HC Deb 31 May 1820 vol 1 cc702-5
Mr. Whitbread

presented a petition from George Dewhurst, now a prisoner in the Castle of Lancaster, complaining that he had been confined for two months upon a charge of high treason, and during that time confined to hard labour, and compelled to wear the felon's dress. The charge of high treason, was afterwards abandoned, and he was subsequently tried and convicted of a misdemeanor. The petitioner further complained, that he had not been permitted to give bail upon the charge of misdemeanor, and alleged that he had been innocently led into attending a meeting on the 15th of November, 1819, which was the charge upon which he was convicted.

Lord Stanley

said, he did not rise to offer any opposition to the motion for laying the petition on the table, but to defend the character of the person who had the charge of the castle of Lancaster. The noble lord proceeded to remark on the humanity of that individual, and read a copy of an order issued by the magistrates of the county, by which a discretionary power was given to the gaoler of imposing solitary confinement, and other restrictions, on those prisoners who refused to work, or to comply with the other regulations of the prison.

Mr. Bennet

said, there was no law by which a man could be compelled to work even after sentence, unless for certain crimes, or when that sentence was expressly awarded. Then, as to wearing gaol liveries, every one knew the main object of wearing such clothes was, to prevent disguise, and therefore to narrow the facilities for escape. But for this there was also no law. What would any gentleman committed on a criminal charge think of being obliged before trial to wear a felon's dress? And no one could say when it might be his case—in a case of duelling for example. But such might be the case if they were confined in certain gaols throughout the country, He thought the magistrates had illegally taken on themselves to impose these restrictions. Such conduct was contrary to the act of the 19th of the late king, by which the use of gaol clothing was only to be enforced under certain limitations.

Dr. Lushington

considered the statement of the noble lord to be an aggravation rather than an extenuation of the wrongs complained of by the petitioner; and he further considered the magistrates who had issued such an order as that under which he was rendered liable to their infliction, as principal parties included in the charge. So much had the question of imprisonment been discussed within the House, that he was astonished the magistrates had taken so much upon them. He might be excused if, on this subject, he expressed himself with some little warmth; but he asked his noble friend what justification he set up for the conduct pursued towards the petitioner? Why, forsooth, the petitioner had refused to wear the livery of the gaol, and the order under which the gaoler acted gave him a power of punishing the offender, and why?—"for setting a bad example." Well, and was the petitioner guilty of any offence? No. He was as yet untried, when he was forced to hard labour, and to the wearing of a gaol livery; he was in that situation in which the law pronounces every man to be innocent. But such were the circumstances under which not only the petitioner, but every other person committed to the gaol of Lancaster might be subject to such arbitrary indignities. When parties were found guilty of a crime of magnitude, it might be proper to oblige them to labour; but when they considered that for an imputed crime, any hon. member might be sent to gaol, ought they not to look to the manner in which magistrates exercised the almost boundless power which was vested in them Did any man in the present day mean to say, that he might not be committed to a gaol where such orders were enforced, and be committed for no offence whatsoever? Let them look at the discretion vested in the gaoler, so powerful an officer in the present day, and they would find how much was committed to him. Either before or after trial he could enforce hard labour and the gaol livery on any prisoner. After what he had said, he wished to guard himself against the possibility of that misrepresentation. He wished generally that the prisoners should employ themselves before the period of their trial.

Lord Milton,

in adverting to the arbitrary and degrading treatment to which the prisoners were subjected by this order, expressed a wish that his noble friend had been in that situation, which would have given him a control over the magistrates at the time this order was made, for in that ease he was sure that such a proceeding would never have taken place.

Mr. Bootle Wilbraham

said, that of the existence of this order he had been perfectly ignorant till the present moment. From its date it appeared to have been made in the year 1800; and he had no hesitation in saying that he disapproved of it. At the same time there could not be a stronger proof that it had not been much acted on, than the circumstance of this being the first time that it had been complained of, or that the House had heard of its existence.

Mr. Scarlett

said, he had reason to believed, from what he knew of the individual who had the charge of the castle of Lancaster, that there did not exist in the kingdom a man in the situation of gaoler who deserved more praise for the manner in which he treated the prisoners under his charge. This petitioner had been convicted of attending an unlawful meeting; and he was surprised to see it stated in the petition that the meeting had been quiet, and peaceable. It had on the contrary, been proved that many of the persons who attended it had arms with them, and that when the soldiers appeared they took off the pikes which they had before fixed on their staves.

Mr. Blackburne

begged to add his testimony to the exemplary character of the gaoler.

Lord Folkestone

said, that general testimony respecting the character of an individual could not prevail over the evidence of particular facts. He hoped the petition would be printed, not solely on account of the treatment which the petitioner had suffered while in confinement, but because he had been committed by the magistrates, and detained in prison for two months, on a charge of high treason, after which notice had been given to him, that he was to be tried for a misdemeanor only. His prison dress had then been changed, and he had been put into a different yard. But the object to which he wished particularly to advert was, the wish of the Lancashire magistrates, in every instance, to set the laws at defiance. They had committed this individual on a charge of high treason, but he had yet to learn that a magistrate or a justice of the peace possessed the power of committing for high treason. If he was wrong in believing that no magistrate had such a power, there were learned gentlemen present who could correct him.

The Attorney General

was astonished to hear the noble lord make such an assertion as that magistrates or justices of the peace had not the power to commit for high treason, because, on former occasions, he had heard the noble lord, in discussing questions connected with the laws of the country, evince a degree of legal knowledge which he should have thought would have prevented him from falling into such a mistake. The learned gentleman said it was distinctly laid down in Bum's Justice that a magistrate had the power of committing for high treason.

Lord Folkestone

would not dispute on legal points with the learned gentleman, but he had thought it was explicitly declared in the book to which the learned gentleman had referred, that a magistrate or justice could not commit for high treason, and that felony was the highest crime within the commission of the peace.

The petition was ordered to be printed.