HC Deb 07 May 1856 vol 142 cc165-77

Order for Second Reading read.


in moving the second reading of this Bill, said, there could be no difference of opinion as to the imperfect working of the present Act for the repression of aggravated assaults upon women and children. Such offences occurred in the metropolitan district at least upon the average as frequently as one every day. The police reports and our daily experience consequently proved that the existing law was quite insufficient to prevent them. Now, in his opinion, it was an erroneous view to think that the main object of punishment should be the reformation of offenders. The principal object, and in fact the only one which justified us in administering punishment, was the repression of crime, and the more simply we kept that system in view the better. It was not his intention to deny that the reformation of offenders, if it could be compassed by the same means, was a very desirable object, but he must deny that it was practicable to include this with the other, as the express objects of our penal legislation. Looking at our whole penal code, the penalties awarded for crime, as far as he understood it, did not contemplate the reformation of offenders. Centainly, the sentence of death did not contemplate that object, nor did long imprisonments, nor penal servitude. A great objection, also, to long imprisonment was, that, in the first place, we had not the means of carrying it out, and, in the next, if we were to extend the length of the term of the imprisonment for offences, we should not be able to provide sufficient prison accommodation. It did not appear, from the conduct either of those who had undergone long imprisonment, or of those who had returned from transportation, or of the ticket-of-leave men, that they had been very much reformed. Neither did he believe that our prison discipline, as at present conducted, was at all likely to reform criminals. He would now call attention to the different remedies that had been suggested for the prevention of the particular class of crimes which he had in view; and he believed none of those remedies, except the infliction of corporal punishment, which was what he proposed, were at all likely to attain their object. Imprisonment was not calculated to deter a man of brutal and savage nature, under the strong influence of ferocious passions, of anger or jealousy, or under the excitement of drink, from the commission of those offences; no matter to such a man whether the penalty were three, six, or twelve months' imprisonment, it would not check his rage. Nor was it probable that solitary confinement, which had been recommended as a substitute for a longer term of imprisonment, would in those cases be effectual, though in many instances, such as those of larceny, swindling, and other such crimes, he believed that shorter sentences of solitary imprisonment would be a great saving of expense, and give a much better chance of reforming the offender. To a man who had once experienced it, doubtless solitary confinement was a very dreadful séntence, but not so to one who had not experienced what it really was. In the cases which he had in view, it was desirable to prevent first offences, and there must be some penalty which should inspire active fear, and an immediate terror. Another suggestion which had been made was, that there should be a cheap law of divorce. That was a very large question, affecting the social and domestic relations of the whole people, and one which required very grave consideration. He certainly should approve of it as a civil remedy, for he believed that by separating persons who were ill matched, the cause of many of those crimes would be removed. But it would, without doubt in many instances, be holding out a direct inducement to commit the assaults which he desired to restrain, if the punishment of those assaults were to be associated with facilitating a divorce; and therefore he did not wish to mix up the question of the law of divorce with the question which he had now brought before the House. Besides, the law of divorce could only apply to the case of a wife; but many of these aggravated assaults were not committed by men upon their wives. Within the last three months there had been three or four gross cases made public of assaults by men upon their concubines; and although a woman had no right to live with a man in that relation, he ought to be punished if he treated her brutally. There were also cases of men assaulting their mothers and sisters, and worst of all, there were cases of men assaulting children, which deserved the most prompt and severe punishment. One case, which he had noticed, was that of a man who had just had an illegitimate child sworn to him, and immediately wreaked his vengeance upon the child as soon as he got out of the Court. In these and other cases, a law of divorce would of course afford no remedy. He did believe that the only way to meet the whole class of such cases was by imposing corporal punishment, for he was firmly of opinion that would deter from crimes of that nature. They were essentially different from cases of theft and other crimes, in which the offender deliberately weighed the consequences of his act, and knew the loss of character which he would have to sustain. These assaults were committed in a momentary passion, and the forcible threat of a good flogging would be more likely to have an instant effect upon a man, at such a moment, than the contemplation of a more prolonged sort of punishment. It was almost invariably true, that the greater the bully the greater was the coward, and the fear of actual pain upon his own back would operate upon any man who was capable of cruel ill-treatment of the woman he was bound to protect. Such men, like dogs, were of a brutal nature, and if we wanted to cure dogs of the habit of running after hares or sheep, we did so by whipping them, until we acquired a control of them, and taught them to restrain their savage propensities. He believed that, by such a punishment as he recommended, there would be a chance, not only of deterring men from these offences, but of reforming them also. Nothing but the fear of pain and shame would do it; and shame might do much with them; but if they were only to be sent to prison, they were too depraved in character to feel any shame for that, and would meet with associates in prison, who would sympathise with them, and keep them from any sense of degradation. But a man who had been flogged for such an offence, would he laughed at even by his fellows whom he met in prison, and would be put to shame. Now he was perfectly aware that more than one objection had been raised to the system of punishment he recommended. One was, that it would prevent a reconciliation between the husband and wife, after the sentence should have been inflicted. He did not say but that, in some cases, it might do so; but he believed it would make these assaults of very rare and infrequent occurrence, and that general effect would be well worth the occasional chance of preventing a reconciliation. But in many cases it was his belief that it would not prevent a reconciliation. He knew a case of a man in South Wales, many years ago, who was continually brought up by the Poor-Law officers for deserting his wife and family, and sent to the House of Correction for it. At last he was brought up and indicted under an old Act of Parliament, as an incorrigible rogue and vagabond, at the quarter sesssions, and he was sentenced to be whipped—and he was whipped; he went back to his family, and never appeared before the Magistrates again; but they lived happily together ever since, although his wife was the cause of his having undergone that punishment, and he really became a reformed man. Another objection was, that flogging would tend to degrade and brutalise a man, but he did not attach any weight to that argument, because he believed that the man who committed these assaults was such that he could not very well be degraded—he was a thorough brute, and as a brute he must be treated, and be cowed by the fear of the lash. It had been said that this would be a retrograde step in our legislation; but what did that mean? If it tended better to attain the great end of legislation, the prevention of crime, it would surely be a step in advance. When we wanted to cure a disease, we did not look for the most agreeable but the most efficacious medicine, and if we found a medicine that was nastier than any other which had been previously tried, but that effectually cured the disease, we did not call it a retrograde step but an advance in the art of healing. Besides, it would not be an innovation in the law, after all. There was the Act of the 7 & 8 George IV., chap. 39, which provided the punishment of whipping for malicious injuries to property. There was also the Act for the punishment of assaults upon Her Majesty the Queen, in which case lion. Members must be well aware that the principle of corporal punishment had been quite successful for the prevention of the offence. Another objection which had been made was, that such a power as that of inflicting corporal punishment ought not to be given to one or two Justices of the Peace. But the Magistrates were already invested with very large powers, which they generally exercised in a very satisfactory manner; they were always subject to the observation and comments of the public press, and he believed their decisions inclined usually to the side of mercy rather than the other way. His attention had been called to the meeting of women at Leicester, who had petitioned against this Bill. But he could not attach much importance to that meeting. He had never expected that women would hold meetings in favour of the Bill, or take any public part in its advocacy. By doing so, women would of course have exposed themselves to a great deal of personal ridicule, and their compassionate, long-suffering, uncomplaining spirit would indispose them to plead their own cause, and to demand such a remedy as this. The women felt no doubt that they might safely leave their cause in the hands of a Parliament of men. But notwithstanding all that had been stated, he still had reason to believe that the feeling amongst the female sex was in favour of the law which he proposed, and that they did consider it to be necessary. After all, it was not altogether a woman's question, but it was much more a man's question. It concerned the character of our own sex that we should repress these unmanly assaults; and he believed that upon the men who committed them they had a worse and more injurious effect than they had upon the women who endured them. The noble Lord at the head of the Government said, in the debate of 1853, that if the working of the law then enacted should be found unsatisfactory, he would be prepared to reconsider this question; and that if that law were insufficient, Parliament might have recourse to stronger measures. He (Mr. Dillwyn) believed that, since that period, there had been a great change of public opinion and feeling upon this subject, and he therefore trusted that the noble Lord at the head of the Government would offer no opposition to the second reading of the Bill.


said, that, notwithstanding the general and very just desire that those offences to which the Bill of the hon. Gentleman referred should be checked by the strong hand of the law, he felt bound at once to state the reasons which induced him to think that the specific change which the hon. Gentleman proposed would be inexpedient, and ought not to be adopted by the House. The Bill contained almost a complete code of provisions upon this subject, but substantially it made only one alteration in the existing law. A Bill upon this subject was brought in three years ago by the right hon. Gentleman now the Chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means, who was then the Under Secretary for the Home Department (Mr. FitzRoy) and was passed into a law. What the hon. Member for Swansea now proposed to do was to repeal that Act, and to reenact it verbatim, with the addition of another punishment to be attached to the offence in question. There could be no difference of opinion about the character of that offence, and with much that had been stated by the hon. Gentleman, he, and he thought every one else, must agree. There could be no sympathy with those persons whom he had justly described as men of brutal and savage nature, who were guilty of these aggravated assaults on women, and especially on their own wives. There could be only one desire about it, that these offences should be checked. But much of the reasoning of the hon. Gentleman was based upon the general assumption of his that long imprisonments were inexpedient, that they were expensive, and that they could not so well be inflicted, and therefore the hon. Gentleman, irrespective of these particular cases, would recommend corporal punishment to be substituted for long imprisonment inflicted by law. And so, as regarded the question of divorce, the hon. Gentleman was in favour of a cheap system of divorce, but he did not propose anything of the kind. What, then, did the hon. Gentleman propose? The existing Act gave summary jurisdiction to two magistrates in ordinary cases, or to one police or stipendiary magistrate, to deal with these aggravated assaults, and to inflict a penalty of not exceeding six months' imprisonment, with or without hard labour; or else the magistrates had the alternative of inflicting a fine not exceeding the sum of £20, with imprisonment in default of its payment; and there were other provisions enabling them to bind the persons over to good behaviour. Now the hon. Gentleman proposed to repeal the punishment which was imposed by the present Act, and to reduce the six months' imprisonment, in all cases, to two months' imprisonment, but to couple that sentence of imprisonment, of which the minimum was to be fourteen days, and the maximum was to be two months, in every case, according to the wording of the Bill, with the infliction of corporal punishment. Now, he (Sir G. Grey) thought it would be very inexpedient to require the magistrates in all cases, and without any discretion whatever, to visit these cases with corporal punishment, in addition to the limited imprisonment. If the House sanctioned it, they would be, for the first time, placing in the hands of the civil magistrate the power of inflicting corporal punishment in the case of an adult. There was at present no law which gave the magistrate such a summary jurisdiction ever adults, for any offence. What would be the state of the law if this Bill were passed into an Act? The magistrate might send the case, if it were a very aggravated one, to be tried by a jury at sessions or assizes. But if this Bill became law, when the man was convicted in such a case, the judge at the assizes, or the chairman of the quarter sessions, would not have the power of inflicting corporal punishment, although the magistrate would have that power if he disposed of the case by his own summary jurisdiction. He thought that was a power so extensive that the House should be cautious how they placed it in the hands of the magistrates, to be exercised in a summary way. But the hon. Gentleman had assumed without sufficient proof that the present law was inadequate to the attainment of its object. Now the hon. Gentleman must have entertained a very Utopian view of the powers of Parliament if he had thought the present law would effect the complete repression of all this class of offences. It was doubtless the fact, that they were still of frequent occurrence, but the number of such offences which had occurred since the Bill was passed should be compared with the number of them previous to that date, There was another circumstance which the hon. Gentleman had likewise overlooked The Act enabled any person to prefer a complaint in these cases; it multiplied the cases which might be brought before the Police Courts and magistrates, and he (Sir G. Grey) believed that it brought many offenders to justice who would before have escaped any punishment; and the case; which were made public were those in which justice was done upon persons who before that Bill was passed would have escaped the cognizance of the law, ant whose cases would not have become known The hon. Gentleman had anticipated the objection as to the effect which the infliction of that punishment which he proposed would be likely to have upon the domestic peace of the families of the husbands and wives who were to live together afterwards. By the present law, if the complaint were lade by the wife, or by any person on her behalf, and the magistrate inflicted imprisonment, either with or without hard labour, it often happened that the husband was released before the expiration of his sentence, at the earnest intercession of the wife, there being reason to tope that the effect of the punishment had been such as would induce better conduct on his part, and better treatment of her in future. In such a case did not the husband go back to his home with feelings more likely to tend to the future peace and comfort of his wife, himself, and their children, indebted as he was, for the remission of a part of his sentence to her intercession, than he would if he were sentenced, as he might be under the Bill now before the House, to imprisonment for fourteen days, with a severe flogging, to go home with a sore back, and with feelings of the greatest irritation against the wife who had caused that sentence to be passed upon him? For all these reasons, he thought they ought to have a longer experience of the existing law before they meddled with it, and that they ought not to adopt the measure now proposed.


said, he thought there was one great objection to the Bill in its present shape, that it gave the magistrate no option as to the mode of punishment; but, independently of that, he thought the operation of the present law had not been sufficiently tried, and he must therefore oppose the further progress of the Bill.


said, he was of opinion that there was no primâ facie case for making a new law on this subject, nor did he think that the operation of the proposed measure would be salutary. He judged from what he knew the opinion of the House had been on the system of flogging in the army and navy. He should therefore feel it his duty to oppose the Bill. There was one strong reason that induced him to take this course, namely, that the women of England did not wish for the Bill—they did not wish that this punishment should in any case be inflicted upon their sons and brothers. A meeting had recently been held by women at Leicester on this subject, and, with the permission of the House, he would read a Resolution which had been passed at that meeting. It was moved— That whereas that meeting fully appreciated the benevolent intentions of the Legislature, they could not allow the Bill now before Parliament to pass without expressing their opinion as to the inutility of this barbarous and obsolete mode of punishment, believing that such a law would have the effect of further brutalising and demoralising those that came under its lash. That Resolution had been unanimously adopted. He therefore considered that the measure was not only unpopular, but supererogatory and uncalled for.


said, he wished to know what were the reasons why they were called upon to support the present measure? He supposed that in ordinary cases there were three causes which stood in the way of bringing criminals of this class to justice. The first was, that it was plain there was some sort of lingering affection still left on the part of the wives; the second was the fear that their husbands, when they came out of prison, would treat them more cruelly than before; and the third, that whilst the husbands were in gaol, the wives would be in absolute want of support. Now as to the first of these causes, he would be extremely sorry to diminish by legislation the chances of bringing to justice criminals of this nature; but, doubtless, so long as these unhappy women could forbear, it would be better for them. Then, with regard to the second, the magistrates had the power to make a criminal find bail that he would not ill-treat his wife for twelve months after he was set free from prison. With respect to the third, he had a proposal to suggest, which he would bring forward on a future occasion. Strongly opposed as he was, under ordinary circumstances, to make prison labour remunerative to the prisoner, he thought there was a special case, when labour might well be made remunerative for the benefit of the wife. In that respect he thought the law did not meet the ends it had in view.


said, he could not help expressing the regret which he felt that the right hon. Gentleman (Sir G. Grey) had opposed the Bill, and he certainly could not agree with him in the views he had expressed. He (Mr. Bentinck) heartily concurred with the hon. Gentleman who had moved the second reading of the Bill, that punishment was intended to prevent crime, and not to reform criminals; and he thought the House was bound to confine itself strictly to that view of the subject. It was pretty plain that the existing measure had not had the effect which the right hon. Gentleman (Sir G. Grey) had anticipated. Then his hon. Friend (Mr. Dillwyn) only asked the House to do as much for the protection of women as they were ready to do for that of animals. What, then, were the objections that were urged to the magistrate having the power of extending the punishment for this crime, and adding to it corporal punishment? There was an argument that he had often heard urged out of the House, but not within it on this occasion, that it was opposed to what were called the rights of man; but it had been said on this occasion that the punishment would tend to brutalise and degrade the minds of those whom it visited. But he would contend that there was no possible means of reducing to a lower step of brutalisation ruffians who could be guilty of such a crime as the Bill now under consideration was calculated to deal with.


said, he thought that a man who could be guilty of the crime which was the subject of consideration would not be deterred from such conduct by this brutalising punishment—an expression he felt no difficulty in using with respect to it. There was another objection which might fairly be made to the use of this punishment—it was an infringement of personal liberty. Now, he (Mr. Barrow) claimed the right of every Englishman not to be subjected to corporal punishment—except after that verdict had been given which they claimed as one of their greatest privileges—namely, that which was given after a trial by jury. He did not believe this measure would in the least lead to the reformation of criminals.


said, that the House appeared to him to be arguing the question upon much too narrow a basis. Perhaps some Member of the House might some day meet some saucy boy, perhaps under fourteen years of age, and give him a box of the ear; he might be found guilty of an aggravated assault, and then, whether he were a Member of that House, or any one else, he must be flogged under the provisions of this Bill. If any punishment less than flogging could be devised he would support it. He had seen a great deal of flogging in the navy—in his younger days he had seen twelve or fourteen men flogged one after the other, and he had very rarely seen them cured of their faults. Now, the men in the navy were better conducted, and flogging was much less frequent. If a man were guilty of the atrocious habit of ill-treating his wife, or any woman under his protection, he would punish him in the most severe manner—he would give him the hardest and dirtiest work that could be devised, but he would not flog him. If that were the punishment, in half the cases, depend upon it, the wives would not come forward to prosecute.


said, he wished to point out that, by the first clause of the Bill, it was provided that this punishment was only to be put in force in cases which the magistrate should think could not be satisfactorily dealt with by the 9 Geo. IV., chap. 31. It must be remembered that this punishment was to meet offences which were so brutal that no punishment could be degrading to those who were guilty of them. Flogging was still continued in the army and navy, and it was only the excess of it which had been abolished, and that all allowed was injurious. The hon. Member for South Nottinghamshire (Mr. Barrow) objected, in certain domestic arrangements which he seemed to contemplate, to being flogged without the consent of a jury; but what possible connection could the form of trial have with the particular punishment to be inflicted? The main objection urged against this punishment seemed to be that it would not only not effect a reform of the criminal, but would absolutely obstruct it; but that argument was founded on a misapprehension of the first object of punishment, which was to deter. A man was flogged, not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of the people who were not flogged.


said, he believed the cause of the existence of this crime among the working classes was the impossibility there was, under any circumstances, of man and wife ever being separated from each other. Whatever might be the crimes of man or woman in that rank of life, however they might hate and detest each other, they could not get rid of the marriage tie; and lie verily believed their conduct in this, and similar cases, was founded upon this sense of impossibility. As to the offence itself, so far was it from being confined to the male sex, that he (Mr. Muntz) knew of one or two cases were women had thrashed their husbands most severely; and with respect to the wives bringing their husbands to justice, he well remembered punishing one ruffian himself, who was ill treating his wife, by knocking him down, when directly after he (Mr. Muntz) got his face scratched by the wife for assaulting her husband. There were faults on both sides, and he very much doubted whether corporal punishment would have the effect of diminishing the offence of woman-beating. How would any hon. Gentleman meet his wife, he should like to know, after she had been the means of getting him a good flogging? For himself, he confessed he should not be disposed to be very affectionate under such circumstances. Let the hon. Gentleman bring in a Bill to regulate the law of divorce, giving married persons among the working classes the opportunity of being separated for a sufficient reason; let him do away with the reproach of there being in this matter one law for the rich and another for the poor, and he would be acting more beneficially for their interests than if he carried this measure.


said, he quite agreed with the noble Lord the Member for Stamford (Lord R. Cecil) that the first object of punishment was to deter, but, to effect that certainty of punishment was quite as necessary as severity, and if the imposition of this punishment should make wives more unwilling to prosecute and magistrates more unwilling to convict, this Bill would have quite a contrary effect to that which its advocates aimed at.


said, he could not bring his mind to approve of the Bill of the hon. Member for Swansea. He very much doubted if there had been any increase in this crime. He did not believe there had been, judging from his experience of the Superior Criminal Courts, in which all cases were tried of assault with severe wounds, or when anything in the nature of an attempt on life was made. He thought that the increased public notice which was bestowed on these cases was due to two causes. First, because it was a popular topic, so that every newspaper reported every case of the kind; and, secondly, because the increase of moral improvement among the working classes had made them more sensitive to conduct of this kind whenever it did take place than they were before; so that the wife was often encourged and compelled to come forward, and more encouragement was given than formerly to prosecute for this offence. He thought the apparent increase of the crime, which was not real, was due to other causes. What was the real difficulty in the way of punishment for this crime? Why, that in the majority of cases the wife herself was the first to come forward, and throw herself upon her knees before the magistrate, praying that her husband's sentence might not be passed. With that impression he certainly thought a law which would subject the husband to corporal punishment would rather increase than diminish the evil. The additional exposure which would be given to the offence, and the degradation of the punishment, of which the man must bear the marks about his body for the rest of his days, would often deter the unfortunate wives from applying to the magistrate at all, and thus defeat the very benefit that was intended.

Motion made, and Question put "That the Bill be now read a second time."

The House divided:—Ayes 97; Noes 135: Majority 38.

Bill to be read a second time upon this day six months.

The House adjourned at ten minutes before Six o'clock.