HC Deb 10 February 1824 vol 10 cc106-18
Mr. Hume

said, that he had a petition to present to the House, which he considered of peculiar importance, as it related to an interference with the liberty of the subject, to which the country of late had unfortunately become too much accustomed. The petition came from an individual who complained of the improper use made of the discretionary power vested in the magistrates by the vagrant act of last session. The petitioner, on the 7th of last September, was returning in the evening to his own house from Clapham, where he had been upon private business. In passing through one of the alleys of the metropolis, he was accosted by a woman, who asked him if he knew the way to Brick-lane. Whilst he was answering her question, the watchman came up, accused them of violating the decency of the place, and took them both off immediately to the watchhouse. It was evident, from what the watchman said as he was taking the parties to the watch-house, that he had apprehended them for no other purpose than to extort money; for he repeatedly observed to them, that he only got five shillings for apprehending them, an observation which led the petitioner to believe that, if he had happened to have had ten shillings in his pocket, and to have offered them to the watchman, he could have freed himself from the charge without any difficulty. The point to which he chiefly wished to call the attention of the House, was the conduct of sir Daniel Williams, the magistrate before whom the petitioner was brought the ensuing day. The watchman was sworn, and told his story; and upon his oath alone, both the petitioner and the woman who had accosted him, were condemned to one month's imprisonment and hard labour at the tread-mill; both of them disclaiming all exposure of their persons, and the watchman himself admiting, that the alley in which he found them, was a dark lonely place; that there was no light either from the moon or lamps; and that he had been obliged to look at them closely with his lamp, before he could discover what they were doing. Now, under any interpretation of the clauses of the vagrant act, relative to indecent exposures of the person, he thought this was a harsh decision; especially as both the parties whom it affected, affirmed that there was nothing indecent in their dress and gestures. The conduct of Mr. Swabey and sir D. Williams, with respect to cases of this nature had been fully detailed to the public by the press; and he was satisfied that there was no man, let his opinion be what it might regarding the vagrant act, who would state his approbation of the manner in which those justices had exercised the discretionary powers which they received under it. [Hear, hear.] He was sorry to say, that there was no regulation by which it could be ascertained when bail could be taken and when not, but that it remained a question which the magistrate determined according to his own pleasure. They all knew that in a recent case, which excited general disgust and abhorrence, an eminent prelate was admitted to bail, though his guilt was established by the most satisfactory evidence. In a case, however, of still more recent date he believed it occurred only three days ago, an individual who had hitherto borne an unimpeachable character was apprehended, on a charge of receiving plants into his nursery, knowing that they were stolen from the royal gardens at Kew. Men of the first respectability came forward to speak to the general correctness of his conduct, and bail was tendered to any amount for his appearance to answer the charge at the sessions. But no; the magistrate would not hear of bail, and to prison the man went like a common felon. Such a surprising difference in the practice of the magistrates made it necessary that some superintending power should be diligently employed in observing it. As the secretary of state for the home department was the person who appointed the magistrates, and who was authorised to suspend them in case of misconduct, he thought that this superintending power should be exercised by, as it was undoubtedly vested in, that department. He knew that it was impossible to lay down rules for the guidance of magistrates in all cases; but that very impossibility rendered it doubly imperative on those who appointed them, to employ great care and diligence in selecting proper persons to fill such situations. It was well worthy of notice, that in every case but the present, in which parties had been committed to prison under the vagrant act, for improper exposure of their persons, relief had been granted them upon application to the home secretary. In this case, however, no relief had been granted by the right hon. secretary; perhaps because none had been ever asked for. The petitioner, after his case was desided by sir D. Williams, was taken to the tread-mill. He was sent there on the Monday, and it was Thursday before he was enabled to give any of his family intimation of the fate which had befallen him. His friends, knowing him to be a man of good character, immediately obtained a warrant, and brought him again before sir D. Williams, for the purpose of appealing from his decision to the sessions. This step could not, however be taken without incurring an expense of 15l., and for the repayment of that sum his labour for the next year was mortgaged to his friends. The sessions came on: the appeal was heard, and the prosecution was in consequence quashed. Such was the case with respect to the petitioner; but what was it with respect to the woman, who was committed along with him? She could not muster 15l. to pay for the liberty to appeal, and was in consequence compelled to submit to the punishment to which she had been sentenced. "I ask," continued the hon. member, "what kind of justice this is? We have laws to protect us from injury, but if we have not money to purchase their protection, it appears that their protection will not be given to us." He contended, that if the right hon. secretary, would not, or did not, superintend the conduct of the magistrates whom he himself appointed, the house must undertake that duty. He did not mean to say that the right hon. gentleman would not have given relief to the petitioner, if it had been applied for; but he meant to say this, that the house was bound to prevent the recurrence of cases which rendered application to him necessary on this part of the subject. He had put this petition some time ago into the hands of the right hon. secretary, in order that he might inquire into the particulars which it detailed; and if, in the course of that inquiry, the right hon. secretary had discovered any circumstances of extenuation in this infraction of the law of the land and the liberty of the subject, he should be happy to hear them. The circumstances which this case developed could not fail to suggest certain considerations, as to the manner in which the paid magistrates of the metropolis performed their duties. He was sorry to say that they appeared lax in their duty, when compared with the magistrates of the city of London. He had received a printed paper from one of the sheriffs, which showed how cautious the latter magistrates were of sending individuals to a place where their character must almost inevitably contract a stain, and where, if virtuous, they ran a great hazard of being contaminated by the infamous society with which they were compelled to mingle. The paper to which he had alluded was a comparative statement of the number of commitments and convictions from London and from Middlesex. During the year ending in last December, there had been 1,652 persons committed by the magistrates of Middlesex. Of the persons brought to trial out of this number, after suffering all the contagion of bad example, 478 were acquitted: against 195 bills were not found: and 26 were not prosecuted; so that there was an aggregate of 699 commitments in one year, without adequate cause, to that sink of iniquity the Old Bailey. Now he would ask, was it nothing that 700 persons should be thus submitted to the hazard of moral pollution? Would those call it nothing who were always preaching up the necessity of giving a high tone to the moral feelings of the lower orders? What he principally complained of was this,—that the stipendiary magistrates were guilty of inattention to the cases which came before them, and that they did not employ requisite diligence in sifting the evidence submitted to them. During the same period of time in which these 1,652 commitments took place in Middlesex, there had been 420 commitments by the magistrates of London. Out of this number only 79 were acquitted, though there were 35 cases in which bills were not found. He was informed that the proportion of acquittals to commitments, was larger in the last year than it had been for many previous years; but even so, it was not one-fourth of the number of commitments, whereas in Middlesex it was very nearly one-half. As he was upon this subject, he would cursorily remark, that it was his intention, in a very short time, to move for a return of the number of persons committed from each police-office, specifying the numbers committed by each magistrate; and he should make that motion, in order to give the public proper materials on which to form their opinion of such men as Mr. Dyer, Mr. Swabey, and sir D. Williams. In making these observations, he had no wish to cramp the magistrate in the proper discharge of his duty, all he wanted was, to make them feel that their authority ought to be kept under proper control. The sole object for which he had addressed the House was, to submit to it what recompence it would afford the petitioner, for the stigma which had been fixed on his character by the inconsiderate conduct of sir D. Williams. That was one of the points which the petitioner urged in his petition. He also implored the House, to afford him such redress as would enable him to repay his friends for the pecuniary exertions which they had kindly made in his behalf, without mortgaging his labour for the ensuing year. As to the woman, let them again and again consider the unfortunate situation in which she had been placed. The person with whom she was accused of having violated public decency was declared to be not guilty of such an offence. What, then, was her crime, and for what was she to be imprisoned? If she was innocent, could any thing be more unmerited than the treatment which she had received? He was aware, that before the last vagrant act, it was left in the discretion of the magistrate to commit individuals as vagrants on the oath of a single person. That discretion, he thought, ought not to be continued: and as the act would expire next September, if it were not renewed this session, he trusted that some amendment would be made to it, depriving the magistrate of this discretionary power. The power was not so likely to be exercised under the late acts, as it was under the present: for it ought not to be forgotten, that the present gave the police officer a reward of five shillings for every vagrant he apprehended, and thus offered him a premium for every infraction he might make on the liberty of the subject. He then moved that the petition be brought up.

Mr. Dawson

declared his intention of not replying at present to the arguments which the hon. member had urged against the vagrant act. That act would expire in the course of the year, and on the motion to renew it, if any such were made, its merits and demerits would be fairly taken into consideration. He had inquired into the circumstances of this case, and he could assure the House that the petitioner had no hardship to complain of. It appeared that he was going to his home at a very late hour in the night, when he met with the woman in question, who was well known as a common prostitute. At the time the watchman caught them, they were guilty of as open an exposure of their persons as could possibly be imagined. The watchman deposed to the facts: the petitioner did not venture to deny them; all he said was, that the watchman had trumped up the story to extort money. That could not, however, be the case, as he was not entitled to, nor did he receive the five shillings for their apprehension. He therefore trusted that the House would not think that the magistrate had acted improperly upon this occasion. He would only add, that the merits of the case had not been entered into at the sessions; since it was quashed upon a legal technicality.

Mr. Littleton

rose to caution the House against attributing to his hon. friend, the member for Stafford (Mr. Chetwynd), who had framed the vagrant act, any harshness which the magistrates had shown in carrying it into execution. The object of his hon. friend had been to mitigate the severity of the former vagrant act; and he was sure that any gentleman who would turn his attention to the subject, would see that it was considerably mitigated. Formerly, the magistrates had the power of sentencing to transportation for seven years; at present, they could not sentence to more than two years' imprisonment. Formerly, whipping could be inflicted by the order of one magistrate; now, it could not be inflicted, except by an order of a bench of magistrates at the quarter sessions. He then proceeded to defend the principle of the vagrant act, and to request hon. gentlemen to withhold their attacks upon it until his hon. friend, the member for Stafford, who was now absent from indisposition, was present to answer them.

Mr. Secretary Peel

observed, that the hon. member for Aberdeen had adverted to a great many subjects, the importance of which he did not mean to undervalue; but he was sorry, on account of their importance, that he should have introduced them when presenting a petition, without giving a previous intimation to those who might have afforded some explanation, if the facts had been clearly stated to them. The communication of the hon. gentleman to him (Mr. Peel) had rather misled him than otherwise. He certainly had placed the petition in his hands, and had stated that he was going to present it; but he did not say that he intended to comment on the conduct of the magistrates, or to introduce any observations with reference to the home department. This individual had never sent any petition, praying for a remission of his sen- tence, neither had the woman made any representation on the subject; and therefore he had no opportunity of applying to the Crown. Some cases had, undoubtedly occurred under the Vagrant act, which he had deemed worthy of examination and interference; but of the case now under consideration, he knew nothing, and therefore he had not taken any steps respecting it. He wondered, however, that the hon. member should attack the discretion of the magistrates on this occasion; at the same time he admitted, that the subject was very proper to be inquired into, but not in this incidental manner. The petitioner was accused of an indecent exposure of his person; and, the fact having been sworn to, he was committed. Now, what did he allege against the witness in his petition? He said, that watchmen were proverbial for their poverty, cupidity, and ignorance. Therefore, as it was a common proverb, that watchmen were distinguished by poverty, cupidity, and ignorance, no person ought to be convicted on the oath of one of them [A laugh!]. It was very well for the petitioner to explain his idea of the probity of those persons; but, if a watchman of good character swore before a magistrate that he saw persons offending against the law, the magistrate must of necessity convict. It was another matter, whether it was fitting that the magistracy should have such a discretion as that which they enjoyed under this act. That was a very different question. The hon. member had referred to the home department, with respect to the reward which was allowed for convictions under this act. Now, it was very true, that by the late act, the sum of 5s. was allowed: but by the former act, the reward was 10s.; so that there was a diminution, instead of an increase of reward, upon conviction. He, however, thought that this was not to be considered as a positive fine, to go to the minor officers of justice in all cases; and, soon after the passing of the act he had seen the magistrates, and had impressed on their minds, that it was a matter of discretion whether the fine should or should not be granted to the officer. It was for them, in exercising that discretion, to consider whether the individual had acted from a sense of public justice, or merely from a desire of receiving the reward; and he had directed them not to certify to the parish, in any case where the individual making the allegation seemed to be actuated by the desire of gain. Certainly, when the Vagrant act came under the consideration of the House,—although he knew the intention of the hon. member who brought it in was entirely to benefit the public, and the public, he conceived, ought to be much obliged to him—still there were some parts of it on which he meant to submit certain amendments; and particularly the clause relative to indecent exposure [Hear!]. He thought there was not a more flagrant offence than that of indecently exposing the person, which had been carried to an immense extent in the parks, where virtuous females had been shamefully insulted: but wanton exposure was a very different thing from accidental exposure. There ought, therefore, to be a more distinct and definite line drawn between exposure, the effect of accident, and exposure, the result of intention. At present, there was no discretion. On conviction, the magistrate must commit for a month. His object was to invest the magistrate with a discretionary power, which would enable him to commit for a shorter period. Such an alteration might be effected without trenching on the principle. He agreed in the observation of the hon. gentleman, that great care ought to be taken in the selection of persons to act as stipendiary magistrates; and he must take some credit, both on behalf of his predecessor and himself, for acting on those principles which were likely to ensure a proper and efficient selection. Formerly, almost any individual was considered eligible for the office. But lord Sidmouth and himself had laid it down as a sine quá non, that those who were placed in the situation of stipendiary magistrates should have practised three years at the bar, and must, therefore, enter on the duties of their office with a competent knowledge of the law. He never knew of any arrangement, with respect to the appointment of stipendiary magistrates, except that of selecting those persons who were the best recommended, and requiring that the parties should have practised at the bar. The hon. gentleman had commented on the conduct of some of those who held this situation, when acting in their magisterial capacity. He had introduced the names of Mr. Dyer and of Mr. Swabey. He thought it would have been as well, when the hon. gentleman had mentioned to him, that he would present this peti- tion, if he had also stated, "I mean to introduce those cases, and I now give you the intimation, that you may have an opportunity of arranging what you may have to say on the subject." But, as these cases were not properly before the House, he thought it would be as unwise as it was unnecessary to notice them further; and therefore he would avoid that topic. The hon. gentleman had observed, that Mr. Dyer had taken moderate bail from one individual, whilst he had refused to receive bail from another. But the hon. gentleman did not seem to have inquired as to the distinction that might have existed between the cases. He had not stated, whether the one case might riot have been a misdemeanour, and therefore bailable; whilst the other might have come under the provision of a statute that was imperative on the magistrates. Now, he must contend, that in the case where bail was refused, the magistrate had no discretion to exercise; and, though in the other case the moral offence might have been deeper and more degrading, yet the magistrate must deal with it as the law directed; he could not proceed to consider the moral distinctions between crimes. As to the committals by the magistrates, the primá facie statement of the difference was very important, and deserved inquiry. But, on account of its importance, the hon. gentleman ought to have given notice that he meant to bring it forward. He had not stated whether any of the committals were in execution in a point which was of great importance. He bad merely said—so many were committed, and so many convicted. But, supposing that a part of those persons were committed in execution, it was impossible that there could be any subsequent conviction. This was important to be considered, and the hon. gentleman ought to have ascertained the tact. As, however, the hon. gentleman would, in the course of a few days, move for accounts on the subject, it would be better that the whole question should then be debated. When the hon. gentleman brought forward a distinct motion on the subject, he should be ready to meet it, and to give to the House every information which could, with propriety, be called for; as he could assure the House, that government had no motive whatever, for mystery or concealment.

The petition was then brought up. It purported to be the petition of William Lotcho, a labourer; and set forth,

"That the Petitioner is a young man who has been bred up under an uncle as a labourer; that, until the 8th of last September, his sobriety, diligence, and honesty were never called in question nor his character impeached for any one blameable act in the neighbourhood where he was born and bred; that the Petitioner, on Sunday the 7th of last September, paid a visit to a friend at Clapton, with whom he stayed till past eleven in the evening, when, on passing through a thoroughfare called Angel Alley, on his way home to Essex-street, Whitechapel, he was accosted by a female, who inquired of him her nearest road to Brick-lane, Spitalfields; that, while he was giving her the required direction, the watchman came up, and, charging the woman and the Petitioner with an indecent exposure of their persons, took them both to the watch-house; that the petitioner, on the same day, was taken before sir Daniel Williams, knight, Justice of the Peace, sitting at Lambeth-street, Whitechapel, who, upon the single oath of the watchman, convicted the Petitioner, under the Vagrant Act, of being a rogue and a vagabond, and adjudged him, with the unfortunate woman, to one month's confinement and hard labour in the House of Correction, Cold Bath Fields; that the Petitioner (with the woman) was accordingly committed on the same day to the House of Correction, where he was confined until the next succeeding Thursday, during which time be was daily compelled to work at the Tread Mill; in the interval between Monday the 8th and Thursday the 11th, the friends of the petitioner having been informed of his distressing situation, waited upon sir Daniel Williams, and from their representation of his past conduct and character, he was, on the latter day, brought from prison to Lambeth-street office, and was allowed, with two friends, to enter into a recognizance to prosecute an appeal against the conviction; the Petitioner's appeal came on to be heard at the Quarter Sessions on Thursday the 4th day of last December, when the conviction was quashed; the Petitioner humbly but earnestly implores the attention of the House to the serious and crushing injuries of which he has to complain; in the first place the Petitioner solemny affirms that the oath of the watchman was wholly false, and a very slight attention to the facts of the case must convince every reasonable man that nothing like indecent exposure could possibly, in such a situation, have taken place; the offence was sworn to have been committed between twelve and one o'clock in the morning, in a narrow, dark alley, when the inhabitants had retired to rest, when no window-lights were to be seen, and when the moon was only three days old; indeed the watchman distinctly admitted, on oath, that but for the light of his lanthorn he should not have been able to perceive either the woman or the Petitioner; second, that the Petitioner was not left in doubt as to the real motive of his accuser, for, as the latter conveyed him to the watch house, he complained of being allowed no more than five shillings for all his extra trouble; and the Petitioner is well persuaded that, had he possessed ten shillings at the time, he and the woman might have gone where they pleased; the character and liberties of British subjects being thus made to depend on the single and unsupported oath of a watchman, who belongs to a class of men proverbial for their poverty, cupidity, and ignorance, is to reduce Englishmen to the alternative of either submitting to extortion or to the infamous labours of the Tread Mill; third, that the Petitioner, although innocent of any offence, has been convicted, and branded with the odious character of rogue and vagabond, by which he has been undeservedly sunk in S the estimation of those whose good opinion it was his pride as well as his interest to preserve; fourth, that the Petitioner being too poor to prosecute an appeal without assistance, is now indebted to another person in the sum of fifteen pounds, advanced for that purpose, for which the earnings of his daily labour is mortgaged for at least a year to come; while the unfortunate woman, destitute of all pecuniary resources, was compelled to work out her month at the Tread Mill; the Petitioner having been thus injured in his character, and ruined in his circumstances, without being guilty of offence, humbly prays, That the House, which is constituted as the best refuge for the poor and the oppressed, will grant him such redresss and relief as to its wisdom and justice shall seem meet."

Mr. Hume

, in rising to move that the petition be laid on the table and printed, wished to make a few observations on what had fallen from the right hon. secretary. The petition averred, that the accusation rested on the statement of one man, and he argued, that his voice, in rebutting the accusation, was as good as that of the person who advanced it: he denied the correctness of the accusation, altogether. In what he had addressed to the House, he begged leave to say, that he had not attached the slightest blame to the Home-office. On the contrary, he had observed that he believed every thing to be properly conducted. As to the course of proceeding which was to be adopted when a motion or a petition was to be brought forward, if the right hon. secretary wished to hear his (Mr. H's) speech before he delivered it to the House, he would readily oblige him. It would, however, be somewhat inconvenient, if all the observations which must necessarily grow out of such a subject were submitted to the right hon. secretary. With respect to the committals, the individuals he had mentioned were committed for trial. As to the case immediately before the House, they had, he thought, heard enough from the right hon. secretary to show that the individual had been hardly treated. The law, if allowed to remain in its present state, was calculated to produce very great inconvenience. He would ask, in going through the streets of London, crowded as they were with females, whether one of themselves might not be placed in the same situation as this individual? If any of them were asked by a woman to point out her road, he would not be much of a gentleman if he refused that act of politeness. The petitioner stated, that he was so accosted, and there was no evidence to prove that such was not the fact. The right hon. secretary had admitted, that the law wanted revision, and he hoped the public would benefit by the admission.

Mr. Peel

had never meant to say, that the petitioner's was an accidental exposure. There were some exposures which might be accidental: but, he thought, assuming the guilt of the petitioner—[Mr. Hume—"Assuming the guilt!"]—Yes, the hon. gentleman had assumed the petitioner's innocence on his own allegation. Now, assuming his guilt, he could not think he had been hardly dealt with.

Ordered to be printed.