time and age in which we lived. He did not believe that the infliction of temporal penalties was at all applicable to the non-performance of a personal religious duty—nor did he think that it conduced to the maintenance of the Established Church nor religious worship. His hon. Friend had called attention to the Act of Uniformity, and had alluded to the extension to Dissenters, in proof that the oaths of supremacy and allegiance had been taken, which it was not at all times possible for them to show. All parties, however, were liable to penalties if these oaths had not been taken; and he believed that a very large portion of the Members of the House would have been liable to the penalties, through the non-attendance on religious worship on Wednesday last, if informa- tions had been laid against them. He did not say that the state of the law was such as should be allowed to continue, but when they had to deal with such important acts as those of Uniformity and Toleration, great caution should be used. He would not hastily pronounce how a remedy could be applied to this grievance, it was sufficient for him to admit that an evil of great magnitude existed, and it was the duty of the executive to find a remedy and apply it. He should not oppose the motion.

Motion agreed to.