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Feb 18, 1812: Frame Breaking Bill

On February 18, 1812, the Frame Breaking Bill again came before the House of Commons. The first reading took place on February 14, 1812.  The Second reading was on February 17, 1812The debate of the House of Commons follows: 
FRAME BREAKING BILL

HC Deb 18 February 1812 vol 21 cc847-53 847

§ The order of the day being read for going into a committee on this Bill, 

§Mr. Lamb rose, and said, he was anxious to state the grounds on which he should give the Bill his support. Those who opposed the measure insisted chiefly on the necessity which they conceived existed for going into a previous enquiry. If that enquiry should tend to ascertain the causes of the violation of the laws, it would certainly be beneficial; but he was against it because it would produce delay. The great cause of the disturbances he considered to be the decay of trade. The measures of the emperor of France were evidently their main causes; and it was nothing less than wilfully deluding the country, to hold out a hope that greater commercial embarrassments, greater severity of distress, than the country had hitherto felt, were not yet to be endured. As to the disputes between the masters and the workmen, he did not think it right to enquire into them, as causes of the riots;—such enquiry only tended to inflame the minds of the working-men, who generally concluded that they had rights which were infringed upon by the masters: and that they were justifiable in retaliating violence on thorn for the infringement of those supposed rights. The terror of death, he conceived, though it would have little effect on men habituated to guilt, would operate powerfully on the general mind. The atrocity of the offence against which the present Bill was intended, was as deep as any offence against property could be; and such, in his opinion, as called for the severest punishment. Another reason for having recourse to the punishment of death was, the difficulty of detection. When crimes became difficult of detection, the necessary and only resource was severity of punishment. As to the objections against the Bill, that it would involve persons who were within the letter, and not the spirit of it, there was little danger, he imagined, to be apprehended from any unfortunate result of that kind arising from it.

§Sir T. Turton contended, that the Bill was not directed against the real danger, which was combination; it only looked to individual offenders. He did not think that ministers had used either the ordinary civil means, or the extraordinary military means which they possessed, to active and proper advantage. The poor deluded people who were the objects of this Bill were greatly to be pitied. They were in want of bread; and any measure of the legislature would not, he was afraid, be 849 able to put down the risings of hunger. The great evil, and the spring of every minor evil, was the continuance of the war.

§General Tarleton said the debates on this subject had disclosed two important facts; in the first place it appeared that the late disturbances were caused by the decay of our trade: in the next, that a large number of the inhabitants of one part of the county had been almost in a state of insurrection. Far from thinking that there was any merit in the conduct of his Majesty's ministers, to him it appeared that great demerit was there to be seen. He thought the subject was not treated by the honourable House as so grave a subject ought to be treated. It ought to be most carefully looked into, as ministers had brought the country into a situation, to extricate it from which all the wisdom of parliament was required. He was averse to increasing the number of capital punishments. Were the laws of Draco the best the world had ever seen, because they were written in blood? Experience had proved the reverse to be the fact.

§Mr. Ellison defended ministers against the aspersions of the two last speakers. He was afraid that there was something of the spirit of party in the opposition made to the Bill. He did not profess to be the defender of ministers, except as far as truth and justice bound him; but if a charge should be brought against them on the head of supineness, in not using the means which they possessed 10 put down the disturbances, he was ready on that score to meet any hon. gentleman opposite. As to the crying, puling maxims so much insisted upon, and the noise made about humanity, and he knew not what, he asked, were not the sufferers by these outrages sufficient objects for that humanity? He wished not to be considered as agreeing by any means to the new doctrines on criminal law, which tended to cast reproach on the wisdom or humanity of our ancestors. The law proposed, appeared to him to be dictated by humanity; it was not like the laws of Draco to be written in blood. The dread of capital punishment might prevent the repetition of the offence, and if (as had been said would be the case,) no convictions should take place on it, no blood would be shed in. consequence of it. The conduct of ministers he thought had been perfectly correct, as they had done all in their power to put a stop to the evil by the means of the common law of the country.
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§Mr. Curwen , notwithstanding what had fallen from the last speaker, was still of opinion, that ministers had mean which were not used promptly or beneficially in quelling the riots. As to the argument deduced from the terror expected to be produced by the punishment of death, he had one curious fact to state to the House, by which they might judge what effect it would have. In the county of Cumberland, it was made a capital offence to steal lead, and what was the consequence? Why, that no conviction ever took place under that law, because witnesses were shocked at the disproportion between the crime and the punishment, and would not come forward. He was sorry to hear hon. gentlemen say, that no hope ought to be held out to the country of escape from the pressure under which it at present laboured. He believed that there existed other causes of these disturbances, besides the measures of the emperor of France; and those were the measures of his Majesty's ministers. He saw in their mistaken policy grounds enough for the decay of trade; and he was of opinion, that there were measures of moderation and wisdom, by the adoption of which the country might escape from its present embarrassments. Measures of moderation and wisdom were not, however, to be expected from his Majesty's present ministers. He attributed the decay of trade, and the consequent ruin of the country, to the mistaken policy of ministers. The sufferings of the people were great. They were great in many parts of the county with which he was personally acquainted; but their forbearance was also great. He should vote against the bill, because he did not think it would effect what it pretended to.

§Mr. Courtenay begged leave to adopt the sentiments of the hon. gentleman who spoke first (Mr. Lamb.) He particularly selected that hon. gentleman's speech, not only for its eloquence, but because all the other speakers for the Bill were opposers of the measures of an hon. and learned gentleman (sir S. Romilly) relative to the Criminal Laws, which measures Mr. C. was inclined to favour. But he thought the present an atrocious crime, worthy of the very highest punishment, and should therefore vote for the Bill.

§ The question that the Speaker do leave the chair was then put and carried; and the House went into a Committee, on the clause enacting capital punishment for 851 maliciously breaking the frames, machinery, &c. used in making lace.

Mr. C. W. Wynn observed, that as the clause stood, it would appear, that a person tossing an old woman's lace cushion into the fire would constitute a capital offence. He asked whether it was to be so understood?

The Attorney General did not think that such an act as that instanced by his hon. and learned friend could be prosecuted to conviction, because the bench and the jury would both be of opinion that the malicious intent to destroy that trade would not have been sufficiently made out.

Sir S. Romilly said, that if the case supposed by his hon. and learned friend did not come within the meaning of the act, he conceived that it might still operate in a manner in which it was not intended to act. If an individual in a passion should damage or injure one of his master's tools used in that trade, as the clause at present stood, such conduct would come within the meaning of the act. It might be that in such a case the law would not be executed, but was it for parliament to make laws so cruel in their operations, that persons convicted on them were suffered to escape on that account? He would submit it to the right hon. gentleman, whether it might not be better to alter it, by inserting the words "any three or more combining maliciously to break, &c."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer thought, if the proposition of his bon. and learned friend were adopted, the mischief would not be put a stop to by this act, as the rioters at Nottingham had acted throughout with so much system and contrivance, that he had no doubt but if that amendment were made, they would evade the law, by sending into the different cottages one man only to destroy the frames. However they might regret that to which the letter of the law might by possibility lead, he thought they ought to proceed on the established principle of comprehending to a certainty, that which the law was intended to meet, at the risk of including what it was not designed to include.

Mr. Abercromby supported the amendment.

Mr. J. Smith objected to the generality of the word "damaged," which he thought might be given up, as the Bill would be completely efficient without it.

§Mr. Simeon supported the clause as it stood, and was of opinion that the amendment 852 would destroy the effect of the Bill.

§Mr. Bathurst thought that if the object of the Bill was merely to increase the punishment, the former act ought to be fallowed up to the letter in every thing else.

Mr. Leigh Keck supported the clause.

The Attorney-General apprehended that the object of the rioters was to prevent the work from going forward, and therefore maintained it was of the utmost consequence to check them. No inconvenience could follow from leaving a discretion to the judges.

Sir S. Romilly declined pressing the amendment.

Mr. Lockhart proposed a clause for the purpose of allowing the prisoners who should be tried under this act, the benefit of counsel. It was agreed upon all hands that the crime was great; by some it was represented as approaching to high treason, a circumstance which must expose those who were accused of it to the indignation of the community; but it occurred to him, that for that very reason the person to be tried should be afforded the privilege intended by his clause. All he asked was, that they should be placed on the same footing with those charged with misdemeanors. He never could find upon what principle persons tried for their lives were refused this benefit. It was stated by some, that the judge was counsel for the prisoner; but the judge was bound to state what made against him as well as what made for him; and therefore in that sense could not be said to be his counsel. In the case of Patch, it was stated by Mr. Serjeant Best, that the principle upon which counsel was refused was, that the case should be so clear against the prisoner as not to render counsel necessary. A third principle stated, was, that it would occasion the delay of causes. But neither of them appeared to him to establish the necessity of such refusal in all cases: he therefore should propose the clause as he had already stated.

Mr. C. W. Wynn seconded the motion.

Mr. Secretary Ryder said his hon. and learned friend had not stated any thing to shew that this case differed from ordinary cases of felony. With respect to high treason, it was an offence sui generis, and the reason why counsel were allowed was, because it might be made an engine of political oppression. He quoted the 6th of George the 3rd, to shew that for the protection of the woollen and velvet manufactories, enactments had been made 853 similar to that which he had proposed in the present instance, and that no exception was made of the nature of that submitted by his hon. and learned friend.

§ The clause was rejected.

Mr. Secretary Ryder proposed an amendment, for the purpose of altering the preamble of the bill, so as to shew that it was framed to meet a particular occasion; which, after some desultory conversation, was agreed to. The report was then brought up, and ordered to be taken into further consideration tomorrow.


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