HC Deb 22 June 1832 vol 13 cc953-60
Mr. Hunt

said, he rose to present a Petition from Nottingham and its vicinity, signed by 3,000 or 4,000 persons, complaining of the conduct of the visiting Magistrates and the Gaolers. It might be recollected that in the early part of the Session a petition from Edinburgh, intended for the House of Commons, was presented and discussed in the House of Lords; and it might not, therefore, excite any surprise that a similar mistake had taken place with regard to the petition he then held in his hand. A discussion had actually already taken place in the House of Lords, between Lord Middleton and Viscount Melbourne, as to the propriety of his presenting the petition, which he had yet to lay upon the Table of the House, and it seemed most extraordinary that those noble Lords could have discussed the propriety of his conduct, when what they discussed had never happened. This showed that the House of Lords had not very accurate notions of what passed in the House of Commons. The petition was of a very extraordinary character; it had been in town a considerable time, and had been in the hands of other hon. Members, and amongst them the hon. and learned member for Kerry. He cast not the slightest imputation upon that hon. Gentleman for declining to present the petition, because he had never been in gaol, as he (Mr. Hunt) had been, and it was impossible for any man who had not witnessed the cruelties which were practised in gaols to believe these complaints. He knew how very unpopular it was to make complaints on behalf of the poor against the rich. He knew that little attention was paid to such subjects, or that so much attention was paid, that coughing took place, and noises were made by hon. Members, for the purpose of drowning complaints against their fellow Magistrates. He would read to the House an account of the tortures inflicted upon one prisoner. A man, of the name of Cutts was apprehended under a charge of setting fire to Nottingham Castle, on the information of a person of the name of Chalk, who had been tried for felony, who declared that Cutts had told him how he set fire to the Castle. The prisoner was informed, that if he did not confess, he should be committed to prison. He was sent to Gaol accordingly, and placed in a private room, separate from the other prisoners. He was kept there from Saturday to Friday, and during the greater part of that time, namely, for five days, the Gaoler, under various frivolous pretexts, neglected to give him water. The Assistant Turnkey also refused to give him water, saying, first, that there was no vessel allowed; second, that the prison was not a place of accommodation; third, that he would not give it without orders; fourth, that if he confessed, he should have water, and every thing else—that he would get half of the 500l. reward for turning King's evidence; and on the fifth day the man was compelled to drink his own urine. This was surely horrible. When it was ascertained that he had been compelled to do so, they then gave him water. This was the statement of the prisoner. On the sixth day he was placed in the yard, and was subsequently liberated without a trial, after having been imprisoned from the 19th of November to the 30th of January. He had reason to believe that the man was innocent who had been thus treated—locked up in a solitary dungeon, and deprived of water unless he would confess a crime of which he was not guilty. This statement appeared to the hon. member for Kerry so improbable, that he declined to present the petition, unless the persons who brought it would confirm it by an affidavit. The party returned to Nottingham, and affidavits of Cutts and others were prepared, and taken before the Magistrates to be sworn to the truth of the allegations, but the Magistrates of Nottingham refused to allow them to be sworn. Perhaps they were justified in this refusal, but it showed the situation in which the petitioners were placed. They could not lay their case before the House without affidavits, and when they went before the Magistrates, the Magistrates refused to let them be sworn. He might have doubted these statements, like the hon. member for Kerry, if he had not witnessed transactions equally cruel and disgraceful to the persons engaged in them; but, having witnessed similar atrocities, and having proved before a Commission which was sent down to Ilchester, that men had been fettered and chained to the ground for twelve days and twelve nights—that they were taken before the visiting Magistrates, who were clergymen, and again sent back to gaol; having proved this by uncontradicted evidence, including the testimony of the turnkey who fastened their chains—having proved that for not pleasing a Gaoler, a man had been placed in a strait-waistcoat, and chained down to an iron bedstead, his head shaven, and blisters applied to it—having proved also, that a woman, with a child at her breast, was left without water, except some which was frozen in a bucket, and which she could not get at; that she was left in that state for several days, until her milk failed, and her child was likely to be starved—having proved all these things, he more readily believed the statements of this petition, signed by 3,000 or 4,000 persons. Such treatment would have disgraced the Inquisition or the Star Chamber, and there were several cases similar to that which he had stated to the House. If tortures were to be inflicted in gaols, he hoped, at least, it would not be upon innocent persons.

Mr. Evelyn Denison

said, it was true this petition had been long in the hands of some hon. Members, and also that it had been discussed in the House of Lords, owing to mistake. He could not have any objection to the presentation of the petition by the hon. Gentleman, but he felt that a Member of that House was bound to exercise a discretion as to the presentation of petitions; and, when many hon. Members had declined to present this petition, from conceiving the charges it contained to be very improbable, he thought it required some consideration and caution before any one should be the means of disseminating such charges. Every probability was against the truth of these allegations. Independently of the fact that the character of the gentlemen against whom the charges were made, rendered the whole thing improbable, he must add, that the Corporation of Nottingham, who were by no means adverse to the liberty of the subject, had set their faces against the statements, and also, that the public Press of Nottingham, which likewise was not adverse to the cause of freedom, had disclaimed in any way sanctioning these allegations. But, in addition to these facts, as regarded the probabilities, he held in his hand a statement which, he believed, would be found convincing on the subject. It was a letter from the Solicitor of the very prisoners themselves, who had been engaged on their trial, and who was an able and honourable man. The noble Lord at the head of the Home Department had thought it proper to write to Nottingham, to inquire what grounds there were for the charges, and he held in his hand the answer volunteered by the Solicitor for the prisoners. That gentleman (Mr. Payne) said, that the prisoners had not made complaints to him of any circumstances which would justify the charges referred to; that he had thought it his duty, as their Attorney, to inquire whether the allegations were correct, or whether they had any complaints to make; and that they, one and all, answered by declaring, that they did not know of any mysterious events having happened in the prison; that there had never been any threats held out to them, nor privations inflicted, to extort a confession from them; that, on the contrary, they expressed in a very feeling manner their grateful and sincere thanks for the humane kindness they had experienced. The writer remarked that it was singular, if any ground of complaint existed, that he, as the Attorney for the prisoners, and in constant communication with them, and their friends; for nearly a month, should not have been informed of it. That letter then went on to refute several minor points of the charges, and stated, that the writer had never found the slightest difficulty in holding communications with the prisoners. If the House thought that such a case was made out against the Magistrates as called for a public inquiry, he would be the very first to second any motion to that effect; but, to print the petition, would evince some such imputation upon the conduct of honourable men without there being any previous grounds for even any suspicion against them; and, though he should not, therefore, object to the petition being brought up, he should decidedly object to its being printed.

The Attorney General

said, that the Magistrates of the town, conceiving this to be a matter entirely for county jurisdiction, would not interfere in it; and he thought their example was one very fitting to be followed by the House, as the charges were altogether improbable. When Mr. Payne, who was in daily communication with the prisoners, said that the charges were untrue, how could the petitioners, who had no such communication with them, and who only said they believed them to be true, be relied on? Generally speaking, the fact of numbers agreeing in a petition was some evidence of its being well-founded; but here the reverse was the case. This petition he believed to be the work of very few hands—of men who were, perhaps, too ready to exaggerate, and who would take pains to impress their ideas upon parties who had no adequate means of judging. Under every circumstance, he must say, that this petition did not come before the House so as to entitle it to get increased publicity; and, in addition to other parts of this case, it was to be particularly remarked, that not one of those alleged sufferers had signed the petition, but the House was asked to take everything for granted on the belief of the petitioners.

Mr. Lamb

observed, that the hon. member for Preston's statement was very lengthy, although most of his materials had been brought from Ilchester. For himself he could say, that with respect to this petition, he was not aware of the facts it alleged, until he had heard them stated by the hon. Member. It would, he conceived, have been of great advantage, if the petitioners, or the hon. Gentleman, before presenting the petition, had acquainted the Home Office with the particu- lar statements which were to be made, as then information could be obtained, and inquiry instituted, although he must, at the same time, express his belief that there never had been charges made which were more unfounded than those in this petition. Why did he say so?—because the allegations of the former petitions had been contradicted, not by the visiting Magistrates or by the Gaoler, but by the active agent of the alleged sufferers. He must also say, that the inquiry made on that occasion had left no impression but one highly favourable to the Magistrates. Something more than this acknowledgement was due to Magistrates who, like those of Nottingham, had to discharge their duty in disturbed parts of the country; for to them the country was indebted, not only for activity and diligence, but for the humanity with which they had conducted themselves. He had no objection to the bringing up of the petition, or to making an inquiry into the truth of its charges, but he should certainly oppose its being printed.

Sir Edward Sugden

said, that he should not have had any objection to presenting this petition if it were meant merely as a means for the procuring of an inquiry. As it had been presented, and such charges made, he thought it impossible that things could remain as they were. If it were true that affidavits had been resented and were refused, the Home Office ought to make inquiry, and as the hon. Under-Secretary for that department had expressed his willingness to investigate the subject, he would not give his consent that the petition should be presented. If, as he believed, those imputations would, on inquiry, be found to be totally groundless, they should be exposed to the country, and justice should be done to the Magistrates of Nottingham.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that as allusion had been made to him, and as it had been said that he refused to present this petition, he hoped that the House would permit him to make a few observations on this occasion. This petition certainly was brought to him for presentation, and he must say that he was surprised at the circumstance, seeing that he was not at all connected with that part of the country; and, moreover, seeing that the town of Nottingham was represented by two popular Members in that House—seeing, in fact, that it could not be more efficiently represented than it was at present. He stated to the individual who brought the petition in question, that he was ready to bring forward the complaints of any persons, from any part of the empire, who would do him the honour of intrusting him with the task of laying them before that House, provided he found that there were reasonable grounds for such complaints. He further stated to him, that he would keep the petition by him for two days; and he intimated to him also, that at the time he (Mr. O'Connell) entertained great doubts that such cruelties as were specified in the petition had ever been committed. He added, however, that he would not shrink from presenting the petition, if he were satisfied that the county Members would not present it, and if any reasonable evidence were produced to show that the complaints contained in it were well founded. The individual to whom he had alluded then said, that he would lay before him such evidence, and that he would produce affidavits confirming the allegations contained in the petition. His (Mr. O'Connell's) reply was, that if he produced but one affidavit from any respectable and trustworthy person, confirming the allegations contained in the petition, he would not only present the petition to the House, but he would move for an inquiry on the subject. He (Mr. O'Connell) in the mean time thought it but right to communicate the circumstance of this petition having been offered to him, to one of the hon. members for Nottingham (delicacy prevented him from communicating with the other hon. Member on the subject, as he was officially connected with the Government), and also to the county Members; he further told them, that affidavits were to be brought to him, confirmatory of the allegations contained in the petition, and he pledged himself to them not to present it until such affidavits should be produced to him. Finding that no such affidavits were brought to him, and having pledged himself, as he had just stated, not to present the petition without their production, he thought that he ought not to proceed further in the matter. It was true, that it was since stated, that the Magistrates of the town of Nottingham refused to swear such affidavits when offered to them. But he was pledged not to present the petition without the production of such affidavits, and there were the county Magistrates before whom they might have been sworn. Besides, if the individual who had engaged to produce the affidavits in question, had, on the Magistrates re- fusing to take them, consulted him, or any attorney on the subject, he would have been informed that there would be no difficulty whatever in making an affidavit on the subject, before a Commissioner of the King's Bench in the country, as it was a matter into which the King's Bench had the power to inquire. But no affidavits were brought to him on the subject, and, as it appeared to him, no reasonable excuse was offered for their non-production. A respectable individual had, indeed, since written to him, stating that the allegations in the petition were true, but did not go further. At the same time, that statement justified him in hoping that something would be done with regard to this petition, and that an inquiry would be instituted into the matter.

Mr. Saville Lumley

said, he had known most of the Magistracy of Nottingham from his youth, and had been educated with several of them; he averred upon his personal knowledge of them, that they were the last men in England to be guilty of such conduct as was imputed to them.

Sir Ronald Ferguson

said, he believed that it was an untruth that the county Members had refused to present the petition. Some of the prisoners to whom it referred had been asked on board the hulks, whether they had any complaints to make against the Magistracy, and they avowed they had none.

Petition to lie on the Table.

Mr. Hunt

said, that he would not at present move that the petition should be printed, as he relied on the statement of the Under-Secretary for the Home Department, that an inquiry would be instituted into this matter. If, however, such an inquiry should not be made, he would himself move for a public investigation on the subject.

Mr. Evelyn Denison

said, that a most satisfactory investigation had already taken place on the subject, and that it was on that account he had spoken in the decided manner he did with regard to it.