HC Deb 13 March 1822 vol 6 cc1077-82
Sir R. Wilson

presented a petition from a person of the name of Joseph Healy. The object of it was, to implore the House to address his majesty, in order to obtain a remission of the remaining part of Mr. Hunt's sentence. The petitioner had been arrested at the same time with Mr. Hunt, and was sentenced, for what he did not conceive to be an offence, to an imprisonment of one year in Lincoln Castle. The manner in which the petitioner spoke of his treatment whilst under confinement formed an agreeable contrast with the descriptions which the house had lately so repeatedly heard with respect to the usage of Mr. Hunt in Ilchester gaol.

Mr. Fowell Buxton

said, he had been prevented, by unavoidable absence, from making a few observations, which he would now take the liberty of addressing to the House. In the first place, he was of opinion that the charges which had been made against the government of Ilchester gaol, both by Mr. Hunt, and the hon. alderman (Wood), had been fully and clearly established, and that a case of great hardship and oppression had been made out. He found from the evidence taken before the commissioners, that the gaoler had resorted to the extraordinary and cruel proceeding of applying a blister to the head of a prisoner named Thomas Gardiner, by way of punishment. The treatment to which another prisoner named Hillyer, was subjected, was also most unjustifiable. It appeared that this unfortunate man was loaded with double irons on his arms and legs, and the chain by which they were connected was so short that it was almost impossible for him to stand upright. A still more striking instance of improper treatment was exhibited in the case of a female, named Mary Cuer. This prisoner was confined in irons with her child, in a cold and damp cell during a period of frost and snow. In consequence of the treatment she had received, and the situation in which she was placed, the unfortunate woman was unable to afford any nourishment to her child, other than that which could be derived from bread and water, with the latter of which articles she was supplied in a bucket. This was a most flagrant instance of cruelty; but another perhaps more shocking was to be found in the case of a debtor of the name of Treble, who, after having been confined in a cold cell, was allowed to expire in the common-lodging room, subject to all the noise and disturbance created by the other prisoners. All these cases led him to the conclusion, that gross abuses had existed in the gaol, that the conduct of the gaoler had been exceedingly illegal and cruel, and that government ought to order the prosecution of that officer. Another conclusion to which he had come was, that all the allegations which the worthy alderman had made with respect to the management of the gaol, were completely established by the evidence; and he was of opinion that the worthy alderman was entitled to the thanks of the House and the country, and particularly of all persons interested in the good management of prisons, among whom he (Mr. B.) might be classed, for having, in in spite of all the obstructions which had been thrown in his way, so effectually discharged his duty. He (Mr. Buxton) had formerly made a favourable report of Ilchester gaol, and it was known that the commissioners had now given an unfavourable one. To account for this discrepancy, he would willingly admit that he had been wrong; but the House would recollect that he had examined the gaol in 1818, and the commissioners in 1821; and it was in the interval that the mal-practices complained of had been introduced. He was justified in saying this by the language of the commissioners. The report stated, that the abuses which had been lately detected had grown up in the gaol since the period when sir John Palmer Acland was the visiting magistrate. Now, at the time he (Mr. B.) examined the gaol, sir John was the visiting magistrate. He must also observe, that the commissioners, in their report, alluded to every thing connected with the gaol but the manufactures, which however, was the subject to which his attention had been particularly directed. It rust be evident, therefore, from all the circumstances which he had stated, that he was not to blame for the report which le had made respecting the gaol of Ilchester. Having said so much in his own vindication, he felt it necessary to make a few observations with respect to Mr. Hunt. The House knew, that the judges in sentencing Mr. Hunt, had taken into heir consideration the supposed advan- tages of the prison in which he was at present confined. Those learned authorities believed that prison to be one of the best in England; and they supposed that they were sentencing Mr. Hunt to he confined for thirty months in a wholesome and well-regulated gaol. Without meaning to cast any reflection upon those learned persons, he must say they had been misinformed. For twenty months the sentence of Mr. Hunt had been aggravated by the treatment he had received, and the unhealthy state of the gaol. Of the latter circumstance there could exist no doubt, seeing it was proved, that out of 600 persons who had last been confined in the gaol, no less than 400 had been attacked by sickness. A still more convincing proof of the unwholesome state of the gaol might be found in the evidence which had been given before a coroner's inquest which sat upon the body of James Bryant, an individual who died in the prison. It appeared from that evidence, that the gaol had been flooded six times in the course of as many weeks, and that there was no room in which the deceased could sit with a fire in it during his illness, that was not at least six inches deep of water. The jury, upon hearing the evidence, declared that the deceased had died by the visitation of God; but added, that the event had been accelerated by the damp state of the prison. In this prison Mr. Hunt was now living. It was clear that the judges never intended that he should suffer such a punishment. He had no hesitation in saying, that if the remainder of Mr. Hunt's term of imprisonment were passed in that gaol, he would suffer more than the law intended. He trusted that government would take the circumstances of Mr. Hunt's case into their consideration, and remit the time yet unexpired of the period during which he was sentenced to be confined. He did not mean to say that Mr. Hunt merited the favour of government, or that his sentence was originally too severe: but for this he would contend—that whether the conduct of Mr. Hunt had been good or bad, whether he were the best or the worst man in the country, he was entitled to justice, and justice required that be should suffer no greater degree of punishment than was defined in his sentence.

Sir T. Lethbridge

quite agreed, that if Mr. Hunt's punishment had been aggravated by the treatment he had received, that would form a good ground for a remission of the remainder of his sentence. He was glad, however, to find it admitted, that at one time Ilchester gaol was well regulated. That was a material lessening of the charge against the localities of the gaol, and the general character of the gaoler. He was by no means disposed to uphold any such improprieties as those alleged in the report, if they should be proved to exist. Wherever the blame was justly due, there it must fall.

Mr. Dickinson

observed, that the magistrates had certainly been much deceived with respect to the character and conduct of the gaoler, but that they shared the delusion with the hon. member for Weymouth, who had stated in his account of the gaol, that it was impossible to observe his conduct without admiration. It must be considered as highly creditable to the magistrates, that on the first accusation by Mr. Hunt, they gave him every means of establishing the truth of his allegations. He was convinced the magistrates of Somerset were as incapable of inhumanity and tyranny, as any of those whom he had the honour to address.

Mr. Peel

said, he had read the report with that regret which any man must feel, at discovering the particular instances of misconduct alluded to. No man could read without indignation the treatment inflicted upon three of the prisoners, on the head of one of whom a blister had been put, not for the purpose of administering relief or consolation, but to augment the punishment of an individual for refractory conduct. Such an instance of cruelty could not be read without indignation, not only against the person applying for the blister, but the medical man who had administered it. He did not ask the House to withhold their unqualified censure, from those who had so justly incurred it; but he only called upon them to suspend their judgment upon the whole case, until the evidence was presented. With respect to Mr. Hunt, the circumstances must, indeed, be very special and strong, which, in the present instance, would induce him to discuss it; particularly as the subject would in a few days come before them in the shape of a specific motion; but he had no objection to state the result of the inquiries he had made into Mr. Hunt's present condition in the prison. Mr. Hunt occupied two rooms in the gaol which had a northern aspect; the adjoining ward was appropriated for the recep- tion of two prisoners who waited on him; and he had the privilege of walking at stated times in the yard. That contradictory orders had been issued respecting Mr. Hunt, he knew; but he must defend the magistrates from the suspicion of being actuated by unworthy motives in any part of their conduct. He believed that they were much disposed to make the situation of Mr. Hunt as comfortable as was consistent with the discharge of their duties. Commissioners were now sitting to consider how far the situation of Ilchester gaol was susceptible of improvement. With respect to the admission of Mr. Hunt's friends, the high sheriff had taken upon his own responsibility to admit them, subject to the terms of the regulation which subsisted when Mr. Hunt first entered the prison, and to which he was not understood to have objected. It was evident, that the magistrates had taken great pains to render the gaol as commodious as possible, and to remedy the obvious defects of its situation. They had directed an inquiry to be instituted, to ascertain the best mode of repairing the prison, and to report the progress they had made, at the next quarter sessions. That some of the visiting magistrates had been guilty of negligence, he would candidly admit, but it had obviously arisen from their confidence in the gaoler, who had deserved every praise for his conduct during the time that the typhus fever raged in the prison. He did not refer to that conduct as in any degree palliating his subsequent misconduct, but only as justifying the confidence which the magistrates had reposed in him. He came to them from the hulks, recommended by an excellent character, and it was by his previous conduct, that he had been able, naturally enough, to impose upon them. So well had he deserved that character when he first had the superintendence of the prison, that the hon. member for Weymouth, when he had visited it, said, "I was not so fortunate as to see the gaoler, but the general aspect of the prison convinced me that he had done his duty well towards the magistrates, who had also nobly discharged theirs." The right hon. gentleman concluded by urging the propriety, of placing a confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the magistracy, on account of the great importance of their gratuitous services to the country, and the necessity of giving them the fullest support.

Mr. Bennet

said, he felt no disposition to retract the expressions he had applied to the visiting magistrates. The censure be had cast upon them was justified by the report, and he should feel it to be his duty, if the subject were not taken up by others, to move an address to the Crown for their removal. Why had they not inquired into the case of the man who was thrown in irons into a solitary cell? Why had they not taken the trouble to look over the prison books, and inquire into the cause of their being so interlined, mutilated, and defaced? God forbid that he should pass a sweeping censure upon the whole magistracy of the county. It was the visiting magistrates of whom he complained.

Mr. Hume

said, he had on a former occasion said, that several of the magistrates of Somersetshire had shown themselves destitute of the feelings of humanity, after having carefully read over the report of the commissioners, he felt himself unable to alter that opinion.

The Solicitor General

was anxious to state, in explanation of the repeated allusion which had been made to the part taken by two of the judges respecting the regulations for Ilchester gaol, that he had seen both the original and the altered rules. In the original, there were certainly three or four very harsh regulations, which the judges deemed improper, and had disallowed; but, neither in point of law, nor in point of feeling, could he see any thing objectionable in the rules now adopted.

Ordered to lie on the table.