HC Deb 14 April 1840 vol 53 cc1103-17
Mr. Warburton

rose to submit a motion to the House, in reference to Messrs, Lovett and Collins, parties who were convicted of seditious libels at Warwick. The sedition was published by them after the riot that took place at Birmingham. In former times, when parties were found guilty of seditious libels, it was considered quite sufficient to make provision for the safe detention of the persons found guilty, but nothing in the shape of punishment, or of a penitentiary was ever considered necessary. He might refer to almost innumerable instances of that kind. The first instance was that of a person found guilty before the passing of the three recent acts. It the case of an hon. Baronet, now a Member of the House, the hon. Member for Wiltshire (Sir Francis Burdett). Everybody would recollect, that after the Manchester massacre, the hon. Baronet published an address to his constituents, the inhabitants of Westminster, for which he was tried and found guilty of a seditious libel. He was first confined in the gaol at Leicester, but was transferred from thence to the King's Bench, where he resided, in the custody of the marshal, where he wrote and corresponded as he pleased, and where all his friends had access to him; in short, no restriction was placed upon his conduct, except what was required for the safe detention of his person. He might also refer to the case of Gilbert Wakefield, who was, as every one knew, an eminent scholar. He was allowed free access to his friends, and had the use of books, pens, ink, and paper, lie could mention the case of another eminent literary character, Leigh Hunt, who was confined in Horsemonger-lane gaol. The late Mr. Mill, the historian of India, he remembered, told him that he once drank tea with Mr. Leigh Hunt within the walls of the prison, and that that gentleman had two apartments tastefully fitted up. Again, Mr. Cobbett resided in an apartment in the keeper's house at Newgate, and had every facility afforded him consistent with the safe custody of his person. Since the Acts of Parliament had passed, he would mention instances of similar treatment. The first he would name was the case of a banker of Warwick, of the name of Lloyd, who was convicted of an assault, with an attempt to commit a rape. He was transferred to the debtor's side of the prison, where every indulgence was allowed him, although his case belonged to one of the most grievous classes of misdemeanours; and this lenient treatment, he begged to repeat, occurred since the passing of the 4th George 4th., by which the regulations with regard to prisons were enacted. Then there was the case of the rev. Robert Taylor, who was convicted of blasphemy. The visiting magistrates allowed him to see his friends for four hours in the day, from eleven to three. This was in 1831, also after the passing of the Prisons' Act. Under the authority of the twenty-eighth rule for the government of the gaol, his attendance at the chapel was dispensed with; and under the thirty-first rule, he was allowed to procure for himself food, bedding, clothing, and other necessaries, and also malt liquor not exceeding a quart; a writing-desk, chest of drawers, table, chairs, and candles. Mr. Taylor having complained, that when he look exercise he was compelled to do so with other criminals, the magistrates allowed him to walk in another part of the prison, where he was permitted to converse with his friends. He was also allowed the use of a daily newspaper, and works on science, history, belles lettres, and likewise works in any foreign language, subject to the approbation of any two magistrates. There was the still more recent case of the rev. Mr. Stevens. He did not know to what extent indulgence had been granted to that individual, but he understood that Mr. Stevens had been transferred to Lancaster gaol, and that he was allowed to see his family and children. He would now ask what had been the mode of treating Lovett and Collins? He could not describe the treatment of those individuals in more emphatic language than was used in their own letter, addressed to the hon. Member for Warwick (Mr. Collins), whose conduct in this matter did him the highest credit and honour. The letter was dated the 20th of August, 1839, and was among the published correspondence. They stated, that Feeling it impossible to preserve their health on the kind of food allowed them by the prison regulations, they begged to be permitted to purchase for themselves a little tea, sugar, and butter, and occasionally a small quantity of meat. They felt it very cold in their cell, and more especially as they were not allowed to use their shoes on the brick flooring; they believed it to be essential to their health to be allowed to find their own bedding, and to wear their shoes. That being weakly in health, they begged they might not be locked out in the open air, but that they might have free access to a fire to warm themselves, and to prepare their food, and that they might have the use of a knife and fork, and plate; that they might be allowed the use of pens, ink, and paper, and be permitted to correspond with their relations, and to see their friends, unrestrained by the presence of the gaoler; that they might be allowed to retire by themselves during the day time, for the purpose of reading and writing, and that they might not be locked up for fifteen or sixteen hours a day during the winter season, without fire or candle. That they were induced to make these requests from a knowledge that like indulgences had been granted to persons convicted of similar offences; and that if their requests were complied with, they promised that they would not, in any way, make an improper use of them. This was the substance of the letter of these persons, and he admitted that some relaxation of the prison discipline had been made in consequence of the representations made by various parties— by the wife of Mr. Lovett, by the Working Men's Association, and by the hon. Member for Warwick. The first indulgence was the permission to have some tea. One of the restrictions was, that they should not be allowed to see any individual, however nearly related, except once a quarter. The wife of Collins had applied for leave to visit her husband, but it was not till the quarter had expired that she was allowed to visit him. Some indulgence had also been granted with respect to carrying on their correspondence. The restriction originally was, that they might use pens, ink, and paper, but they could not send any letter out of the prison until it had been read and allowed to pass. That restriction, he believed, still continued, but a relaxation as to the number of letters they might write had been made. They were also allowed to have a fire, and to have as many books as might be approved of by the chaplain. He would now say a word or two with regard to the particular circumstances under which these restrictions arose. These restrictions grew out of the three Acts of Parliament passed for regulating all the prisons in the kingdom. According to the first of these acts, prisoners were to be divided into four classes; first, those who were committed for trial, and not convicted; next, those who had been committed, and who had been convicted; and then there was this subdivision: first, of persons committed for misdemeanours, and convicted; second, persons committed for misdemeanours, and not convicted; third, persons committed for graver crimes, and convicted; and fourth, persons committed for graver offences, and not convicted. There were regulations applicable to each of these four divisions; and it had been contended— and he thought properly contended— that when the regulations had once been made, there was no power either in the visiting magistrates or in the Secretary of State to vary or alter the terms of any of them, in behalf of any particular prisoner. There was a power to alter them in the case of any large class of prisoners; but not with respect to any individual prisoner. He thought the magistrates of Warwick and the Secretary of State had performed their duty in saying that they had no power to alter the regulation, unless by some general measure affecting all classes of prisoners. There out arose the grievance of which these individuals complained. It was the Legislature that was to blame when, in making these regulations, it committed the oversight of not seeing how the regulations would apply with respect to this particular class of prisoners — they being included in the class of misdemeanants. He would ask the House to consider what was comprehended under the general term misdemeanour. It was not a defined description of offence, but included almost every offence that could be committed, even from offences often of a worse nature than what were defined felonies down to the lowest offences, such as stealing half-a-doze apples. Indeed, every person committed a misdemeanour who violated an Act of Parliament, and where there was no pecuniary or distinct penalty attached to its violation. The offence for which Lovett and Collins were convicted was never considered a degrading offence in the eyes of society. Had the hon. Member for Wiltshire — formerly Member for Westminster— suffered in the estimation of society because he had committed an exactly similar offence? Everybody knew that from the feelings of society, and from the habits of men, no disgrace was attached to it. The hon. Baronet might still move in the highest circles of society, and enjoy the friendship of the most exalted and most Virtuous of men, who would not feel themselves disgraced by the association. Why, then, were these individuals, whose offence was no greater, to be treated as if they were criminals of the very lowest description; why were they to be stripped naked on entering the gaol, and be compelled to associate and sleep in the same cell with convicted felons. It was against the common Feelings of society and of mankind that they should be so treated. He would dare any government to treat a person in the exalted station of the hon. Baronet the Member for Wiltshire, in such a manner if he should be found guilty of a similar offence. He would dare any government or any magistrate to cause him to be stripped naked on entering into prison, and to be treated like a criminal misdemeanant; and yet the grounds— and he must admit the legal ground— taken by the visiting magistrates for treating Lovett and Collins in this way was, that their cases were comprehended Within that class of offences termed misdemeanor, and both they and the Secretary of State, when applied to for a relaxation of this treatment, gave this uniform answer:— These rules are general; we have no power to relax them, and under these circumstances We cannot afford you any relief. He believed this to be true; but still there was one power which they did possess. They possessed the power under one of the prison regulations to remove these individuals from one gaol to another. Now knowing, as they must have known, that the treatment of this class of misdemeanants was much less severe in some of the metropolitan prisons than in other prisons in the country (as he had shown in the case of Mr. Taylor, who was confined in Horsemonger-lane prison), they might have inquired where this class of misdemeanants was likely to meet with most indulgence, and they might then have removed them to the prison where a milder treatment would have been adopted towards them. He was happy to know that there were, among the magistrates of Warwick, gentlemen who had obtained great credit for their humanity, and he might mention the hon. Baronet opposite (Sir E. Wilmot) as one of that number. That hon. Baronet had written a letter to Lord John Russell on the subject of the treatment experienced by Lovett and Collins which was contained in the published correspondence. While the hon. Baronet justified and exonerated the magistracy in general from any injustice or inhumanity in refusing the application of those two persons, and in considering them precisely in the same point of view as other prisoners, still he expressed his sincere regret that the Prisons Regulations Acts should have subjected that class of misdemeanants to which Lovett and Collins belonged to the same description of treatment as was applicable to criminal misdemeanants; and he declared himself decidedly in favour of some appropriate and distinct rules being established with respect to that class of offenders. The hon. Baronet gave a description of the situation in which he found Collins and Lovett, and expressed his regret at seeing two such men placed under such painful and degrading circumstances. The whole of the letter reflected the greatest credit and honour on the hon. Baronet's feelings. This, however, was the way in which under the existing gaol regulations persons convicted of seditious libels were liable to be treated, and when he compared this treatment with that to which similar offenders were before subjected, he felt convinced, and he was sure the Legislature would admit, that in passing the Prisons' Regulations Act they had unawares rendered this class of offenders liable to a degree of punishment which they themselves never Contemplated. Let them just consider, that with regard to all other descriptions of crime there were statutes defining the crime, but in the case of libel it was totally otherwise. There, it was an ex post facto law. The jury defined the crime, and convicted the party as a criminal, at one and the same moment. This was, therefore, a totally different offence from every other, it was for this and for many other reasons, therefore, that these parties were entitled to a lower degree of punishment than other offenders. He was bound to say, that in consequence Of the humane interference of the hon. Baronet (Sir E. Wilmot) in one respect the condition of all the convicted misdemeanants in Warwick gaol was amended; for the magistrates of the county, finding that they I could not grant one pound of salutary meat as an indulgence to these particular prisoners, they very humanely made a general regulation that all convicted misdemeanants should receive one pound of meat a week. He had thus briefly stated the outline of this case, and what he wished to observe upon it was this. In the first place, the Legislature was bound to make provision that that degree of punishment to which this class of offenders was now subjected, but which he was persuaded was never intended, but was the result of a mere oversight in passing the Prisons Regulations Act, should be remedied. He understood that his hon. Friend the Under Secretary of State was prepared to introduce into the Prisons' Bill, then before the House, a particular system of regulations applicable to offenders of this description. He hoped also that, in consequence of the severe punishment to which these individuals had been subjected— first, before they were convicted, they having been, on their committal, compelled to strip naked, and submit to a variety of indignities, which were set forth in their petition, presented to both Houses of Parliament last session, and respecting which a noble and learned Lord said, in another place, that they having been confined for nine days and subjected to this treatment, he thought that nine days' imprisonment was an ample expiation of their offence— he (Mr. Warburton) hoped, in consequence of these indignities, and they having now been confined under these severe regulations, not for nine days, but for nine months (their sentence being twelve months' imprisonment), that her Majesty's Government would consider that the three remaining months might be remitted. The bon. Gentleman concluded by moving, "That there be added to the correspondence already laid before the House a copy of the letter addressed by the hon. Member for Warwick to the Secretary of State, Lord John Russell, dated the 27th of August, 1839, and not included in the printed correspondence."

Mr. Sergeant Talfourd

felt great pleasure in seconding the motion of his hon. Friend. It had happened to him to have had the honour of knowing, for he considered it to be a high honour to know, several persons who had been convicted of offences of this description, because there had been amongst them those whom he believed to have rendered the best service, to society. He had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Leigh Hunt at the time when he was confined in Horsemonger-lane prison, his brother John being at the same time confined for the same offence in Coldbath-fields prison; and he knew that, so far from there being any restriction upon their comforts, they were living in a certain degree of splendour, and gathering around them men of kindred genius. And while he mentioned the name of Leigh Hunt, he could not refrain from expressing a wish that her Majesty's Government would consider, when they were dispensing the liberal bounty of the Crown to men eminent for services rendered to literature and the arts, the claim he had upon them, nor forget one who, in its darkest days, never forgot the cause of freedom. He remembered, when a schoolboy, seeing Mr. Cobbett in the Court of King's Bench, sentenced to two years' imprisonment in Newgate, where he afterwards found him with books and music, and surrounded with all the elegancies of life; and, so far from being subjected to any restriction, he was carrying on his "Register," and publishing his "Paper against Gold" twice every week, and, he believed, was writing quite as strongly and powerfully as he had ever written before. He would also take leave to mention the case, not of a misdemeanant, but of a person who was convicted of felony, and who remained under the sentence of capital punishment for many months; he meant the case of Mr. Aslett, who very narrowly escaped, on two occasions, the ignominy of suffering at the gallows. He was convicted of embezzling exchequer-bills to the amount of many thousands of pounds: having escaped capital punishment for that offence, he was again convicted for embezzling bank effects, and for that offence was sentenced to death. He actually remained under that sentence for a long period, a majority of the judges holding out against him, but Lord Eldon coinciding with the minority. During that time he occupied well-furnished apartments, and gave splendid dinner-parties, and entertained distinguished persons, Lord Erskine and Mr. Garrow frequently visiting him there: he experienced no kind of restraint, except a restriction on the liberty of his person. He also remembered the case of Mr. Winterbottom, an eminent dissenting minister, who in times (they might, perhaps, be disposed to say) not so good as these, was convicted for preaching two sermons with respect to the French Revolution, and was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for each of them. So far from his wife being denied access to him, he was actually permitted to marry during his confinement in prison; and, while there, he composed the "History of America," which reflected great credit on his name. His children were now living, and he believed were extremely proud of the merits of their parent, of his imprisonment, and of the cause of it. He could not help thinking that it was a most unworthy thing of any government to pursue and persecute persons guilty of what might be called intellectual offences, and who might happen, in their search after truth, to overstep the bounds of propriety, and to subject them, as these persons had been subjected, to degradations that were far more severe in their poignancy than any actual bodily torture that could be inflicted upon them. And while he was upon this subject, he wished just to call to the mind of his hon. Friend whom he saw before him, and to the Government generally, the fact that he had had the duty of twice prosecuting at Monmouth assizes a person of the name of Vincent for sedition. On the former trial he did not defend himself; but on the last he did, and conducted his defence with a discretion, with a modesty, and with a grace, which interested him certainly very greatly in Mr. Vincent's favour, and convinced him that such a man was capable of better things, and was one upon whom kind treatment would not be lost; but who might, by gentler means, be led from dangerous courses, and be made a most useful, honourable, and able member of society. He had heard that Vincent had lately been transmitted from Monmouth gaol to the Penitentiary; and he could not help expressing his earnest hope, that that young man, who he believed might be reclaimed from dangerous associations, and who naturally possessed a good heart and pure mind, might meet with no personal degradation while in that prison.

Mr. Fox Maule

considered that, under all the circumstances, his hon. Friend was perfectly justified in making the statement to the House which he had on this occasion made. He certainly thought, that in passing the Prisons' Act, the Legislature were guilty of some omissions respecting the treatment of persons con- victed of seditious libels, and so far he agreed with his hon. Friend, the Member for Bridport, that when in committee on the Prisons' Act (into which he proposed to go to-night), he should not have the least objection to adopt the amendment which his hon. Friend had suggested. But something had fallen from his hon. and learned Friend who seconded the motion, in which he could not exactly concur. His hon. and learned Friend had drawn a parallel between the cases of Mr. Leigh Hunt and others, and those of Lovett and Collins. Now, it appeared to him, that the character of the two descriptions of libel very much differed. It must be borne in memory, that the seditious libel for which Lovett and Collins were convicted, was uttered at a time when the country was in considerable danger from a high state of excitement, partly from the public mind being much acted upon by various individuals, and partly from the existence of that body which was called "the National Convention," and of which Mr. Lovett was not only a member, but of which he was the secretary. He thought that Mr. Lovett might have found a situation more worthy of his talents than the secretaryship to such a body. The libel, of which he had been convicted, had had the effect of influencing strongly the public mind in a very dangerous manner, and it was desirable that those who had had the care of the public peace should institute the prosecution, and if a jury of his countrymen should think, as they did think, that he had been guilty of a criminal act, that they should follow it up by pressing for judgment. He could not help thinking, however, that the punishment of those individuals had been very severe, and, indeed, severer than could have been anticipated, but it was not in the power of the Secretary of State, or of the visiting magistrates, to mitigate it more than had been done. Mr. Vincent's offence was of a grave character, and any Gentleman who had read the Western Vindicator would see that Mr. Vincent proclaimed, that the constitution of this country, however much it might be altered, and after the most extensive reforms that the hon. Member for Kilkenny would ever wish to carry out, would be good for nothing. Until Mr. Vincent should reform that opinion it was impossible that he could be other than a dangerous member of society. To the other part of his hon. and learned Friend's suggestion, he could say, that he might rely upon it Mr. Vincent was in a prison in which he would meet with no improper treatment, for he was not aware that any complaints had ever been made to the committee who managed the Penitentiary, of anything improper. With regard to the general question of prisoners committed for seditious and political libels, it ought to be in the power of the magistrates, and of the Secretary of State, to separate them from other classes of offenders, or even from others of their own class of offenders. There were, indeed, some libels to which it might be desirable to give the extreme penalty of the class, yet the majority of these libels was not of such a grave character, and it ought to be in the power of those in authority to give a greater or lesser degree of punishment, and this alteration he would adopt in the Prisons' Act, which would be proceeded with that evening.

Mr. Hume

was glad to hear, that the hon. Gentleman proposed to remedy the evil which had been complained of. Still, with regard to the hon. Gentleman's allegation about Mr. Vincent's paper, he must say, that no judicial or criminal allegation had ever been made against the Western Vindicator, and therefore, no such allegation ought now to be brought forward in that House. As far as regarded the talents of Mr. Lovett, he had known him for some time, and had seen some of his writings in favour of general liberty, which had excelled any that had yet appeared on the same branches of the subject. Such a man must have felt most severely the punishment' he had suffered. Having presented several petitions from the working classes, he could state, that the general feeling among them was, that these parties had been more severely treated than others in a higher station had been, or would be, and he trusted that the remedy which was to be applied now, would place the Government in a situation to prevent a recurrence of such complaints. The treatment that others had received was so different from that received by Mr. Lovett and Mr. Collins, that it was impossible to compare it without feeling involuntary indignation, although he was glad that their sufferings had led to this alteration.

Mr. T. Duncombe

thought, that the statement of the hon. Gentleman, the Under Secretary of State, was very satisfactory as to the future, and he hoped, that he would say something more than he had to make it satisfactory as to the past. As he understood the hon. Gentleman, he admitted, that some of the prisoners had suffered great wrong, but he had not explained why a distinction was made between the cases of Lovett and Collins, and of Mr. Stevens, who had also been convicted of a seditious libel. He believed, that the latter was in Lancaster gaol, having the governor's apartments, and that he had a much more extended power of seeing his friends. There was also one part of the treatment of those at Warwick which to him required, or appeared to require, an immediate alteration. The two prisoners were required to sleep in one bed, and that a bed not wider than three feet six inches, whilst there was another bed in the same cell in which slept a convicted felon. And this, be it recollected, was the treatment of superior men. For he believed that there was not a better disposed, or a more amiable man in private lift', than Mr. Lovett, and he believed, also, that Mr. Collins's private life was without blemish. Why were such men so treated? Why should it continue one hour longer? That was what he wanted to know from the hon. Gentleman, the Secretary of State for the Home Department. Mr. Lovett's libel, after all, was only for the publication of what he had heard over and over again stated in that House— that the introduction of the London police was the cause of all the rioting. The two hon. Members for Birmingham had said that again and again; and that was all that was stated in the resolutions forming the groundwork of the libel, and which called upon the people to resist their introduction. The burning did not take place till afterwards; and for that Lovett and Collins were in nowise responsible— they were at that time safely locked up in Warwick gaol. The treatment of the prisoners having been so severe, and so contrary to former precedents, would, he hoped, induce the Government now to discharge them. He only wished that he had seen in their places the hon. Baronet, the Member for Wilts (Sir F. Burdett), and the right hon. Baronet the Member for Nottingham (Sir J. C. Hobhouse); who were the Lovetts and Collinses of former days, for he would have asked them how they would have liked the treatment which had been detailed to the House by the hon. Member for Bridport; a detail that he hoped Would have its due effect upon the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

Mr. Fox Maule

must deny that the London police was the cause of the rioting. The inspector of the police had been tried at the late assizes for his conduct during the riots, and had been acquitted by the jury, and praised by the authorities.

Viscount Sandon

did not rise for the purpose of palliating the offence committed by these persons, but he must Say that their situation, as detailed by the hon. Member for Bridport, was such as it ought not to have been. He thought that the Legislature ought to accommodate punishment to the general condition of the parties, and by no means impose any that public feeling did not go along with. With these views, although he believe it the crimes of which the prisoners had been convicted were of a very mischievous description, yet they belonged not to any degradation of mind, and indeed were frequently the errors of a generous character. He joined in offering his support to the recommendation which had been given to the hon. Gentleman, the Under Secretary Of State, to consider again these cases, with the view of mitigating the sentence.

Sir Eardley Wilmot

felt, that after the statements of the hon. Member for Bridport, and of the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary of State, it was not necessary to say any thing in defence of the magistrates" of Warwickshire. The hon. mover had indeed admitted that they only carried out the law as they found it, and that it was not their fault, but the fault of the law itself. For himself, he thought that misdemeanours of words and misdemeanours of deeds ought to be treated differently. There was one point he would notice in answer to the hon. Member for Finsbury. It was known that the charter For Birmingham Was in the course of litigation, and Was not likely to be settled for Some time, as one party or the other Would appeal against the jury's decision whichever way it was. In the interval all the prisoners committed from Birmingham were sent to Warwick gaol, and the consequence Was, that it was so crowded that he believed the prisoners were obliged to sleep three in a bed all over the prison, and the magistrates hardly knew what to do. With reference to the appeal which had been made to the Secretary of State to remit the remainder of the punishment, he believed that the visiting magistrates had the power, upon application from the Secretary of State, to report the conduct of prisoners under sentence, and if it had been good the Secretary of State could, upon that ground, remit the punishment. He was sure that he had known such reports sent up from Warwick, and the punishment thereupon remitted. If the hon. Gentleman, the Under Secretary, would allow him to apply to the visiting magistrates to report, and if that report should be that the prisoners' conduct had been exemplary, there would then be fair, legal, and constitutional grounds for exercising mercy towards them. He had himself inquired of the gaoler what their conduct had been, and the answer was, I have had to complain of no single thing; their conduct has been unexceptionable— no two persons could act better. If the Secretary of State would have the same inquiry made, he would doubtless receive a similar reply, and the wishes of hon. Members could be thus gratified.

Mr. C. P. Villiers

hoped that for what the hon. Baronet suggested the magistrates of Warwickshire Would not wait for any request from the Home-office, but that the hon. Baronet and the visiting justices would feel no hesitation in taking the course which they had the power to do. A discretion as to the report of good conduct was placed in their hands, and they ought to exercise it, even if they were not asked by the Secretary of State.

Mr. Hawes

observed, that under the 16th section of the Gaol Act the magistrate could recommend the prisoners to the mercy of the Secretary of State, and then the punishment could be remitted. As no one Member on the opposition side of the House had dissented from the appeal that had been made, and as he was sure that no one would dissent, he hoped that the hon. Gentleman, the Under-Secretary of State, would communicate to the noble Lord, the Secretary of State, the general feeling that prevailed upon this point.

Mr. Warburton

would not go into a discussion on the new ground to which he was invited by the remarks of the hon. Gentleman, the Under-Secretary of State, as to the difference between the offences of the present prisoners, and those of the hon. Members for Wilts and for Nottingham; he would only state the description which was given in the papers already laid upon the table of the House of Mr. Lovett's character. He was said to be a mild, civil, moral man, self-instructed, but very diligent in inquiring after knowledge. And, after the general discussion that had taken place this session as to the superior efficacy of mild punishments, he hoped that the noble Lord, the Secretary of State, would approve of the general principle, and under all the circumstances of this case, and with persons who had borne such a character, extend to the prisoners the benefit of a mitigated sentence.

Motion agreed to.