HC Deb 27 March 1809 vol 13 cc812-6
Mr. Whitbread

rose, and said he held in his hand a Petition, signed H. White, a prisoner in the gaol of Dorchester, under the sentence of his majesty's Court of King's Bench, in consequence of a conviction of the publication of a libel; and another petition from Mr. Hart, confined in the gaol of Gloucester, under a similar sentence and for the same offence. For the veracity of the circumstances alledged in these petitions he did not undertake to vouch; but he considered it his duty, as a member of parliament, to comply with the request of the parties, in presenting to that house the petition of any British subject, when couched in respectful and decorous language, more especially upon a subject so nearly concerning the liberties of every individual. The petition complained not only of informality in the proceedings of the court upon the Petitioner's trial, but of extreme hardship and severity sustained in prison since their commitment, and which he should hope it never could have been the intention of the court to inflict. If these allegations were founded, they ought to be enquired into, in order that they might be redressed; and if they were untrue, it was right, nevertheless, that they should be stated, in order to give an opportunity for their disproof, that the public might really know the facts, not only as they concerned the petitioners, but every British subject. He moved that the petition be now received.—It was accordingly received, and read. It was of considerable length, and signed by H. H. White. It stated that the petitioner was proprietor of a Sunday newspaper called, The Independent Whig, published in Warwick square, London, and that in consequence of certain letters published in the said newspaper in December, 1807, and January, 1808, alledged to be libellous, proceedings were commenced against him by his majesty's attorney-general, ex officio, in his majesty's court of King's Bench, and that the information filed thereupon did not allcdge that any part of the said letters so stated to be libellous, was untrue, which circumstance was contrary to the legal usage of the said court; as, for above thirty years, no information had been filed in that court for any publication alleged to be libellous, wherein such publication was not also stated to be false. That in selecting a special jury for the trial of the said charge, the choice of the pannel was not left to the Sheriff, as it ought to have been conformably to the constitutional administration and usage of the laws of England, but was left to the master of the Crown-office, who had thereby a power of acting partially in the selection of jurors, which was accordingly the case; for the jurors nominated and summoned were not called upon for their fines, as is usual in such trials, but their names passed over, upon a mere alledgement that they could not attend: that such practice was subversive of the constitutional administration of the laws of England, which, in order to secure impartial juries, require that no sub-sheriff shall act for two years in succession, lest, by knowing intimately the jurors of his bailiwick, heshould be thereby enabled to make a partial selection. That the petitioner, when convicted by such jury, was sentenced to a punishment not only equal to, but greater than in the generality of other cases wherein he publication charged has not been proved to be false. That the petitioner was committed to Dorchester gaol, instead of being, as he ought, committed to the custody of the sheriff of the bailiwick wherein he was convicted, the Magistrates of the county of Dorset having no power in such case, but under a partial exercise of the law. That submitting these circumstances to the wisdom of that hon. house, he begged further to state, that at the time of his committal, on the 6th of July, 1808, he was in a dangerous state of health, a certificate of which was produced from an eminent physician; notwithstanding which, he continued, for the first three months of hrs imprisonment, confined to a small apartment, without the benefit of free air, except for about half an hour each day in a confined space, crowded with persons imprisoned for smuggling and other offences, and that being affected with a bilious complaint in his head, the circular direction in which he was obliged to walk, in a space so confined, greatly affected him. That he applied to the magistrates to be allowed to walk in the garden of the prison, a liberty which had been granted to Mr. Gilbert Wakefield and Mr. Redhead Yorke when confined there; but that this liberty was positively refused to him, until, through the interference of a humane magistrate, he was allowed, since the month of October last, to walk in the garden for a quarter of an hour per day, accompanied by the gaoler. That he had a wife and two children, with whose company and attendance he was desirous to be indulged during his ill-state of health; but that this consolation was refused him, until after the interference of the humane magistrate before mentioned, and since that time they were only ad- mitted to him three days in a week, and this at a late hour of the day, which considerably shortened the time of their continuance with him; and finally, that by the expence of removing his wife and children to such a distance from London, and the charges of finding for them a separate residence, he was involved in expences more heavy and severe than the court would have inflicted, had his punishment been awarded in the way of fine. Submitting, therefore, the premises, he prayed such relief as to the wisdom of the house should seem meet.

Mr. Calcraft

said, that as a Magistrate of Dorset, and knowing something of tins business, he felt it his duty to state what he knew to the house. In consequence of some representations made to him by a worthy member of that house, he was induced to visit Mr. White, who stated to him that in his ill state of health he wished to be indulged by the admission of his wife; and upon his (Mr, Calcraft's), enquiring of the Gaoler, he was informed that ever since Mr. White came there life wife and son were admitted several hours in the day, and during his illness, constantly by day and by night, and since that regularly for eight hours a day, six days in the week. He then complained of the confined space in which he was allowed to take the air for an hour each day, and expressed a wish to have the same indulgence of walking in the garden as Mr. Gilbert Wakefield and Mr. Redhead Yorke had; but, upon application to the magistrates for this purpose, their answer was, that he could not be allowed this indulgence, because Mr. Gilbert Wakefield had made a very bad use of it; for the garden communicated with several parts of the gaol, and he employed, this indulgence in exciting disturbances among the prisoners. They however agreed that Mr. White should take the air in the garden for an hour per day, accompanied by the gaoler, or some trusty person, either all at once or in such divisions as he chose. This he communicated to Mr. White, who expressed himself perfectly satisfied and thankful, and promised that if he should have any future cause of complaint, he would communicate it to him (Mr. Calcraft) and as to his allegement of close, confined, and unwholesome apartments, he could only say, that although the gaol was not provided with apartments on purpose for persons of his description, yet as there were no female debtors now in the prison, he was accommodated with the apartments allotted for them; and that the room in which he was lodged, was as airy and comfortable as any he himself had ever occupied in any of his majesty's Barracks where he had been quartered. He therefore lamented that Mr. White should have suffered himself to be prevailed on to present such a Petition.

Mr. Ashley Cooper

bore testimony to the same report, as having been Foreman to the Dorset Grand Jury.

Mr. Whitbread

reminded the house, that he did not pledge himself for the truth of the petitioner's allegations. It was the petitioner's son who delivered the Petition to him, and he fell it his duty, as an independent member of parliament, to present it to the house. If the grievances complained of had been remedied, it was to the honour of the magistrates: but why such severities were at all inflicted, might hereafter be matter for enquiry. Why the magistrates of a county should assume an authority to inflict punishments upon persons imprisoned more than were authorised by the court who committed them, he was at a loss to conceive. He was glad, however, the petition had been presented, as it might lead to enquiry touching such abuses, and settle some regulation in similar cases.

The Speaker,

on looking at the Petition, felt it necessary to apprize the house, that there appeared on the face of it several erasures and interlineations, and therefore, in point of form, it could not be considered as the Petition of the person who signed it.

Mr. Whitbread

said he was not conscious of any informality in these circumstances; the erasures and alterations were made by the son of the Petitioner, who had delivered the paper to him. He would, however, with the leave of the house, withdraw the Petition, on the ground of its informality.—Leave given.