HL Deb 23 June 1862 vol 167 cc863-6

said, he rose to submit to the House a Bill, which he hoped it would read a first time, though its object was to put an end to one of the most ancient institutions of the country. But he thought their Lordships would agree with him in thinking it was an institution with which they would willingly part when he told them the object of the Bill was to shut up the Queen's Bench Prison. The Prison of which the present building was the representative originated in very early times; it was probably coeval with the Court of Queen's Bench itself. At a very early period there were three principal prisons in London—the Queen's Bench Prison, the Fleet Prison, and the Marshalsea. The Queen's Prison was appropriated to prisoners committed by the Court of Queen's Bench, the Court of Exchequer, and Court of Common Pleas. The Fleet Prison received prisoners from the Court of Chancery; and the Marshalsea from the Lord Steward's Court, the Palace Court, and the Admiralty. The first fruits of the measure passed in 1842 for the abolition of arrest for debt on mesne process was to enable Parliament to reduce the three prisons to one, the Queen's Prison being substituted for the Marshalsea and the Fleet. The present Queen's Bench prison was erected in 1759; it had accommodation for 300 prisoners, and occupied an area of ground between two and three acres in extent. He understood that the value of this space of ground was estimated at between £200,000 and £300,000. It was therefore no mean gift to the nation if a property of this value could be converted to public purposes of greater utility. The sum hitherto voted by Parliament for maintaining this prison was between £3,000 and £4,000 a year, the whole of which would ultimately be saved to the country; although their Lordships were well aware that a measure of the kind could not be taken unaccompanied by some allowances and continuances of pay, which would prevent the whole of the money being at once available to the public exchequer. For the power of shutting up the prison they were indebted to the Bankruptcy Law Amendment Act of last year, the object of which was really to abolish imprisonment for debt, unless that debt were contracted fraudulently. How effectually the Act had accomplished that object might be seen from a comparison between the state of the three prisons in Middlesex and within the precincts of Westminster, in October, 1861, and at the present time. On the 1st October, 1861, when the Bankruptcy Amendment Act came into operation, the aggregate number of persons imprisoned for debt in the Queen's Bench, Horsemonger Lane, and Whitecross Street prisons was 324. By a return made on Saturday last it appeared that in the Queen's Bench-omitting debtors who were confined for having contracted debts fraudulently, and omitting also insolvents who had been remanded by the Insolvent Debtors Court—consisting together of about fourteen persons—the number of prisoners for debt was six or seven; in Horsemonger Lane Gaol two; and in Whitecross Street fourteen or fifteen; and some of these would have been discharged but for the clause introduced into the Bankruptcy Act, that non traders should not be entitled to discharge until after two months' imprisonment. Their Lordships would therefore see that the necessity for continuing the Queen's Bench had entirely ceased. The object of the present Bill was to transfer the few prisoners therein confined to Whitecross Street Prison, where there was admirable accommodation for a much greater number of persons than in all human probability would ever be confined there for debt. Their Lordships were probably aware that even the present number of persons in the Queen's Bench would not have been so large but for the practise which had been introduced—he could hardly tell why—under which any debtor in any prison throughout the country might be removed by writ of habeas to the Queen's Bench. Prisoners often availed themselves of this privilege, because in the Queen's Bench, owing to the spaciousness of the buildings, they had amusements—such as playing at ball and other games, by which time was wiled away—and he feared these allurements sometimes had led men to prefer imprisoment to making a discovery and surrender of their property for the benefit of their creditors. He confessed he had much pleasure in presenting this Bill to their Lordships as the first fruits of the Bankruptcy Amendment Act; and he might add, that when the Insolvent Debtors Court was closed, as it would be in a few days, even the present number of prisoners would be reduced; and, meanwhile, the Bill which he now asked leave to introduce would, he hoped, effectually accomplish the end desired.

The noble and learned Lord then presented "A Bill for the Discontinuance of the Queen's Prison, and Removal of the Prisoners to Whitecross Street Prison."


reminded the noble and learned Lord that he had stated that the site of the Queen's Prison was to be appropriated to public purposes, but he had forgotten to inform them what those purposes were to be.


said, he had entertained a sanguine hope that it would be possible that the site of the prison might have been made available for the purposes of St. Thomas's Hospital. He was sorry to say, however, there might be impediments in the way of so desirable an object, and he had therefore in the Bill merely placed the area and the building in the usual manner at the disposal of the Board of Works and the Government.

Bill read 1a [Bill 115].