HC Deb 27 March 1832 vol 11 cc944-8
Mr. Hunt

presented a Petition from Edward Curran, Nathan Broadhurst, William Ashmore, and Robert Gilchrist, now confined in Lancaster Castle, under the sentence of a year's imprisonment, for being present at an illegal meeting at Manchester, on a Sunday. They complained that they were ill-treated in gaol, and that they were refused even the gaol allowance, which was a kind of thin gruel, called skillet, and potatoes. He begged to call the attention of the House more especially to this petition, because it might, perhaps, be very shortly the turn of a different description of Reformers—these men being Radical Reformers—to be similarly situated. Having been ordered to suffer a year's imprisonment, they were supplied at first with the gaol allowance, but in consequence of their being unable to do the work assigned to them, the gaoler told them that they must provide themselves with food and firing. This was understood to be by order of the visiting Justices. The only work those poor men could perform was silk-weaving, and, therefore, it was impossible for them to do such work as the gaoler put them to. They also complained that a bill was now before the House, which, in the event of their dying in gaol, would give the gaoler the power of disposing of their bodies to the surgeons. They were very poor men; their families were obliged to be supported by the parish, and they were apprehensive they should die its prison, and that their bodies would be given up to be anatomised. They also complained that all their letters were broken open by the gaoler; and of that he (Mr. Hunt) had also to complain that the gaoler had committed a breach of privilege. He had occasion to write to those men, and his letters had been opened before the men got them. He apprehended that the law did not give the gaoler permission to break open letters addressed to persons confined for misdemeanours, whatever it might do so far as regarded felons—the more especially when the letters came from a Member of the Commons' House of Parliament.

Mr. Green

said, that the gaoler was perfectly justified by the law in all he had done. The visiting Magistrates had power by Act of Parliament to withhold the gaol allowance from prisoners, unless they consented to perform some light work, so as to prevent them from eating the bread of idleness. As to the opening of letters, the law gave such a power to the gaoler, and the letters of Members of Parliament neither could be distinguished from others, nor ought to be exempt from the regulations.

Lord William Lennox

said, if all the statements were founded upon the same accuracy as one to which he was about to allude, the petition did not deserve the attention of the House. He alluded to that part where the petitioners stated, that in the event of their deaths their bodies would be given up for dissection. He opposed the Anatomy Bill as much as the hon. member for Preston, but he must point out, bad as was the bill, there was a clause which enabled an individual to save himself from the dissector, by stating during his life his objections.

Mr. Warburton

thought, that these prisoners had been punished unjustly and harshly, and that they ought not to have been punished at all by an ex post facto law. They had acted improperly in attending a meeting on Sunday; but there was no law, he believed, against that. They were only punished by common law; and he wished to have that case pointed out by which an individual had been punished, and a precedent established, for attending a political meeting on a Sunday. The observation of the noble Lord, as to the Anatomy Bill, was correct.

Mr. Lamb

thought the hon. member for Lancaster (Mr. Green) had given a sufficient explanation of the circumstance as far as the conduct of the gaoler was concerned. The prisoners were not confined for attending a meeting on Sunday, but for attending an illegal meeting; and they would have been punishable if they attended such a meeting on any other day, though, undoubtedly, it was an aggravation of their offence meeting on Sunday.

Mr. Hume

said, that the right hon. Gentleman who had just addressed the House, had not stated in what the unlawfulness of the meeting consisted. The circumstances, as he understood them, in which the meeting was called were these:—That certain individuals were under sentence of death at Bristol, for the part they had taken in the late riots, and these persons at Manchester being desirous of saving their lives, called a meeting for the purpose of addressing his Majesty in their behalf. Now, he was anxious to know where was the unlawfulness of such a meeting, called by public notice, particularly as the Address was agreed to, and forwarded in due form through the Secretary of State to his Majesty? Where were the acts of violence—where was the impropriety?—there might be indiscreet speeches, but in what assembly in the world were they not to be met with? Even in that House they now and then listened to indiscreet speeches, and should the House not make an allowance for those who are not under such control? There ought then to be some strong and special grounds in order to make it an unlawful meeting. It was indeed highly indecorous to meet on the Sunday, for the purpose they had in view, but there was a difference between disapproving of that, and condemning the parties for such a misdemeanour to twelve months' imprisonment.

Mr. Weyland

contended that it was an unlawful not of which the Jury had found these people guilty; and he thought the Judge was authorized to pass a severe sentence on those men who had been guilty of attending such a meeting on Sunday. He objected to any re-hearing or re-opening of this case by the House.

Lord Stanley

said, that the regulations of the gaol had been properly complied with in the treatment of these people, and that the Magistrates had only obeyed the law. The prayer of the petition, in fact, was directed against the Anatomy Bill of the hon. member for Bridport. The petitioners did not complain of the conduct of the gaoler. [Mr. Hunt: They do.] As to the character of the gaoler, he felt it necessary to say, that, from the long knowledge he had had of his conduct, he was perfectly convinced he was one of the last persons to do that which was either inconsistent with the orders received from the Magistrates, with the Act of Parliament, or with the due maintenance of prison discipline.

Mr. Hunt

said, the prayer of the petition was against the gaoler and visiting Magistrates of Lancaster, and the petitioners complained of their gaol allowance being stopped. He was not surprised at the character given by the noble Lord to this gaoler, when he recollected the high encomiums passed on the gaoler of Hehester, and knew of what he had lately been found guilty. He had once been in prison for a political offence, and hon. Members did not know whose turn it would be next. The speech which the Attorney General had delivered at Nottingham would most likely, under another Government, have occasioned his trial for sedition, and inflaming the minds of the people. What was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander, and if this Reform Bill were not passed, would hon. Members on the Treasury Bench succumb? Would they give up Reform? If they would, he should not, and they might be imprisoned for political offences. He himself had heard in that House words much more violent, perhaps more vulgar, than those for which these men had been found guilty of a misdemeanour. During the time of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and during the worst things of Lord Sidmouth's Administration, no case parallel to the present had occurred: How would the hon. Gentleman like his letters to be opened? When he was in prison at Hehester, his letters were not opened. During the time the Tories were in power that was not the law; so that there was a severer law against political offences under the Whigs than even under Lord Sidmouth. As to the gaoler, of whom so high a character had been given by the noble Lord, he was a vulgar, insolent, unfeeling wretch. He was at a loss to know how the noble Lord could bestow on him such a character. He was convinced it was because the noble Lord did not know the gaoler.

Sir Francis Burdett

said, that one of the points to which the hon. member for Preston had alluded had reference to an interference with the respect to prisoners, which he (Sir Francis Burdett) had always deprecated. All prisoners were, of course, under sentence of law; but, in his opinion, they ought not to suffer one iota more than the law had laid down; for it generally happened that the law erred on the side of severity rather than on that of mercy. He, therefore, thought that the rule which prevailed of opening the letters of prisoners was a great grievance, of which they had a full right loudly to complain; and that there was nothing to justify the Magistracy in issuing orders to that effect to the gaoler, except where there was specific ground for suspecting that conspiracy, or something of that nature, was carried on by correspondence. Without such a reason as this, he was quite sure that such a proceeding was both cruel and unconstitutional; and it was particularly fitting, that where Magistrates were vested with a large discretionary power by an Act of Parliament, they should watch with a jealous eye the gaolers and others to whose care they confided the custody of the prisoners, instead of being disposed to regard the actions of such persons with too great indulgence, as was frequently the case. With respect to the particular complaints brought forward by petitioners of this kind, he thought that they ought to be investigated; for, while it was true that they were under the protection of the law, it should also be remembered that they were exposed to the rigours of the law; and that, in the case of injustice being practised, they had no other place but that House to fly to for redress.

Petition to be printed.

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