HC Deb 03 December 1867 vol 190 cc547-50

called the attention of the Secretary of State for the Home Department to a certain statement made in The Pall Mall Gazette, of the 19th November, with reference to the religious instruction of Roman Catholic prisoners in Tothill Fields House of Correction. There were, he said, 600 inmates in that prison; 400 of them were Protestants, and enjoyed the ministrations of a chaplain, with a salary of £400 a year, who had several teachers under him. The remaining 200 were Roman Catholics; but notwithstanding the Act which was passed two years ago, the Roman Catholic clergyman who offered his gratuitous ministrations to them was only allowed to see his unhappy flock one at a time, and then through the trap-door of the cell. He could therefore only visit each prisoner once in four or five weeks, and could not collect them for worship or instruction. Another clergyman of distinguished birth and attainments, who also volunteered his services, had to communicate with the prisoners in one of the cells, and his health had broken down under the severity of his treatment and the zeal which he displayed. It was true that a room was now allowed. The bigotry of these wretched justices ill contrasted with the conduct pursued at the Cork Workhouse, where the 200 Protestant inmates were allowed by the Roman Catholic Guardians a church and chaplain, and where a Presbyterian minister had been appointed to visit the few prisoners of his persuasion, and was permitted, on the Anglican clergyman refusing the use of his church, to use the board-room for religious services. Such an arrangement commended itself to the mind of every honourable man, and if religion exercised any influence it was essential that the pauper or prisoner should have the ministrations of a clergyman of his own denomination. He understood that at Tothill Fields Prison many of the Roman Catholic prisoners, in order to break the monotony of their condition, were induced to attend Protestant worship on Sundays. He thought it not right that these poor Roman Catholics should be subjected to this kind of oppression. The Directors of Government Convict Prisons, in their Report for 1865, stated that unmixed good had arisen from the appointment of Roman Catholic chaplains, it having been attended with a great improvement in the conduct of the convicts; but at Tothill Fields the bigotry of the justices interposed between the prisoners and reformation, the inmates going out worse than they came in; and being convicted over and over again, injury thereby accruing to society and expense to the ratepayers. If the Middlesex justices, from any private motives, continued to oppress the poor Roman Catholics, he trusted the Secretary for the Home Department would address to them a remonstrance; and if they did not attend to that, then that the Government would have the courage to introduce a Bill dealing with county prisons in the same manner as Government prisons. He would now ask the Home Secretary to express his feelings upon the matter, which he believed was a violation of the spirit of our legislation.


, as one of the Middlesex magistrates, said, he believed that Tothill Fields was under a separate Commission. If the hon. Gentleman were correct in stating that the chapel was not adapted for the performance of the service of the Roman Catholic Church—[Mr. MAGUIRE: There is no chapel at all]—he had no doubt that proper accommodation would be provided by the magistrates.


said, that the subject of the Prison Discipline Act was taken into consideration some years ago, and the House thought proper to pass a permissive Bill, saving themselves the trouble of coming to a decision, and introducing a most unfortunate subject of debate at quarter sessions, which ought, in his opinion, to have been determined one way or the other by that House. The hon. Member (Mr. Maguire) had asked him to address a remonstrance to the visiting justices of Tothill Fields Prison. He could not admit that it was the duty of the Secretary of State to address a remonstrance when he had no authority to enforce it, because such a course only led to replies which were very inconvenient, and which did not add to the dignity of either party. The view he had always taken of this subject was that prisoners of every creed ought to have facilities for the exercise of their religion. Many of the prisoners might be very hardened; but if ever there was a time when they were open to religious impressions, it was when they were confined in solitude and brought into close intercourse with those who had their religious improvement at heart. He did not know that he could say any more. He could not address the magistrates—and, indeed, he did not know the particulars except from the paper which the hon. Gentleman had shown him. Assuming, however, that the facts were as stated by the hon. Gentleman, he thought—although he had not been able to ascertain what the practice was—that the visiting justices were not carrying out the intentions of the Legislature.


said, he was a magistrate of Middlesex, and he was quite sure that the magistrates had shown every anxiety to meet the just claims of the Roman Catholic prisoners. They would, however, strictly adhere to the principle they had laid down, and they would not, under pretence of granting a privilege, subject any prisoner to coercion.


said, he could not understand the language of the hon. Gentleman, because a man in prison must naturally be subjected to coercion. One of the prison regulations—made for the benefit of the prisoner as well as for the benefit of society—was that no prisoner should be allowed to refuse religious instruction, and it was surely not too much to require that where a prisoner was not a member of the Church of England he should see some minister of his own religion. When the Prison Discipline Act passed, it was understood that the magistrates would fairly carry out the intentions of the Legislature; but, unfortunately, in many cases the magistrates had done all they could to defeat those intentions. It was all very well to try a permissive Bill in the first instance; but when that failed, it was time to make it compulsory. He trusted that the Go- vernment would take into consideration the necessity of introducing a Bill next Session which would enforce an equal rule with regard to all prisons, and not leave to the magistrates the power of defeating the wise and benevolent intentions of the Legislature.


said, that since he sat down, the rules of the Cold-bath Fields Prison had been sent to him. He found that up to the month of May an impression was entertained by the Middlesex magistrates that they had no authority to allow a religious service to be conducted in the prison according to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church. Upon that point they had taken the opinion of the late Attorney General (Sir John Rolt), and of the present Attorney General, on which they rescinded their resolution. The opinion stated that the Act did not make it incumbent on the visiting justices to allow such an assembling of prisoners for religious worship; but that in permitting such assemblages the visiting justices would be acting not only according to the letter but the spirit of the Prison Discipline Act, care being taken to maintain the discipline of the gaol. Under these circumstances, the visiting justices recommended that their resolution of the previous May, stating that there was no authority for such services, be rescinded by the Court.