HC Deb 24 July 1846 vol 87 cc1432-40

Order read. On the Question that the Speaker do now leave the Chair,


rose to direct the attention of the House to the petition which, on a former occasion, he had presented from Edward Baker, preferring serious complaints against the governor of Milbank Prison, and representing great abuses in that establishment, both in the management of its affairs, and as regarded cruelty and oppression towards the prisoners. Three years ago, this prison was under the charge of a Committee, but was then placed under the superintendence of the Secretary of State for the Home Department, a governor, and three inspectors. If complaints of the existence of abuses of a serious character were brought forward, therefore, the House ought very jealously to look into the nature of those complaints, and ascertain on what foundation they rested. He would not give all the allegations contained in the petition, but would bring only some of the principal ones before the House. The petitioner was a warder in the prison from September, 1842, till April, 1846; had an unexceptionable character, there being no complaint whatever against him; but, he stated that, in consequence of the oppressive and tyrannical conduct of the governor, Captain Groves, towards prisoners and officers, he was obliged to resign his situation. The petitioner stated, and he was prepared to prove, that the treatment pursued towards prisoners had led to suicides in the prison to a considerable extent. As to the cruelty exercised towards unfortunate prisoners, the petitioner mentioned the case of George Chinnery, who had a fit in the airing-yard, when the governor entering inquired what was the matter? The petitioner replied "a prisoner in a fit;" when the governor said, he was not in a fit, and ordered him to be reported if he had recourse to "any more of these tricks." Afterwards, contrary to the opinion of the person having charge of the prisoners, and without the opinion of any medical man being taken, the governor sentenced the poor prisoner to three days' bread and water allowance. The answer to this charge he believed was—that the prisoner had, on a former occasion, been confined in Milbank, and was then punished for feigning fits; whereas, it could be shown that when the prisoner was formerly in the prison, he was placed in a cell next to the warden's room, because he was subject to fits and required to be looked after. Now, here was a case of a man unjustly punished, because he had the misfortune to be seized with a fit. It was also alleged by the petitioner that prisoners were punished by the governor for reading their Bibles during the sermon in chapel; that they were punished by being sentenced to a bread and water allowance for seven days, though, by the rules of the prison, the governors had the power of imposing only for three days bread and water diet. Now, if it could be proved that this man had sentenced any party to seven days' bread and water diet, he held that an illegal and oppressive act had been committed. It appeared also, that in certain cases he ordered one days' full rations at the end of three days' bread and water, and then ordered the bread and water to be resumed. He knew that this would be denied, but he was prepared to prove it. Another charge was the following:—On the 10th of February, 1846, Frederick Bunyon was sentenced to receive 100 lashes with the cat. He was taken down after receiving 70 lashes, and it was then ordered that he should receive no instruction, either religious or moral, after that date. Now, why the unfortunate man, after suffering severe punishment, should be sentenced to receive neither moral nor religious instruction, he was totally unable to comprehend. It had been said, in defence, that a stone was found about his person, and that he intended injury to some one; but surely that was no good reason for denying him religions instruction. Then, as to the infliction of corporal punishment, he contended that it was wrong to do so within the walls of a prison, and that it should be done away with; the regulations of the prisons with respect to flogging was that the instrument for flogging should be approved of by the inspector, and that the number of lashes should, in all cases, be stated in the order for punishment. It was also a rule that the seal of one of the inspectors should be on the handle of the cat; but in this case, as also in that of another prisoner, the governor, the night before the punishment was to be inflicted, desired one of the officers of the prison to get much heavier lashes for the cat—lashes double the size of those that were put on the handle; and not satisfied with this double weight, he ordered the end of each lash to be tied with waxed cord. This, he contended, made the punishment not less illegal than cruel; and if that man had died under such a punishment, the governor ought to have been tried for murder. This was a most serious charge. When such things were said to be done within the walls of a prison, where the public eye could not enter, nor complaints be heard, it was the duty of the House to make the strictest inquiry into such charges. There was also a gross case of neglect and cruelty towards a convict of the name of Nash, who was draughted from the Pentonville prison, on the 10th of October, 1844, and was removed to the infirmary on the 1st of January, 1845, where he died on the 7th of the same month. This individual, during the short time he was in the prison, was kept on bread and water during twenty-three days; and at the time he was removed to the infirmary, was under a sentence to be flogged. On the 28th of November, a boy, named James Richmond, 10 years old, was received from Edinburgh, and on the 5th of May was removed to the infirmary, where he died on the 22nd of the same month. While in the prison, this boy was, for a certain number of days, confined in a dungeon on one pound of bread and two pints of water per day, having only boards to lie on during the night, with one rug and one blanket to cover him. Such was the punishment imposed upon a boy ten or eleven years of age, who, he believed, died solely from the cruelty of the treatment which he had received. The names of three individuals were given who committed suicide in consequence of the manner in which they were treated; indeed, he might say there were four who had destroyed themselves in their cells since the present governor had gone there. But that was not all. He was prepared to prove that twelve others had made the attempt to commit suicide, and were only saved by the vigilance of the officer. Another complaint was, that several times a false alarm of fire was raised by the governor at night, when he turned out of bed 100 prisoners for what he called "a fire practice." This was a most absurd practice and highly injurious; for the poor men in the depths of winter were often taken out of their beds from a temperature of 62, and for no other purpose than to exhibit this fire practice for the purpose of entertaining the dinner friends of the governor. Now, this was a most discreditable proceeding, even if the fire practice were necessary, which he denied. There was also in the petition charges of partiality towards some officers, and injustice towards others. He might dwell on this subject to a considerable extent. There were many more charges in the petition; and he knew more than he had mentioned of the atrocities, the barbarities, and the abuses, that existed in the prison; but he thought he had said enough to justify an inquiry. There was a precedent for such a course in the appointment of a Committee of Inquiry in 1823–24. The noble Lord at the head of the Government stated, in his speech lately to the electors of the city of London, that the right treatment of criminals was a problem yet to be solved. Now, an inquiry like this would help to solve this problem. He hoped the right hon. Baronet opposite would grant an inquiry into this subject; and he would undertake to prove, from persons who had witnessed atrocities, that every charge he had made was true. He knew that a report had been made at the Home Office, since the petition was presented; but from whom did that report proceed? It proceeded from the governor himself, and two inspectors, who were themselves implicated in the charges which had been made; and he said that any report from them, in answer to a charge against them, was a perfect mockery. He knew the questions that had been put to the witnesses; and he was told that, whenever a question was put, the answer to which at all favoured the allegations contained in the petition, that question was not pressed any further. In short, that investigation had been conducted in the prison by the governor and the inspectors, and that report, coming from them, was not to be relied on. It was a report that only intended to mystify the Secretary of State, and perpetuate the abuses that prevailed in this prison. He did hope that the right hon. Gentleman would see the importance of granting this Committee. He moved as an Amendment that Mr. Edward Baker's petition (presented June 12), complaining of certain abuses existing in the Milbank Prison, be referred to a Select Committee.


hoped that before the House agreed to the Motion, they would allow him to state the course that had been pursued in this case. On the 12th of June, his hon. Friend presented the petition of Edward Baker, containing sixteen charges against Captain Groves, the governor of the prison, for misconduct in his office, extending over a period of several years. On the 15th of June, the petition had been printed with the Votes. On the 16th of June, the Secretary of State had directed a letter to be addressed to the Inspectors of Prisons, transmitting to them the petition as printed, and desiring them to institute a full inquiry into its allegations. In obedience to that desire the Inspectors of Prisons had entered upon the inquiry. The governor of the prison was at that time in France; but he immediately returned to assist the inquiry, and a few days before he (Sir G. Grey) had entered upon the duties of his office, the inspectors presented a report to the Home Office, which contained to each of these sixteen charges a distinct answer, furnished by the governor of the prison. It contained, in addition, a complete copy of the evidence taken by the inspectors. His hon. Friend had insisted that the inspectors were not entitled to much consideration, because they invariably adopted the recommendations of the governor. He could not find the least allegation in the petition against the inspectors; and he was sure that the inspectors stood too high in public estimation to be liable to such a charge. Moreover, their reports, which had been constantly presented to the House, as well as their character, would save them from the imputation of being the tools of the governor. He was now prepared to present their report in a complete form to the House; and it would be for the House to consider, upon an examination of the charges, and the answers to them contained in that report, whether they had been rebutted or sustained. To appoint a Committee before the House had had an opportunity of reading the report, would be, he thought, at once to condemn the governor and the system. It would be far more satisfactory, he thought, to the House to delay entering upon the question of appointing a Committee of Inquiry until they had read the sixteen charges and the answers which were given to them. He did not wish, therefore, to go into the question then; but he must say one word with respect to the cases of suicide of which his hon. Friend had spoken. If, out of 11,000 prisoners, the convict population sentenced to transportation, and passed through the prison since the establishment of the present system, only four suicides had taken place, that he could not regard as a very large proportion. [Mr. DUNCOMBE: Twelve were cut down.] He could not be prepared to answer cases of which he had not heard before that evening. He could not undertake to speak from personal knowledge, nor to answer charges with respect to which he had no previous intimation; however, he pledged himself to institute a full and complete investigation into these cases. In the meantime, he must say, that if there were only four suicides in three years out of 11,000 prisoners, considering the class from which they came, that was not so large a proportion as to create any great astonishment. With respect to the allegation in the petition with reference to the corporal punishment which was said to have been inflicted by the governor, the fact was that the inspectors, in one instance, had ordered one hundred lashes. That was their sentence. In carrying it into execution, the governor had mitigated that sentence by thirty lashes. His hon. Friend, however, had alleged that the Governor had exceeded his power, and had punished one of the prisoners illegally by using an improper instrument. This should be inquired into. His hon. Friend had also said that the governor had had recourse to these means of gratifying some private feelings of his own. That, if it were true, would be perfectly unjustifiable, and the allegation should certainly be investigated fully. He begged to observe, however, that the first time he had ever heard this charge was from the lips of his hon. Friend just now. That allegation was not in the petition. He was prepared, however, to say that a full inquiry should take place without delay, into that as well as the other allegations, and he was now prepared to lay on the Table the Report of the Inspectors. Under these circumstances, he felt it to be his duty to oppose the Motion of his hon. Friend; and he hoped the House would consent to pause till they had read the Report, and could judge for themselves, before they appointed this Committee.


thought it was greatly to be regretted, if the Report had been three weeks in the Home-office, that it had not been brought forward before this as an answer to the allegations in Edward Baker's petition. At the same time he thought the proposal of the right hon. the Secretary for the Home Department quite fair; and, under the circumstances, he was of opinion that his hon. Friend should not press his Motion at present. If the Report of the Inspectors had been in their hands before this matter came on, it might have saved his hon. Friend the trouble of making his present Motion. At the same time he must say he thought they ought not to shut the door against inquiries such as these. Take the case of the Andover Union for instance. No man could have dreamed, before that inquiry was instituted, of the existence of such horrors and atrocities as were made known by it. He had hitherto supported the Poor Law Commission; and he was mortified, he was disappointed at what he had heard, and therefore he should be suspicious when he heard of inquiries being denied. In this case he could not think that Baker could be blamed for complaining. That part of the charge which related to the whip—the charge, namely, of using an instrument that was not allowed by the regulations of the prison, was alone, in his opinion, a proper subject of charge and of investigation; and if it turned out to be true, he hoped his hon. Friend (Mr. Duncombe) would not remit his exertions to obtain a complete investigation by a Committee. Conduct such as that in the governor of a prison was a sufficient reason, he considered, to cause the withdrawal of the confidence of any Government. He hoped his hon. Friend would take the Report and consider it, and if it were not satisfactory, he (Mr. Hume) should be happy to support him in moving for a Committee.


hoped that his hon. Friend (Mr. Duncombe), who usually took the advice of the hon. Member for Montrose, would hesitate before he took it on that occasion. With his hon. Friend (Mr. Hume), he considered, that but for the Andover inquiry the public would never have known of the atrocities that were practised under the Poor Law Commissioners at Somerset House, who, he had little doubt, would very soon have to vacate their lodgings in that building. What the right hon. Gentleman (Sir G. Grey) had said showed that some very great reform ought to take place in this prison. If his hon. Friend pressed his Motion, he would support him.


hoped that his hon. Friend would not press the Motion. He admitted that the allegations of the petition ought to be inquired into; but what more could be done in the first instance than what the right hon. Gentleman (Sir G. Grey) had proposed? A few days' delay could do no harm; but, on the contrary, the Motion would have much more weight after the hon. Member had read the Report.


thought that, at that late period of the Session, there would be little enough time for going into the investigation before the Committee. He was quite ready to vote for an inquiry, if an inquiry were thought necessary. The discussion of that evening would be known to all the world. The charges made implicated the governor of the prison, and in some degree the inspectors; and he said that for their sakes the House ought to proceed with the inquiry immediately. Taking the case as the right hon. Gentleman (Sir G. Grey) stated it, that the answers contained in the Report amounted to a total denial of the charges to the satisfaction of the right hon. Gentleman, that would not satisfy the House or the public.


explained, that he had not stated that a denial had been given to these charges. He had only said that to each of the sixteen charges a distinct answer and explanation was given. He had abstained from offering any opinion of his own on the matter.


thought the House was not in a condition at present to decide whether or not there should be a Committee, and he should support the Government.


could not see why a Committee should not be granted. All were agreed that there should be an inquiry. The only question was, what should be inquired into? He hoped that an inquiry would be granted now.


said, that if the Motion of the hon. Member for Finsbury was pressed to a division, he should vote for it without hesitation. He hoped that a Committee would be granted, and the Report referred to them.

The House divided, on the Question, that the words proposed to be left out, stand part of the question:—Ayes 56; Noes 10: Majority 46.

List of the AYES.
Benett, J. Hatton, Capt. V.
Bennet, P. Heneage, E.
Bentinck, Lord G. Henley, J. W.
Berkeley, hon. Capt. Hill, Lord M.
Blakemore, R. Hobhouse, rt. hon. Sir J.
Borthwick, P. Inglis, Sir R. H.
Bouverie, hon. E. P. Jervis, J.
Bowles, Adm. Kemble, H.
Brotherton, J. Labouchere, rt. hon. H.
Brown, W. Langston, J. H.
Buller, C. Lincoln, Earl of
Clerk, rt. hon. Sir G. Macaulay, rt. hon. T. B.
Clive, hon. R. H. M'Clintock, W.
Cockburn, rt. hon. Sir G. Martin, C. W.
Cowper, hon. W. F. Moffat, G.
Craig, W. G. O'Conor Don
Dundas, Adm. Parker, J.
Ebrington, Visct. Pigot, rt. hon. D.
Forster, M. Pusey, P.
Fox, C. R. Scrope, G. P.
Gill, T. Somerville, Sir W. M.
Gore, hon. R. Spooner, R.
Goulburn, rt. hon. H. Thornely, T.
Graham, rt. hon. Sir J. Troubridge, Sir E. T.
Greene, T. Ward, H. G.
Grey, rt. hon. Sir G. Wood, Col. T.
Guest, Sir J.
Hamilton, G. A. TELLERS.
Harris, hon. Capt. Tufnell, H.
Hastie, A. Gibson, M.
List of the NOES.
Aglionby, H. A. Pechell, Capt.
Bowring, Dr. Tancred, H. W.
Christie, W. D. Wawn, J. T.
Ewart, W.
Gisborne, T. TELLERS.
Hume, J. Duncombe, T.
Morris, D. Escott, B.

House in Committee.