HC Deb 07 March 1821 vol 4 cc1128-31
Mr. James

rose to present a petition from Nathan Broadhurst, at present a prisoner in Lancaster castle. The petitioner represented "That he had been, originally, arrested upon a charge of high treason, which charge being afterwards abandoned, he had been tried for a misdemeanor, and sentenced to two years' confinement; that on the day of his arrest he was eon-fined to a cold, damp, stone room, for seventeen hours out of the twenty-four; that all letters written by him were obliged to be unsealed and opened to the inspection of the gaoler, before they could be dispatched; and all letters addressed to him were, with the same view, broken open, and brought to him in that state; that on one occasion, without any provocation whatever, the gaoler came to the petitioner and told him that for the good order and government of the prison it was necessary that he should be immediately committed to a place called the Ditch, which is a place of marked and peculiar degradation; that he was accordingly forced thither, and hurried down a flight of several steps, by which means his ancles were very much injured; and that he was so severely fettered, that finding himself unable to bear the extreme suffering to which they exposed him, he sent for a surgeon, who, upon seeing the state he was in, instantly ordered the fetters to be taken from him, thinking it most cruel that they should remain." The petition enumerated various other grievances to which this man was exposed. This man's letters were broken open from whomsoever they happened to come. Now he did not know under what authority so odious a practice as the opening of prisoners' letters was supported. It might be, perhaps, by the permission or approbation of a few justices; but such a principle it would be odious even in the legislature to entertain; and if the legislature, which, as he conceived, could alone assume such a power, had not deemed it proper ever to do so, he thought it certainly was not competent for a bench of justices to take upon themselves the authority. Neither was he aware of any grounds which could justify the harshness which the individual had been treated with, in the particulars set forth in his petition, excepting, indeed, the fact that these restraints had been imposed on prisoners by the same magistrates who had distinguished themselves at Manchester, after the bloody transactions of the 16th of August. The petition required the strictest investigation.

Mr. Hornby,

as one of the visiting magistrates, felt himself called upon to say a few words upon the subject of this petition. The rules complained of by the petitioner were sanctioned by two of the judges. He himself was one of those who disapproved of the rule excluding all newspapers from the prisoners; but he was opposed by the majority of the magistrates, whose decision was approved by that humane and constitutional judge, Mr. Justice Bailey. As to the petitioner's complaint about the rule with regard to work, reform being one of the main objects of imprisonment, it was better to employ prisoners in some branch of industry, than to allow them to spend their time in listless inactivity; and yet no prisoners were compelled to work in this prison but such as received the county allowance. The restrictions as to communication by letter he thought necessary for the purpose of securing the safe custody of prisoners. With regard to the character of the gaoler of this prison, he could declare from personal knowledge that he was a most humane man, whose removal would be a serious grievance to the prisoners themselves.

The petition having been read,

Lord Stanley

said, that this was the third time the conduct of the gaoler had been a matter of complaint to this House; and after an- investigation into his con- duct, it had been satisfactorily proved that he had not been guilty of any oppression. He believed there were no grounds for the allegations in the petition, and therefore he should oppose its being received.

Mr. Serjeant Onslow

declared, that after what the House had heard from local magistrates with respect to the conduct and character or the gaoler, the statement of the petitioner must be deemed a foul and infamous calumny, which ought not to be circulated with the sanction of that House.

Sir R. Wilson

observed, that testimonies equally high, had been borne in that House to the conduct and character of governor Aris, who had nevertheless been indisputably proved to be a confirmed knave and tyrant.

Mr. Hobhouse

said, that he knew something of this Mr. Higgins, the gaoler; for some time ago, a petition was transmitted to him, to present to that House, from several prisoners, who complained of his misconduct; but after he had received this petition, some of the parties wrote to him not to present it, because the county magistrates had rectified the matters complained of. From this circumstance it appeared, that this gaoler was not deserving of the unqualified panegyric which he had received.

Mr. Lockhart

deprecated the doctrine that that House, by receiving a complaint of oppression from any petitioner, made itself a party to that complaint, or to the charges which it imputed. From the admission of such doctrine, another proposition would naturally follow—that if the House received the complaint, and instituted an inquiry upon the subject, the case would be referred to a partial tribunal. He was an advocate for the reception of any petition couched in decorous language. It was the undoubted right of the subject to state his grievances to that House, and the duty of that House to receive such statements.

Mr. Wynn

was quite astonished at the doctrine which had been held on tins subject. There was a proper tribunal, before which all matters with respect to gaola might be brought, namely, the visiting magistrates. The House therefore ought not to interfere in the present case.

Mr. Bernal

contended, that after an ineffectual appeal to the proper tribunal, it; was competent to any subject to present a petition. The noble lord who opposed) the motion; bad not attempted to contra- dict the allegations in the petition, hut had contented himself by stating what he had heard from others.

Mr. Lambton

asked his noble friend, whether it was his private opinion that the petition should not be received?

Lord Stanley

replied, that it was certainly his intention to oppose the receiving of this petition.

Mr. Lambton

could not help regarding it as monstrous doctrine, that a statement of great oppresion from a prisoner should not be laid on the table of that House, because it referred to a gaoler of whose character two or three of its members entertained a favourable impression. If any gaoler were charged with inhumanity by a prisoner, the charge should, in his view, be investigated. He had a good opinion of the gaoler of the county of which he had the honour to be a representative; and yet if such charges as the present petition contained were preferred against him, he would certainly be an advocate for the investigation of that complaint, if a petition complaining of oppression, especially by a prisoner, were presented against the representative of the county, or the whole body of the magistrates, he would vote for its reception. In this case, the petition was from an unfortunate prisoner, whose character he did not know or care about. But he would say of him, as lord Chatham had said of Wilkes, that he neither cared about his private character or public principles, but considering him as an English subject, possessing rights which the law gave him, and the law alone could take away, he would resist any attempt to subject him to oppression.

After some further conversation, the question being put, "That the Petition do lie on the table," the House divided: Ayes, 33; Noes, 86.

List of the Minority.
Bennet, hon. H. G. Hutchinson,hon.C.H.
Bernal, R. James, W.
Bright, H. Lambton, J. G.
Byng, G. Latouche, R.
Calcraft, J. Lockhart, J. J.
Calvert, C. Markham, Adml.
Creevey,T. Monck, J. B.
Denman, T. Palmer, C. F.
Dickenson, W. Power, R.
Duncannon, Visct. Ricardo, D.
Ellice, E. Rice, T. S.
Gordon, R. Robinson, Sir G.
Guise, sir W. Rowley, Sir W.
Hobhouse, J. C. Smith, W.
Hughes, W. L. Tulk, C. A.
Hume, J. Western, C.C.
Wilson, Sir R. Wyvill, M.
Wood, M.