HL Deb 23 April 1861 vol 162 cc976-80

rose to inquire of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Whether any Measures have been taken to investigate the Truth of the Charges made by the Chaplain of the Bermuda Hulks against the Discipline and present Management of the Convicts confined there? The noble Earl said it was not necessary for him to go into details on the subject, which was one which he brought under the notice of their Lordships towards the close of the last Session. It was quite enough to say that the picture which the chaplain drew of the present management of that convict establishment represented as disgraceful a state of things as it was well possible to imagine. When he called their Lordships' attention to this matter on the former occasion the noble Duke the Secretary for the Colonies was absent from this country; but the President of the Council promised that it should receive the attention of Her Majesty's Government, and undertook that there should be a full and complete inquiry on the spot as soon as possible. After that promise, he must say, he was very much surprised at the despatch of the Governor. He was astonished at the easy and cursory manner in which the Governor spoke of this very distressing case, and at the little evidence on which, so far as the blue book was concerned, he seemed to have satisfied himself that the assertions of the chaplain were not borne out. He regretted, too, that the despatch from the Colonial Office implied an approval of all the Governor had said and done on the subject. And what had he done? He said that he had paid a visit to those hulks on three several occasions. But in the first place it would appear from his despatch that his endeavour was not to ascertain whether the statements of the chaplain were true; but to ascertain whether they were not false and erroneous. Again, there was a singular fact connected with the visits which the Governor paid on three several occasions, and during which he said he found the hulks in a perfect state of order. The noble Earl the President of the Council undertook that there should be a local inquiry after the discussion in that House; but these three visits were all antecedent to that discussion. In the next place the Governor said that there had been no intimation which could have reached the hulks of his intention to visit them. He could perfectly understand that so far as the Governor himself was concerned there had been no such intimation; but, without meaning to cast any imputation on the Controller and Deputy-Controller of the Hulks, he could not but think that the Governor had not acted prudently in selecting those officers to accompany him, they being the persons who were primarily responsible for any mismanagement there might have been. The chaplain in firm but temperate language re-affirmed the statement which he made last year; and he himself had received, in common, no doubt, with the Colonial Secre- tary, a large number of communications from unfortunate men who had been at various times inmates of the hulks at Bermuda, on reading which, and after making allowance for the misrepresentation and exaggeration which might naturally be looked for in them, it was impossible not to feel that there was a great substratum of truth in the statements of the chaplain. From official sources it appeared that the proportion of offences and punishments to the number of prisoners was greater than it ought to be, that there was a continual shifting and changing of the warders, whilst the mere practice of associating persons on board of the hulks without any classification of age or offences was enough to create a probability that abuses would ensue. With the experience of the den of infamy at Norfolk Island, the horrors of which had led to the suppression of the system of transportation there, there was a risk of Parliament wilfully closing their eyes to abuses of a similar character when they were pointed out. A step in the right direction had been taken when one of these hulks was broken up and the convicts sent into prison at Bermuda; but no permanent improvement could be looked for as long as the system of association continued; for there was the same want of classification in the prisons as in the hulks. It must always be remembered that such establishments in Bermuda, owing to the distance which separated them from this country, peculiarly required the vigilance of the Secretary of Slate for the Colonies to keep up to the mark the efforts of public servants, upon whom, in similar establishments at homo, public opinion would exercise a beneficial influence.


said, he agreed that no duty could be more incumbent upon the Secretary of State for the Colonies than to watch over the conduct of the convict establishments in various parts of our Colonial Empire. With regard to the first branch of his noble Friend's statement, having reference to the complaints made last year by the Chaplain of Bermuda, he must say, that having read over all the documents, his impression was somewhat different from that arrived at by his noble Friend. The statements of the chaplain appeared to him, to say the least, considerably exaggerated. He did not impute blame to that gentleman, who at the time he made these statements doubtless believed them to be correct; but, both as regarded tendencies of prisoners to reformation and also with regard to abuses, chaplains were liable to be greatly imposed upon. But he by no means intended to affirm, as the noble Lord from the second part of his statement seemed to apprehend, that the condition of the convict establishment at Bermuda was as satisfactory as could be wished. He had hoped on his return from America with the Prince of Wales last autumn to be able to visit Bermuda, and to acquaint himself with the general condition of these buildings and hulks; but that was found to be impossible, and as soon as he came home he was called on to consider whether it would be desirable to send out a Commissioner to ascertain the truth of the complaints, or what other course would be most advisable. Having come to the conclusion that the same objections which were made to the visit of the Governor would apply more strongly to the visit of a Royal Commissioner, and, seeing that the period of office of the late Governor had expired, he thought the best course would be to send out as his successor a gentleman who had already filled the office of Governor elsewhere, and from his long employment in the service of Government as an officer of engineers and in civil capacities would be eminently fitted to investigate the subject. Colonel Ord before his departure was required to acquaint himself minutely with the arrangements of the various convict establisments in this country in order that such steps as could be adopted for introducing improvements into the discipline in the prisons, and especially on board the hulks might be carried out on his arrival. But he was bound to say that he believed many of the evils which were known to exist were inherent in the system of convict establishments abroad, which for various reasons it was impossible to maintain in as good condition as those in this country. In the first place discipline and classification could never be kept up on board these hulks as perfectly as in well regulated prisons on shore, while the extent of prison accommodation at Bermuda, to a certain extent, necessitated the occupation of hulks. Climate, moreover, interfered with the strictness of discipline. Everything depended on the efficiency of those who had the superintendence of the prisoners, and there was a great disinclination on the part of properly qualified persons to undertake the management of a convict establishment, under such circum- stances as that at Bermuda, and therefore, persons of inferior capabilities to those holding similar situations at home had to be employed. He was sure the experience of previous Colonial Secretaries would bear him out in the assertion that it was impossible to find gentlemen of the same stamp as Colonel Jebb and others subordinate to him in this country willing to go out and take charge of convict establishments in the colonies. The true remedy, therefore, lay either in the reduction or abolition of the establishment at Bermuda. He had no hesitation in saying that it was possible to diminish the establishment, and in fact a diminution was already being effected, and he hoped shortly to be able to dispense with it altogether. By the alterations which had taken place in our criminal law a material alteration had been made in the amount of transportation; and at the present moment none of our convict establishments abroad were full, their maintenance, therefore, being attended not only with expense, but with evils such as those to which attention had been called. If it became a question which of these convict establishments should be abolished, for reasons which must be obvious to the House, it would be more desirable to abandon that at Bermuda than at Gibraltar. It would not be respectful to the Committee which was at present investigating the subject, to prejudge the question; but it was his individual opinion that if one of those depots were to be relinquished, Bermuda was the one which ought to be given up. He had been in communication with the War Office and the Admiralty with reference to the works which were being executed at Bermuda. He learnt that those works were very considerably advanced, and that it would be possible to complete them within a very short time. In the meantime every effort would be made to correct the abuses which existed, and to prevent the recurrence of the frightful scenes which were represented by the chaplain to have taken place.


briefly contrasted the state of the convict establishment in Gibraltar and Bermuda, and the amount of work done at each, and contended that the former was in a better position in every respect than the latter, and that this was attributable to the maladministration of affairs at Bermuda.

House adjourned at Half past Six o'clock, to Thursday next, half-past Ten o'clock.