HC Deb 08 March 1889 vol 333 cc1263-9
MR. BLUNDELL MAPLE (Camberwell, Dulwich)

I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if his attention has been called to Mr. Michael Davitt's letter, which appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette of 4th March in- stant, in which he states that, having been tried and convicted in 1870, on a charge of treason-felony, he was degraded to the level of a non-political prisoner; is it true that he was so treated, and dressed like a convict in Portland in 1881–2, or did he receive any exceptional indulgence; and, when in Dartmoor, was he made to wear a collar and yoked to a cart to do the work of a beast of burden?


With the assent of the Home Secretary, as part of this Question relates to a matter in my knowledge, I will answer that portion of the hon. Member's Question. What I have to reply to is the second paragraph of the Question. As to what took place on the first imprisonment of Michael Davitt, I know nothing. It was not under my administration. But as to what took place in 1881–2 I will reply. The hon. Member asks whether Davitt was treated and dressed as a convict in Portland, or whether he received any exceptional indulgence. I will first answer that in the words of Davitt himself. He wrote a letter to me—very much to my surprise—immediately he was released from Portland. In it he says— Learning since my release from Portland that I am indebted to you for whatever kind treatment I have received while incarcerated there, I beg you will accept this as an expression of my grateful acknowledgment of such kindness, That is the first answer, and they are his thanks for the exceptional treatment he received. As it is a matter of some importance, I will tell the hon. Gentleman what the exceptional treatment was. Mr. Michael Davitt was arrested on February 4, a Friday, and I gave immediate directions that he was not to be treated as an ordinary convict, and I wish it to be quite understood that I acted on my own personal responsibility as Secretary of State, on the authority of the Prisons Act, by which the control of all prisons and prisoners is vested in and exercised by the Secretary of State. So that the Home Secretary is the prison authority. The Prison Commissioners are stated in, the 6th section to be appointed for the purpose of aiding the Secretary of State in carrying out the provisions of the Act, and in the 9th section they are ordered in the exercise of their powers to conform to any directions of the Secretary of State which they may receive from time to time. Therefore I considered it my duty to determine and order how Mr. Davitt should be treated. I accordingly sent for Sir E. Du Cane, one of the ablest administrators I have ever come across, and told him what my views were, and desired him to communicate them to the Governor of Portland Prison. As far as my recollection goes, Sir E. Du Cane entirely coincided with my view, although I need hardly say, if he had not done so, he would have loyally carried it out. Mr. Davitt having been arrested upon the Friday, on the Monday, February 7, I was asked a Question in the House of Commons upon the subject, and I stated then that Mr. Davitt was to be removed to Portland, and was not to have his hair cut. The next thing I directed was that he should not be moved in his prison clothes. These, of course, were special directions in his case. Immediately upon his being removed to Portland, I had an application, which I also stated to the House—indeed, everything I did in this matter was stated to the House of Commons in the presence of a very experienced Home Secretary, Sir Richard Cross, who could have challenged my conduct if he had thought it open to observation. This application I refer to was made on February 11th, and was from a private friend of Mr. Davitt's, to see him. That was not allowed by the prison rules. I ought to have mentioned, when I referred to the Prisons Act, that the convict prisons are not under the Prisons Act, but the authority of the Secretary of State is the same; in fact, if it be possible, he has more absolute control over the convict prisons than he has over the ordinary prisons. This friend of Mr. Davitt's was the wife of an honoured and respected Member of this House, now unfortunately deceased, I mean the late Mr. A. M. Sullivan. Mrs. Sullivan wished to see Mr. Davitt, and I wished her to see Mr. Davitt for two reasons. I wanted his friends to be satisfied with his treatment, and I wanted to be satisfied with their report myself, and not merely with official reports. The constant communication, which passed between Mr. Sullivan and myself at that time were the foundation of a friendship which, I am sorry to say, lasted too short a time. Mrs. Sullivan visted Mr. Davitt, and from that moment down to a year after the imprisonment of Mr. Davitt there never was a question or complaint in this House as to his treatment. I ordered constant visits of his friends not allowable by prison rules, and there were other female friends of Mr. Davitt who wished to see him. [A laugh.] I do not see why hon. Members should laugh. I will tell you why I preferred that these ladies should visit him. I treated him as a political prisoner, and I said that I did not think it desirable that his political colleagues should visit him, but I wished his personal friends to do so. That was the distinction I drew. I ordered also that his own personal friend and medical adviser, Dr. Kennedy, should visit him. He did so, and reported to me constantly upon his condition, and I have those reports still. I said there were no further questions asked in the House of Commons until March 20th, more than a year after his imprisonment. On March 20th, 1882, I made a statement in this House of all the particulars of the treatment of Mr. Davitt. It is in Hansard, and my statement was made in the face of this House, so that my conduct could be challenged and I could, if necessary, be called to account. I said— I not only wished to satisfy myself but also the friends of Mr. Davitt by allowing friends of his to visit him, and they have reported to me privately in a satisfactory manner. I could not give those private reports, but I see one of those visitors has published a letter in an American paper, in which he said:—'You will be glad to hear that Mr. Davitt is well, and that he has increased six pounds in weight since I last saw him, that he has no complaint to make, that he seems in wonderful spirits, and that he reads and writes every day.' I had given orders that he should receive writing materials and whatever books he desired. This, of course, was contrary to all prison rules— Mr. Davitt," his friend says, "is in the enjoyment of excellent health, and has nothing to complain of in his treatment. He is in as good spirits as if he were outside; satisfied with his diet and sleeping accommodation, and he takes an intense pleasure in the care of his garden. I wish to mention another thing. I ordered that he should not consort with any of the other convicts. I gave a direction that he should not be put to any disagreeable labour, and that he was to amuse himself in the garden; and his friend called it "his garden." As a fact, it was the Governor's garden which he so much enjoyed. "To wind up," his friend said, "we can say that his health has materially improved, and that he is now sound and strong." And I added at the time— I thought that a man in his position would require mental as well as physical recreation, and, therefore, I have ordered that what books he wishes he should he allowed to use, and that he should have the use also of writing materials. These have been a great satisfaction to him. I have also permitted his friends to see him, and I do not think that they will take an improper advantage of that permission. This will allow his friends to satisfy themselves as to his condition. Then, Sir, a question was put to me by the hon. and learned Member for Longford—"Have you not refused him Hansard?" I confessed that I had not thought of that, and I gave the answer that— If anyone likes to read Hansard he may do go as far as I am concerned. I should have thought that would have been an additional punishment. The only point on which Sir E. Du Cane expressed any doubt as to Mr. Davitt's treatment was as to whether Hansard should be allowed him. On consideration I thought that if Mr. Davitt wished to have Hansard for the purposes of the writing on which he was engaged, he should have Hansard, and he did have Hansard. That is the history of the prison treatment of Mr. Davitt upon which the hon. Member has asked a Question. Now, just to sum up what the exceptional treatment was, Mr. Davitt had a separate and comfortable room where he could read and write; he had a supply of writing materials and books, including Hansard; he was not allowed to consort with convicts; he had no irksome occupation, but occupied himself in an agreeable way in the garden; and he received visits from his friends. There is another point I ought to refer to, and that is with regard to the prison clothes. Now, I have already said that Mr. Davitt, when he was removed to Portland, was moved in his own clothes and not in prison clothess. I was not asked, I think, in this House, but I made a statement on this matter at the very beginning; and I said I thought prison clothes could not be dispensed with, because if he were allowed to wear his own clothes they might facilitate escape. From that time, as far as I can recollect, there was no question in this House, and I do not find that in any correspondence the matter of the prison clothes was pressed upon Mr. Davitt wore the prison clothes all the time he was at Portland; but if the matter had been pressed upon me, all I can say now is that, as in the case of Hansard. I think I should have dispensed with them. These are the facts of the case. When I was consulted by Lord Spencer as to the treatment of Irish prisoners I referred to the details of this case, and I recommended him in a letter that I have already read to the House to follow the example I had set. I thank the House for having enabled me to make this statement, I have told the hon. Member that my determination was that Mr. Davitt should not be treated as a convict, and he was not so treated. In that respect I followed, I believe, the course taken by my predecessors and by my successors; and if anybody had desired to challenge that course of conduct, it was stated in the House of Commons, and they had the opportunity here and at the time to do so. Having stated these facts as to the treatment of Mr. Davitt, I confess I was a little surprised—I am not going into details—at the tone of Mr. Davitt's letter on which this Question was founded; but I do not complain, because in these days one ought not to be surprised at anything.


I am afraid that the hon. Member will find my answer most uninteresting and jejune after the statement of the right hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman speaks from the fulness of his personal knowledge, while my answer contains only such particulars as I have been able to gather from the official sources at my command, Mr. Davitt, while at Portland in 1881–2, was clothed as a convict, but on medical grounds he was at once located in the infirmary in the usual course, and was there allowed such indulgences as were expressly recommended by the medical officer, including the use of books and writing materials. The Secretary of State himself verbally expressed the desire that every consideration should be shown to Mr. Davitt. While at Dartmoor in 1872 and subsequent years Mr. Davitt was employed as an ordinary convict, and had to assist, with five others, in drawing a cart with a yoke made of webbing placed on the shoulder and passed across the breast.

MR. DE LISLE (Leicestershire, Mid)

Under whose Administration was Mr. Davitt first imprisoned, and who was Home Secretary at the time?


The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian was Premier in 1872, and Mr. Bruce, now Lord Aberdare, was Home Secretary.