HC Deb 02 April 1897 vol 48 cc454-8
MR. E. H. PICKERSGILL (Bethnal Green, S.W.)

called attention to the circumstances under which a convict was killed by warders at Dartmoor Prison on Christmas Eve, and to the Standing Order of the Directors of Convict Prisons under which they purport to have acted. He had put several questions on the subject to the Home Secretary, and he complained of a want of courtesy on the part of the right hon. Gentleman in not being present, the subject being one in which he was concerned, and which he himself regarded as a matter of great importance. If the circumstances to which the Resolution referred had been the subject of any proper inquiry he would certainly not have troubled the House with it. But it had only been inquired into by a coroner's jury, and that at Princetown. He did not know whether hon. Members knew Princetown. But he had been there, and the place was almost entirely dependent on the prison. He was well aware that the Prisons Act of 1877 prescribed that no person having any trade relations with a prison should be on the jury of a coroner's inquest concerning the death of a convict, and he had no reason to suppose that the letter of the enactment was violated in this instance, but he thought the verdict of a coroner's jury at Princetown on a question in which the prison authorities were concerned could be of very little value. To have put the warders on their trial at the Devon Assizes would not only have been far more satisfactory to the public, but fairer to the men themselves, and then there would have been an opportunity for obtaining the opinion of the Court for Crown Cases Reserved on the application by the Home Office of an antiquated rule of the common law—a Court which, especially when the present Lord Chief Justice presided, had a robust way of disposing of such obsolete rules. Was the Standing Order itself complied with in this case? It prescribed:— The first shot at least shall be wide of the mark, and if it is necessary again to fire the aim should be low. But the evidence of the prison surgeon was that the liver and one lung of this unfortunate man were torn to pieces by no fewer than 13 slugs, and the convict witnesses swore that the warders were within 6ft. of the man when they fired, and they could have knocked him down with the butt end of their muskets. The Standing Order further prescribed: — In cases of absolute necessity it is lawful to shoot at a felon convict if his escape cannot be otherwise prevented. When the Home Secretary was challenged for his authority for this statement of the law, he fell back on the ancient rule of the common law that a felon in cases of necessity might be shot if his escape could not otherwise be prevented. But the Home Office had applied the rule to a condition of things which could not possibly have been contemplated in the remote time when the rule of the common law sprang up. It did not apply to a person who had been convicted, but only to a person trying to escape from justice and to avoid trial altogether. When the rule originated, punishment for every felony was substantially death; and in those days there was a strict relation between the risk a man ran who tried to avoid justice and the risk he ran if he submitted. Now felony might be punished with a few days' imprisonment; yet if a man attempted to escape from those few days his custodian was justified in shooting him dead. This showed how absurd it was to base the modern law on the ancient theory of the common law. There was another consideration which was well worth attention. There was some reason in the rule in ancient times, because if a man once got away, communication between one part of the country and another being difficult, the chances were that he would not be recaptured, But experience showed now that if a convict got away for a time he was absolutely certain in the end to be recaptured. Therefore this rule, even literally understood, did not apply in the circumstances of the present day. It had been said in the Press that this rule acted for the benefit of convicts, inasmuch as it enabled them to have more liberty than they would otherwise be able to enjoy. If the Standing Order were to be regarded as a favour, surely it ought to be extended to the misdemeanant as well as to the felon.


did not think the accusation of the hon. Member of want of courtesy against the Home Secretary was warranted. ["Hear, hear!"] The Home Secretary did not expect the Motion to come on so soon, and he assured the hon. Gentleman that the Home Secretary was the last person in or out of the House to treat anyone with a lack of courtesy. The hon. Member had suggested that the warders in this ease should have been sent as criminals to stand their trial at the Devon Assizes. He knew Dartmoor better than the hon. Member. He knew the life of a warder in that forsaken place, in addition to the difficulties and the dangers of his office, and he could not refrain from thinking that the hon. Member had been rather hard on the warders. The post of warder in convict prisons was, in any circumstances, a very difficult and disagreeable one. Taken as a rule, their duties were discharged humanely, and in a manner unsurpassed by the prison officials of any other country. There had been a full inquiry into this question by means of a coroner's inquest. Speaking from recollection, he said that the inquiry was a full and complete one; and he thought his hon. Friend vas wrong in supposing that Princetown was a place dependent on the prison. There were other industries there. It was, to some extent, an agricultural town, and there was a population independent of the prison. If there were no evidence to contradict the statement that the warder fired at the convict from a distance of six feet, he maintained that it was absolutely incredible to believe that a powerful warder, with a man within six feet of him, should not lay hold of the runaway instead of choosing to shoot him. But there was absolute evidence to contradict any statement of the kind, and it was given before the coroner's jury. Public opinion, which was likely to be alarmed by acts of violence, was apt to look with disfavour on an official who acted in a manner to inflict injury; but in this case the public opinion of all classes in the surrounding districts confirmed the finding of the jury, and it was proved that the escape could not otherwise be prevented. If a convict were to escape on Dartmoor he would soon escape from sight, owing to the nature of the ground; therefore the warder was obliged to act quickly or not at all. The House should remember also that all round Dartmoor there were isolated dwellings and defenceless people living unguarded, in the secure belief that the guardians of the peace would do their duty. It would be an alarming thing if a man of the dangerous character this convict was proved to be were allowed to be at large even for a short time. He did not quite remember the career of the convict during the short period of his escape, but he knew he did, in that brief time, break into and enter residences, and if he had been resisted, perhaps violence or even murder might have ensued. It was as necessary now as in the olden times that convicts should not be at large or escape for even a period of 24 hours: therefore, in the interest of public safety, and in the interests of the defenceless dwellers in the neighbouring places, the action of the warder should be vindicated. Even if there had been an error of judgment on the part of the warder, he thought, considering the difficult circumstances in which the officer was placed, that error was entitled to their kindest consideration rather than adverse criticism. He maintained that, according to all the evidence, there had been no departure from what might be regarded as the duty of the warder, in his criticism upon whom the hon. Member had been a little hard. He hoped the hon. Gentleman would now consider he had received adequate information on the subject. As to his request that there should be a Departmental Committee to inquire into the whole circumstances, he was not in a position to answer for his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but he did not think there was the least chance of his granting such a Committee.

SIR WILFRID LAWSON (Cumberland, Cockermouth)

rather regretted, now that they had Committees and Commissions to inquire into every possible subject, that the hon. Gentleman had been unable to hold out hope that there should be a Committee on a question in which human life was concerned. When they put arms into everybody's hands, there was always a great difficulty in knowing how the weapons would be used —whether they would shoot people satisfactorily or not, in the right place, or at the right distance. He himself did not think they could really do much for the protection of prisoners who attempted to escape, whatever steps they adopted. Sir Edmund Henderson told him that some years ago a number of convicts were shot while trying to escape, and the authorities issued orders to the warders that when prisoners attempted to run away they should fire "wide." A few weeks after a warder wrote to his superiors:— I beg to report that last Tuesday No. 27 tried to escape, on which, according to orders, I tired wide and hit him in the back. [Laughter.]