HC Deb 20 April 1860 vol 157 cc2048-50

said, he rose to call the attention of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department to the operation of the Police Act, in reference to the imprisonment of young children for playing at games in the streets. By the provisions of the Act to which he alluded, it was enacted that all persons found playing in the streets should be sent to prison for not exceeding one month, unless they could pay a fine of not exceeding 40s. The House would be surprised to hear that under that Act, no fewer than forty-four children were sent to prison in the metropolis last year, and since the commencement of this year twenty-five had been sent to prison. He would mention particularly two or three of these cases. George Dunn, aged twelve years, was sent to gaol for five days for playing at a game called "rounders" in which the boys stood in a ring and knocked a hall from one to another. When the policeman saw them, he was hound by the Act to take them into custody. It generally happened that the smallest child of the number was the person taken and made prisoner, because the others were old enough and their legs were long enough to run away; but the little one, with the shortest legs, was captured. Another case was that of John Evans, aged twelve. He was sent to prison for seven days for playing at "tipcat." That was a game in which a short piece of stick was knocked with another stick, to throw it as far as possible. Cases of imprisonment for these offences occurred very frequently, and the prisons were really crowded with them. In almost every one of these cases the children had been guilty of no other offence than that of playing at these games; and although they might be good and honest children when they were sent to prison, they were almost sure to come out more or less contaminated by the society with which they had mixed. The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary might ask him to point out a remedy for this, but it would be presumptuous in him (Mr. Miller) to point out the remedy when the right hon. Gentleman himself, with all the appliances of his office, was so well able to provide against the evil. He would rather rely on the well-known humanity and intelligence of the right hon. Gentleman himself. He believed that the necessity for imprisoning children for playing games in the street was not found to exist in any other county except Middlesex, and even in Middlesex children were never imprisoned from certain quarters of the metropolis, while multitudes of the children of other quarters were sent to prison. He had ascertained from the mayor of Manchester that to the honour of that populous city, that although since 1844 it had possessed an Act giving the police magistrates of that city the same powers as were given to those of London and Middlesex, they had never found it necessary in any one case to carry these powers into effect. Nevertheless the city had a population of 400,000 or 500,000 persons, and a vast number of poor, whose children played in the streets; but if any annoyance existed, a remedy was found for it without converting honest children into thieves. He believed the games for which these children were sent to prison had been invented since the Police Act was passed; at any rate, the Act never contemplated sending children to prison for playing those games. He would impress on the right hon. Gentleman and on the House the ruinous effects, both on society and on the children themselves, of sending them to prison for such a trivial cause. It created criminals, and inverted the intention of punishment. Instead of deterring from crime, it broke the heart of the child and stamped him as a criminal for life. He was locked up and became the associate of felons, and never got rid of the stain which was thus cast upon him. In this way the prospects of the child and of the man were ruined, and society was yearly supplied with a large number of criminals. The facts which he had stated were such as he could verify, and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary would receive them in a fair spirit, and find some remedy for this disgrace to our criminal code.


said, he wished to say a few words in support of the remonstrances of his hon. Friend behind (Mr. Miller). He really thought there must have been some mistake as to the meaning of those provisions of the Metropolitan Police Act. There was no question upon which public opinion had been more completely agreed for the last few years than upon the impropriety of exposing children to the contaminations of a prison. This was held to be upon every ground most undesirable, and it was absoutely shocking that young children should be sent to prison and exposed to all this danger because they had carried on their little sports in the street, they having unhappily, no other place, in all probability, to resort to for the purpose. Some mode might surely be devised of checking any improper indulgence of this kind, without sending the children to prison, and he wished the right hon. Gentleman would consider the subject.


suggested that it would be a great public benefit if places were provided in large towns in which children could amuse themselves. It would conduce equally to their health, their comfort, and their morals. If the Government would set such a movement on foot he was sure that private benevolence would assist in carrying it out. He thought an impartial Committee should be appointed to consider the subject.