HC Deb 12 March 1851 vol 114 cc1297-9

Order for Second Reading read.


said, that public attention had lately been most painfully drawn to several cases of cruelty towards servants; and, in particular, the late case of the Sloanes. There had been other cases of a similar description to that of the Sloanes, but none equalling it in atrocity—none so disgusting. Various attempts had been made to legislate for the protection of young persons from the cruelties to which they were not unfrequently subject; but the law, as it stood, did not, he was sorry to say, sufficiently reach all cases. It was with the view of providing some remedy that he undertook to submit the present Bill to Parliament. There was one defect in the law, made manifest in the late trial of the Sloanes. It had been found that, however clear the obligation on the masters or mistresses of young persons to provide them with food for their necessary sustenance, the criminal law afforded no means of redress except in the cases of infants of tender years. It was considered that, inasmuch as Jane Wilbred was sixteen or seventeen years of age, and not an infant of tender years, although she might have a remedy of a civil description, yet she had no protection afforded her by the criminal law. This, he conceived, was not a proper state of things; for a person in the position of Jane Wilbred ought to have the protection of the criminal law as well as an infant of tender years. It was to meet this defect that he proposed the first clause. Again, by the law as it stood no case of assault upon a servant or apprentice, however brutal it might be, could be punished with hard labour, unless it could be brought under the category of felonious assaults. All that the law did, was, to treat assaults not felonious as cases of misdemeanour; the punishment for which was simple imprisonment or fine. This seemed to him a very serious defect. Another defect in the law was, that there existed no means whatever of providing for the costs of the prosecution in a case of assault upon a young person of this description, unless it were a felonious one. Let them take the case of a poor, helpless, friendless, penniless creature like Jane Wilbred. It would be impossible for her to have redress, unless she trusted to some charitable persons taking up the case, and who would have to pay the costs out of their own pockets. Looking to these defects in the law, he hoped that the House would pass the Bill which he now proposed. The provisions of the Bill were—first, with regard to all young persons under eighteen years of age who were under the control of others as apprentices or servants, where masters or mistresses were legally liable to provide food for their sustenance, to enforce such liability by means of the criminal law, as in the case of infants of tender years; and, further, with regard to the offence of committing an assault on any such young person, such as to injure health or endanger life, without legal justification, the Bill provided that such a case was one in which a court of justice might pronounce a sentence of imprisonment for a long term, and accompany that imprisonment with hard labour. The second clause provided for the costs of prosecution at the discretion of the court trying the case. He thought that such a discretionary power as this clause afforded was very desirable. There was another evil in the present state of the law which had struck him very much in the course of discharging the duties of his office. When a young person had been hired out of a workhouse, or apprenticed by the guardians, there was no sufficient provision now that care should be taken of him after he had once been hired or been apprenticed. He did not mean to say that any legislation could make that provision complete; but he did say that, until such a person had arrived at eighteen years of age, it should be the business of the guardians to have periodical visits paid to him by some officer of theirs not less than four times a year; whose duty it should be to report to the guardians if he found that the young person was subjected to cruel or illegal conduct. He was glad to say, that that hint was given to him by the voluntary practice of three unions. This very rule was adopted at Oldham in Lancashire, at Nanwitch in Cheshire, and at Market Drayton in Shropshire. There was yet another defect in the law. At present, when a poor person had received an injury, it was extremely doubtful whether the guardians had the power to prosecute; and, when the Poor Law Board had the question put to them by the guardians of the West London union, whether they could prosecute in the case of the Sloanes, there was very great doubt whether the law would allow it. In the cases of injury to poor persons under eighteen years of age, if the magistrate before whom the case was brought thought that, under the circumstances, a prosecution should be undertaken, he proposed to give him power to call on the guardians to institute a prosecution, the expenses to be borne out of the poor-rates, in cases where no other provision was made by law for the payment.


entirely agreed with every word that had fallen from the right hon. Gentleman; but he thought they would find, when they came to discuss the clauses of the Bill, that some of them ought to have been made more general in their character, and he thought the visits of the guardians ought not to be confined to cases where the children remained as apprentices or servants "within" the limits of the union, because the probability was, that when removed beyond the limits of the union they were removed from any friends they might have, and would therefore require a more careful attention than otherwise. In all other matters he fully approved the Bill, and thought the House and the country highly indebted to the right hon. Gentleman for the care he had taken to provide a remedy for what all must admit to be a crying wrong.


begged to offer his best thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for the mode in which he had administered the duties of his office, and requested, as the measure was one of a humane nature, that it should be extended to Ireland.

Bill read 2°, and committed for Wednesday next.

The House adjourned at a quarter after Four o'clock.