HC Deb 15 June 1858 vol 150 cc2114-8

said, he rose to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the allegations contained in the petition of William Henry Barber, presented on the 27th day of April last, and to consider and report whether any and what redress should be afforded to the petitioner; or whether any and what other steps should be taken in reference to the matters alleged. The petition to which his Motion alluded laid a case before the House of wrong and injustice, followed by degradation and personal injury, such as had never been produced in the House, or, he believed, had any parallel in our criminal jurisprudence. This gentleman, a solicitor of high character and good practice, favourably known to many men of position in this country, was tried and convicted, in 1844, of complicity in certain will forgeries, which were prosecuted at the instance of the Commissioners for the Reduction of the National Debt. The prosecutors felt it their duty on that occasion to object to Mr. Barber having a separate trial, and the effect of that arrangement was to prevent Mr. Barber from bringing forward that exculpatory evidence upon the strength of which he afterwards received a free pardon. By the several and unconcerted confessions of the other culprits, Joseph Fletcher, Saunders, Mrs. Saunders, and Mrs. Dorey, after their own conviction, and when silence could no longer avail them, it was demonstrated that Mr. Barber was an innocent man. The jury who tried him had also stated that if they had had the confessions before them, and if an opportunity had been afforded Mr. Barber of explaining what appeared to be suspicious in his conduct by placing him upon his trial by himself, their verdict would have been different. Mr. Barber, however, was sentenced to transportation for life, and after being four months in the Compter and Newgate, and three months in separate confinement at Millbank, he was sent to Norfolk Island, where, according to the evidence of Mr. Naylor, a magistrate in the colony, and Mr. Robinson, the senior superintendent of our convict establishment, he underwent a treatment which for cruelty exceeded that which was inflicted on the worst-conducted convicts. This treatment he endured, in spite of the degrading and disgusting society into which he was forced, with an uncomplaining submissiveness, conducting himself at the same time with so much rectitude of conduct as to gain the sympathy of the officers of our penal establishment. The civil commandant was remonstrated with for this treatment, but he only replied that he was carrying out his instructions. The only refuge, therefore, which Mr. Barber found for his sufferings was the hospital. He was naturally a robust man, but he could never hope to recover from the effects of his treatment. The consequence of his conviction and transportation was the loss of a valuable practice, one of the most promising at the time in London, and of every vestige of his property. It was true that when on his pardon a deputation waited upon the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, and asked for compensation, he answered that had the prosecution been conducted by Government his claim would have stood on a distinct ground and been much stronger. He (Mr. Brady) would prove beyond a doubt that the prosecution was a Government one, and that the consequences of its being so were most detrimental to the prisoner. In the course of the trial, Mr. Freshfield, the solicitor to the Bank of England, stated he took no part in getting up the case; he merely reported the facts to the Treasury, and the prosecution was by the Treasury. On the 19th of April last the secretary to Mr. Barber's committee addressed a query to Messrs. Freshfield on this subject. The answer was that the prosecution of Mr. Barber in respect to the will forgeries was at the instance of the Commissioners for the Reduction of the National Debt—a department of the Government. That was a sufficient proof that the prosecution was by the Government. If the prosecution had been at the instance of any private individual, or of the Bank of England, there was no doubt they would have made restitution when his innocence was established. Indeed there could be no doubt that the prosecution had been a Government one, and that the accused had to suffer serious detriment arising from that fact, in being deprived of the power of bringing forward exculpatory evidence. That being so, would the Government, which had done so much to rescue two of our countrymen from a Neapolitan dungeon, and insisted on their receiving compensation, allow it to be said that an innocent British subject, who had endured cruel wrongs through the action of the tribunals of his own country, was denied reasonable redress? Let the Government not imagine that the public mind was indifferent to the claims of this individual. The press, the organ of public opinion, had unanimously declared itself in favour of compensation to this much-injured man, and the Government could not safely refuse so just a demand. He might be told, indeed, that this application was novel and unprecedented, but the answer to this was that the sufferings which Mr. Barber had undergone were themselves unprecedented. The calendar of our criminal jurisprudence did not furnish a parallel to this case. It was a special case, the like of which was not likely to occur again for a century, and it ought to be dealt with upon its own merits. If, however, any unfortunate man should hereafter establish an equal claim to redress, why should not that claim be considered? The Chief Justice of New South Wales and the Judges of Sydney had instituted an inquiry into the whole of the circumstances connected with Mr. Barber's trial, and they arrived at the conclusion that his country was bound to grant him some reparation for the injustice that had been done to him. He trusted that the case would be taken upon its own merits, quite irrespective of anything which had happened before, or was likely to occur again. He hoped the House would grant a Committee, which was what common justice only required. On the part of the petitioner he would beg to return thanks to the Attorney General, who had, through good and evil report, contended for justice in this matter, and had made sacrifices of his time and his money for that end. This inquiry, however, would not necessarily be confined to the case of the petitioner; it might be extended to the whole state of the criminal law. In conclusion, he would appeal to the House, not as philanthropists, but as strict jurists, to grant the Committee which he asked.

Motion made and Question proposed,— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the allegations contained in the Petition of William Henry Barber, presented upon the 27th day of April last, and to consider and report whether any and what redress should be afforded to the Petitioner; or whether any and what other steps should be taken in reference to the matters alleged.


said, that he thought that the circumstances of this case were so peculiar that they might be considered exceptional. It might, of course, be argued that it was very dangerous to lay down anything approaching to a general rule, that where a person had been legally convicted he should have a claim upon the Government for compensation in case that conviction proved to be wrong. He was ready to admit, that as a general rule that was true, but every rule admitted au exception, and this case he thought was so exceptional and peculiar that the inquiry ought not to be refused. What the result of the Committee might be it was, of course, impossible to say, but there was great difficulty in introducing into the Vote a direct recognition, on the part of the House, of a claim for redress, such as might be considered to arise from the hon. Gentleman's Motion as it then stood on the paper. He trusted, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman would not object to alter the terms of his Motion by striking out of it the last line but one, and allowing it to stand as he (Sir John Pakington) would suggest:— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the allegations contained in a petition presented to the House by William Henry Barber on the 27th April last, and to consider and report whether any, and what, steps shall be taken in reference thereto. In conceding thus much, he was influenced by a very strong sense of the peculiar circumstances of this case, and of the dreadful sufferings to which, beyond all doubt, Mr. Barber was exposed—sufferings far beyond anything like a due punishment for the indiscretion and imprudence with which alone, according to the admission of the Secretary of State who was in office when his innocence was established, Mr. Barber could be charged. Under these circumstances, he was ready to accede to the Motion if it were amended as he had suggested.


said, he did not wish to prolong the discussion, or to offer the slightest objection to the Motion. He should recommend his hon. Friend to consent at once to the proposal of the right hon. Baronet. After having gone through the whole case frequently, he (Mr. Bright) was quite sure that the right hon. Gentleman's conduct would be sanctioned by every person in England who had studied the matter at all. He did not wish to establish a precedent, but if the law precedents and institutions of the courts of this country had committed so grievous a wrong against one of its citizens, any one who supposed that the people of this country would not be willing to make sonic compensation or the other, would commit a most grievous error with regard to the people of England, and would slander them in a way in which he would not wish to be guilty. Judging from the sentiments of the press of the country, he thought that the course which the right hon. Gentleman had taken on behalf of his colleagues would receive commendation from every one who had considered this very painful case.


intimated his readiness to assent to the change in the Motion proposed by the right hon. Baronet the First Lord of the Admiralty.


said, he feared that an inquiry into the allegations contained in the petition of Mr. Barber, as stated in the Motion, would not be sufficiently wide to embrace the whole of that gentleman's case.

Select Committee appointed, To inquire into the allegations contained in. the Petition of William Henry Barber, presented upon the 27th day of April last, and to consider and report whether any or what steps should be taken in reference thereto.