HC Deb 06 June 1873 vol 216 cc548-50

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department, Whether he is able to inform the House of the result of the inquiries instituted by him with reference to the recent Chipping Norton case; and, whether he is able to inform the House if there is any truth in the statements which have been published to the effect that the infants of two of the imprisoned women were insufficiently supplied with food during the period of their mother's incarceration?


in reply, said, that neither from the prisoners themselves nor from anybody on their behalf had he received any Memorial at all. Having seen a statement on that subject in the papers of the 26th May, he addressed a question about it to the magistrates and received their answer on the 29th of May. But in the meantime the sentences of a large number of the women had expired, and those of the rest were on the point of expiring. The magistrates had contented themselves with sending him a report in a newspaper, for the correctness of which they vouched, from which it appeared that the following were the facts of the case:—Some 30 women, a few of whom were armed with sticks, went to a gate and waylaid two men, who had accepted employment from a farmer named Hambridge, threatening that if the men went back to work they would beat them; and after some parley the men retired, when the women followed them, hustled them, pushed them into a hedge, and declared they would duck them in a pond if they attempted to return to work. The men in about half-an-hour attempted to go back to work, when they again met the women, some of whom asked them to go to the public house to have beer, and some tried to get them to join the Union. The men refused, and on their refusal the same threats of ill-treatment were repeated if they returned to work. Charges were afterwards brought against 16 out of the 30 women for a breach of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, in having used violence, threats, and intimidation to prevent those men from working. The witnesses for the prosecution fully proved the case; there was no evidence for the defence; and there appeared to be no doubt that the women had broken the law. Indeed, it was said, they were ignorant of the law; but he could hardly believe their ignorance was so barbarous as to lead them to suppose that any person, whether man or woman, had a right to interfere with men in that way and endeavour, by means of threats, intimidation, and violence, to prevent them from working. If the women themselves had been so treated by men, and when they complained had been told that it was only the ordinary rough play of the district, and, in fact, no legal offence, they would, he thought, have had good reason to be astonished at such a state of the law. Nor did he think they could have supposed that what was an offence in a man ceased to be an offence in a woman. At any rate, if that was their idea, it was very expedient that the contrary should be proved to them. So far, the case was clear. The question remained as to the discretion of the magistrates in the punishment they inflicted. It seemed to him to have been quite excessive, and at the same time unnecessary for the vindication of the law and in order to give a wholesome example in the neighbourhood, that as many as sixteen persons should be committed to gaol. The magistrates, as he understood, said it was impossible to distinguish between their cases; but in the first place, they had themselves distinguished between the cases by inflicting on seven of the accused a heavier punishment by three days than they inflicted on the remaining nine. As to the necessity for so severe a punishment, he thought that was contradicted by the fact that one of the magistrates called on the prosecutor not to press the case. That course not being acceded to, the magistrates, he was informed, said that they had no other course to adopt under the Act than to commit the women to prison. But there was no doubt they might have passed a lighter sentence, and have bound the women over in their own recognizances to appear and submit to the sentence; or, on the other hand, it would have been quite competent for the magistrates, on the evidence before them, to convict those who had taken the most active part in the disturbance for an assault, and to fine them, enforcing the fine, if necessary, by imprisonment. Neither of those courses, however, appeared to have occurred to the magistrates, and the case did seem to show a very grave want of discretion; because, although the women undoubtedly had committed an offence, the extent to which their punishment was carried had a tendency to enlist the sympathy of the public on the side of those who had broken the law, whereas a moderate punishment would have been accepted by all as a suitable penalty. Under these circumstances, the Lord Chancellor had thought it proper to write to the Lord Lieutenant of the county with regard to the conduct of the magistrates in the matter, and to call on them for an explanation of that conduct; and after receiving such an explanation, he would take the course which he thought necessary. With respect to the statement contained in the latter part of the hon. Member's Question, when he saw it in the newspapers, he had desired inquiry to be made of the Visiting Justices as to its accuracy, but no answer had yet been received.