HC Deb 04 March 1822 vol 6 cc891-4
Mr. Alderman Wood

said, he had a petition to present from Mr. H. Hunt, confined in Ilchester gaol. It was not his intention to advert to any of the facts stated in the report of the commissioners respecting the cruelties practised upon this individual. He would confine himself to some recent cruelties which Mr. Hunt said had been inflicted upon him. These were contained in a letter which he had received that morning from him. The hon. alderman here read some extracts from Mr. Hunt's letter, from which it appeared that a fresh instance of persecution had occurred by order of the rev. Dr. Colston and another of the visiting magistrates. They discovered that there was a small door, through which Mr. Hunt had access to a small yard, to which allusion was made in the report. This door Mr. Hardy, the gaoler, had suffered to remain open; but as soon as the magistrates discovered it, they ordered it to be shut up. Mr. Hunt farther stated, that in consequence of being shut up every night, and using candlelight from 5 to 12 o'clock, he had got a great weakness in his sight, and was nearly blind of one eye. A short time back, his own surgeon and the surgeon of the prison had to perform an operation on his eye. He wished to have this concealed from his family; but it somehow reached their ears, and his son, and a young lady, his ward, applied, in a state of distraction, to be admitted while that operation was performing. They were refused admission, and Mr. Hardy, the gaoler, observed, that even if Mr. Hunt were dying, he dared not admit them, without the consent of the magistrates. After this operation, he had been ordered constantly to foment his eye with warm water. Finding that he should frequently want assistance, he asked to be allowed to have a nurse; but this was refused, unless he accepted the services of one of the female convicts. The assistance of his son and his ward were also denied him. He was thus locked up from six in the evening till five in the morning; the door was then opened, and some warm water given, and it was again shut, till the usual time of opening, when his surgeon came to see him; and, during this time, he continued to suffer the greatest pain. Surely, the sentence on this individual was of itself severe enough, without aggravating it by such cruelties. He would only add, that all the statements which he had received from Mr. Hunt had turned out to be correct. He was glad to learn that on Saturday last an order had been sent down by the high sheriff of the county, to have Mr. Hunt treated with more lenity than he had recently experienced. He trusted this benevolent disposition might not be frustrated, as that of a former high sheriff had been.

Mr. Dickinson

said, that Mr. Hunt would now be placed in the same situation in which he was before the regulations complained of.

Mr. Bennet

deprecated the cruelty of not allowing Mr. Hunt to be attended by his son or ward. What the motive was for such conduct he could not tell; one of the visiting magistrates was a preacher of the gospel; he was certain, however, that his conduct was not, in this instance, conformable with its precepts. The prisoner could not say, in the emphatic language of scripture, "I was sick, and in prison, and you visited me not," but he might say, "I was sick, and in prison, and you persecuted me."

Mr. Hobhouse

expressed a hope that the attention of government would be turned to the case of Mr. Hunt, with a view to his removal from that gaol altogether, if they should not go farther. When Mr. Hunt was sentenced, it was stated, that Ilchester gaol was chosen as a matter of favour to Mr. Hunt. It now seemed, however, that it was no favour, and he trusted, therefore, that government would order his removal to some other prison. Government alone could effectually assist him, and not the magistrates.

Mr. Scarlett

said, that at the time of Mr. Hunt's sentence, Ilchester gaol was considered as one of the best regulated in the kingdom. It had since turned out, certainly, that this was not the fact.

Mr. Wynn

denied that there was any prerogative in the Crown to transfer a prisoner under sentence from one gaol to another. It would be a most dangerous precedent; for if it were done in mitigation, it might also be done in aggravation.

Mr. Denman

observed, that although there was no prerogative to transfer prisoners under sentence, yet it had been done by consent in many cases.

Mr. Lockhart

thought, that a very injudicious mode had been adopted in this case. He would admit, that neither the sheriffs nor the magistrates, had any authority to aggravate the sentence of a prisoner; but no inquiry on this subject had been gone into by the House. If the petition had been intrusted to his care, he would have moved that it be referred to a committee; and he was satisfied that if any cause of complaint was proved to exist, the House would not suffer it to continue.

Dr. Lushington

conceived, that a great deal of the inconvenience which Mr. Hunt had suffered, arose out of a misconception on the part of the magistrates. From the report of the commissioners, it was evident, that in the course of nine months they had made nine distinct orders, regarding the manner in which visiters were to be admitted to Mr. Hunt. That circumstance was of itself sufficient to prove that they had been in doubt as to the conduct which they ought to pursue towards him; and being so in doubt, they unfortunately resorted to a mode of remedying their doubts, which absolutely aggravated the disorders they were called upon to check. By availing themselves of a sanction contained in an act of parliament, they had bound up their hands, and left themselves no discretion whatsoever. He adverted to that circumstance to remind such magistrates as had seats in that House, that they ought not to submit to the judges a series of definite regulations for the internal management of prisons, without being certain that no exceptions would arise to them. It never was intended by the legislature, that the judges should lay down a system of prison discipline: from the very nature of the thing, it was evident, that much of the discipline in every prison, must be left to the discretion of the magistrates. He, therefore, trusted, that the magistrates would, at an early period, place before the judges a new set of regulations, to do away with the inconvenience arising from the present set.

Mr. Alderman Heygate

said, he had read the report of the commissioners with the deepest regret, and thought that a case had been made out by evidence, to induce the House to look at that prison with peculiar jealousy. He was no advocate for Mr. Hunt; but he was entitled, like every Englishman, to justice, and not to be visited with a severer punishment than the law and the judges intended. He was confident it could not be the wish, either of the government or the magistrates, to countenance proceedings like those to which he had alluded; and he trusted means would be taken without delay to prevent the possibility of their recurrence.

Ordered to lie on the table.