HC Deb 12 June 1851 vol 117 cc634-41

Order read for going into Committee of Supply.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."


rose to call the attention of the House to the conduct of Sir William Denison, Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land, in the matter of the revocation of the tickets of leave lately held by Messrs. M'Manus, O'Doherty, and O'Donohue, who had been transported to Van Diemen's Land for political offences committed in Ireland in 1848. He hoped he was not asking too much of the House when he called upon them not to allow these three gentlemen to be punished with undue severity. On former occasions, when the question was brought forward, hon. Members had been told these persons were being treated with considerable lenity—that their treatment was not that of mere convicts—and that every indulgence had been and would be continued to them, Unfortunately he was in a position to show that this statement was not correct, and that these three gentlemen had been treated with undue harshness and severity by Sir William Denison. The letter of their regulations had been strained, not for the purpose of lenity, but in order to aggravate their sufferings, and to tighten the bonds of their imprisonment. They had been hampered as much as possible, although they had been granted tickets of leave. The Act of Parliament under which they obtained their tickets of leave was the 6 & 7 of Victoria, cap. 7; and, from the whole tenor of Lord Stanley's despatch upon the subject, it was manifestly his Lordship's intention that such an alteration should be made in the law as would raise the condition of those of the convicts who held pardons conditionally with not leaving the colony. Such convicts were permitted accordingly to hold personal property, and their tickets of leave were irrevocable, except upon conviction for a felony. Now, when Mr. Smith O'Brien accepted his ticket of leave, he was removed from the penal settlement in which he was confined to Hobart Town, and two or three of his companions in exile left their police districts for the purpose of shaking him by the hand, and congratulating him on his partial restoration to society, and they returned before nightfall to their police districts again. It was right, in justice to the Governor, to state that the feeling in Van Diemen's Land was very strong in reference to the position of these gentlemen in the colony. There was not a respectable person in the island who did not see and understand the immense disinction between the offences of these gentlemen and the vulgar offences of the ordinary convicts. There was not a house in the island —the Government House excepted—which would not at any moment have been thrown open to any one of these exiles. It should also be understood that this was a Crown colony; that all the functions of the Government were concentred in his person; and that, in fact, Sir William Denison was quite absolute in his authority. Sir William Denison, in his despatch, which had been laid on the table of the House, complained of this feeling towards Mr. Smith O'Brien and his friends in the island; and in this document he indicated that he had all along been an unwilling agent in granting the conditional freedom, and that he was glad of any opportunity of revoking it. The wish of Sir William Denison had been that these exiles should be treated as mere convicts; thst every house should be closed to them; and that every man should shun them. He even protested against the wise clemency shown towards these unhappy men by the Sovereign, and he ventured to foretell evil consequences from that clemency—consequences which it was evident his own after conduct towards them was well calculated to produce. No sooner had these gentlemen returned from their visit to Mr. Smith O'Brien, than the Governor proceeded to put in force the regulations with regard to holders of tickets of leave which had prevailed anterior to the statute of 6 and 7 Victoria. One of these obsolete regulations was, that ticket-of-leave men having been assigned a certain police district, should not be allowed to pass out of that district without having previously obtained a pass. Sir William Denison maintained in this case that there was an implied understanding that the convicts would not leave their districts without a pass. But the parole of these gentlemen was distinctly to this effect—that they would not attempt to leave the colony so long as they were permitted to possess the tickets of leave. There was not a word said about the "police district," so that the attempt to fix upon them a breach of their furlough was absurd and worthless. The whole question, therefore, as regarded the conduct of Sir William Denison would turn on this point—whether the ordinance under which these gentlemen were punished was or was not abrogated by the 6 and 7 Victoria. The opinions of the lawyers in the colony were unanimously against Sir William Denison; the law advisers of Sir William Denison, of course, excepted. It was quite certain that other holders of tickets of leave had left their districts without the authority of a pass, and that they had not been punished. At all events, it was evident that there was a doubt as to the legality of the conduct of these gentlemen: and it would have been but just, not to say generous, if the Governor had given the accused the benefit of that doubt. However, be decided otherwise. Two out of three gentlemen (the third having been sick) were brought before the magistrates of their respective districts, who decided that the point as to whether the regulation in question applied to them was at least doubtful, and suggested that the matter should be made the subject of a compromise, which was at once agreed to by the accused, namely, that they should undertake not to leave their respective districts without asking permission, reserving, however, the question of their legal right to do so if they should think proper. The Governor, as soon as this decision was given, revoked the tickets of leave which had been issued to Messrs. M'Manus, O'Donohue, and O'Doherty, and not only so, but having from the first evinced a determined and inveterate ill-will to them, he transmitted another order for their further degradation to the rank of convicts under probation, or, in other words, under punishment, in the penal settlement of Port Arthur, or, as the Governor called it, "Tasman's Peninsula." The term of probation was three months each, with hard labour in addition, for aught he (Mr. C. Anstey) knew; and this Sir William Denison did, not in conformity with the decision of a competent tribunal, but in opposition to it, inamuch as he had felt it necessary to write a letter to the magistrates before whom the cases were heard, censuring them for having interpreted the doubt in the Government regulations in favour of the accused; that was to say, be felt it necessary to set aside their decision before carrying into effect his own. It was to be remembered, too, that the Governor was not acting within the ordinary line of his duty in undertaking to revise the decision of the magistrates, who were practically absolute in their own sphere, their decisions being final. It was only a very extreme case which would justify the Governor in setting aside their decision—a case so extreme as would compel him at the same time to remove them, which he had not done. He (Mr. C. Anstey) thought it most unfortunate for the reputation of the Government of the colony that, in this despatch to Earl Grey, Sir William Denison should have been guilty of two sins— one of omission, and one of commission in the solitary despatch he had sent to this country on the subject. The omission was in his withholding all information whatever respecting the proceedings before the police magistrates, and commission in having distinctly and unequivocally admitted the motives which urged him to the act, namely, because too much sympathy had been shown for the hard condition of those unfortunate gentlemen, and because he had failed in persuading even the police magistrates to come to his opinion, that they were common convicts. A question had been put to the Government by him (Mr. C. Anstey) the other night on this point, and the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary for the Colonies could only reply that he was not in possession of the required papers. He had now made a statement of the facts; and he hoped that the Government would enter into some explanations.

Amendment proposed— To leave out from the word 'That' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words 'this House views with disapprobation the conduct of his Excellency Sir William Denison, Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen's Land, in revoking, without sufficient cause, and contrary to the adjudications of the proper tribunals, the tickets of leave lately held by the three State prisoners, Messrs. Macmanus, O'Doherty, and O'Donohue, and in removing' those prisoners from the free districts of the island to the penal settlement of Tasman's Peninsula, otherwise Port Arthur, there to undergo the term of three months' punishment or probation amongst the convicts of that settlement,' instead thereof.


seconded the Motion.


was quite unable to follow the hon. and learned Gentleman through the statement which he had addressed to the House, because the Government was utterly without official or tangible information upon the points to which attention was now called. In fact, all the information of which the Government was possessed was contained in the despatch from Sir William Denison, dated 14th of January, 1851, and which had been some weeks on the table of the House. The case really lay in a very small compass. The proposition of the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. C. Anstey) was that they should pass a vote of censure upon Sir William Denison, for having acted, in the opinion of the hon. and learned Gentleman, improperly, in withdrawing the tickets of leave which had been granted to Messrs. M'Manus, O'Doherty, and O'Donohue. Now, he (Sir G. Grey) must remind the House that these three persons had been convicted of offences of the gravest nature, two of them having been capitally convicted of high treason, and the third having been convicted under another statute and sentenced to transportation. In the two former cases the mercy of the Crown was extended, and their sentences were commuted also to transportation; and on the arrival of the three persons at the colony, they were, in pursuance of instructions from the Government to the Governor, placed in the condition of convicts holding tickets of leave, which the House was aware was, in their case a great indulgence, subject to the engagement, as stated in the despatch, "that they would not make use of the comparative liberty which the indulgence of a ticket of leave would give in order to escape from the colony." The three prisoners in question, however, having acted in direct disobedience of the regulations applicable to ticket-of-leave holders, Sir William Denison had felt it necessary "to exercise a power vested in him as Lieutenant Governor, and which had always been found essential to the maintenance of proper order and discipline amongst the convicts," and to subject them to a penalty for that disobedience. The hon. and learned Gentleman said now that they were not subject to the ordinary regulations of ticket-of-leave holders. But in that opinion he (Sir G. Grey) did not coincide, and the opinion of the Governor and of his advisers was that certain regulations applicable to this case had been violated; consequently, the Governor, charged with the responsibility of maintaining order and discipline throughout the colony, felt himself justified in dealing with this as he would have dealt with any other case of the same character. Looking to these circumstances, and to the statement of the Governor that these three convicts had acted in direct disobedience to the regulations applicable to ticket-of-leave holders, he (Sir G. Grey) did not think that the House would listen to the recommendation of the hon. and learned Gentleman to pass a vote of censure. It was at least quite certain, with reference to the evidence contained in this despatch, that there was no ground whatever for this proposal. The hon. and learned Gentleman had brought forward other evidence which had been derived from sources to which the hon. and learned Gentleman felt himself justified in attaching credit; but he (Sir G. Grey) hoped that the House would never go upon testimony of this character, offered by a Member in his place, but that it would always act according to the facts which were regularly and officially before it. Upon this principle he had confined himself to comments upon the statements of the despatch, and he would give no opinion upon any of the other points raised. Under the circumstances he was confident that the House would not agree to the Motion.


had seconded his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. C. Anstey) with a view to obtaining some explanatory statement in reference to this matter from the Government; he also had seen private letters complaining of the injustice of the proceedings of the Governor. But he thought that in the absence of the official documents the House would not be in a position to come to a vote upon the conduct of Sir William Denison; and he would therefore now recommend his hon. and learned Friend to withdraw this Motion, and move for the production of the necessary papers. The question was of importance, and ought to be sifted.


agreed with the opinion of the hon. Member for Montrose, and also suggested that the Motion should be withdrawn for the present.


said, that in consideration of the position in which his near relative, Mr. Smith O'Brien, stood towards the gentlemen whose case had been brought before the House, he (Sir L. O'Brien) did not feel himself competent to offer any opinion on this occasion. And if the hon. and learned Gentleman persevered and went to a division, he should feel it his duty to abstain from voting. He took this opportunity, however, of calling attention to a matter connected with the subject of discussion, and which he thought was calculated to throw a little light on the character of Sir William Denison. He had spoken to the official gentlemen connected with the Colonial Department on the point; but they had not attended to his recommendation; and he thought it desirable to mention it in the House. The House would remember that his brother had been confined some time in Maria Island, under the superintendence of Captain Lathom. The House would also remember the attempt which his brother had made to escape. What he (Sir L. O'Brien) now called attention to was, the treatment which Captain Lathom had received after that attempt had been made by Mr. Smith O'Brien. The Governor, dissatisfied with the conduct of Captain Lathom, dismissed him from the government of the island. Captain Lathom had a large family, and he had been left utterly without any means of support. He (Sir L. O'Brien) had received letters from Captain Lathom, from the captain's wife, and also from his brother, Mr. Smith O'Brien, relating the circumstances of the case; and the conclusion to which he had come and had represented to others was, that Captain Lathom had not been guilty of anything to justify so harsh a proceeding. It might be said that this was an ex parte statement, and that the Governor had not yet been heard. But it was obviously a case of great hardship, and he hoped that it would not be overlooked.


was sorry that discredit had been cast upon the evidence he adduced. It came from most respectable quarters.


, in explanation, begged to say that he had cast no discredit upon the information obtained by the hon. and learned Gentleman. All he said was that the Government could not act upon such information.


would withdraw the Motion, and on another day would move for the papers required, and which Sir William Denison ought to have already forwarded.

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

Main Question put, and agreed to.