HC Deb 06 March 1866 vol 181 cc1621-8

in moving for leave to bring in a Bill to permit Capital Punishments to be carried out under certain regulations within the interior of Prisons, said, he should have been very glad to leave the question entirely in the hands of the Government if he had perceived any disposition on their part to bring in a Bill on the subject, and a desire to carry it to a successful issue. He was personally careless as to the fate of his own Bill, provided he attained the object he had in view. He wished to make a few remarks on the question with which the Bill he asked leave to introduce sought to deal, because last year, when he had the honour of submitting a similar measure, he was prevented making any statement by the fact that the subject was at the moment under the consideration of the Capital Punishment Commissioners. In looking at the question lie could not help referring to the very great change which had taken place in our penal system and in our penal laws during the present century. The House, he was sure, would agree with him in thinking that civilization had advanced concurrently with those changes, and that a mitigation of our penal laws had been produced by the force of public opinion. At the commencement of the present century criminals were hung, one might say, in droves; there were then no less than 160 crimes subject to capital punishment. He could not avoid referring to those times when the pillory was a public punishment, when culprits were hung in chains, and whipping was resorted to as a means of correction. He did so to show how the rigour of the law had been relaxed, and how the result justified our doing away with the few remains that were left of the barbarism of a past age. Those changes had not been carried out without considerable difficulty and opposition. It required at the early part of the present century a Romilly and a Macintosh to produce the smallest mitigation of the terrors of the law; and in the present age we were much indebted to the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. W. Ewart) for his efforts to reduce the severity of our penal code. In reviewing our laws as to capital punishment we should find that in the year 1754 the country was not satisfied with merely hanging a man outside the gaol, but required him to be publicly carted from Newgate to Tyburn. There he was hung in chains, and, after the body had been cut down, was dissected. A few years later Parliament required that execution should follow sentence within forty-eight hours. A few years later, again, the culprit during those forty-eight hours was allowed nothing for his sustenance but bread and water. It was not until 1832 that any indication was given of an opposite feeling in our nature. In that year the Judge had the option of saying whether the body after execution should be dissected. Two years passed on, and a further step was taken in this direction. Two years later, again, the law was put into pretty nearly the state in which it stood at the present time, the body being buried in the precincts of the place where the criminal had been confined previous to his execution. That was the last legislation which took place. This mitigation of punishment had not had the effect of increasing crime; for he found in the "blue book" that in the ten years ending with 1832 the average number of executions per annum was 12.8, or 1 in 996,000 of the population; in the ten years ending 1842, 9.7 executions per annum or 1 in 1,536,000; in the next, 10.6, or 1 in 1,596,000; and in the next decade, ending with the year 1862, 11 executions per annum, or 1 in 1,727,000. Those figures bore out what he had stated —namely, that as the penal laws were mitigated, so crime, instead of increasing, had rather decreased. He would not take up the time of the House by referring to the very unpleasant scenes which took place on the occasion of a public execution. Every hon. Member would have read the thrilling descriptions that appeared in the press of what occurred on the occasion of the execution of the five pirates, and also of the man Müller. He would quote an extract from The Times' report of the execution of Muller, and he did so more especially because that journal had expressed a strong opinion against his proposal. The writer of the extract to which he referred said— It was such a concourse as we hope may never again be assembled either for such a spectacle, or for the gratification of such lawless ruffianism as yesterday found scope around the gallows … There can be only one thing more difficult than describing this crowd, and that is to forget it … None but those who looked down upon the crowd of yesterday will ever believe in the leisurely, open, broadcast manner in which garotting and highway robbery were carried on…Such were the open pastimes of the mob from daylight till near the hour of execution⁖The impression, however (speaking of the silence at the time of execution itself), if any it was, beyond that of mere curiosity, did not last for long; and before the slow slight vibration of the body had well ended, violence, laughing, oaths, obscene conduct, and still more filthy language, reigned around the gallows far and near. The majority of the press in London and the provinces concurred in the alteration which he proposed, and even The Times had seen reason to change its views. That journal stated that the time had, perhaps, arrived when these executions should not be carried out in so large and populous a place as the metropolis. No one anxious to promote civilization could wish to see the recurrence of a scene of that kind. He must say for the press of this country, that, with some exceptions, it was to a very great extent in favour of the change he proposed. It was not in London alone that scenes like that he had referred to occurred. He could give the House as harrowing a description of scenes that took place at Kirkdale, near Liverpool. On one occasion above 100,000 persons were present at an execution there, and on another occasion 200,000 people were drawn from various parts of the manufacturing districts, many of them having travelled night and day to Liverpool to witness an execution, and they were content with catching a glimpse of the last agonies of the dying man. Two points had been raised by way of objection to executions being carried out in private. One was that if they did away with public executions they at once destroyed the deterrent effect on possible criminals; and the other was that they could not carry out executions in the gaol and at the same time satisfy the public that the sentence had been duly carried out. With respect to the deterring effect of public executions a letter appeared a few days ago in one of the morning papers from Dr. Lyford, a gentleman long connected with the Win- chester County Gaol, in which the writer stated that it had been his painful duty to witness on the scaffold about forty executions, and that on inquiring of the culprits, just immediately before their execution, as to whether they had ever been present at public executions, with two exceptions all replied in the affirmative, and several stated that they had witnessed many. He had letters from numerous persons in different parts of the country—gaol chaplains and others—very much to the same effect. He had also a letter from Mr. Thomas Wright, known in Lancashire as the prison philanthropist, who having attended more than fifty criminals to the gallows, gave it as his opinion, founded on his own observation, that public executions were not deterring in their effect. The Capital Punishment Commission had very carefully considered this question, and they recommended that— An Act be passed putting an end to public executions, and directing that sentences of death should be carried out within the precincts of the prison, with such regulations as might be considered necessary to prevent abuse and satisfy the public that the law had been complied with. He would not enter into the evidence which had been given before the Commissioners; he had no doubt it would be well weighed by hon. Gentlemen; but he desired to remind the House that fourteen or fifteen of the witnesses examined had spoken in favour of the change he proposed, and that several Continental and American States had long since carried out the principle of private executions with success. The countries in Europe in which executions were not public were five in number—namely, Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Hanover, and Brunswick. In Prussia the system had been in operation since 1851, and in the other countries since 1856. In America the system was in operation in five or six different States, among them being New-York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Maine. In the Report of the Capital Punishment Commission there were replies from those different States of America showing that the plan had been entirely successful in that country, and that they did not wish to change it again for the system of public execution. The evidence which bore in the strongest degree in favour of his proposal was that which had been received from the Australian Colonies. In South Australia the system had been in operation since 1858, and in Queensland, Van Diemen'a Land, and New South Wales since 1853. The Governors of these several colonies in every instance stated, in reply to questions sent out to them from this country, that not only did they consider the present system of carrying out executions within the gaols to be as deterrent as the public system, but that there had never been since the system was put in operation the slightest suspicion on the part of the people that the sentence was not duly and properly carried out. In order that the same result might attend the adoption of the plan in this country, he proposed to provide that the sheriff, the gaoler, and other persons connected with the gaol, should be compelled to witness the execution, and that the magistrates of the locality and the representatives of the press should be permitted to be present at the time of execution. He also proposed to give the sheriff power to admit others who might think proper to be present. He next provided for a coroner's inquest being held within a certain number of hours after the body had been cut down, the jury to consider whether the sentence had been duly carried into effect; and then he provided that certificates, signed by those parties, should be sent to the Home Secretary, and also posted outside the gaol immediately after the execution. He thought that an execution conducted in that formal and solemn manner would be far more awful than the present mode of carrying it out in front of Newgate or the other gaols of the country. In this belief he had every confidence that the House would, in the interest of justice, humanity, and religion, support the Bill which he now asked leave to introduce.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to propose for the carrying out of Capital Punishments within Prisons;"—(Mr. Hibbert.)


I do not propose to offer any opposition to the Motion of my on. Friend. He has given great attention to the subject of his Bill; and has many times called the attention of the House to the principle upon which it is founded. The measure he proposes for our consideration does not touch in any degree, as I understand it, the question whether we should have capital punishment or not; it simply relates to the mode of giving effect to that punishment. Permit me, Sir, to remind the House of what has taken place upon this subject. When I announced the intention of the Government to advise Her Majesty to issue a Royal Commission to consider the question of capital punishments, I assented to a proposal to offer for the consideration of the Commissioners whether those punishments should be conducted in private or as at present. And I would take this opportunity of saying how much we owe to the Members of that Commission, who, after spending much of their time in hearing and weighing the evidence placed before them, have come to so clear a conclusion upon the whole matter. Their Report is very valuable, and I trust by its aid we may be able to make a real and substantial improvement in the law. I think they took a good deal of evidence with regard to that part of the subject to which my hon. Friend referred. The Government obtained for them the information you have heard from my hon. Friend, with respect to the conduct of executions in the colonies, and I confess those facts have produced a great impression upon my own mind. Indeed, I stated my opinion upon that point when I gave evidence before the Commission in favour of the proposed change. The majority of Commissioners reported in favour of the change. The course the Government have taken with regard to the Commissioners' Report is this: they have prepared a Bill which has been very carefully considered, and is now being revised by Mr. Waddington, the Assistant Secretary of the Home Department, who was one of the Commissioners. The measure is also in the hands of one or two other Members of the Commission, and it has been framed with a view to give effect as much as possible to the recommendations contained in their Report. My own opinion is that it would be better to deal with the recommendations of the Committee as a whole. I think my hon. Friend when he sees the Bill will say that it very fairly embodies his own views as to the mode of dealing with capital punishments. Looking to the present state of public business, probably the best way of obtaining for the measure full consideration at the earliest moment would be by introducing it in the other House of Parliament. I should be sorry for a moment to have the appearance of dictating to my hon. Friend, but, under the circumstances, I hope he will not press on the second reading, being assured that the subject must be brought before Parliament in a Bill founded on the Report of the Royal Commission.


said, he was not about to oppose the introduction of the Bill; because so much consideration at least was due to the earnestness and attention given to the whole subject of capital punishment and the criminal code by his hon. Friend (Mr. Hibbert); but he (Mr. Gilpin) was one of those who entertained an opinion that had grown with him—that this strangling of human beings for the purpose of illustrating the sacredness and value of human life was a miserable bungle—and, therefore, he said that if they made these exhibitions private, which up to this time had been public, they would take away from the advocates of capital punishment the only strong reason they gave for the perpetuation of this law, and that was, the example which they said—most untruly and most unwisely—it afforded to the people who witnessed these executions. He would only say he was satisfied that what enlightened public opinion asked for, and would obtain before long, was, not the concealment, but the abolition of this punishment.


said, he did not rise to offer any opposition to the Motion, but he thought it was a sort of self-condemnation of the supporters of capital punishment, when, after pleading the public example as a justification for executions, they now sought to withdraw from the public that example. There was hardly any subject on which so many vaccillations took place as on the subject of capital punishment. He was surprised that no provision was made in the Bill for the admission of the members of the press to witness the executions in case they should wish to do so. His hon. Friend had alluded to many countries where private executions took place; but had he observed the accounts received from countries where capital punishment does not exist at all? He would not find that in a single instance the country that had abolished capital punishment repented of it. His (Mr. W. Ewart's) feeling against capital punishment was as strong as ever; he believed the feeling against it was increasing every day, and must do so as long as Christianity and civilization proceeded in their course.


said, he thought his hon. Friend (Mr. Hibbert) had done well in submitting his Bill in a separate form to the House, for the questions with which it was incidentally connected were of a kind that might take a longer time to carry than the single question which was embodied in his Bill. He was gratified to find that the House was in favour of the measure, and that inquiry had brought out an overwhelming weight of evidence in support of it. He wished to protest against the term "private execution," because that was not contemplated by his hon. Friend. The desire was to remove from executions the exhibition of torture which had been long since abolished in connection with all other punishments in England. This sort of display should be for as few eyes as possible. They did not propose private executions, but that the executions should take place before a diminished number of persons in such a way as would produce a conviction on the public mind that the executions had actually taken place.

Motion agreed to.

Bill to provide for the carrying out of Capital Punishments within Prisons, ordered to be brought in by Mr. HIBBERT, Mr. BONHAM-CARTER, Mr. TOLLEMACHE, and Mr. MITFORD.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 54.]