HC Deb 18 February 1818 vol 37 cc501-6
Mr. Alderman Wood

rose, pursuant to the notice he had given on this subject. It would, he said, be unnecessary for him to take up the time of the House by any arguments in support of the motion which he intended to submit. That some evils existed in the City Prisons was admitted by most of the honourable members who had spoken upon the subject. He himself admitted that something, and a good deal, might be done for ameliorating the condition of the prisoners, and also, that some alterations in the prisons themselves were necessary; but he could not allow that all the complaints which had been made in the House on the subject were well-founded. When a greater number of prisoners were confined in the prisons than was convenient, the noble secretary of state, whose particular department embraced a superintendence over them, was always most ready to remove the too great number. With respect to the complaints which had been made against the magistrates of London, he thought they were unfounded, and he was certain that his hon. friend (Mr. Bennet) would find it so on more strict inquiry. No man had a higher respect for that hon. gentleman than he had, and no man was better aware of the great good which his humane exertions had produced; but he believed the hon. gentleman would find himself mistaken in imagining that any of the evils of which he had complained had arisen from the neglect of the magistrates. The fact was, the magistrates did as much as was in their power. If there was an evil existing,— and without meaning to impute blame to any quarter, he should say there was—it arose from the inability of the magistrates to commit to any other prisons than those they new do. This produced an almost constant crowding of one or two prisons. Since he became a magistrate the number of prisoners transmitted to Newgate from Middlesex was increased in the proportion of seven to one. Another evil which existed, and which applied rather to the prisoners than to the prisons, was that of sending off so many in the same vessel for transportation, and sending them at inclement seasons. One instance of the bad effects of that system he would state, and he did so from the best authority. In February 1814, a ship was sent off with 200 convicts for New South Wales, and out of that number not less than 50 died on the passage. The reason was, they were sent out in a cold season; they after, when they got beyond the line, got into a very warm climate, and then again into a cold one, when sailing in the high southern latitudes. This was a circumstance which he conceived required investigation, at least which called for that consideration which might prevent a similar evil. His object on the present occasion in saying what he did was not with a view of defending the magistrates, for he thought their conduct needed no defence; but he was anxious the House should know that a great deal of what they wished to do with respect to prisons was at present out of their power. He concluded by moving, "That a committee be appointed to examine into the state of Newgate and the other prisons within the city of London and the borough of Southwark, and to report their observations together with the minutes of evidence taken before them, to the House."

Mr. Bennet

observed, that it was not his intention to oppose the motion, but he wished to offer one or two remarks on what he had said upon the subject on a former occasion. It was true what he then stated, that one of the great evils in Newgate was the crowed state of it. This great number of persons rendered it almost impossible to prevent the mixture of persons which might now be observed. The old and the young, the veteran criminal and the juvenile depredator, were indiscriminately huddled together. There was no school where the young prisoners might be taught something, nor any separate place where they might be kept free from the contamination of more vicious persons than themselves. But this was not the only charge which might be made with respect to Newgate. He would show to the committee about to be appointed, that the clothing of the prisoners was by no means attended to. He had seen, in a recent visit to the prison, a child who might be said to be literally naked. He had no shoes or stockings, no small clothes, and with the exception of a few rags which hung about him, he had nothing to screen him from the inclemency of the weather. This child had been seen in that state by the sheriffs and the magistrates, and no relief had been afforded to him. He did not attach particular blame to them, but he could not see the child in the state he was without believing that blame rested somewhere. The next thing which he had to complain of was, that the prisoners had not a sufficient supply of wholesome food. What they had was bad and scanty, and, indeed, those of the prisoners who were not assisted by their friends, might be said to be in a starving condition. The appearance of many of them bespoke their wants; and he could tell if a number of prisoners were before him, who had been longest in prison from that squalor carceris which was visible in their appearance. The bread which was served out to them was of the very worst quality. This he should be able to prove before the committee, and it was acknowledged by those whose duty it was to look to such matters; for within a few days, and since the present motion had been noticed in the House, the baker who usually supplied the prison with bread, had been changed for another person. When the committee should visit the prison it was more than probable they would find it in a much better situation than that in which he had seen it, for he understood that the court of aldermen had, within a few days, taken great pains to have it cleaned, and such was their anxiety to have it in order before the arrival of any of the committee to examine it, that they had not even respected the Sabbath. It appeared that the whole of last Sunday a number of persons were employed in putting several parts of the prison which had been previously out of repair, into some tolerable state, which might bear inspection. It was probable that if the committee examined it, it would appear in the court dress in which it had been put, in the expectation of its being reviewed. He did not, as he said before, intend to offer any opposition to the committee; but he hoped that when it should have terminated its inquiry, the prisons would be put into something like a state of cleanliness, and order, and that they would no longer continue what they now were— the scenes of wretchedness, and the schools of vice.

Sir W. Curtis

complained, that the statements made by the hon. gentleman were highly exaggerated. He did not mean to charge the hon. member with stating that which was not true; but he considered that the statements would not bear him out in the way he put them. It had been said, that the provisions given to the prisoners were scanty as to quantity, and their quality was bad. He denied the fact. Every prisoner was allowed four pounds of good meat per week, and 14 ounces of bread per day; and he had no hesitation in saying, that the bread was of as good quality as any gentleman in the House would desire to eat. The hon. gentleman had said, that preparation had been made in the prison within a few days in order to receive the committee; but he could declare, upon his honour, that no alteration whatever had been made with that view, and that no hints, as far as he could learn, had been given to any person of the intended visit of the committee. It was true that some of the windows had not long ago been wantonly broken by the prisoners, and the magistrates refused to have them repaired, unless the prisoners themselves undertook it, or gave up the names of those who were concerned in it. The prisoners refused to give up the names, and they were made to feel the effects of their own ill-conduct. With respect to the work which had been done on Sunday, he could only say, that he had not heard of the circumstance before. But he would ask the House whether it was right, that they who were imprisoned for their crimes, should be supported in luxury? They were not sent to prison with a view of consulting their particular inclinations, but in order that they might be punished for their misconduct. The treatment they received beyond what the law ordered was not severe, and their comfort was studied as much as was necessary to persons in their situations.

Mr. Bennet

said, that most of what he had stated had fallen within his own observation. He had seen and tasted some of the bread lately in use, and he found it sour and disagreeable. He had himself made inquiries on the subject, and it was admitted to him that the bread before in use, was bad, that formerly it used to be baked in tins, but that at present it was made like the bread in common use. With respect to the white-washing and the cleaning of the prison, he had seen it himself, and the worthy baronet might also have seen it, if as a magistrate he had attended to his duty and been present.

Mr. warre

gave full credit to the statement made by his hon. friend, as to the probability of the prisons appearing in a court dress on the day the committee might visit them. He remembered that when as a member of a committee appointed about two years ago to examine into the state of the borough Compter, he went with some of his brother committee men to inspect it; they found glaziers, bricklayers, &c. as numerous almost as the prisoners, busily employed in making arrangements for the visit of the committee, which was, however, made a little sooner than they expected it. He had no doubt that recourse would be had to similar expedients at present. With respect to the necessity of a strict and frequent investigation of the state of the prisons, there could not exist a doubt in the minds of any who had given the subject the slightest consideration. He would state to the House one case which called loudly for inquiry. It was not a case resting on report. It was on the sworn depositions of several persons. It was the report of an inquest held before Hugh Lewis, esq. the coroner, on the body of a man, named John Birdie, aged 37, who died in Tothill-fields prison. From the deposition of the turnkey it appeared, that the deceased had been confined along with twenty seven persons in a room which was only ten feet by six. It appeared farther on the inquest, from the evidence of Mr. Hanbury, the surgeon, that his death was caused more from want of proper nourishment than clothing. After the coroner had examined Mr. Hanbury, and questions had been put to him by several of the jurors, the turnkey was again called in and examined, and from his very great prevarication in his evidence, the coroner threatened to commit him. Now, he would ask, whether with such evidence of the misconduct of that man, he had since been dismissed from his situation? He should beg the attention of the House to the result of the inquest. The jury sat about three o'clock, and after having heard all the evidence, they retired for a short time, and about nine o'clock they returned a verdict, "that the deceased came by his death from the want of proper nourishment and medical attendance." This matter he conceived called for most particular inquiry, and he trusted such inquiry would be made.

The motion for the committee was then put and agreed to, and a committee appointed.