HC Deb 03 May 1867 vol 186 cc1945-55

I am sorry, Sir, to interpose between the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham; but in justice to the unhappy men I now represent, I cannot possibly waive the privilege which I possess. I rise for the purpose of calling attention to certain statements which, appearing in The Irishman newspaper, have been widely circulated by the public press of the United Kingdom, and which are sure to be copied into every English printed newspaper in the British Colonies, and throughout the United States of America. These statements purport to be extracts from the diary of one of the political prisoners now undergoing penal servitude in the Government prisons of this country, and sent for publication by a relative of one of those prisoners. I may here remark that I feel convinced the conductors of The Irishman would not have inserted that communication if they were not fully satisfied that the statements which it contained were made in honesty and good faith. It is due to the honour of this House, and to its character for sincerity and consistency—it is due to the honour of this country, and its character for sincerity and consistency—that these statements should receive the gravest attention and the most patient consideration. I shall not attempt to condense statements the reading of which will occupy but a few minutes, nor shall I substitute my own language for that in which the alleged facts are so simply stated. I do, Sir, ask at least from Liberal English Members, with whom I am associated for the purpose of giving freedom to the people of England, their attention while I place before the House the details of the gross and grievous indignities to which political prisoners have been subjected in the Government prisons of the British Empire. In the depth of winter, according to this statement, the flannels were taken from the prisoners, and their clothes removed from their cells at night. In one prison, when the bell rang at a quarter to nine o'clock at night, they were all stripped naked, and stood shivering in the cold till the warders came to take their clothes away. It was stated that— One of the prisoners—Lynch—caught cold, and died from the loss of his flannels. The gruel which they got for supper had such an effect or, Luby and Keane as to cause dysentery. On complaining to the doctor he said they were 'malingering.' From thenceforth while at Pentonville, they got nothing but bread and water, as they could not take the gruel. They were removed from Pontonville to Portland on the 14th of May, and were three months in Portland before the Deputy Governor made himself acquainted with the fact that those two men could not take gruel. They were all told on removal that it was for the benefit of their health they were sent to Portland. On their arrival they were kept one hour stripped naked, waiting for inspection by the doctor. Anyone who attempted to make a statement to the doctor about his health, was told rudely to hold his tongue. Kickham was then suffering severely from scrofula, caused by bad air and loose diet. Roantree was suffering from bleeding piles"— [Laughter.] I can see nothing laughable in the statement I am making. I confess, Sir, I do not envy the feelings of the men who can make such misery an object of mockery. Roantree," the diarist said, "was suffering from bleeding piles. Although he made several applications to the doctor, he was still kept working in the quarries, losing large quantities of blood every day. The place where he stood while working used to be saturated with blood. He at length, on applying to the Director, was taken to the hospital, and after being some time treated there, was pronounced incurable. In the week ending October 12, he lost a quart of blood. Their first employment at Portland was washing the convicts' clothes, in a room the temperature of which was 140 degrees. Several got sickness from washing the infirmary linen. Charles Underwood O'Connell fainted from loathing. Kickham, notwithstanding the state of his health (with ulcers all over his body), was employed here with the rest. He was obliged to be removed to hospital, where he remained for three weeks. Before he was cured he was sent into the quarries to break stones. The overseers constantly abused him because he was not able to do more work. Owing to his extreme shortsightedness he was unable to do as much work as others; on this account the officers often shoved him about in a most brutal manner. He remained at work for nearly three weeks, although in a wretched state of health. At this time the doctor never inquired after him; but at length he became so bad he had to be removed in the middle of the night to hospital. He there had to apply to the Director for better food. He said, in reply, that he had no authority to order it to him. He was invalided and sent to Woking. (Seven or eight have been invalided within twelve months after their conviction.) At Woking, Mr. Kickham, a man of education, of refinement, and genius, was associated with a monster in human form. The sufferings he endured in consequence are too shocking to more than merely allude to. At Portland the most arbitrary and contradictory orders were given by the Governor with reference to communication between the prisoners. The tools furnished for breaking stones there were so bad that one prisoner, Martin Hanley Carey, broke two of his fingers, and before he was cured he was compelled to go to the quarry and break with his left hand. By a refinement of cruelty Luby was refused a letter which had come from his wife, and such was the effect on his mind that he was threatened with brain fever. These political prisoners were compelled to clean out the water-closet every Monday in their turn. It was further stated that those men were kept working in the rain till their ordinary covering was completely saturated, when they then put on a serge shirt, and were marched to a shed, which they could not leave until the officer in charge whistled, and they were then obliged to go to bed in their wet clothing. I do not dwell on the fact that they were subjected to the most arbitrary restraints and the most contradictory orders. One day they were compelled to speak in a low voice, another day they were ordered to converse in a loud voice, and a third day they would not be allowed to speak at all. These, then, are the complaints, or the substance of the complaints, made in the name of the unhappy men who allowed themselves to be involved in the Fenian conspiracy, and are now suffering the most terrible punishment for a political offence. Now, Sir, if there be an assembly in the world in which a broad, a wide, and strongly marked difference has been made between offences of a political character, and offences of a moral nature, that assembly is the British House of Commons. I have heard the most eloquent denunciations, from both sides of this House, lavished on Governments—foreign Governments—who placed the conspirator or the insurgent in the same category with those whom all civilized nations regard as branded felons—men whose infamous crimes have justly condemned them to a degrading doom. The English people speaking through their Parliament, their pulpits, their platform and their press, have pronounced solemn judgment on the sins of other Governments in this respect; and are they to play the contemptible part of the hypocrite and the Pharisee, and shrink from applying to the conduct of their own Government, or those for whom that Government is responsible, which they so lavishly apply to others. Sir, I do not for one moment think so meanly of the great English people as to believe that they would sanction, under any plea or pretence whatever, the perpetration of these cowardly and inhuman brutalities—on men, too, untainted by moral crime—by men who have offended in common with those whom they have defied for their resistance to foreign Governments and foreign rulers. Sir, let hon. Gentlemen who hold opposite opinions to those held by the mass of mankind, say what they please and think what they please, it is impossible for them to bridge over the impassable gulf which separates political offences from crimes of moral turpitude, and the attempt to conform them by similarity of punishment and degradation only revolts the moral sense, and outrages the feelings of every humane and enlightened people. Sir, I hope there is not a man in this House who would not be ashamed to rise in his place and justify the treatment to which these unhappy Irish prisoners have been subjected. You hear of these men being kept for an hour naked, awaiting the inspection of the doctor—of food causing them the most cruel sufferings— of one man with the blood dropping from him on the ground while he toiled at his work—of another who had broken two of his fingers, and, before the right hand was cured, compelled to work with his left—of a man of education and refinement associated with a brute in human shape—yes, of gentlemen by education and feeling degraded to the loathsome task of emptying privies in their turn. Sir, I say it is shameful—infamous—and the man who rises to defend it will be rebuked by the indignation of the English people. And God knows, Sir, penal servitude is punishment enough for patriotism the most erratic or the most misguided. Its utter isolation from the active moving world without—its severance of all those ties which human affection, the love of the husband and the father, coils round the heart of man, its terrible monotony, its more terrible association, the coarse and scanty food, the hard and ceaseless toil, the garb of shame, the cage-like cell, the brutal insolence of the unsympathizing gaolers—surely, Sir, this is punishment enough, even for him who has loved his country "not wisely, but too well," without super-adding to it wanton cruelty and shameful indignities. I shall now, Sir, ask the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary if his attention has been called to certain statements which lately appeared in the newspapers in reference to alleged harsh and cruel treatment of prisoners undergoing penal servitude for political offences; and, if so, whether he has made any inquiry with respect to them, and taken any steps, or given any orders, in consequence? and I would further ask him whether, if such statement be true, the treatment which they represent as inflicted on political prisoners is not opposed to the frequently-expressed opinion of this Assembly, and a violation of the unwritten law which is cherished in the heart of every civilized nation.


said, he was well aware that many hon. Members had strong prejudices against the Irish political in that prisoners, owing to the conclusion they had come to that they had been actuated by the worst possible motives. He would not now stop to discuss the reasons which seemed to justify them in coming to that conclusion. He believed that the mass of The people of Ireland and the mass of the people of England did not participate in this view—and that they could not sanction the treatment which those prisoners received, and were profoundly touched by their present deplorable condition. He owned he shared to the fullest extent in that feeling of sympathy, for he was as certain as he was of his own existence that those unfortunate men who were now undergoing penal servitude at Pentonville and at Portland were solely animated by a desire to relieve their country from gross misgovernment, and that they had never recommended an appeal to arms until they felt convinced that every other mode of seeking redress was unavailing. In review- ing the acts of those men it was impossible to keep out of sight the past and present condition of Ireland; and if truth compelled the acknowledgment, as he believed it did, that that condition was one of uninterrupted misgovernment, then he concluded there was no justification whatever for the assumption that those men were mere revolutionists, actuated by a desire to subvert social order for some wicked purposes of their own. There were two facts which ought not to be forgotten—the one was that Englishmen of all parties admitted that the Irish people were labouring under great and extraordinary grievances; the other was that they had been for years seeking in vain for the redress of those grievances. After they had been for years tolerating, if not conniving at, the proceedings of those unhappy men in Ireland, when even at the verge of rebellion, it was, to say the least, the grossest inconsistency on their part to turn suddenly round and seize them with the grasp of despotism. The course of treatment pursued towards those Irish political prisoners was, in his opinion, discreditable to the people of England, and he knew that it had created a feeling of great exasperation in Ireland. No person could have been so foolish as to think that those political offenders could escape punishment; but it was the general impression that the treatment dealt out to them would be governed by those magnanimous sentiments which had been so often expressed in that House by British statesmen when administering advice to foreign Governments in respect to their political prisoners, or when condoling with the sufferings of men who had been goaded to insurrection by persecution or misgovernment. The Irish political prisoners were treated in a manner worse than the political prisoners any other country. Their heads were shaved—they were chained together—they were clothed in convict's dress to degrade them to the dust—they were subjected to the poorest diet upon which it was scarcely possible to support existence—they were exposed to the most wanton cruelties and indignities in order to brand with infamy a cause which an immense mass of his countrymen were devoted to. There was an aspect of vindictiveness in their treatment, which engendered a fearful spirit in the heart of their sympathizers in Ireland; and until the state of that country was very different from what it then was, he believed that they would persist in regarding these unhappy prisoners—no matter what Englishmen said or did in respect to them—as true patriots and as men deserving of their best commiseration. He hoped that the Motion of his hon. Friend would be assented to, and that those unfortunate prisoners would be soon relieved from their present deplorable condition.


said, he should support the Motion, and thought that the question was one that must commend itself to the good feeling of every hon. Gentleman. He appealed to the House to stand between these unfortunate men and the tyranny of the persons into whose hands they had fallen. The question was one which involved the very heart and soul of justice in this country. It was impossible to contemplate without horror the details laid before them, and he could only hope that they were over-coloured.


said, that whilst expressing his strongest condemnation of the Fenian movement, he considered that the present question was one which involved the principles of British justice and British honour. He hoped the Secretary of State would, if unable to refute the statements of the hon. Member for Cork, put an end to the abominable treatment to which these unfortunate men had been subjected.


said, he had read with much pain the published statements as to the cruel indignities inflicted on the Fenian prisoners, and having taken some trouble to ascertain if the allegations were true, he was reluctantly compelled to arrive at the conclusion that the statements laid before the House by the hon. Member for Cork were in accordance with the facts. He confidently hoped that the House would draw a line between the Fenian who was at large inciting to revolt, and the prisoner handed over to the custody of English officials. With the Fenians active in conspiracy this House could hold no parley, and could have no sympathy. He (Sir John Gray) had no sympathy with, and always publicly condemned their objects, their motives, and their courses. But he drew a broad distinction between the man who was at large, stimulating to reckless and hopeless revolution, and the unhappy man who, because of his illegal courses, had passed into the custody of the Executive of these kingdoms. That was, he conceived, a distinction which this House would recognise. It was one in strict accord with the con- stitution, the tendency of legislation, and the humane spirit of English gentlemen. The convicted prisoner was under the protection of the law, and this House was bound to see that the sentence of the law was carried out with humanity, and that no petty tyranny, no spirit of revenge for the past, no small persecutions irritating and galling to the unfortunate, and discreditable to the Empire were indulged in by the officers of the law. He (Sir John Gray) had satisfied himself that the chief facts brought under the notice of the House by the Member for Cork were substantially accurate. He conceived that the moment a man was sentenced, that instant the outlaw of the previous day passed under the guardianship of law, and had a claim upon the humanity of every high-minded citizen. The past history, the past misconduct, the past errors of these men were all wrapped up and buried in their sentences, and all prejudice should cease the moment they came within the purview of the Executive to receive their punishment. He (Sir John Gray) had ascertained that men of as refined tastes and as cultivated intellects as many Members of that House, were treated with the most cruel and insulting indignities. They were compelled to perform for others the menial, degrading, the physically offensive and unmentionable offices described by the hon. Member for Cork, and this treatment indicated that vengeance and degradation, and official tyranny were in full force against those unhappy men. Surely that was neither manly nor English, and would that be defended by the Government or sanctioned by the House. Certain duties, such as he indicated, might without any cruelty be assigned to a class of prisoners whose previous lives and habits rendered them familiar with such functions; but it was a refinement on cruelty to assign such duties to men of taste and of highly-cultivated minds. He had ascertained that some of these prisoners were confined for ten, fifteen, and twenty days in miserable dark cells—that their letters to their wives were read and misrepresented to the damage of their characters, and their dishonour as men. Some of them were punished by being put on bread and water diet for weeks in succession, being supplied with one pint of water at five in the morning and a similar quantity at five in the evening. [Laughter.] He (Sir John Gray) hoped he would not be misinterpreting that laugh if he accepted it as a laugh of incredulity, and an indication from men of manly English hearts that they believed it impossible that any English official would treat a political prisoner with such severity. He (Sir John Gray) was certain the Government, whose Members were men of high honour and generous feelings, would not stoop to persecute or take vengeance on men who had fallen into their hands. He was certain no English gentlemen would do it—and, above all, he felt that this House—Members on all sides of this House—representing as it does the gentlemanly spirit, the conscience, the heart, and humanity of the great English people, would not sanction such proceedings. The whole tendency of the recent legislation of this Empire in criminal matters was to humanize punishment and adapt it to the nature of the crime and the character of the offender. In such an aspect the mental character of the offender and his antecedent habits were as important elements for consideration as his physical condition, and the mental character of these men rendered a punishment, which had no degradation for another class, the most bitter cruelty to them. The object of punishment ought to be to deter others from following the courses that procured its infliction. The substitution of revenge and petty persecution for just and rational punishment would exalt these men into heroes. The Executive, if it did not at once terminate these indignities, would be responsible for the creation of a species of hero worship in Ireland, for these men and for the cause in which they suffered persecution, not punishment, With a spirited people, like the Irish people, the result would be to spread and to extend, not suppress the principles they advocated. He had no sympathy with these men or with their cause. He had, however, sympathy, and this House and the whole English public had sympathy, with suffering humanity, and he hoped, therefore, for an assurance from the Government that a more just and enlightened system of treatment would be henceforth adopted towards men who were not now rebels and outcasts, but men under tin protection of the law and of this House.


I rise because if my right hon. Friend (Mr. Walpole) were to address the House upon this question, it would prevent him, by the rules of the House, from again speaking on the Resolution of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bright) When that opportunity arises, he will be prepared to show that a great many of the statements which have been made by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Maguire) are most grossly exaggerated; and he will be able to make, on the authority of the managers and directors of the prisons, explanations which will be satisfactory to the House. One statement made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Cork having reference to Ireland I am, however, bound to notice. He stated that the flannels of some of these prisoners had been taken from them in Mountjoy Prison. I hold in my hand a Report from the Director of Convict Prisons in Ireland, and he says— I perceive in a letter, appearing in the newspapers and declared to be written from an English convict prison by one of the persons convicted of treason felony in Ireland last year, a statement that the flannels of those prisoners were taken from them during their detention in the Mountjoy Convict Prison after conviction. I think it my duty to report that the statement is a deliberate falsehood. Such clothes as the convicted political prisoners wore during the day were removed from their cells at night, as a measure of precaution; the clothes were searched, and each man's suit returned to him in the morning. Convicts in Ireland who have been accustomed to wear flannels are always supplied with them, unless the medical officer shall consider their use unnecessary. The supplying of flannels to those who have not been accustomed to wear them is a matter entirely at the option of the medical officer. I could not hear the statement the hon. Member made without taking the earliest opportunity of giving it the most complete contradiction. As far as my knowledge goes of the treatment of prisoners while they remain in those gaols for the management of which I am responsible, no hardship, nothing approaching to cruelty or ill-treatment, has ever taken place; and I believe that the statements made with regard to the Dublin prison are wholly without foundation. Whether the law of this country ought or ought not to make a difference with regard to the treatment of political prisoners and those convicted of other offences is a much larger question, and is one that ought not to be discussed and decided on an occasion of this kind. So far as I know the treatment of political prisoners in Ireland has been strictly in conformity with the law. If it be thought desirable that the law in this respect should be altered, the House ought to be asked to do it, and not the Executive Government on its own responsibility be asked to make such changes. It is a question worthy the consideration of the House, or, at all events, one on which the opinion of the House might be asked. The Government have only acted in this matter in strict accordance with the law.