HC Deb 10 March 1853 vol 124 cc1414-22

said, he rose for leave to bring in a Bill for the better prevention and punishment of aggravated assaults upon women and children. In making this Motion it would not be necessary for him to trespass upon the attention of the House at any length, because the evil which the Bill was intended to remedy was one so generally felt, so universally acknowledged, so rapidly growing, and constituted such a blot upon our national character, that he was convinced that any measure which he should attempt to introduce for the purpose of amending it would meet with general favour, or that, at all events, he should not subject himself to the charge of having needlessly rushed in to provide an unnecessary and uncalled-for remedy. No one could read the public journals without being constantly struck with horror and amazement at the numerous reports of cases of cruel and brutal assaults perpetrated upon the weaker sex by men who one blushed to think were Englishmen, and yet were capable of such atrocious acts. One's mind actually recoiled when he thought of the dastardly and cowardly assaults which were being constantly perpetrated upon defenceless women by brutes who called themselves men. There was a case which appeared in the public journals a short time ago, where a brute in the form of a man assaulted his defenceless wife, who was in an advanced state of pregnancy, and, in order that he might wreak his fury upon her with greater effect, he put his foot under her clothes, and struck her with great violence on the lower part of her person. It was in vain to hope that he could introduce into his Bill any penalty which would be an adequate punishment for so brutal an offence. Nothing but the most ignominious kind of penalty, such as corporal punishment, or something of that sort, which he did not feel justified in proposing to the House, could mark the sense of indignation which was entertained by every Englishman who read of such an atrocity. What was the present state of the law with respect to such outrages? Unfortunately, the summary power granted to magistrates to adjudicate in such cases was confined to the infliction of a penalty not exceeding 5l., or, failing payment of that fine, an imprisonment for a term not exceeding two months. He asked the House if such a punishment was a fit retribution for such an offence? It went against his feelings to ask the House to listen to a description of some of these outrages; yet he was convinced that unless he was prepared to show that the evil which he had just been commenting on required an immediate and an efficient remedy, it might be thought that he had not made out a case for asking for an increase of summary powers. He would, therefore, with the permission of the House, read one or two cases which had been brought before the magistrates of this metropolis within the last few years, and in which a most inadequate punishment had been inflicted:— On the 8th of December, 1852, a man named Henry Bennett was charged at the police-court, Bow-street, with assaulting his wife. It was proved that the defendant's wife had ceased to live with him for some time; that on the morning of the 4th of December, 1852, she was walking in Drury-lane, when she met the defendant. He asked her how she was getting on. She replied 'Pretty well.' He then called her aw—,and, without any provocation, struck her as hard as he could, and knocked her down, and injured her back severely. With the assistance of others she got from him, and went home. He followed her there, and struck her repeatedly with all his force on various parts of her body. On the following morning he again went to her room, seized her by the hair of her head, drew a knife from his pocket, opened it, and attempted to cut her throat. She endeavoured to prevent his doing so, and her fingers were severely cut. The magistrate, fearing the wife would not appear at the sessions if the prisoner were committed for trial, fined the prisoner 5l., and, in default of payment, committed him to prison for two months. On the 7th of January, 1853, at the same court, James Coghlan, a floorcloth-worker, was charged with beating his wife. The husband, between twelve and one o'clock at night, was outside the house in which they resided, and the wife, fearing he might go and drink with the persons who were with him, went to him and begged him to come in. He shortly after entered the room in a passion, and began to beat her with his fists, gave her two black eyes, and then beat her severely with the tongs, saying that 'she had made him appear little in the eyes of the persons with whom he had been outside of the house.' Her screams were heard, and a policeman went to the spot and saw the husband strike her, and, observing that she had been severely beaten, took him into custody at the instance of the woman. Punishment, fined 5l., or two months' imprisonment. At Marlborough-street police-court, in December, 1851, Thomas M'Millan, a tailor, was-charged with beating his wife. It appeared that at twelve o'clock at night she returned home and found him there. He immediately began to abuse her, and struck her several blows with his fists on and about her head; on her screaming 'Murder, he took a bit of iron, used as a poker, and struck her with it on the arm and on the head several blows. Her screams were heard by a police-constable, and he went to her assistance; the man was in liquor, but the woman sober. The magistrate, seeing the disposition of the woman to screen the husband, summarily convicted him—5l., or two months. On the 5th of January, 1853, John Mullett was charged at the same court with beating his wife. The man missed a small bit of cloth of the value of 3d., became angry, and was about to break open a drawer, when she endeavoured to prevent his doing so; he thereupon beat her most severely. When she appeared to give evidence before the magistrate, one of her eyes presented a shocking appearance, and one side of her face was discoloured and swollen, and she appeared a sad spectacle. She pleaded for her husband, and, lest the man should go unpunished if committed for trial, he was fined 5l., or two months' imprisonment. On the 23rd of November, 1852, at the Westminster police-court, Frederic Giles appeared to answer the complaint of Susannah Preston, who had been living with him for two years. After being out all night, she returned in the morning, and saw Giles putting into a basket some food which she had provided, in order to carry it away; she remonstrated; he struck her; and on her then abusing him, he beat her with the buckle end of a strap about the neck, arms, and hands, till she was one mass of bruises, and covered with blood. A constable heard her sereams, went to the spot, and found her clothes saturated with blood, and a ring on one of her fingers beaten into-the flesh to the bone; she was conveyed to a hospital, and the ring was cut out.—Punishment 5l., or two months. At Worship-street police-court, on the 23rd of November, 1852, was a charge against Jeremiah: Donovan. It appeared that about half-past one o'clock in the morning, the cries of 'Murder' and 'Police' were heard in Prince's-street, Mile-end-road; that a police constable proceeded to the-room whence the cries issued, and found the wife-sitting in a chair, attended by two women; she had a large cut over the left eye, which was bleeding much; her eyes were blackened, and she appeared to suffer great pain in her stomach. The wife was taken to a hospital and remained there for some time. Both parties were sober. It appeared in evidence that the defendant had brutally ill-used her, and when she was on the ground had jumped upon her and severely injured her. She was unable to attend before the magistrate for some time; when she did attend she endeavoured to make it appear that she had been very slightly assaulted, and from her conduct the magistrate perceived that unless he disposed of the case in a summary way the husband would go unpunished.—Fined 5l., or two months, and to find two sure- ties in 20l. to keep the peace for six months. Now, he would ask the House whether such a state of things did not bring the administration of justice in this country into disrepute? Whether it did not constitute a flagrant blot upon our criminal code? and whether, in addition, it did not tend to prejudice the mind of the public, who were not aware of the state of the law, against the magistrate who inflicted such inadequate punishment? He might be told, in answer to this, that the magistrate had the alternative power of remitting to the sessions; but he need hardly remind the House of the coaxings, and intimidations, and all the different influences which were usually brought to bear upon the soft and kindly nature of the unfortunate woman who was placed in such circumstances in order to induce her to abstain from appearing against her husband—if, indeed, she was not forcibly conveyed out of the way. At all events, the adoption of this alternative was practically to allow the offender to escape altogether. And, even if she did appear, it was obvious that after the lapse of some weeks she would present a very different spectaelo to the magistrates and jury at the sessions, from what she presented to the magistrate before whom she appeared immediately after the brutal assault. The marks of the assault would be greatly obliterated, and it was probable, therefore, that the jury would be induced to attach less importance to the case than the magistrate did before whom the case was first brought. He therefore humbly ventured to suggest to the House that the time was come when they should increase the summary powers of magistrates to deal with persons who were capable of committing such flagrant crimes. He was aware that in most cases the feeling of the House was against increasing the summary powers of magistrates; but he thought they would agree with him, that the cases he had brought before them were exceptional cases, and ought to be dealt with in a different manner from other cases. When he mentioned that all the extent to which he asked the House to go in increasing the powers of the magistrates in these cases was to inflict a penalty of imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for a term not exceeding six months, or a fine not exceeding 20l., he thought they would admit that he was not asking them to take any very extraordinary step, or to go further than necessary in that direction. Neither was he asking the House to do anything very new. He was only asking them to extend the same protection to defenceless women as they already extended to poodle dogs and donkeys, for cruelty to which, a person subjected himself, under the Cruelty to Animals Act, to three months' imprisonment, with or without hard labour. Then again, by the 8 & 9 Vict., c. 47, commonly called the Dogstealing Act, the penalty for the first offence was imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for a term not exceeding six months, or a fine (over and above the value of the dog) not exceeding 20l. He only asked the House, therefore, to extend the same protection to the weaker sex, as they now extended to a lady's lapdog, or a spaniel of King Charles the Second's breed. He bogged to mention also, that he proposed to introduce into his Bill certain alterations in the law, not perfectly analogous to the one to which he had just called their attention; but at the same time he had no doubt it would appear to the House that, when they were improving the law, at any rate the alterations which he had to propose might fairly be included. One of the alterations he proposed was, to take away the power of removing indictments by writ of certiorari, except upon affidavit that a fair trial could not be had in the Court in which the indictment was originally laid. He understood that a similar clause was introduced by the late hon. and learned Attorney General into the Metropolitan Grand Jury Bill; but owing, no doubt, to the pressure brought to bear upon him from the bar, he withdrew it. It had been his (Mr. Fitzroy's) fate before to encounter the prejudices of that learned profession, he hoped with some little advantage to the public, and he should feel it his duty not to shrink from the same course on this occasion; because, now that they had established a Criminal Court of Appeal, there was no reason for facilitating the removal of trials for misdemeanor from the ordinary courts. Another alteration which he had to propose was, to enforce the payment of recognisances in cases where persons, after being hound over to keep the peace, had forfeited those recognisances by again committing an assault. At present the recovery of such recognisances was so cumbrous and expensive, that in effect they were a dead letter, and could not be enforced at all. He proposed, therefore, to place them on the same footing as recognisances in the case of failing to appear to give evidence. He also proposed to introduce a clause which would save considerable expense—namely, to enable the Secretary of State to issue a warrant to bring up a prisoner who was in custody under a civil process, and who might be wanted to give evidence—and thus do away with the necessity of the writ of habeas corpus in such cases. Such were the main provisions of this short Bill, the principal object of which was to give protection to the defenceless female; and he had no doubt the House would aid him in according them protection.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That leave be given to bring in a Bill for the better prevention and punishment of aggravated assaults upon women and children, and for preventing delay and expense in the administration of certain parts of the Criminal Law.


said, he thought the country and the House were much indebted to his hon. Friend (Mr. Fitzroy) and the Government for introducing the present Bill; but he very much regretted that they had not gone further, and introduced the principle of corporal punishment to persons convicted of such offences. He candidly confessed that he was not an advocate for corporal punishment in ordinary cases. He believed that it both brutalised and degraded the objects to whom it was applied; but in cases of this kind, where men were already reduced below the level of the brute, when all moral sense had gone out of them, he believed it might be applied with good effect in the way of a preventive of such crimes in future. He might refer to two cases of recent legislation in proof of this. It was well known that at the commencement of Her reign Her Majesty was subjected to more than one brutal attack by persons who had no treasonable designs, but who were merely anxious to acquire notoriety. Well, these attacks had been entirely put an end to by the application of corporal punishment to the offence. Then, again, there was the other case of the destruction of national monuments and objects of priceless value by reckless persons. That, too, had been put an end to by the threat of corporal punishment; and it had never been necessary to apply it. He hoped it would have an equally good effect in the present class of cases, and he begged to give notice that, in Committee, he should move a clause introducing the principle of corporal punishment, being satisfied in his own mind that it would operate, not as a punishment of crime but as a preventive. He knew that there was a strong feeling against intrusting a single magistrate, or even two magistrates sitting together, with the power of corporal punishment. So far as regarded this metropolis, where the magistrates were under the ken of the public press, it was not at all likely that the power would be abused; but, as regarded remote districts, he believed public opinion would be against it. It was well worthy of the consideration of Government, however, whether it was not possible to introduce some clause allowing the cases of an aggravated description, where corporal punishment was likely to follow, to be tried either by the magistrates themselves, or with the assistance of five persons as a jury at the option of the accused. He agreed with the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Fitzroy) that it was highly desirable that the punishment should rapidly follow the commission of the offence. He thought magistrates ought to have the power, not only of punishing breaches of the public peace, but also of granting compensation to a person who had suffered by that breach. At present the prosecutor must first summon the party before a magistrate to vindicate public order, and then he must go before a County Court for compensation. The French law was more consonant with reason: one Court served both purposes; and he saw no objection to the magistrate being entrusted with the power of granting compensation to a limited extent—say 20l. He would also give the power of certifying that the costs of transferring the case to the sessions, when necessary, should be paid by the public. His hon. Friend need not fear any opposition from the bar to the proposition to take away the power of removing indictments for misdemeanors by certiorari, for he believed that in no case of legal reform would they allow any consideration but that of public justice to operate upon their minds, for he believed that the interests of the profession were identical with the interests of the public. He thought, however, they should be very cautious in taking away the power from the Judges altogether; and in boroughs particularly, where there was limited jurisdiction, and cases of a political or party complexion were likely to occur, it might be better to allow cases of the nature in question to be removed by certiorari, in order to avoid the excitement to which they generally gave rise. He hoped the hon. Member would consider that sweeping-change he seemed to suggest unnecessary, unless it was justified by some better reasons than had yet been given to the House.


said, he approved of the suggestion of the hon. and learned Member for Bath as to corporal punishment, because it was scarcely possible to conceive those feelings and sympathies which revolted against such a punishment should have any application to a person degraded by one of the savage assaults which this Bill was intended to prevent. There were two points connected with criminal jurisprudence which he hoped would also receive the attention of the Government. The first was the gross injustice of inflicting punishment on labourers for taking their masters' corn to give to their masters' horses. By a scholastic subtlety, the Judges held that to be precisely the same offence as if the person had stolen the corn and sold it for his own purposes; and he had never seen a case of that description tried in which the Judge, the jury, and the counsel did not all do everything they could to facilitate the escape of the accused person. Such a law was an abomination in itself, and ought to be altered. The second point was the disgraceful custom of exacting fines from persons acquitted of misdemeanors. It was the constant practice of police officers and others to prosecute parties for misdemeanors, and just before the time appointed for the trial to withdraw the charge; the accused persons had to pay a sum of money although they were acquitted, and he said that was an abuse disgraceful to a civilised country. The Government, he considered, by this measure would add another to their claims upon the gratitude of the public.


said, he considered that the House was greatly indebted to Her Majesty's Government for having introduced the present measure. He wished to ask the hon. Member (Mr. Fitzroy) whether any alteration was proposed with respect to the number of magistrates who would have to adjudicate upon these eases?


said, that he did not intend to alter the jurisdiction of the magistrates in respect to the offences included under the Bill.


said, he wished to call the attention of the hon. Member to a recent case in the north of England, in a parish near Berwick-on-Tweed, where the magistrates had committed some labourers to gaol because they had refused to work up to ten or eleven o'clock at night. They were hired by the year, and as agricultural operations had been retarded by the Hoods, their master had insisted on their working all day, and up to a late hour at night, which the labourers had refused to do without extra pay. He considered this case one which called for redress.

Leave given.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr Fitzroy and Viscount Palmerston.

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