HC Deb 22 July 1851 vol 118 cc1303-16

Order for receiving the Report of the Committee of Ways and Means, read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Report be now brought up."


rose to call the attention of the House to the case of Ernest Charles Jones, as stated in his petition, presented to this House on the 26th May last, and to move for "Copies of all Rules and Regulations which at any time, from the year 1840 to the present, have been in force within the several prisons in England and Wales, so far as they may affect prisoners convicted of political offences." He said it was the duty of a Member of that House to bring forward any case of oppression that came to his knowledge. Mr. E. C. Jones had appealed to him to bring forward his case, and he felt it his duty to do so. Owing to the curtailment of the Motion days, he had been compelled, unwillingly, to bring it forward as an Amendment on a Government Motion. Mr. Jones had done all in his power to have the case investigated earlier. He had been discharged from prison late last summer; and, owing to the indisposition of himself and one of the Members for Westminster, the case had not been brought forward earlier. Mr. Jones was a barrister, a man of considerable literary attainments, and the author of several works in prose and verse. His father, Major Jones, was formerly equerry to the Duke of Cumberland, now King of Hanover. In 1848 Mr. Jones had been tried and convicted for a political offence, that of delivering a seditious speech, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment. He (Lord D. Stuart) had nothing to do with the justice of this sentence; it was to the treatment to which Mr. Jones had been subject in the prison in which he underwent his sentence (Tothill-fields Prison), to which his Motion had reference. Neither did he propose to go into all the allegations of the petition, but would proceed upon the answers of au- thorities of the prison, which had been laid upon the table of the House on the Motion of an hon. Friend. In answer to the allegations in Mr. Jones's petition, the prison authorities admitted that he was placed in separate confinement on the silent system, was employed in oakum picking, wore the prison dresss, had no change of clothes in summer or winter, was not allowed the use of a knife and fork, and only had visits from his friends eleven times during the whole period. After the first three months he had been prevented writing to his friends, even to his wife, and had only been allowed to write fourteen letters altogether. Towards the close of the period he was debarred the use of pen and ink, and was not allowed to write to the Judge as to the carrying out of his sentence, nor to see his solicitor. This was contrary to the Act of Parliament, and to the rules of the prison, in which it was distinctly stated that convicted prisoners were to have the privilege of seeing their solicitors, and in private if they wished. He was called upon to pick oakum, and did so at first; on his refusal he was placed in a cell for four days on bread and water; and on a subsequent refusal he was there placed, by order of the magistrates, for four days. This was admitted by the governor; and the magistrates, in giving that order, had violated the Act of Parliament, which gave them no authority to confine a prisoner on bread and water. The governor had this authority for three days, but not for a longer period; consequently the order to confine him for four days on bread and water was illegal. Two other political prisoners (Sharpe and Williams), who were placed in solitary confinement on the same day as Mr. Jones, for refusing to pick oakum, because their friends could not afford to pay the miserable sum of 5s. per week, which would exempt them from that labour, were dead in less than a week; and at the inquest the jury commented on the severity used towards them, and recommended that prisoners should not be subjected to such treatment at that time when the cholera was raging. Mr. Jones suffered in his health, and it was doubtful whether he would ever recover from the effects of this treatment. The surgeon of the prison, while denying his ill health, admitted that he had been fifteen weeks and two days in the infirmary, when he was suffering from chronic inflammation of the eyelids. The surgeon admitted that he lost nearly a stone; and Mr. Perring, the medical inspector, said he lost 14 lbs. in five weeks. Mr. Jones had written to several Members of Parliament to come and visit him; the governor ordered him to desist, and the governor had added to a letter written by the prisoner to his wife, warning her not to invite other persons to visit him, as that might interfere with her own visits. This was now denied; but it was capable of substantiation by the production of the governor's letter. He complained of having to wash in the open air; and this was substantially correct, though in part denied by the Governor. He (Lord D. Stuart) had examined the place, and found Mr. Jones's statement correct. He found the prison arrangements open to various objections not involved in this case; there were no flues, nor any artificial means of warming the prison, which presented in that respect a great contrast to the Pentonville Prison and the House of Detention. The governor, in his report to the magistrates, had alleged that the political prisoners, in their interviews with relatives and their correpondence, evinced a determination to repeat their offences as soon as discharged. He (Lord D. Stuart) had seen all the letters written by Mr. Jones, and found in them nothing whatever indicating an intention to act improperly. He had yet to learn that it was an offence to oppose the Government, or to induce others to do so. The spirit of the governor's report showed very little leniency or candour. The general feeling was in favour of a distinction between political prisoners and others; for no one could be brought to believe that their offences were of the same turpitude as those of felons and others; and, whatever Acts of Parliament might be passed on the subject, the public could not be reconciled to the same treatment in these cases. In the cases of Redhead York, Gilbert Wakefield, and William Cobbett, they had not only been allowed to see their friends and correspond, but to carry on their publications. Hunt was worse treated in Ilchester gaol; but he afterwards recovered compensation from the gaoler. Mr. F. O'Connor, when confined in York Castle, had been treated with less severity. It appeared there was no uniformity in the treatment of different gaols. Cooper the chartist, in Stafford gaol, had been treated with great leniency, contrary to the usual rule, but at the express desire of the then Secretary of State, Sir J. Graham. Mr. O'Connell, when in confinement in Dublin, had his apartments splendidly furnished, was allowed to write to whom he chose, and the prison was thronged with visitors. Mr. Disraeli, in 1840, had truly observed that in dealing with political offenders they ought to provide for the security of the State, not for the punishment of the prisoners. The late Mr. C. Buller had said it was the basest and most stupid act of a despotic Government to confound political offenders with others. Mr. Justice Talfourd and the present Lord Chief Justice, when in that House, had expressed similar sentiments. The Marquess of Normanby, writing in reference to Mr. O'Connor, said there ought to be nothing of degradation in his treatment, nor anything injurious to the health. Why should Mr. Ernest Jones have been treated with greater severity than Mr. O'Connor? Why did not the Government act in the same spirit as they had advocated in the treatment of Lovett and Collins? Vincent, it was said, had been treated with greater leniency, because his offence was less heinous than that of Ernest Jones. But the offence, as described in the two cases, was the same totidem verbis. When Vincent's case was under discussion, the Secretary of State had given an assurance that a classification of the prisoners should be introduced; but was it meant, by a bad jest, that such separation was to be solitary confinement? When Ernest Jones complained of solitary confinement, he was told that he might go and herd with the felons that filled the prison. To treat political prisoners with undeserved rigour, was bad policy on the part of Government. Men so treated could never forget what they had endured, or become attached to the institutions of the country under which they had so suffered. It was time something was done; he hoped the next Session would not pass without a measure on the subject being introduced. In one respect Mr. Jones's case differed from all others. He applied to the visiting magistrates for leave to petition this House. That was the constitutional right of every Englishman; it was so declared by the Bill of Rights, and laid down by Blackstone; and it had never been questioned. He doubted whether the interference of any parties to prevent any one petitioning that House, was not a breach of privilege. The Speaker thought it was not; but no one could question the gross impropriety of the act. Mr. Smith O'Brien had been allowed to petition, and his petition had been received, though he was attainted of high treason. In Mr. Jones's case, the magistrates required to know the grounds on which he wanted to petition the House: one was to complain of their conduct; the permission was refused, but he was allowed to address the Home Office. Sir G. Grey had immediately acted in a way which did him great honour; he had written to the visiting justices, desiring them to allow Mr. Jones to petition. Notwithstanding this they still refused, and the prisoner had never been allowed to petition that House. The conduct of the first instance, and then disregarding the intimation of the Secretary of State, was monstrous. Nothing could be less characteristic of men who wished to act with leniency and kindness. There was something suspicious in the way in which Sir G. Grey's letter had been conveyed to the magistrates; its delivery was unusually delayed, so that it only came before the meeting of justices on the 9th of July, instead of the 2nd. When it came before them, they evaded it by alleging that the prisoner had just written a letter to Mr. O'Connor, and could not by the rules write another till three months expired. It was to be regretted that Sir G. Grey had not relaxed that rule, to enable Mr. Jones to forward his petition. They were bound to have told him at the end of the three months that he was at liberty to send his petition; but this was kept from him, and he never knew of the permission having been given. This was a flagrant abuse of power on the part of the magistrates, and ought to be inquired into, so that the recurrence of such a thing might be prevented. Had he brought this forward at an earlier period, he should have moved for a Select Committee, and should do so next Session. Of all the chartist prisoners condemned at that time, Ernest Jones was the only one who had not received a remission of his sentence. This looked like oppression; and wherever there was an attempt to bear down an individual, it was the duty and the interest of all to see that justice was done. He did not bring forward this case because he agreed in the political opinions of Mr. Jones, but because he thought he had been oppressed.

Amendment proposed— To leave out from the word 'That' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words 'there be laid before this House Copies of all Rules and Regulations which at any time, from the year 1840 to the present, have been in force within the several prisons in England and Wales, so far as they may affect prisoners convicted of political offences,' instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


seconded the Motion. He was one of the visiting justices of the prison, and he quite agreed in the language the noble Lord had used as to the oppressive and tyrannical treatment of these prisoners. It was most disgraceful to place men merely convicted of seditious language along with common felons. But the noble Lord had not properly distinguished between the rules of the prison, and the conduct of the magistrates. Had he referred to the rules and regulations, he would have seen that nearly all which he had imputed to the magistrates, was necessarily imposed on them by Act of Parliament. They had no alternative but to inflict the oppressions complained of. There were two divisions of prisoners convicted of misdemeanours, in one of which the prisoners received some indulgences. In the other cases which the noble Lord had referred to, the prisoners had gone to the second division of misdemeanants, in the absence of any order from the court to the contrary; and in that division the prison regulations authorised the visits of friends, wearing their own clothes by prisoners, and other indulgences. The other division was much more strict in its regulations—both were in conformity to the Act of George IV., cap. 64. During the time he had been a visiting magistrate of this prison, he found that every request of Mr. Jones had been complied with. He was not a visiting justice when the prisoner desired to petition; that refusal he considered a grievous wrong. In one instance Jones had applied for the use of pen, ink, and paper. This was at first refused by the visiting justices, but in less than a month after it was allowed. Afterwards Jones was provided with a drawing book, at his own request. He had written to Mr. Serjeant Wilkins, requesting a visit, and the magistrates had allowed this letter to be forwarded. Every application made while he (Mr. Williams) was a visiting justice, was complied with. The visiting justices were placed in a most difficult position; and he knew that the feeling amongst them was in favour of granting all the indulgences they could, The oakum picking had been imposed on Jones owing to the cessation of the payment which exempted him equally with the other prisoners. When the money was raised, this degrading occupation ceased. He lamented to know that two of the prisoners who were unable to make the required payments and had refused the work, and been placed in solitary confinement, had taken the cholera and died. He did not believe the visiting justices had any alternative in this case; but the oppressive Acts by which their discretion was fettered, ought to be repealed; and he regretted the noble Lord had not moved for a Committee. These tyrannical and oppressive statutes could only be got rid of by their evils being pointed out. He had not been a visiting justice during the whole of Jones's imprisonment; but he had seen no disposition in his brother magistrates to make the condition of these prisoners worse than it necessarily was. After the death of Sharpe and Williams, he had visited the twelve remaining political prisoners, and separately asked them if they had any complaint, promising to bring it forward. They one and all complained of the bitter and tyrannical rules; but no complaint was made of the way in which the rules were carried out, or of the conduct of the officers. He knew that Mr. Jones made more complaints than the other prisoners; probably they were well founded; but in general they referred to the regulations, over which the magistrates had no power. It was a mistake to state that Jones was the only prisoner whose punishment was not shortened; one man, Thomas Jones, had a fine imposed upon him of 10l. at the end of his imprisonment, which he could not possibly pay; he was sent to the House of Detention as a debtor, the Secretary of State refusing to remit the fine, and it was at last paid by the penny subscriptions of his friends. He regretted that the case had been brought forward so late that a Committee could not be appointed; he hoped this would be done next Session. He was confident the visiting justices would be acquitted of any harshness beyond the law, and it would be seen that they were actuated by a desire to grant all the indulgence in their power.


in explanation, said, that Thomas Jones had received a pardon in May, his sentence not expiring till July; but this was conditional on his conduct being good.


said, the apology for the magistrates at the expense of the pri- son regulations had strengthened the case of the noble Lord, and shown more forcibly the necessity of Parliamentary interference. In one case a month's unnecessary delay had been interposed, and on this ground he thought the House might express its opinion as to the conduct of the magistrates. On three or four points, they clearly had an option. In preventing the prisoner from petitioning this House, they had debarred him from a right which was conceded to every human being. It was the only defence of a British subject against illegal oppression within the walls of a prison; his petition should have as easy access to that House as his prayers to the throne of Heaven. There were ample safeguards in that House against any impertinent petition; it was wholly unnecessary to place further obstacles in the way of petitioning. The visiting magistrates were not the judges of the prisoner; and in depriving a literary person of writing materials, nothing more irritating could be conceived. It was no part of the sentence that a man should be punished by irritating and embittering his mind. Those who superintended prisons should rather be pleased to see prisoners employing writing materials, than anxious to deprive them of them. Every one knew that the object of punishment was best promoted by kind and liberal treatment. In 1795 or 1796, Mr. James Montgomery, the editor of the Sheffield Iris, had been confined for a political libel, and was yet allowed to continue the management of his paper. The case was the same with Mr. Flower, the editor of a Cambridge paper, with Mr. Leigh Hunt, Mr. Whittle Harvey, and others. In all these cases it was evident these men were not embittered by their employment. These cases had occurred during twenty-five years of the worst period of this country's history, when power was most unsparingly applied to crush those opposed to it. Yet even now, when the Government themselves held opinions coincident with the victims of the former system, these gross cruelties were still sanctioned by the Gaol Acts. In Mr. Jones's case there had been the most extraordinary interposition of the gaol chaplain as to his books; they were rejected, not because they were blasphemous or corrupt, for the list was most extraordinary. Among them were some of Mr. Jones's own works; also the Antiquary of Sir W. Scott, the Pilot of Cooper, and some works of an hon. Member of that House— the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire—which were most extensively read. It was only a chaplain of the Westminster prison that placed these works in an Index Expurgatorius. Shakspeare was also interdicted, as well as some books of travel; and during his six days' solitary confinement, even the Bible was refused him. This could be nothing but the wilful exercise of a bad power; but gaol chaplains seemed to be persons of very peculiar notions. These were all matters in which discretion was exercised, and the visiting justices could not be defended by an appeal to the rules. He hoped the subject would come again before the House, and that there would be not only provision for the future, but reparation for the past, where injury had been committed.


It will not be supposed that I speak from approbation of all that has been done by the various individuals whose names have been brought before the House in the present debate, after I have said that I look upon them as men who, among them, have by mismanagement thrown away a great cause. But it is impossible not to deprecate the impolicy of making heroes, by persecution, of men whose political conduct we do not approve. And there is another ground which should be taken into consideration. Every one of these persecuted men, will probably make his appearance in the House of Commons. Some are here already; and the rest are coming. For example, there is Henry Vincent, whose name has been introduced; and for whose return to Parliament I would enter into a convivial contract of assurance, as soon as for any of the Members present on whom it is possible to place the hand. I know nothing against him, but that he has been too forward for his own safety. Had he asked my advice, in those excited times it is probable I should have said to him, "Ride as close as you can to the enemy's guns, but do not get taken prisoner." [Laughter.] Hon. Gentlemen should remember, that it was a thing which might have happened to many of themselves. ["Hear!" from the free-trade benches.] I hope, Mr. Speaker, you will hear him, if it is only for the faculty he has, of speaking by the hour with the correctness of a page in Blair's Lectures. Where he got the faculty, is known to Him who gave it. He was a journeyman printer at Hull, at the time of an election in 1835 in which I was concerned, and there he says he began in politics; so that he is a kind of political godson. In all contests, there should be a degree of moderation towards opponents; for no man can say whose turn may come.


rose to answer the charges brought against the justices by the noble Lord. He said, the real question which the House had to consider, apart from the mere formal Motion of returns, was whether any cruelty or oppression had been offered to Ernest Jones. With regard to the formal Motion, there were no prison rules or regulations peculiarly affecting political prisoners, as distinguished from other classes of prisoners. There was no distinction between political and other offenders recognised by the law; and therefore, if the noble Lord wished to have copies of the rules and regulations affecting such prisoners, he could only attain his object by asking for the copies of the rules and regulations of all the prisons in the country indiscriminately. With regard to the rules of the prisons, the Secretary of State or the Government had no power whatever of altering or waiving them. The Act of Parliament had imposed upon the magistrates the duty of framing such regulations; and, when framed, they had only to be approved by the Secretary of State. As to the alleged hardships suffered by Mr. Jones, it was true that he had been confined in a separate apartment by himself; but then that had been done at the petitioner's own request, the justices having no alternative but either to cause him to be treated as an ordinary misdemeanant, or to be confined in a separate cell. Yet the petitioner having made his own choice between the two alternatives, turned round and made the matter a charge against the justices. The petitioner was an offender of a particular class, and had been subjected to the discipline assigned to his class. It was true the justices had some degree of discretion allowed them; yet they were bound to enforce the rules prescribed for the good government and regulation of the prison. The 3 & 4 Vict., cap. 25, declared that prisoners convicted of misdemeanours should consist of two classes; and when the sentence did not include hard labour, the Judge might order that the prisoner should be confined with the first division of misdemeanants. But Ernest Jones was not sentenced to imprisonment as a first-class misdemeanant; and, therefore, he came under the rules, more severe and disagreeable certainly to the prisoner, but yet rules which the justices were bound to enforce with regard to all prisoners of that class. It would be impossible to draw any distinction between political offenders and other classes of prisoners; and if it were attempted it would have the effect of dealing leniently with offences far worse in the eyes of all well-disposed men, than any other offences entering into the category of crime. The rules were very distinct as to the number of visits which the prisoners should receive, and the number of letters which they might write, and undoubtedly Mr. Jones had received a degree of indulgence to which he was not entitled by the rules, in being permitted to see his friends and relatives, and to write letters, when he had no claim to do either. As to the privation of books to read, hon. Gentlemen appeared to think that they had only to call a particular offence political, and then the prisoner should be sent into a sort of enviable retirement, where he could enjoy every luxury and indulgence, although he was in a prison. It was true that Mr. Jones's health became temporarily ailing whilst he was subjected to discipline; but surely that was not a circumstance for which the justices were responsible. The surgeon of the prison stated that Ernest Jones's continuance in the infirmary arose more from indulgence than necessity; and he was allowed to have an album in which to write poetry, for which he ought to have expressed himself thankful. It was complained that he had been placed in solitary confinement because he refused to work, and kept four days upon bread and water; but there was a rule rendering prisoners who refused to labour liable to a month's solitary imprisonment, and to be kept upon bread and water.


said, that might be stated in a prison rule, but where was the Act of Parliament which gave such a power?


He might adduce a whole string of statutes, giving general powers of that nature; but he asserted that whatever treatment the petitioner had received while in prison, was strictly in accordance with the rules which it was necessary to administer for the good government of the prison, and that whatever deviation from the rules had been made, had been made on the side of lenity and indulgence to the prisoner; and on these grounds he must oppose the Motion of the noble Lord.


denied that the wearing of a felon's cap was in conformity with the rules and regulations of the prison, or that the exclusion of the hooks referred to had been so required. It was clear this was an extra punishment, and a most severe and heartless one. Mr. Jones had been compelled to walk to and from the chapel in company with a class of prisoners to which he did not belong, including felons. The hon. Gentleman who spoke last had passed by the charge of Mr. Jones being prevented from seeing his solicitor, one of the most important grounds of complaint. Why had not the hon. Gentleman accounted for the neglect of the Secretary of State's letter? This letter, dated at the Home Office on the 2nd of June, only came before the justices a week after, the governor stating that it had only been received at the prison on the 7th. Why had not this been inquired into, and explanation given? How was it that Mr. Jones never knew of this letter being received, and of permission being given for him to petition the House? These were all violations of the prison rules, and could only have arisen from a wish on the part of the magistrates to make the prisoner's situation as painful as possible. He rejoiced that the question had been brought forward at a time free from political excitement. Mr. Jones had been the victim of such excitement; the sentences then passed were aggravated by the excitement which prevailed; and the least severe would now have been thought a sufficient punishment for what then took place. He trusted the discussion would at least have the effect of drawing the attention of the Legislature to the necessity of making a distinction between political offences and others. Mr. Jones had never sought for a commutation of his sentence; he had only complained of the severity of his treatment beyond what the prison regulations required. As he case stood, it wore a most suspicious aspect, particularly as to the detention of a letter from the Home Office. He hoped the whole matter would be brought under the consideration of the House early next Session.


expressed his opinion that Mr. Jones had been harshly and unjustly treated. He was not sentenced to hard labour, but had been put to the degrading occupation of oakum picking. The Act did not prescribe this as a punishment, but to repay the county for the expense of the prisoner's maintenance. As Mr. Jones was afflicted with chronic inflammation of the eyes, it was a marvel to him how the visiting justices could think of enforcing this ignominious labour, especially on a man of education. The solitary confinement had been ordered at a time when the cholera was prevailing, when there was a greater liability of serious consequences. The prisoner had been deprived of a most important right by the magistrates, in not being allowed to petition for three months, for at that time the House would not be sitting. Some explanation was due on this point; for whoever and whatever a prisoner was, he had a right to bring his case before that House. He thought it deeply to be regretted that the Lord Chief Justice, who sentenced this prisoner, had not directed his confinement in the first class of misdemeanants. It was impossible to come to any other conclusion than that he had been harshly and unfairly treated; he would, therefore, support the Motion for an inquiry next Session.


was sorry to observe a want of ingenuousness in the way in which the Government dealt with this case. It was undeniable that all the other prisoners had received a commutation of their sentence, Jones only excepted. Considering the ridiculous nature of the attempt in which they had been engaged, he thought it a case where lenity might properly have been exercised. Should a Committee be asked for, he would support the Motion.


said, a person in the station occupied by Mr. Ernest Jones, must necessarily have felt the restraints of imprisonment much more acutely than other classes of offenders; but, making every allowance for that consideration, he (Mr. Henley) thought he had hardly received that degree of indulgence which he was entitled to expect. The case did seem to call for further inquiry; although he did not blame the Government, which, as far as he knew, had no power whatever in the matter. Yet the visiting justices had to act upon their own discretion; and he could not say that they had always exercised a sound discretion in the case of the petitioner.


said, it would be impossible to accede to the Motion of the noble Lord in its present form, because there was no distinction between the rules applicable to what he called political offenders, and those applicable to other prisoners.


said, he would modify his Motion, so as to include copies of all the rules and regulations of all prisons in England and Wales where political offenders had been confined.


pointed out that that alteration would not obviate the difficulty, because there was no distinction in law between political and other prisoners.


said, the noble Lord should bring on his Motion some other day, because he could not make a substantive Motion on the bringing up of the Report of Ways and Means.


suggested that the noble Lord should move for the prison regulations in the case of misdemeanants.


said, that the Motion could not be pressed in its present form.


suggested that the noble Lord might make out a list of ten or a dozen prisons where these prisoners had been confined, and then ask for the rules and regulations of these prisons. That would probably be granted as an unopposed return.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn; Main Question put, and agreed to; Resolutions reported.

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