HL Deb 12 August 1836 vol 35 cc1154-9
The Duke of Richmond

, in rising to put some questions to the President of the Council with reference to prison discipline, observed that their Lordships would recollect that in the last Session of Parliament a Select Committee of that House had entered into an extended inquiry on that important subject. He believed, that the Government were anxious to take an early opportunity of carrying into effect the recommendations of that Committee; and he hoped, before they met next Session, that the dreadful state of the city gaols would be remedied and corrected. Hereafter, he trusted that they would find the gaol in the City of London not in a worse condition than the prisons in other parts of the country. He was happy to learn, from the Reports of the Inspectors of Prisons, that several of those which they had visited were, in consequence of recent regulations, in a much better state than at any former period. He hoped that care would unceasingly be taken to adopt and enforce proper rules and regulations. He was strongly of opinion, that it would be a very prudent measure if the great Penitentiary-house, at Millbank, were placed under the authority of the Home Department, and converted into a house of correction for offenders committed for trifling offences. It unfortunately was the fact, that the system, or rather the want of system, which had too long prevailed in the prisons of this metropolis, instead of reforming those who became their inmates, made them much worse. The increase of juvenile offenders in this country was much to be lamented. That increase in London, Westminster, and many of the large towns, was very great, and called for the deep and earnest attention of those to whom the internal government of the country was more immediately intrusted. They had it before them in evidence that children of the tender ages of nine, ten, and eleven years had been committed for very trifling offences—for stealing sweat-meats, and for thefts of an equally minor character. In many instances these children might almost be said to be abandoned by their parents, who went out to work and left their offspring at home without any person to check or to control, much less to instruct them. When he knew the great difficulties which met this question of the means of reforming juvenile offenders, at every step, he could not be surprised at the fact of the increase of their number. Still he must contend that it was necessary that both the Legislature and the Government should pay a most careful attention to it. It was proved to be impossible to reform these children by one or two months' imprisonment in a common gaol; and when he was aware that an association existed in the county of Warwick, which, with great humanity, had opened a school where offenders of tender years were sent, instead of to the county gaol; and when he remembered that in the cities both of London and Westminster, societies had been established in a manner most creditable to themselves, with a view to endeavour to reform those juvenile offenders—amongst which were the Refuge for the Destitute, the Bridewell, the Ladies' Charitable Society, the Children's Friend Society, besides many others, all of which had tried the experiment with the most complete success,—he thought the expe- riment ought to be tried by the Government on a larger scale than could be effected by any private charitable institution. These societies, after giving instruction to juvenile offenders, and after having succeeded in restoring them to habits of virtue and industry, afforded them the means to emigrate to the colonies as free apprentices, and the returns from the colonies showed that those very individuals, who otherwise would have crowded the gaols of this country, and thereby increased and extended moral contamination, had, through the benefits of religious education and a system of discipline for a short time apart from their elder associates in crime, become in the colonies useful, exemplary, and industrious members of society. He would not enter at greater length into the subject, for he believed his noble Friend, the President of the Council, would admit, and that the House would agree, that the subject was most deserving the serious consideration of the Legislature. He could not sit down, however, without calling the attention of his Majesty's Government to the state of the hulk for the reception of boys at Chatham. The crowded state of that hulk rendered all classification impossible—the hardened offenders became associated with those who had but taken the first step in crime—in short, between 300 and 400 boys were thrown together in a small ship, and no person, except he visited the vessel, could imagine the evils of the system. He would, therefore, suggest that his Majesty's Government ought to lose no time in removing (which he believed they had the power to do) these children from that ship to some prison or building in the interior of the country, where, by a well-regulated system of instruction and discipline, a great portion of these unfortunates would be saved, but even if to the extent of only one out of every ten, he was sure the experiment ought to be tried. The questions he had to ask his Majesty's Government were—1st, whether they had taken into consideration the recommendations of the Report of the Select Committee of the House of Lords last Session in respect to juvenile offenders; 2dly, whether his noble Friend (the Marquess of Lansdowne) had taken into his consideration the propriety of following the example of the institutions to which he had referred, by trying the experiment of schools with suitable detention, to which to send boys convicted of trivial offences; and, lastly, whether any steps had been taken to get rid of the hulk for the reception of boys at Chatham.

The Marquess of Lansdowne

thought that his noble Friend could not have submitted a more important matter for the consideration of the House and of the Government than that to which his speech had reference. In answer to his noble Friend, he felt himself authorised to state that his noble Friend at the head of the Home Department had turned his attention to every one of the subjects which the noble Duke had just brought before the House, and that his noble Friend proposed, during the approaching recess, to consider the expediency of following the suggestions both of the Select Committee of this House and of the inspectors of prisons as to the formation and establishment of prisons for the reception of juvenile offenders. No one who had read the Reports furnished to their Lordships upon this subject could fail to see the necessity of something being done in this respect; for it could not be lost sight of, that though this country abounded with the means of juvenile employment, yet that the number of the juvenile offenders exceeded that of any country in Europe. The Reports on the table showed that for a single year the number of commitments was between 2,000 and 3,000 girls and boys under sixteen years of age, and that of these a considerable portion, he believed between 700 and 800, were under the age of twelve years. These were the commitments to common prisons, in which it was impossible to follow such a system of discipline as would be calculated to improve them, or even to save them from contamination. He, therefore, was extremely glad to state, that his noble Friend at the head of the Home Department was preparing the means of establishing, at least as matter of experiment, a place for the reception of juvenile offenders. In his own opinion, his noble Friend would not stop there, for he believed that an effectual system for the improvement or the reform of children could not be carried into effect by prisons alone. In his judgment it was indispensable that children, yet young in crime, but who were the victims of ignorance, of abandonment, of desertion by their parents, or were totally incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, should be saved from condemnation to any prison whatever, provided that detention could be made effectual in schools, to be erected either under the name of asylums or refuges, but schools calculated to carry into effect the sentence of the law. That this might be done, satisfactory evidence had been afforded by the experiments made by the private institutions to which his noble Friend had referred. To the success of those establishments, and of the experiments they had made, he had been himself a witness, and he could assert, in corroboration of his noble Friend, that numerous apparently abandoned juvenile offenders, after a year's detention in these schools, had become in the colonies most useful subjects, as was proved by the favourable accounts and returns received from the colonies of their virtue, honesty, and useful conduct in various branches of life to which they had been sent. For the purpose of completely trying the experiment on a larger scale, he for one was prepared to give to the magistrates a great discretion as to the punishment to be awarded to juvenile offenders, and to increase their powers as to longer sentences of detention, with a view to accomplish the reclamation of juvenile offenders. By these means many useful and wholesome subjects for the colonies would be constantly ready for transmission, and at the same time lessen the amount of crime in this country As to the state of the principal prison (Newgate) of this metropolis, he had to observe, that his noble Friend at the head of the Home Department had devoted considerable time and attention to it, and that steps had been taken to place it in such a state and system of discipline as to make it a pattern and an example worthy to be imitated.

The Earl of Ripon

said, that having shared with his noble Friend (the Duke of Richmond) in the labours of the Select Committee on Prison Discipline last year, and in the personal inspection of the prisons of the metropolis and its neighbourhood, he might be permitted to confirm to the fullest extent all that had been stated by his noble Friend. He (the Earl of Ripon) was rejoiced to hear that it was the intention of his Majesty's Government to take the subject into its earliest consideration. The whole of the evidence proved one thing, viz., the necessity of supplying a remedy for the evils which exist; and the only contrary suggestion thrown out was one which he could not believe would be listened to by either House of Parliament, and that was, he must call it, the paltry question of expense. He was confident that in a matter involving the improvement in the condition of these children, and the vast benefit in other respects to the State, the question of the expense of a few thousands would not be allowed to weigh one feather in the scale, in comparison with the results which would arise from the adoption of a principle which the Select Committee had recommended, and which the Government were prepared to follow.