, Member for the Wansbeck Division of Northumberland, rose in his place, and asked leave to move the Adjournment of the House, for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, viz., the imprisonment of John Douglass and Joseph Wolfendale.
The pleasure of the House not having been signified,
§ MR. SPEAKER
called on those Members who supported the Motion to rise in their places, and not less than 40 Members having accordingly risen:—
said, he was sorry to take a course which might appear unreasonable to a portion of the House, and he apologized for any inconvenience that might be caused to Public Business by his action in moving the Adjournment. His justification lay in the fact that he was 873 actuated by a strong sense of duty towards some of his constituents who were implicated in this matter, and were sufferers in connection with it. He wished to state that he did not attach any responsibility to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of the State for the Home Department (Mr. Matthews) in the matter. The men now in prison were suffering in consequence of the action of the magistrates; and the information which the right hon. Gentleman had given him in answer to Questions had been obtained from official sources. On the 23rd of March he asked the right hon. Gentleman whether it was true that on the 31st of December, 1886, five men and one girl were convicted before the Alnwick Bench for having in their possession some pieces of jettisoned timber. The answer was—"I am informed that five men and a girl were convicted on the 22nd of December, 1886." The fact was, they were convicted on the 31st of December, and not on the 22nd, the date given to the Home Secretary by the Clerk to the Justices. The right hon. Gentleman further said that on the 10th of March, three of the men having paid the fine, the Justices issued commitments against the rest, the girl having paid on the 17th. He wished to know what was the difference between a warrant for commitment and the issue of the warrant for arrest, because he was informed by the Governor of Newcastle Prison that the date of the warrant on which he held the prisoners in question was the 1st of March, and not the 10th, as stated by the Home Secretary. During the Recess he went down to Alnwick and collected information on the spot, so that the facts he would give to the House were facts collected from witnesses on the spot, who were engaged at the time in recovering the timber from the vessel that was stranded on the coast of Northumberland on the 21st of December, 1886. On that date a vessel carrying timber was stranded near the colliery village of Ratcliffe. The people of the district were soon on the spot ready to render any assistance in their power in order to rescue the crew from the stranded vessel. In order to lighten the vessel, with a view to getting her off as soon as possible, the timber which she carried was thrown into the sea, and the fishermen and miners were soon engaged 874 in endeavouring to recover the timber from the sea. The fishermen stacked the timber on the links. The miners, unfortunately, instead of stacking the timber on the links, carried the timber to their homes, where it was afterwards found. There was no attempt on the part of these men to conceal the fact that they had carried the timber to their homes; indeed, concealment was impossible, because it was found there by the policeman who searched their premises; but that they had stolen the timber they absolutely denied. He was prepared to admit that the men did wrong in taking the timber from the links to their homes; but that they deliberately and wilfully, and with criminal intent, stole the timber he absolutely denied. The magistrates themselves bore testimony to the fact that the men in Court denied that they had stolen the timber. The information which the magistrates sent to the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary distinctly stated that there was no evidence whatever that the men had stolen the timber; and that statement, taken side by side with the denial of the men, showed that there was at least primâ facie evidence that the men were not guilty of the charge of which they were convicted before the magistrates on the 31st of December, 1886. This, however, was not the strong point in his case. When a conviction was returned against these men they were sentenced to a month's imprisonment, with the alternative of fine, they being at the same time offered a month within which to pay the fine. The magistrates in their information corroborated his (Mr. Fenwick's) statement that at the end of a month Douglass and Wolfendale being still unable to pay their fines went to the sergeant of police, told him of their inability to pay, and surrendered themselves to go to prison. At that time an industrial dispute was existing between the miners of Northumberland and their employers, which culminated in a strike lasting for 17 weeks. During the period of that strike these men went on two occasions to the sergeant of police and surrendered themselves to suffer the month's imprisonment inflicted by the magistrates. On both occasions the sergeant refused to take them to prison. It was quite true he was not in possession of the commit- 875 ment warrant, but surely it was his duty to inform the magistrates that these men were unable or unwilling to pay and had surrendered themselves. Seventeen weeks were allowed to elapse, and the men after being some little time in employment were again pressed for the amount of the fine, although they had over and over again offered themselves to go to prison. Wolfendale's wife offered the police sergeant 20s. towards the fine. That was refused, and on a subsequent occasion, when she had 35s., she said to the sergeant she supposed it was no use offering him that or anything short of the full amount of the fine of £2. The right hon. Gentleman said the police sergeant had no power to receive any instalments from either Wolfendale or his wife, but surely the whole object of the magistrates in giving the men time was to enable them to pay by instalments. There was at least strong presumptive evidence in this case that the whole of the proceedings had been characterized by vindictiveness. He had the permission of the manager of the colliery where Douglass was employed to make this statement, that when he asked the sergeant of police why he did not arrest the men when they were unable to pay and offered to go to prison, the reply of the sergeant was that he would take the men at his own time, and not at the time when they thought fit to go to prison. This statement proved conclusively that there was vindictiveness in this case, if not on the part of the magistrates, at least on the part of the sergeant of police. Under what statute did the magistrates derive their authority to delay the arrest of men who had been convicted 14 months previous? The moment the men obtained employment they were bullied by the policeman for the amount of the fine, and the fine not being forthcoming at the end of 14 months, they were shackled together like common felons, and removed in the early morning, before they had time to break their fast, to Newcastle Gaol, there to undergo their month's imprisonment. He thought the statement he had made was altogether at variance with the information given to the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, and before sitting down he would appeal to him whether, considering all the circumstances of the case and in consequence of the great hardship 876 that had been entailed upon the wives and families of these men, he would not favourably consider a mitigation of the sentences which they had been ordered to undergo? If the right hon. Gentleman were to take this course it would do much to allay the suffering and the bitterness of feeling that had been engendered in the district. He begged to move the adjournment of the House.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Fenwick.)
§ THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. MATTHEWS) (Birmingham, E)
said, he presumed the principal object of the hon. Member was accomplished by having the statement made and the facts put on record. The information on which he based his answer to the Question was derived not from the magistrates, but from the magistrates' clerk, and it did not agree on all points with the statement the hon. Member had made, although the differences were not material. The men were not prosecuted for stealing timber, but for having it in their possession. The prosecution was under a clause of the Consolidation Act of 1861 relating to the possession of articles belonging to a ship or vessel in distress, wrecked, or stranded. In this case notices had been published all along the coast, so that none could be in ignorance of the law. The prosecution was instituted by the Receiver of Wrecks, on behalf of the Board of Trade, and he pressed for a conviction specially on the ground that the notice had been published. There could be no doubt—the hon. Member himself admitted it—that the articles were found on the premises of the defendants.
§ MR. MATTHEWS
The sworn evidence before the magistrates was that the timber found upon the premises of the prisoners was not taken out of the sea, but was taken from piles that had been stacked on the links by the fishermen. From these piles 100 pieces were missed, and some of the timber found in the possession of the prisoners was identified by the marks upon it as having been removed from these stacks. The evidence certainly warranted the 877 conclusion of the magistrates, and the punishment was not excessive. The penalty imposed was £2, whereas it might have been £20. He could not join issue with the hon. Member as to the action of the magistrates and police. Their conduct, so far from being harsh, was one of unusual leniency. The 7th section of the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1879, gave the magistrates jurisdiction to extend the time for paying the fine, and one of the oldest and most experienced of the Metropolitan magistrates had informed him that it was usual to exercise this discretion for the convenience of defendants.
§ MR. MATTHEWS
said, the accused men took the wrong course in speaking to the police sergeant, who had no power either to accept or remit the fine or to commit the men to prison, but he considered the sergeant as being to blame for not having brought the matter under the notice of the magistrates. The information he had was that no statement was ever made by the men to the magistrates that they would prefer to go to prison because they could not pay the fine.
§ MR. MATTHEWS
said, the magistrates gave them longer time to pay out of pure kindness and consideration, knowing that they were then out on strike. The magistrates felt that they could not remit the fine, because that would not be fair to other defendants who were brought up at the same time and fined for a similar offence. He quite agreed that it was a considerable hardship upon the men to be taken off to prison just as they were getting into work again, but he was bound to say that, looking carefully into the case, it did not strike him that there was any intentional hardship. The error was in the men making their communication to the police sergeant instead of going direct to the magistrates. Although he did blame the police sergeant for not having brought the matter to the notice of the magistrates, he was bound to say, in justice to the magistrates, that he could not see that any blame whatever attached to them. He fully recog- 878 nized the right of the hon. Member to put on record the grievance in this case, but he must feel that evidence brought before the House was hardly evidence on which he (Mr. Matthews) could act. But, if the hon. Member would furnish him with the affidavits in his possession, he would consider whether it was possible for him to remit any part of the sentence the men had to undergo.
§ MR. BURT (Morpeth)
said, he was of opinion that his hon. Friend had made out a case for the consideration of the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, who, he thought, might well adopt the suggestion that had been made. He thought the men in this instance had been hardly treated. The real grievance was that 14 months were allowed to elapse before the men were taken off to prison. He considered that the right hon. Gentleman would be fully justified in remitting the remainder of the sentence. He failed to see, however, that any useful purpose would be secured by pressing the Motion to a Division.
asked, whether the right hon. Gentleman would take into consideration all the peculiar circumstances of the case with a view to remitting the remainder of the men's terms of imprisonment?
§ MR. MATTHEWS
said, he must repeat what he had said on former occasions, that he could not give any promise on matters of this kind across the floor of the House; but if the hon. Gentleman laid any materials before him bearing on the case he would consider them fully and with due consideration.
§ MR. JOHN MORLEY (Newcastle-upon-Tyne)
said, that he did not think the right hon. Gentleman could be expected to say more at present than he had done. He would advise his hon. Friend to lay before the right hon. Gentleman any materials which he might have, and after the assurance which had been given he could not doubt that the right hon. Gentleman would take them into his careful consideration. For his (Mr. John Morley's) own part, he thought that his hon. Friend was justified in calling the attention of the House to the very severe and undoubted hardship of this case.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.