HC Deb 27 February 1822 vol 6 cc749-53
Sir R. Wilson

Presented a petition from 1,500 inhabitants of Greenock in behalf of Mr. Hunt. The petitioners considered the punishment which had been inflicted upon that gentleman as levelled at the man and not at the offence; and when they found that this sentence had been aggravated by the regulations of the magistrates of the county gaol in which he was confined, they could not forbear expressing to the House their opinion on the subject. Sir Charles Bampfylde, the late sheriff of Somersetshire, had considered the regulations in question as so harsh, with respect to Mr. Hunt, that he had suspended them: but on his going out of office they were renewed. It might be a very proper question to ask, why those regulations had been renewed, and why Mr. Hunt had been exposed to unnecessary severity? why he should be condemned to pass two years and a half of his life in a pestilential gaol, and supplied with water tainted with the most loathsome impurity? This severity was exercised too, after he had exposed the atrocities committed in that gaol, and had afforded government an opportunity of correcting them. He really thought that if ministers had either generosity or justice, they would grant Mr. Hunt an unconditional release; or, at least remove him to a prison in which his sufferings would be somewhat mitigated.

Mr. Warre

said, he understood that Mr. Hunt had been placed on a level with the felons of the jail. No person was allowed to see him but in the common room; and Mr. Hunt had refused to go there. The only persons allowed admission to him, except in this room, were an attorney, a surgeon, and a physician. A distinction ought to be drawn between criminals and those who were confined for political offences. The gaol of Ilchester, he believed, stood upon the bank of a river; and there was a small aperture in the wall of Mr. Hunt's cell, a little elevated above the surface of the water. It was here that his son, by taking a boat on the river, was enabled to communicate with his father through the aperture; and thus only could he obtain that communication. He (Mr. W.) wished that this were otherwise; for it was always a misfortune to a government, if a person confined for a political offence should come from his prison hailed by the people as a martyr.

Mr. Dickinson

said, he had already stated that, when he saw the rules in question, he thought they pressed too severely upon Mr. Hunt, and had mentioned the circumstance to Mr. Justice Best, who, however, returned the rules without any alteration. He feared, that as they were now signed by the judges, they became a part of the law of the prison, and could not be altered.

Mr. Hume

said, that, in his conscience, he believed the conduct of the Somerset-shire magistrates to have been unequalled. The other evening an hon. baronet had taken upon himself to say, that according to the information he had received, Mr. Hunt was not in solitary confinement. He now held in his hand an affidavit of a surgeon and of Mr. Hunt's son that no one was allowed to see him. A letter had been sent by the sheriff of the county to Mr. Hunt, stating that he believed the court had not intended to inflict solitary imprisonment upon him; and regretting that as the rules of the prison had been signed by the judges, he had not the power to relieve him. It had been said that the magistrates were not to blame. He wished any one who said this, would read the report of the commissioners appointed to examine the state of this gaol. The commissioners stated the dungeon in which Mr. Hunt was confined to be dark, damp, and unventilated, and that the water which he was compelled to drink was filtered through the common sewers of the prison. In every page of that report there were instances of the grossest neglect and oppression: hand-baits of ten pounds weight were put round the wrists of prisoners; and it was declared by an individual, who had by way of experiment placed them on his own wrists for a minute, that they produced the most acute pain even within that time. Notwithstanding all he had heard, he was convinced the magistrates could not free themselves from blame. It was impossible that the matter could rest here. No man was more alive to the advantages which this country possessed in the services of an unpaid magistracy; but surely it would not be maintained, that, because so much benefit was derived from their exertions, we were to overlook any evil which might arise from their negligence. He did not know whether any criminal proceedings were to be instituted against any of the parties, but his own opinion was, that strong grounds existed for such a step on the present occasion. With respect to the charge of an hon. member, that he (Mr. Hume) had declined his assistance in this affair, he could assure him, that he felt no disinclination to receive assistance or information connected with his duties in that House, from him or any respectable quarter. The hon. member then mentioned a case where he had had an offer of assistance on the subject of Irish tithes, from an individual of the name of Mills, who, after having given him some documents on the subject, made a charge of 25l. for his trouble. This he had refused to pay, alleging that he had made no engagement of the kind; and that he would give nothing, unless the person demanding it could prove himself entitled to it—for it was a rule with him not to receive information from any person who gave that information for payment. If he did pay money for receiving information he should be taunted on every occasion, even more than he was at present; but he would not give 25l. nor one shilling for any information of the kind.

Sir T. Lethbridge

did not, even now, believe that Mr. Hunt was in solitary confinement. He understood it to be that sort of confinement which rendered it impossible for a prisoner to hold any communication with any person whatever. If that was the meaning of the phrase, the situation of Mr. Hunt was very dif- ferent from solitary confinement. The petition complained that Mr. Hunt was ill treated; if that were the case, the magistrates were not in fault. It was not their fault that he was confined in a gaol which had bad regulations. He regretted some things which were stated in the report. Some of the circumstances were of a nature that must excite the indignation of those who heard them. They were, he trusted, such as would never occur again in this country. In bringing such transactions to light, no doubt great good would be accomplished. He was satisfied to let the blame rest where it ought; but he could not admit that it rested with the magistrates.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

said, that from the view which he took of the case, he did not think the magistrates free from blame. If they had done their duty they would not have waited for any commission to detect and remedy such abuses. They should have attended, as was their duty, to the comforts and convenience of the prisoners, and have seen that they were properly supplied with provisions, and were not exposed to injury from cold and damp air. He had visited several gaols, and far from acquitting the visiting magistrates of this gaol, he concurred in every word that was said by the hon. member for Aberdeen. Seeing a right hon. secretary (Peel) in his place, be trusted that such steps would be taken on this subject as would let the magistrates know that the eye of the government was upon them; and that they could not with impunity be guilty of such negligence.

Mr. Bennet

said, the hon. baronet appeared to think that nothing was solitary confinement but four walls and the receiving of food through a wicket. That, however, was but a degree of solitary confinement: and if a man were told he must submit to insult, or remain within his cell, it was not too much to call that also a degree of solitary confinement. He ventured to say that, except at Ilchester, there was no prison in which a man confined for a political offence was compelled to associate with felons, or submit to solitary confinement. This, however, had been accomplished at Ilchester by the regulations of these magistrates, confirmed by the order of Mr. Justice Best. He wished for the production of these regulations, in order that it might be seen whether he was borne out in his opinion that they were the most arbitrary and cruel that could be devised. The fact, was, that no written rule of the prison had been acted upon until the other day. It was the duty of the House to address the Crown to remove these magistrates from office. They had neglected their duty, and he strongly suspected they had done so criminally. There was a case referred to by the report, in which it appeared that a poor woman, with her infant in her arms, had been confined, in a season of severe frost and snow, within a cell in which, for two days, she was allowed no fire. Her food was nothing but bread, and cold water from a bucket: her milk failed her, and the health of the infant at her breast suffered in consequence. All comment upon these facts was unnecessary. They must strike every feeling man with horror; yet this he contended had been caused by the negligence of the magistrates. It was them that he blamed, and not their miserable tool the gaoler, or his underling; and if he had the power to dismiss them, they should never discharge another magisterial office as long as they lived.

Mr. Dickinson

said, that the visiting magistrates had discharged both the surgeon and gaoler before the commission entered on the inquiry; and stated that all the recommendations of the commissioners, save that of building a new gaol, would be attended to.

Mr. Lennard

said, the magistrates had done nothing until the abuses in question had been brought under the notice of parliament. He fully agreed that great suspicion attached to their conduct. He could not vouch for the fact; but it had been published and not contradicted, that one of the magistrates, on occasion of the late inquiry, had been heard to say, "We must defend our gaoler." Yet this gaoler was a wretch discharged from the hulks, a defrauder of the miserable objects placed within his power, and altogether as infamous in character as he was brutal in conduct.

Ordered to lie on the table.