HC Deb 19 July 1867 vol 188 cc1765-9

called attention to the necessity for putting this Act more generally in operation in various prisons in this country. He observed that there were at present large numbers of persons who had been convicted of various offences in the prisons of the country, and he regretted to say that a considerable proportion of them were Irish Roman Catholics. The day was gone by when it was necessary to debate in that House whether it was right or wrong to attempt to reform criminals. This was not a question between Roman Catholics and Protestants, but between sound sense and prejudice. The fact was that, owing to the reluctance of the magistrates to enforce this act and appoint Roman Catholic chaplains, some thousands of prisoners of that persuasion were at present deprived of the chance of reformation through being deprived of the instructions and exhortations of the priests of their religion; and he must say that, considering the beneficial effect which the prison management of Ireland had upon criminals, he was surprised that the Act empowering the magistrates to appoint Roman Catholic chaplains had not been put more generally into operation. He would appeal to the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether the time had not arrived for calling on the magistrates throughout the country to take steps for putting in more vigorous operation the spirit of the Acts of 1863?


in answer to the Question of the hon. Member, must remind him that the Act was urged on Parliament only as a permissive measure, to be worked entirely by the local magistracy, and that no pressure was to be put upon them to bring it into operation. But permissive Acts had had this fatal defect within them, that if they did not operate in a particular direction, those who were in favour of them immediately raised a new grievance, and called for an Act of a compulsory character. It seemed to him that if, as matters at present stood, he were to interfere with the local magistrates, and to press upon them to carry out the Act more vigorously, he would do taking upon himself a power which was not given to him by the Act of Parliament. No good would result from attempting to advise and control persons when authority for doing so did not exist. That being so, if he were to make proposals in connection with this matter to the magistrates they would be objected to and not obeyed. He had no reason to believe that the Act was not gradually coming into operation, so as to insure to all prisoners the assistance of ministers of their own denomination. He knew of no instance in which clergymen of any denomination were refused admittance. No doubt the prison authorities, in some places, went much further than they did in others. For instance, in certain prisons all the prisoners were allowed to assemble together and join in the celebration of all the rites enjoined by their religion, including the sacraments. But this practice was not carried out in other gaols. Free admission was, however, given in all the prisons to ministers of all religious denominations. He felt strongly, and he had expressed the feeling, that every prisoner should receive the benefit of the religious instruction of his clergyman. None should be deterred from the exercise of their religious rites because they had committed crimes and were put in gaol. But unless some principle were laid down either with reference to the number of prisoners or other circumstances connected with the gaols, it was impossible for any central authority to lay down a compulsory rule which must be within the limits of the Act. His own impression was, that Parliament having thought proper to legislate in this par- ticular direction, the best course would be to leave it to the progress of public opinion to act fairly towards the prisoners, rather than to legislate anew in the meantime, and thereby raise new conflicts and feelings that had better be kept in abeyance. With respect to the Question put by the hon. Member for Peterborough, which, as he understood it, was whether, as far as Government were concerned, they would see that due protection was given to all parties, whether Catholic or Protestant, who did nothing in violation of the law, he need say little in reply. As he understood the matter, if persons chose to deliver controversial lectures which were in themselves legal they would be protected by the laws. Whatever they did, so long as they did not violate the law, they would be protected. He trusted nobody in England would ever have occasion to complain that the law was not put in force to protect persons who were not acting illegally. He had no reason to suppose that the case would be otherwise in Birmingham. It was the duty of the local magistrates to afford protection to those who kept within the law; and, so far as he was concerned, if an application were made to him for assistance in oases where persons were not violating the law he should feel it his duty to afford them protection.


said, he believed that in not more than 5 per cent of the gaols of the country were chaplains of all denominations appointed by the magistrates or free access allowed to Roman Catholic priests. Ireland showed a much better example in this respect. Protestant clergymen were to be found in every gaol in that country, although the number of Protestant prisoners might not be larger than ten. The Protestants were a minority in Ireland, and yet they were allowed to exercise their full religious privileges, nor did the Roman Catholics grudge them this privilege. He contended that the same boon should be extended to the Roman Catholics in England, who were the minority; but who had as much a right to have their religious feelings respected as had the Protestants of Ireland. The good that was done by the admission of clergymen to gaols to minister to the spiritual wants of persons of the same denomination was incalculable, and it too often happened that where prisoners were denied this blessing they left gaol hardened and unreformed instead of subdued and repentant. On every principle of equality, fairness, justice, honour, and expediency, the permissive Act of 1863 should be made compulsory.


said, that from the observations that had been made, it seemed to be assumed that the Roman Catholic priests were prevented from entering the prisons of this country to give religious consolation to the Roman Catholic prisoners. He (Mr. M'Laren) did not know that that was the case, and would disapprove of any such exclusion if it were the case. He would not believe it was so until he had evidence of the fact, and he had never seen such evidence. The logical tendency of the arguments that had been used was that, they should give a salary to the priest as a chaplain for his services. He (Mr. M'Laren) denied that principle altogether. He thought the whole prison chaplain system was a mistake. He had attended a good deal to the management of a large prison—being one of the directors for many years—and he believed that if a law were passed declaring there should be no prison chaplains, and that they should trust to the Christian zeal and benevolence of the Christian men and women of this country to go to the prisoners—speak to them in their cells, and look after them as Mrs. Fry and her coadjutors had done—more good would be effected than had been accomplished by all the chaplains ever paid and employed in this kingdom, or than would be done if they had a host of Roman Catholic chaplains in all the prisons in the kingdom. He believed if they could get twenty benevolent ladies and gentlemen to visit the prisoners and speak to them and do what they could to reform them, they would have more influence than any twenty paid chaplains in Her Majesty's dominions.


thought the hon. Member who had last spoken must have had but little experience of the results that had been obtained by the chaplains in the Irish gaols, or he could scarcely have fallen into the error he had done. He (Mr. Brady) was aware that the efforts of chaplains, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, did a great deal for the preservation of poor creatures after they were discharged from prison. The Roman Catholic chaplain had at one time been excluded unless he obtained the consent of the Home Secretary, and the consequence was that Catholic prisoners then came out of the prison in a state of recklessness. The rule had been relaxed; the Roman Catholic chaplains were admitted, and the consequence was, that the Catholic prisoners now left the prisons improved men. The influence of the Catholic clergymen, if brought to bear on the members of their persuasion in a proper way, must produce the most beneficial effect.


said, the hon. Member for Edinburgh honestly professed himself the friend of the rights of conscience, but if the opinions he had expressed that day were carried out, he would not in practice be so. It was impossible that private ladies and gentlemen could be sufficient to give religious instructions to prisoners, because the ordinary religious duties of the Roman Catholic religion required the assistance of a priest in their performance. While in some places magistrates had done their duty in permitting the attendance of Roman Catholic priests, in other places they had refused to allow the priests to enter the gaols.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.