HC Deb 29 July 1864 vol 176 cc2195-9

, pursuant to notice, rose to call attention to the proceedings of the Middlesex magistrates with reference to the Prison Ministers Act; and to move an address for papers. The hon. Gentleman said, a few days ago, he had presented a petition, signed by upwards of 10,000 Roman Catholics residing in the county of Middlesex, complaining that the provisions of the Prison Ministers Act had not been carried into effect by the Middlesex magistrates. It appeared that during the year ending Michaelmas, 1863, no less than forty-six Roman Catholics were received into the three prisons of Middlesex, and that at one time, in February last, those three prisons contained Roman Catholic prisoners. The petitioners stated that, owing to the conduct of the Middlesex magistrates, those unfortunate prisoners were deprived of that spiritual consolation and religious instruction which by the Prison Ministers Act the Legislature intended to give them. The Middlesex magistrates not only refused to appoint a Roman Catholic priest to attend upon those prisoners, but they had subsequently taken a particular step which indicated that they had been animated by motives which he did not think that House would approve. After refusing to carry out the provisions of the Prison Ministers Act, they proceeded a few days afterwards to pass the following resolution— That a Scripture Reader be appointed, at a salary of £80 per annum, whose duty shall be—first, to see every prisoner about to be discharged a sufficient length of time beforehand to enable him to make himself acquainted, as far as may be, with his position and character, with a view to ascertaining whether he is a fit object for relief by the Visiting Justices, through the agency of the Discharged Prisoners Aid Committee; secondly, to devote whatever time remains at his disposal to the religious instruction of the prisoners generally, in the two new buildings of the prison, and that in this part of his duties he be placed under the supervision and control of the prison chaplain. It was obvious that the appointment of such a person, under such circumstances, was but an indirect attempt to proselytise the Roman Catholic prisoners. Hon. Members knew that the Scripture readers were generally of a controversial turn of mind, and the Scripture reader in question would have a clear field for the exercise of his powers when armed with the power of reporting upon the prisoners who were most deserving of relief from the Prisoners Aid Fund. He (Mr. Hennessy) wished to ask the Home Secretary, whether Her Majesty's Government approved of those proceedings, and whether they were aware of all the circumstances connected with them. It appeared, further, that the Chairman of the Middlesex magistrates was Mr. Pownall, who (he perceived from an advertisement in The Times) was an active member of the Committee of the Protestant Alliance. He thought it very unfortunate that a gentleman who was acting in such a semi-judicial capacity should be also closely connected with that body, which boasted, in the very advertisement to which he had referred, of the opposition it had given from time to time to the proceedings of the House of Commons. He considered that the conduct pursued by the Middlesex magistrates was highly unjust to the Roman Catholic prisoners themselves, unjust to millions of the Queen's subjects of the Roman Catholic Faith, and unjust also to the great mass of the people of this country, who believed that religious freedom and equal laws for all existed throughout the kingdom.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that She will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House, Copies of any Papers concerning the Proceedings of the Middlesex Magistrates, with reference to the Prison Ministers Act."— (Mr. Hennessy.)


, having had the honour of presenting a petition from the Middlesex magistrates, might state that he was present at the discussion which resulted in the passing of the resolution alluded to by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for the King's County. He thought it right to call the attention of the House to a former resolution of the Middlesex magistrates, the last words of which were— And no prisoner belonging to any church or religious persuasion shall be compelled to attend any religious service, held or performed by any chaplain, minister, or religious instructor of a church or religious persuasion to which the said prisoner does not belong. He could assure the House that the terms of that resolution had been strictly observed by the Middlesex magistrates. He had heard Mr. Serjeant Bellasis propose that the Roman Catholic prisoners should be placed under the exclusive supervision of the Roman Catholic priests. In consequence of that declaration the Middlesex magistrates, acting in conformity with the spirit of the Act, refused to make any appointment which would entail such compulsory supervision. He had voted for that resolution of the Middlesex magistrates, and that was the ground upon which he did so. In reference to what the hon. Gentleman had said, respecting Mr. Pownall having appointed a Scripture reader for the performance of certain duties in the prisons, he could only state that Mr. Pownall was incapable of adopting any such means for the purpose of proselytism. But having a person as Scripture reader whom they could trust, that person was employed to make the inquiries with reference to the distribution of the Prisoners Aid Fund. It was his conviction that the Middlesex magistrates would continue to act to the best of their ability in the spirit of the Prison Ministers Act. When the hon. and learned Member for the King's County expressed uneasiness at the idea of proselytism by means of the Scripture reader, he could assure him that he was doing a great injustice to a body of gentlemen, of which he (Mr. Newdegate) had the honour of being a member, and especially to Mr. Pownall, their honoured and trustworthy chairman.


, in answer to the hon. and learned Member for the King's County, begged to say that the papers recently laid upon the table contained the correspondence asked for. He had done all that he felt he could do, in pointing out to the visiting justices of Middlesex the power which the law placed in their hands in this matter, and in urging upon them their responsibility in the exercise of that power. The Prison Ministers Act did three things. It gave power in England to the magistrates in quarter sessions to appoint a Roman Catholic priest to visit the Roman Catholic prisoners, where there was a certain number of prisoners of that persuasion, and it also empowered them to award such remuneration as they deemed just to the Roman Catholic priest who performed those services. In a subsequent part of the Act, the visiting justices, as distinguished from the Court of Quarter Session, were expressly authorized to dispense with the necessity of exacting a request from the Roman Catholic prisoner as a condition to his seeing a priest, and were likewise enabled to permit a priest, if they saw fit, to visit the prisoners of his own church, subject to certain arrange- ments, for the prevention of improper intercourse. In the early part of the year the visiting justices had had that question brought before them, and they had declined to exorcise the power which the law gave them. He could make no complaint against them for exercising that discretion, but he thought the magistrates in quarter sessions went beyond the power and the spirit of the act in passing the resolution that had been referred to. He pointed out to the visiting magistrates that the law vested the appointment in them, and that they were not bound by the resolution of the Court of Quarter Sessions. The visiting justices of Cold-bath Fields Prison had before intimated to him their views in almost the same terms he addressed to the quarter sessions, and that they were willing to exercise their power, but that in deference to the resolution of the Court of Quarter Sessions, they thought they had better not do so. In the case of the other two prisons they said they did not consider themselves actually precluded from the resolution from doing so, but that in consequence of that resolution, they thought they ought not to make the appointment. He regretted they had taken that view of the duty imposed on them by Parliament, because he thought it was contrary to the intention of the Act, and the Court of Quarter Sessions ought not to have endeavoured to control the visiting justices. He had no power to make them take a different view of their duty. He had, however, stated his own opinion upon the subject, and he had some hopes that it would be reconsidered. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Forth Warwickshire had represented Mr. Serjeant Bellasis' letter as a proposition to place the Roman Catholic prisoners under the absolute supervision of the Roman Catholic priests; but the fact was that he simply called upon the visiting justices to carry out strictly the provisions of the Act. He regretted very much that occasion had been given by the magistrates in quarter session to our fellow Roman Catholic subjects to complain in this matter of injustice done to them. Parliament had enacted that it was expedient that Roman Catholic prisoners should receive religious instruction from ministers of that religion. Though the number of Roman Catholic prisoners confined in these prisons was very large, it should be borne in mind that 115 only, out of 891 Roman Catholic prisoners in one prison, and in another not one out of 97, had requested the attendance of a priest in the quarter ending January, 1864. The number of Roman Catholics in these prisons was very great, and he, therefore, felt it to be unfortunate that the magistrates in quarter sessions had not shown a greater disposition to carry into effect the intention of the Legislature in this matter.


, in explanation, read the resolution agreed to by the Middlesex Sessions— That it appears to this Court that, by the laws now in force, all prisoners who belong to churches or persuasions differing from the Church of England, in addition to the instruction they may be willing to receive from the chaplain of the prison, are entitled, at their own request, to be visited by a minister of the religious persuasion to which they belong; but no prisoners are compellable to receive such visits against their will; that comparatively few prisoners of the various religious denominations have made such requests, and those who have have been duly visited; this Court is, therefore, of opinion that the present arrangements for the moral and religious instruction of the prisoners are sufficient, and that any appointments by this Court, or permission by the visiting justices, for Roman Catholic priests to attend at the prisons on all occasions, whether their ministrations are required or not, would be unnecessary and improper.


desired to defend Mr. Pownall from the imputation of any religious bias in this matter. That gentleman had for a number of years discharged the duties of his office with honour to himself and to the satisfaction of the public.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.