HC Deb 20 July 1869 vol 198 cc345-52

rose to call attention to the inadequate provision made for the religious teaching of Catholic Prisoners in the Metropolitan Prisons. There was a large and poor Catholic population in London, who were very liable to the temptations which poverty brought with it. Under these circumstances, it was natural that a considerable number of them should be found in the London prisons. At present, in the four to which he should refer, there were between 600 and 700 daily, and the religious provision made for them was a cause of great scandal. The Government had appointed Catholic chaplains in the Government prisons, with the best results; and, five years since, an Act was passed, giving to the prison authorities the power of appointing a sufficient number of Catholic chaplains, and of paying them out of the rates. Unfortunately, the Act was permissive, and he was sorry to say that it had only been put into execution in rare instances. It was long before the Middlesex magistrates allowed a Catholic chaplain to enter the walls; but, at length, in this and in other metropolitan gaols there was some improvement, but the restrictions on the visits of the priest were still very great; and while the Protestant chaplains, according to the Returns, got £2,010 a year—if all the assistance given was included, £3,000 would be nearer the mark—not one farthing was given to the Catholic priests.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being found present—


resumed. He did not object to the pay given to the Protestant ministers; but it was an intensely shabby thing on the part of the visiting justices to receive the services of the Catholic clergymen without giving them a single farthing. In some cases, it was known that Catholic prisoners registered themselves as Protestants, on entering these gaols, in the hope of getting better treatment. At Tothill-fields Prison, for instance, where there were 600 prisoners, only 200 professed to be Catholics, although the fact was that 300 prisoners wore of that faith. The remaining 100 denied their religion in the hope of getting various advantages. It was asserted that the Roman Catholics were excluded from those parts of the prison in which the work was supposed to be most agreeable—the laundry and the kitchen. But this hypocrisy made them worse than they were when they entered the gaol. In every prison in Ireland, there was both a Protestant and a Catholic chaplain, and he wanted to see the same system established in the English prisons; for if religion was not an utter sham, the influence of the clergyman must be a powerful deterrent of crime, and the present system tended to keep up the standard of crime. Only last Tuesday, the Middlesex magistrates decided on building a new prison at a cost of £100,000. That was owing to the increase of crime; and he held them responsible, to a large extent, for that increase, because they did not take the proper means of eradicating crime, by means of one of the most powerful agencies known to society. He would now mention some of the restrictions imposed by the justices on the ministrations of the Catholic priests. In Coldbath-fields, although there were 329 Catholic males in the prison, the priest was allowed to visit it only three times a week, from nine till half-past twelve, and was only allowed to give one service on Sundays. An afternoon service was permitted to Protestants, but not to Catholics. The Catholic priest applied for leave to give instruction in the elementary truths of Christianity every Sunday afternoon; but the answer was, that the arrangements of the prison prevented the magistrates from acceding to the request; so that this clergyman, who did not receive a farthing for his ministrations, but in his zeal desired to teach these ignorant prisoners, was not allowed to prosecute a design so beneficial to them. At the House of Detention, Clerkenwell, where there were seventy-five Catholic prisoners, the priest was allowed to see the male prisoners once a week on the Friday, and the female prisoners once a week on the Wednesday, but no service was permitted on Sundays. At Tothill-fields Prison the Catholic clergyman asked to be allowed to appoint a Bible reader, but the request was refused. Then he asked for leave to appoint a religious teacher, but was refused. A third time he begged to be allowed to appoint a Bible reader: the answer was—"There is no such teacher for the Protestants;" but when they were pushed, the authorities admitted that there was a Protestant reader of Scripture. Could anything be so mean and shabby as that wretched evasion? The grievances common to all those prisons was that no pay was allowed to the visiting Catholic priest, and the Catholic prisoners had no teachers of their own creed, and no Scripture readers. No Catholic extern was allowed to pay a charitable visit to the Catholic prisoners, though many of the Middlesex magistrates allowed their own daughters to enter the prisons for the purpose of reforming the Protestant prisoners; and there were no means afforded to Catholic clergymen for seeing the most depraved Catholic prisoners. Another instance of intense shabbiness was that in one prison a Catholic clergyman attended 129 prisoners, and another Catholic clergyman in another prison attended 200 prisoners, and everything necessary for the celebration of Divine worship they had to pay for out of their own pockets. Early last year, when he brought this subject forward, the present Government were not in Office, but the late Home Secretary recommended another year's trial, should be allowed the magistrates. They had had that other year's trial, and their conduct continued as bigoted and as shabby as ever. He had great faith in the present Home Secretary's sense of justice, and he would ask him whether any evil had resulted from the ministrations of Catholic clergy in the Government prisons? As it was too late for legislation on the subject in the present year, he was willing to give the Middlesex magistrates another year's trial; but he wished to know whether the Government, if those magistrates did not alter their conduct, would next year introduce a Bill to compel them to do so. He did not condemn all the visiting justices, for there was a noble minority who were endeavouring to bring about a reform in the present most unsatisfactory system. He concluded by moving an Address for Returns on the subject.

MR. BLAKE, in seconding the Motion, said, that though in the South of Ireland the great majority of the population was Roman Catholic, yet it was a compulsory provision that there should be Protestant clergymen in the prisons. He was enabled to state that the amount of the salary paid to the Protestant chaplains, though they had little or nothing to do, was as much, or nearly as much, as the amount paid to the Roman Catholic chaplains. He had the curiosity to inquire into the salaries received by the Catholic and Protestant chaplains, and he found that there was very little difference between them. There were a great many Catholic prisoners in some of the metropolitan prisons, and the system pursued with reference to religious instruction was such as to make them much worse men when they came out than when they went into prison. He knew that some of his poor Roman Catholic countrymen, for the sake of getting more lenient treatment, and for the very sensation of attending Divine worship, had been induced to enter themselves as Protestants; no provision being made for their religious instruction, except on terms which were calculated to make them hypocrites. He heartily joined his hon. Friend (Mr. Maguire) in the hope that the Home Secretary would make some distinct statement on this most important subject, which might strongly influence the justices to pursue a more impartial course.

Moved for— Address for "Returns of the County and Borough Prisons of England in which Religious Instruction is afforded to Prisoners of different Denominations, specifying which and at what cost to each: And, of the number of Prisoners in each Prison, and to what Denomination they belong; the Returns to be made up to the 20th day of July 1869, inclusive (in continuation of Parliamentary Paper, No. 284, of Session 1867–8."— (Mr. Maguire.)


said, he felt that his hon. Friend the Member for Cork (Mr. Maguire) had made out a case of injustice; but there was another mode of curing the wrong than that which had been indicated. So strong was his feeling and conviction in favour of voluntary action that he was persuaded the withdrawal of every paid chaplain in every prison would leave the inmates in a better condition spiritually than they were at this moment. Workhouses, where there was no paid chaplain, were amply provided for by the voluntary efforts of the various religious denominations. His belief in the vitality of Christian truth and principle was such that Christian men and women would be found exerting their agency in whatever direction humanity most called for it.


said, he was not at all surprised that the hon. Member for Cork (Mr. Maguire) had brought this subject under the consideration of the House. When his right hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth (Sir George Grey), as Home Secretary, brought in the Prison Ministers Bill in 1853, which enabled every local authority to employ and pay the services of ministers of religion in the gaols, it was certainly his expectation that in all important populations of the country effect would have been given to the provisions of the Act; but he was bound to say that his expectations had been considerably disappointed. In Lancashire and some other parts of England the principles of justice had been acted upon. At Liverpool chaplains were employed with the greatest advantage in ministering to the large number of Catholic prisoners; and in most towns in the North and North-west of England, where there was a considerable Roman Catholic population, Roman Catholic chaplains had been appointed to the gaols. He had been asked if in the Government prisons any difficulty had arisen from the want of harmonious cooperation of chaplains of different religious opinions; no such difficulty, no inconvenience worthy of notice had been experienced. It was impossible to deny that his hon. Friend had serious cause of complaint. From the nature of the duties required from prison chaplains he thought they could not be efficiently performed by voluntary agency. They demanded continuous labour, especially in the great gaols, where the prisoners were numbered by hundreds, almost by thousands, and it could hardly be expected that the poor Roman Catholics of the large towns, having difficulty enough to maintain their own clergymen, could also provide a Catholic chaplain for the gaol. He agreed that it was most important that the unfortunate prisoners should have the comforts and advantages of regular religious aid from chaplains belonging to their own communion. This was quite as important in the case of short as long sentences; for it was of the utmost moment that a prisoner in leaving the gaol should have some one interested in looking after his welfare, and seeing that he was put in the way of leading an honest life. And, in the case of Roman Catholic prisoners, who so likely to do this as the priest? This was the more necessary from the forlorn condition of many Irishmen in this country. As a matter of fact, Irishmen in Ireland were as free from crime as Englishmen in England—indeed more free, both as regarded the number and gravity of crimes. But the case was reversed with Irishmen in England, and this was attributable not to their race or condition, but simply to the force of circumstances. He had lately been looking into this subject for other objects, and he found that while the Welsh population, forming 6 per cent probably of that of England, under most favourable circumstances as to crime, committed only 3 per cent of the crime in England, the native born Irish, amounting to but 3 per cent of the population, committed 14 per cent of the crime of England. They were almost inevitably thrown into the worst localities, and had to associate with the worst characters. Who was there to take an interest in these men when convicted of crimes? Only one person, and that was the priest. He (Mr. Bruce) therefore listened, not only without sympathy but occasionally with indignation to the complaints sometimes made about the increase in the number of Roman Catholic priests and of Roman Catholic establishments in this country. Considering the vast numbers of the Irish population, they had not near priests enough. What was the remedy? The hon. Member for Waterford (Mr. Blake) had told them of Protestant chaplains of gaols in Ireland who were paid at the same rate as the Roman Catholic chaplains, although there might be only one prisoner to attend to. That state of things would hardly be borne in this country, and it was to guard against such an occurrence that the Prison Ministers Act had been made permissive. The Legislature assumed that where there was a considerable number of Roman Catholic prisoners the authorities would appoint and pay a Roman Catholic chaplain. In seventeen prisons this want had been supplied, and he knew of no instance in which there had been so great a disregard of justice as in the metropolitan district. He was afraid some partiality had been shown in allowing lady visitors to enter the prisons, but he did not think there had been any attempt to conceal the religion of the prisoners, or to make converts. He believed that those magistrates who had refused to pay Roman Catholic chaplains had offered no objection to the visits of Roman Catholic priests. Justice, however, required that they should be employed and paid wherever there was a considerable number of prisoners. He could not say that he was prepared with a remedy. He admitted the evil and the injustice, but the difficulty, which had been equally felt by his predecessors, would remain, and, unless Parliament was prepared to lodge in the hands of a Minister of State, the power to over-ride the decision of the magistrate there were no means of remedying the grievance. Something must be left to the judgment and discretion of the local authorities; but the only way of dealing with some of the cases referred to was to invest the Secretary of State with a power which, he believed, might safely be lodged in his hands. The matter should have the serious consideration of the Government during the Recess.


said, he believed the remedy was much more in public opinion than in the action of the Government, and he trusted that the public would insist on the appointment of paid Roman Catholic chaplains to minister to the wants of the Roman Catholic prisoners. It was difficult for the present or for any Government to act with a high hand in this matter, but the day would come when public opinion would insist upon religious equality herein.


begged to express his gratitude to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and his willingness to leave the matter in his hands.

Motion agreed to.