HC Deb 11 August 1831 vol 5 cc1214-20
Mr. Thomas Duncombe

rose to bring forward the Motion of which he had given notice, relative to the case of Samuel Steon, a prisoner confined in Hertford gaol. He was willing, however, if the House desired, to give way to the Committee on the Reform Bill. He regretted, indeed, being obliged to bring forward his Motion at all, for if the statements made to him were true, the transaction reflected no credit on the way the Shrievalty business was conducted in the county of Hertford. The facts of the case were briefly these: he had received communications that considerable excitement and indignation prevailed at Hertford, in consequence of a reprieve, which had been transmitted to that place by a learned Judge, not having been communicated to a man of the name of Samuel Steon for several days. It had been kept back by the Under Sheriff, and the feelings of an innocent man were much lacerated by the suspense. From the respectable sources whence he had derived his information, he felt it his duty to lay the case before the noble Lord at the head of the Home Department, who, with the greatest zeal and promptitude, immediately commenced an inquiry. In answer to his application the substance of the High Sheriff's letter had been communicated to him, which stated, that the respite was received by the Under Sheriff on Wednesday the 20th, and was very properly communicated to the prisoner by the Chaplain of the gaol on the following morning, after the chapel service was over. This explanation, if true, would be extremely satisfactory, but he had the authority of the chaplain to say he had not made his communication until Saturday instead of Thursday, so that instead of the High Sheriff's letter allaying the irritation, it had had the contrary effect; and he had been again called upon to require that the case should be more closely investigated. The Reverend Mr. Lloyd (the Chaplain) who was a most honourable and amiable man, proverbial for his kind attentions to unhappy persons in the situation of this condemned man, Samuel Steon, had stated in a communication to him— Samuel Steon was condemned on Saturday, the 16th of July, and on Wednesday the 20th, in the afternoon, a young man in a gig, on his way from Chelmsford, stopped for a moment, seeing the turnkey of the gaol in the road near the gaol, and said, "I have a respite for Steon, but you will receive it in a few minutes from the office." On the following morning, Thursday, what had passed the previous evening was communicated to me; and immediately after chapel I told Steon, but begged of him not to be too sanguine about it, because, till it was officially announced, I could not be certain of the truth of it. Mr. Wilson was at the time very ill in bed; I however saw him, and inquired whether it was not usual for the Under Sheriff to communicate to the gaoler the receipt of a respite or reprieve immediately. His answer was, yes; and expressed great surprise that no communication had been made of the circumstance on the previous evening or the morning. Thursday and Friday passed off without any further notice (than that of the man in the gig) being given to the gaoler or turnkey from the Sheriff's-office. On Saturday morning, finding things in the same state, I told Steon after chapel, that as nothing favourable had transpired respecting the respite, he must consider himself as liable to suffer death, and that I should administer the sacrament to him on the Tuesday, the day previous to that on which he was to be executed, adding, that I still hoped the information given to the turnkey might be true. After chapel this morning (Saturday) I again saw the gaoler, and told him what I had done, when he acquainted me that Mr. Longmore, the Under Sheriff's partner, had been there, and complained of a paragraph, alluding to the respite, in the Herts Mercury, implying it was untrue. Upon which Mr. Wilson answered, "You know, Sir, it is true, for we have not at this moment received any official notice of it. After this interview had taken place, Mr. Lloyd communicated to the prisoner, that his reprieve was certain, but this was not until Saturday. This, therefore, was a direct contradiction, the truth of which Mr. Lloyd was ready to verify on oath, to the Sheriff's statement. Was it to be endured that a man accidentally passing in a gig, was to be the means of communicating to the authorities of the gaol the information on which a man's life depended? Had the circumstances not been alluded to in a provincial paper, this man must have remained in all the agonies of suspense up to the hour of execution. He submitted, that he had made out a case for inquiry. In his opinion, the High Sheriff should have made an example of the Under Sheriff, for his criminal negligence; and both the High and the Under Sheriff should be taught that the feelings of guilty persons, and much less of innocent men in confinement, should not be trifled with. He was bound to add, that Mr. Lloyd's statements were contradicted flatly by the affidavits of the Under Sheriff. The hon. Member concluded by moving for "copies of all correspondence that has taken place between the Secretary of State for the Home Department, the High Sheriff of the county of Hertford, the Chaplain of the county gaol, or any other person, relative to the cause of the delay of the respite or general reprieve of Samuel Steon, who was ordered for execution on the 26th of July last."

Sir Henry Hardinge

seconded the Motion, but with views very contrary to those of the hon. member for Hertford. He was convinced, that the papers moved for—viz. the correspondence of the Sheriff with the Home Department, and the depositions of the Under Sheriff and gaoler—would clear up any doubts as to the propriety of the conduct of the Under Sheriff. The circumstances of the case were these:—Steon had been convicted upon what appeared to be very conclusive evidence; but, in consequence of representations which were made by the presiding Judge to the High Sheriff, that officer immediately resolved to investigate the matter more closely; and, with the assistance of the Under Sheriff, he instituted an inquiry, by which circumstances favourable to the convict were brought to light; and, having had depositions taken, the Under Sheriff forwarded them, at his own expense, by his confidential clerk, to Mr. Justice Gaselee, who was then at Chelmsford, presiding at the Assizes. Having laid the depositions before the Judge, Mr. Nicholson's clerk obtained a respite, with which he immediately hastened back. But, instead of going at once to the house of his master (the Under Sheriff), he stopped at the gaol upon his way, from feelings of humanity, in order to make known to the unfortunate prisoner what had occurred in his favour. The gaoler, Mr. Wilson, was, at the time, confined to bed by illness, and could not be seen, but the clerk requested the under-gaoler to acquaint Mr. Wilson, as soon as possible, that the respite had been obtained. In calling at the gaol, on his way home, to give that information, the clerk had certainly taken what would appear to be the best means of speedily relieving the anxiety of the unfortunate convict. He could not leave the respite for the inspection of the gaoler. He was obliged to take it to the Under Sheriff, to whom, and not to the gaoler, it was necessary, as his authority for staying the execution. Now, in all that, the clerk had acted humanely, and efficiently, as was proved by the depositions upon oath, which he desired, as much as the hon. member for Hertford, should be laid before the House. So far from having shown any want of humanity, the Sheriff and his clerk had both evinced very great humanity, and had undertaken, at much trouble and expense, to procure the respite in behalf of the convict. It was on the morning of Wednesday, that Mr. Nicholson's clerk left word at the gaol, that the respite had arrived, and the turnkey having informed the gaoler of it on the next morning, the latter immediately communicated the intelligence to Steon. He had read over all the depositions, and there seemed to be the clearest proof, that Steon had been relieved from anxiety on Thursday morning. If there was any doubt in Steon's mind, it had been raised by Mr. Lloyd, the Chaplain. It had been stated, that the turnkey said, the Under-Sheriff's clerk did not know him, and that the only authority for the arrival of the respite was the word of a stranger passing by the gaol in a gig. Now, if Mr. Lloyd had any doubt of the correctness of the information, that very charitable and benevolent person might have taken the trouble to send to the Under Sheriff to ascertain the fact, instead of harassing the mind of the unfortunate man, whom he, urged to take the Sacrament, that he might be prepared to die, on account of the uncertainty of the respite.

Mr. Lamb

said, he regretted exceedingly that his hon. friend had thought it necessary to bring forward the present Motion. He did not see what parliamentary proceeding could be founded upon the papers for which he had moved. He (Mr. Lamb) had a great respect for the Chaplain of Hertford gaol, on whose representation the charge against the Under Sheriff and the gaoler had been founded. He was a most benevolent man, and exceedingly zealous in his attentions to the prisoners under his care. He admitted, that the Under Sheriff had not communicated to the gaoler with sufficient care, or with an attention to the formality which, in such an important part of his official duty, he ought to have observed, the important intelligence which he had to communicate. But still there were many circumstances which told strongly in his favour. He had taken great pains to examine the case of the convict, and to forward the, result of his inquiry to the Judge. The clerk, too, had shown a wish to relieve the anxiety of the prisoner, by calling at the gaol, instead of going directly to Mr. Nicholson's office, as he might have done if he felt no concern for the man's feelings. But all that, it must, be admitted, was not enough. The Under Sheriff' himself ought to have gone to the gaol, and, in the formal manner which so serious a duty required, have shown the respite to the gaoler; or, at least, he ought, to have sent to the gaol an official copy of the respite. He believed, however, that the most important part, of the charge was unfounded. He meant that which applied to the anxiety of the prisoner. The respite arrived on Wednesday; it was communicated to him on Thursday; and, according to his own affidavit, which he then held in his hand, he never had the least doubt of the fact until the Saturday morning, when the speedy arrival of the Under Sheriff relieved him from his fears. He was sorry, that the Motion had been made; but, as his hon. friend had introduced the subject, and as there had been conflicting statements, he should not oppose the Motion. From the affidavits which he had read, it appeared, that Steon had received very speedy information that the respite had arrived in Hertford.

Mr. Currie

had spoken to Mr. Wilson, the gaoler, and he thought that there was great discrepancy between the statements made to him by that person, and those which were said to have been made in the depositions. There could be no doubt that the Under Sheriff had not given notice, with due regularity, of the arrival of the respite. The Under Sheriff had great influence over the gaoler.

Mr. Hunt

hoped, that the hon. member for Hertford would persevere in his Motion. It ought to be ascertained whether or not the Under Sheriff had, by his negligence, kept an unfortunate man, under sentence of death, in suspense as to his fate for several days. He had before now had occasion to, make complaints against: Gaolers and Under Sheriffs; and he knew; how such persons supported each other by depositions and affidavits. On one occasion, when he preferred to that House a complaint against an Under Sheriff and a gaoler, and when the former had notice of it, he came over to the gaol, from his residence at thirty miles' distance, to consult with the gaoler. They then made affidavits in support of each other. But those affidavits were, upon investigation, found to be wholly false. He should, therefore, not be willing to take the testimony of the gaoler and Under Sheriff of Hertford, in opposition to that of the rev. Chaplain, who seemed to have taken a humane view of the convict's case.

Sir Henry Hardinge

said, the documents proved, that the turnkey received the information from the Under Sheriff's clerk, and then told the gaoler, who was in bed, that a respite had arrived. The gaoler admits this took place on the Wednesday evening; this important, fact was placed beyond doubt, by his having communicated it to Mr. Lloyd, who apprised the prisoner of the fact on Thursday morning. It might be a point of official etiquette to send a copy of the respite to the gaoler, but it was the duty of the Under Sheriff to keep the original in his own office. He was confident no blame could be attributed to that officer, although, if he had understood the hon. member for Hertford (Mr. Currie) correctly, Mr. Wilson had made a communication to him opposed to his declaration on oath.

Mr. Currie

said, he had made no such statement.

Lord Howick

protested against prolonging the debate, after his hon. friend (Mr. Lamb) had said, that he would not oppose the Motion.

Mr. Goulburn

thought, that when serious allegations had been made against the Under Sheriff, the observations of his right hon. and gallant friend were called for and necessary.

Mr. Thomas Duncombe

said, that the gaoler, Wilson, was so far from thinking that he had received on Wednesday an official or certain notice of the arrival of the respite, that, having heard nothing more on the subject than what had been said to the turnkey by the gentleman in the gig, he sent on Monday (five days afterwards) to the Under Sheriff, for instructions respecting the building of the scaffold, preparatory to the execution of Steon, which had been ordered to take place on the next morning (Tuesday). He had brought forward the question at the suggestion of several respectable gentlemen of the county of Hertford, with the view of preventing the recurrence of a like irregularity, and trusting that what had taken place would ensure that object, he had no objection to withdraw the Motion, if his hon. friend desired it.

Sir Henry Hardinge

would consent to the withdrawing of the Motion which he had seconded, if it was understood that the conduct of Mr. Nicholson, the Under Sheriff, had been cleared from the imputations which had been cast upon it.

Motion withdrawn.