HC Deb 12 March 1856 vol 141 cc24-8

on rising to move for leave to introduce a Bill to amend the Act of 1853, 16 & 17 Vict. c. 30, for the better prevention and punishment of aggravated assaults upon women and children, said, that he would state very shortly the reasons which had induced him to take this step, and to think that an alteration of the law was necessary. It would be in the recollection of the House that in 1853, when the attention of the country at large had been directed to the frequency of barbarous and savage assaults on women and children, and when it was universally felt that some legislative enactment ought to be passed for the prevention of such brutal crimes, a Bill was introduced, having for its object the substitution of six months' imprisonment with hard labour for the discretionary power exercised by magistrates of imposing a fine of £5, or, in default, sentencing to two months' imprisonment. An Amendment was proposed by Mr. Phinn, then Member for Bath, to the effect that in assaults upon women and children conviction should be followed by the infliction of corporal punishment, that learned Gentleman and others believing that corporal punishment alone would be sufficient to deter parties from the commission of such loathsome and cowardly crimes. Though some of the objections to the Amendment had reference not so much to the principle as to the expediency of the proposal, it was rejected by a large majority, and the Bill was passed in its original shape. The Act had consequently been in operation for upwards of two years, and a return, for which he had moved some time ago, showed the number of convictions and sentences under it during 1854 and 1855 in the metropolitan districts. The return was confined to those districts, but he had been assured by magistrates and others that assaults upon women and children were common over the whole country, and that they often had occasion to lament the want of power to inflict corporal punishment upon persons convicted of such offences. It appeared from the return that the Act of 1853 had not worked satisfactorily in the metropolitan districts, for, during the two years he had mentioned, the total number of convictions and sentences was 877, or more than one per day—a fact which he thought ought to convince those hon. Members who in 1853 opposed the Amendment of Mr. Phinn that, having tried all minor kinds of punishment and found them useless, there was no alternative left but to see what flogging would do. He regretted that, in the absence of returns relating to periods before the passing of the Bill, it was impossible to ascertain whether the alteration of the law had affected the number of cases; but, as the House might wish to know the result of a comparison between the two years embraced in the return, he might state that in 1854 the number of convictions and sentences in the principal metropolitan districts was 353, while in 1855 it was 320, showing but a small decrease in the amount of crime, and that decrease, perhaps, attributable rather to accidental circumstances than to the operation of the Act. In no fewer than 184 cases the offenders were sentenced to the full term of imprisonment allowed by law—six months; which proved that the crime which the Act was intended to repress still existed in its most aggravated form, and that the time had assuredly arrived for the application of a sharper remedy. He believed that the kind of punishment now inflicted had a direct tendency, not, indeed, to diminish the crime, but to prevent the criminals being brought to justice, because when a wife knew—for he was sorry to say that the majority of these assaults were committed by husbands upon their wives—that if she complained to a magistrate her husband would be sent to prison for six months, and she herself reduced to the necessity of choosing between starvation—because she had no other dependence than her husband's wages—and the workhouse, the probability was, that she would rather suffer in secret from the violence of her tormentor than take a step leading to such fearful consequences. What he proposed, therefore, was, to repeal the Act of 1853, re-enacting all its provisions except the second clause, and substituting for that clause one to the effect that, every person convicted of an assault upon a woman or a child should be sentenced to not less than fourteen days', or more than two mouths' imprisonment, and during his confinement should be once privately whipped. He would not have the corporal punishment administered within two days after sentence, because that might wear the appearance of a vindictive proceeding; nor should it be administered within seven days before the release of the offender, because it would be bad policy to allow him to leave prison with a smarting back; whereas if the whip were applied somewhere about the middle of his term of imprisonment he would have plenty of time to reflect upon the consequences of his brutality, and might probably be induced to restrain his passions in future. He believed that the class of persons who committed such offences were only to be deterred from their commission by fear. Several objections might be urged against his proposal to inflict corporal punishment. It might be said that it would prevent a reconciliation between husband and wife. He did not think there was much force in that argument, for he believed that imprisonment was quite as likely as corporal chastisement to fill a man with vindictive and revengeful feelings. But it might be argued that what be proposed would have the effect of brutalising and degrading persons convicted of assaults upon women and children. He did not attach much weight to that objection, for be could not believe that a man who raised his hand against a defenceless woman or child, who knocked his wife down and stamped upon her stomach, when perhaps she was in an advanced state of pregnancy, was capable of being degraded to a lower level—he was a brute in every sense of the word, and nothing would have an effect upon him, he firmly believed, but the fear of bodily pain. It might likewise be said that corporal punishment was not in accordance with the spirit of the age. There was a good deal in that argument; but public opinion had undergone a great change during the last few years, and there was now a very general belief that for offences against the person severer forms of punishment were required. What else were we to do? We had tried imprisonment for short periods and imprisonment for long periods; both had failed,—the crime still existed to a frightful extent, and there seemed to him to be no other alternative left than to resort to corporal punishment. It would be impossible, indeed, to exaggerate the evil. The return for which he had moved did not enter into the details of individual cases; but, on looking over a file of the Times, he had been shocked to read the particulars of some of the cases which occurred in the second year of the Act. [The hon. Member then read a long list of cases of assaults]. It would be seen that some of those cases were little short of murder, in which, indeed, assaults upon women and children frequently ended. The fact that repetitions of the offence were not uncommon showed that the present Act bad not realised the expectations of its authors; and, therefore, he begged to move for leave to bring in a Bill to repeal the Act 16 &c. 17 Vict. c. 30, and to make better provision 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.


seconded the Motion.


said, he would not oppose the introduction of the Bill, but he hoped that before the second reading they would be supplied with more and better information than they now possessed relative to the operation of the present Act. It would appear from the statement of the hon. Member himself that the infliction of a more severe punishment had rather increased than diminished the amount of crime. He was not surprised at that, because he did not believe that a longer imprisonment than two months was of the slightest use in deterring offenders, and he trusted that a better system of punishment would soon be introduced. To subject a man convicted of an assault, whether that assault consisted of a common blow or of acts of extreme violence, to the same brutalising punishment, would be more likely to induce him to repeat the offence than to repent of his conduct.


said, he did not intend to object to the introduction of the Bill, but he trusted the House would pause before it consented to restore a punishment which had not been inflicted in England for a long course of years. The whipping of adults as a secondary punishment was contrary to the whole spirit of our criminal legislation. Nobody could sympathise with the brutes in human form who were guilty of assaults upon women and children; but do not let the House be led away by its feelings to introduce into our criminal code a punishment which he believed to be opposed to every sound principle of criminal jurisprudence, and which he would be sorry to see again upon our statute-book. The only case in which the infliction of corporal punishment was now authorised by law was that of an assault committed upon Her Majesty. No ground had been shown for extending it to other offences. A severe punishment was already attached to assaults upon women and children, and he thought the House was bound to wait until the present law had been fairly tested before it resorted to the infliction of bodily torture. He admitted that it had been necessary to punish a great number of persons under the existing Act, but he hoped that the crime had been on the whole diminished, and that we might reasonably look for a still further decrease in future years. Under those circumstances, although he would not object to the introduction of the Bill, he might probably consider it his duty to oppose the second reading.


said, that the cases of wife-beating which appeared almost daily in the newspapers were a disgrace to England, and to humanity itself. All kinds of imprisonment had been tried and failed; the crime still continued; and his conviction was that nothing would affect a brute capable of maltreating a woman as much as subjecting him to the same bodily pain which he caused to others. The passing of a Bill authorising the infliction of corporal punishment had completely put an end to offences against Her Majesty, and it had been stated over and over again in that House that discipline could not be maintained in the army or navy without the power of flogging, He hoped the Government would not oppose the present Bill.

Leave given.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. DILLWYN and Viscount EMLVN.

Bill read 1°.

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