HL Deb 06 March 1849 vol 103 cc244-50

rose to move for certain Irish criminal returns, and returns showing the mortality in the prisons of Ireland during each of the last five years. He said, the object of his return was to show that the mortality in the Irish prisons had been augmented, in the three years 1845–6–7, from 131 to 1,315; and while the commitments to prison had augmented 2 to 1, the mortality augmented 16 to 1. He doubted whether so frightful a result had ever before been exhibited; and in the report of the prison inspectors of Ireland, this increase of mortality was to a great degree attributed to the decrease of transportation. To affirm that Parliament was unwarranted in repealing the punishment of transportation, or the Government justified in suspending its infliction, was impossible if the prisons were brought into such a condition by the alteration of the law or the practice, that within three years the deaths in prisons, including the untried as well as the convicted, the debtor as well as the criminal, should have augmented tenfold—this was a state of things which ought not for one moment to be allowed. The following were the words of the report of the Inspectors General of Prisons on this point:— The fourth cause of the great pressure has boon the unfortunate necessity which occurred simultancously with the distress, of discontinuing transportation to Van Diemen's Land. This had inevitably resulted in the Government being compelled to leave large numbers of persons under rule of transportation in the county gaols. This necessity will be at once admitted when we state, that at the commencement of the year 1847, there was not accommodation for a single prisoner sentenced to transportation at the disposal of Government; Smithfield prison, the only one previously available, requiring to be entirely remodelled, in order to render it fit for the confinement of prisoners for lengthened periods. During the year 1847, the number of prisoners sentenced to transportation actually increased fourfold—the average of male prisoners transported during the preceding seven years being only 618, while, including 200 left at the termination of the year 1846, the number has within the last year amounted to 2,350 convicts, up to the 14th February, 1848. He felt justified, therefore, in saying that it was imprudent—to use no stronger word—to discontinue or greatly to reduce transportation to the colonies, until some measure had been devised and adopted which was calculated to serve as a substitute. The last return for which he would move was, the number of prisoners sentenced to transportation, and imprisoned for the same period. His noble and learned Friend (Lord Campbell) had on a former night most unjustly and erroneously attributed this to a settled design of the Irish magistrates, by the corrupt and oppressive use of authority, to provide emigration for these paupers at the public expense. This was a serious charge coming from one who for a period, however short, stood, as Lord Chancellor, at the head of the Irish magistracy. He would not weaken the force of the triumphant reply given by his noble Friend (Lord Stanley) to this most unwarrantable accusation. But he would remind those who had not heard that conclusive refutation, that the charge, though aimed at the Irish justice of the peace, in reality fell on Lord Clarendon, whose duty it would have been, if the charge were well founded, to have protected the Queen's subjects from this injustice. It was hardly necessary for him, likewise, to add that these sentences were not pronounced by these magistrates at all, but by independent judges, the assistant barristers appointed by the Crown. But his learned Friend was wholly uninformed of the facts of the case. The pressure of distress was the great cause of the increase of crime. In truth as well as in poetry, the turpis egestus and the malesuada fames were closely united. The great augmentation of crime in Ireland within a certain period had arisen under the severe pressure of the distress which prevailed in that country, and this was apparent from the character of the offences committed. The great part of the more serious offences consisted of sheep stealing and cattle stealing. God forbid that he should seek to excuse or to palliate that or any other crime! but he merely mentioned what was an undoubted fact, to be easily explained by the state of famine and of abject poverty which so generally prevailed. With regard to the working of the Vagrancy Act, the report states— This law, passed last Session, compels magistrates to commit to gaol all persons found begging, whereby an immense mass of destitution, filth, and disease is forced into prisons, never in their original construction calculated to receive. It must be borne in mind that, in addition to the want of absolute room in the prisons, the supplies of bedding and clothing are limited to the average wants of each county, and that the present distress for funds in all the counties of Ireland precludes the possibility of those supplies being enlarged to any extent at all capable of meeting the present demand. The immediate evil then is, that numbers of these wretched creatures so committed are obliged to be on straw in the passages and day-rooms of the prisons, without a possibility of washing or exchanging their own filthy rags for proper apparel. The effect of such a state of things as this upon the health and lives of the other unfortunate inmates of the prison, requires no comment. Upon the necessity of passing this Act, or the propriety of the mode of punishment adopted under it, it is not our place to offer any opinion; but of its effect upon the condition of the gaols we are painfully conscious. If Parliament made an alteration in the criminal law of the country, they were bound to look before them, and to see that there were means to carry such alteration into effect. If they passed laws against mendicancy and vagrancy, they should inquire first whether those laws could be executed. That, however, had not been done in the present case. As to these alterations in the transportation system adopted by Her Majesty's present Government he had only to add, that he was sure the noble Lord (Earl Grey) would have abandoned them fifty times over rather than have adopted the course which he had pursued, if he knew the calamitous effects which would have followed. The noble Lord concluded by moving for the returns in the words of his notice.


said, that it might be for the convenience of the House if he at once followed his noble Friend, and stated what the facts really were. Of course, he could have no objection to the returns that were applied for being granted; but with respect to the inference which his noble Friend had drawn, that the increase of mortality in the prisons in Ireland was owing to a change of policy with regard to transportation, he should admit that the whole argument would be irresistible, were it not that it was open to the slight objection of resting on no foundation whatever—that what were put forward as facts were not facts at all. The inspectors of prisons in Ireland had got into a bad habit, which sometimes existed in that country, of imagining facts, and then arguing on that foundation alone, without taking any trouble to ascertain what the real facts of the case were. Their Lordships had just heard it stated, on the authority of those inspectors, that transportation from Ireland had been done away with. Now, with regard to female convicts, their Lordships were aware that no change had taken place; and as to the male convicts, he held in his hand a return of the number of convicts that had been sent from Ireland for the five years ending in 1845, and for the three years that had since elapsed. He found that the average number of convicts sent from Ireland in the five years between 1841 and 1845 inclusive, was 538, while the average number for the years 1846–7–8 was 562, being an increase of 24 on the former period; in the last named year, 1848, the number of convicts removed from Ireland was no less than 855. The real fact was, that the overcrowding of the gaols in Ireland was owing, not to the convicts having been kept at home, but, as the noble Lord had stated, to the great distress which prevailed in the country. The number of convictions in Ireland had increased to a most frightful extent; and he could not avoid adding his opinion, that the sentence of transportation had been latterly passed in Ireland in rather an indiscriminate manner. He found that up to 1845 the average number of male persons sentenced to transportation in Ireland was less than 545, while in 1847 the number was 1,870, and in 1848 it amounted, he believed, to nearly 1,900. At the last quarter-sessions in Ireland, independent of the assizes, the number sentenced to transportation, for one quarter of a year, was greater than the average annual number up to 1845, for both quarter-sessions and assizes. It was obvious that so enormous an increase in the number of convicts could not but place Government in a most difficult position, seeing that no adequate provision existed for their reception in the colonies. He should be sorry to censure the gentry of Ireland, but he could not, consistently with his duty, avoid expressing his conviction, founded on these returns, that the grand jurors of Ireland had not exercised the powers entrusted to them by the Legislature, of increasing the prison accommodation under their charge. The noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Richmond), who had paid much attention to this subject, would bear him out in the statement, that it was, of all things, most important, in maintaining a proper system of prison discipline, that the accommodation should be fully proportionate to the demand to be made upon it. The grand juries possessed powers of increasing, either permanently or temporarily, the gaol accommodation in their several districts. These powers were exercised by the magistracy in this country by making provision, from time to time, for necessary additions to the gaols; and in conferring that power upon the grand juries in Ireland, the Parliament had done all that could be required of it. As to the Vagrancy Act, he could not but believe that it would be a useful practice to cheek the demoralising practice of vagrancy in Ireland, as well as in this country. Her Majesty's Government had done all in their power to meet the existing evils. He need scarcely remind their Lordships that their predecessors in office had discovered, in 1846, that from the want of accommodation in Van Diemen's Land and Norfolk Island, the only two settlements to which convicts from Ireland had been sent, the most fearful state of things existed, which rendered it absolutely necessary to suspend the sending of convicts there for some time. Every exertion was made to provide accommodation elsewhere. Sevaral depôts had been formed in Ireland, at Spike Island, at Portland, Gibraltar, and elsewhere, and accommodation was thus afforded for no less than 1,400 convicts within the last two years. He regretted, as deeply as the noble Lord could do, the calamitous results which followed the overcrowding of the prisons in Ireland; but, at the same time, their Lordships would see, that in this question of transportation, it was absolutely necessary to proceed with caution. As he had stated the other night, he believed that transportation, when attended with proper precautions, was a most invaluable system of punishment; but if they sent abroad an unlimited number of convicts, without having proper accommodation provided for them, they should make up their minds to discontinue the system altogether. He was quite convinced that it was impossible to relieve the prisons of Ireland by sending such largo masses of convicts abroad, while they had no accommodation for their reception. At the same time, the Government were doing everything in their power to extend that accommodation as much as possible. At Bermuda the depot on dry land was progressing very rapidly. At Portland, too, they were providing large accommodation, and though this was intended for English convicts, it would have the effect of enabling a large number of Irish convicts to be received elsewhere. But, in addition to these considerations, they had the fact that a great proportion of the Irish convicts were utterly unfit for transportation, and the Lord Lieutenant had felt it necessary to issue instructions that no convicts should be forwarded for transportation who were not certified as fit to endure the voyage. This was found to be necessary in the case of a vessel that had been sent from Ireland with convicts, in 1847, to Bermuda; the Governor had reported that the constitutions of the prisoners had been so completely broken down by the previous famine, that they were unable to bear even that short voyage; and there was little doubt that if they had been sent the long voyage to Australia, the mortality would have been frightful.


said, it was very inconvenient, that whenever an Irish Peer made a statement in their Lordships' House, another got up immediately afterwards to contradict it; but this system of contradicting assertions was carried still farther in the noble Earl's comments on the report of the Irish inspectors of prisons, He was loth to take for granted any statement that came from Ireland; but certainly if the gaols were in such a state as had been represented by the noble Lord, it was the duty of the Government to institute some inquiries on the subject. He could not understand how magistrates could commit persons to gaols when fever was rife, and still it would appear that many of the convicts were fitter for an hospital than a prison. He should only further say, that the number of Irish labourers wandering about this country was really alarming. They went in bands to the cottages, and, while the husband was away at his work, forced the wife to give up the food she had prepared for him and her children. He hoped that by some means an alteration would soon be effected in so deplorable a state of things.


replied: He begged altogether to protest against the discredit most unjustly thrown on the Inspector General's reports, by the Secretary for the Colonies. The report from which he had quoted had been lying on the table since last year. He had then stated the facts precisely as he had done to-night; he had at that time called the attention of the Secretary of State to the frightful statement the report contained. Its truth had not been for a moment controverted. From that time to the present these statements were before the Government, without any commentary or correction having appeared, and without the censure or dismissal of those public officers, who were now charged by a Minister of the Crown with the offence of falsifying public documents presented to Parliament by command of Her Majesty. Every fact on which he had relied was set forth in the report. As to the charges made by the noble Lord against the Irish grand juries, it was certainly the first time that he had ever heard those bodies charged with an indisposition to spend the public money. And he begged to add, in proof of what they had done in this respect, that the expenditure on account of prisons for the last few years was nearly double what it had been previously. He then spoke in the presence of two noble Lords who had filled the office of Chief Secretary for Ireland (Lord Stanley and Lord St. Germans), and he would appeal to them whether the prisons of Ireland had not been during their tenures of office as regularly and efficiently conducted as any similar establishment in any part of the empire?

EARL GREY begged to explain

He had not stated that the prisons' inspectors of Ireland had reported what was not true in point of fact as to the removal of the convicts to Van Diemen's Land having been discontinued, which they all knew was not the fact; but what he had stated was, that the argument of the noble Lord, based upon their report, that the existing evil was caused by the change of policy with regard to transportation, and the discontinuance of the removal of convicts from Ireland, was unfounded, inasmuch as a greater number of convicts had been sent out of Ireland during the last three years than in any former period. He might add that the whole subject was under the earnest consideration of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department and of the Lord Lieutenant, and one of the results was, the recent discharge of a large number of prisoners, whose period of imprisonment had been nearly completed.—Motion agreed to.

House adjourned to Thursday next.

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