HC Deb 17 May 1814 vol 27 cc928-31
Mr. W. Smith

, in moving for leave to bring in a Bill to punish the crime of Child Stealing, observed, that it was singular, that this offence, though there was none of greater enormity, was not at all punished by the existing law, unless in those cases where the person stealing a child could be convicted of stealing its clothes. It was surely a great blot on the statute book, that a man might steal a child with impunity, though he could not, without punishment, take the shoes from that child. And, he believed, so far was the system carried, that the judge always directed a jury, in cases of this kind, if any doubt were entertained as to the person accused intending merely to steal the child, and not the clothes (that is, intending to commit the greater and not the less offence), that then they must acquit him. There were three different motives for the stealing of children—First, as was most commonly the case, for the sake of the clothes. In that case the party rarely thought it necessary to take the infant far from the place where the theft was committed, and it was allowed to find its way back as well as it could. He recollected a case that happened a few years ago, where a child was stolen from a professional gentleman, who resided in Westminster. That child was stripped, and left under one of the arches of Westminster-bridge, on a snowy and inclement day, when the tide was flowing. From this situation it contrived to extricate itself. It ascended the steps, and caught hold of the legs of a person who happened to be there, and who restored it to its parent. This instance he stated, to shew how hardened those criminals were who addicted themselves to child-stealing. The offender was convicted in that case, because he had stolen the child's clothes, and sentence was passed on him; but, he was sorry to say, he afterwards received a pardon. Another motive for stealing a child was, that it might be reared up as the offspring of another. A case of this, kind occurred a few years ago, and a Mrs. Delow was tried for the offence.—Now, even though the situation of the fictitious parents was more comfortable than that of the real ones, and, therefore, the child thus improperly carried away, would, perhaps, be introduced into a line of life better than that from which it was taken, still this did not palliate the crime, any more than the argument formerly used, that the negroes were taken from the miseries of their native country, to taste of happiness in the West Indies, justified the Slave Trade. But there was a still worse case than either of these—that was, where children were stolen for the purpose of being sold, either to be carried about, for years, to excite charity, as common beggars, or to be educated to those trades (chimney-sweepers for instance) in which children were still employed. Those who committed an offence of this aggravated description, in consequence of this defective state of the law, must now be acquitted. He had stated his intention of remedying this defect to several learned gentlemen of great weight and authority, all of whom expressed their approval of the measure. A few years ago, a Bill of a similar description was brought in by an hon. friend of his. It passed through the House of Commons, and, in the House of Lords, it advanced to a third reading—from some neglect or other, it was not moved through that stage, and, in consequence, the measure was lost; and, for some private reasons, his hon. friend declined introducing the Bill again. Not being aware of any opposition, he would move—"That leave be given to bring in a Bill for the more effectual prevention of Child Stealing."

Mr. Serjeant Onslow

, in seconding the motion, said, that his hon. friend deserved the warmest approbation, for having proposed a measure which would cover a class of criminal cases most offensive to human nature, and which were not hitherto provided for. With respect to the directions given by the judges to acquit culprits of this description, they had merely done it in strict conformity with the letter of the law; at the same time that they did violence to their feelings—and deeply lamented the defective state of the criminal code. Such inconveniences arose from the present situation of the law. Looking upon child-stealing as a crime disgraceful to the country at large, and as one of the blackest in the black catalogue of human offences, he heartily supported the motion.

Mr. Peel

intimated a wish that Bill should be extended to Ireland.

Mr. W. Smith

agreed to the suggestion.

Leave was then given to bring in the Bill; which was shortly afterwards brought up by Mr. W. Smith, and read a first time.