HL Deb 27 February 1863 vol 169 cc858-64

, in rising to move an Address for Copy of a Memorial presented to the Duke of Newcastle by a deputation of Colonists from Western Australia, and of the Answer thereto, said, they had had several short discussions this Session upon the system of tickets of leave, and the treatment of prisoners in gaols; and they were much indebted to his noble Friend (the Earl of Carnarvon) for the able manner in which he brought the subject forward, and to the President of the Council for the practical suggestion of a Committee. The Committee was now sitting, and he trusted that good would result from its deliberations. But he contended that, whatever might be their recommendations, the root of the evil could not be reached without a return, with some modifications, to the system of transportation. The subject of penal discipline had been referred to a Royal Commission, and it would be for them to say whether convicts should be sent to colonies which, after a long interval since they formerly received them, might be ready to receive them again, or whether new penal settlements should be founded. But, in the mean while, they should remember that the colony of Western Australia had never ceased to receive our convicts, and only complained that they were not sent with due selection and in sufficient numbers. Their Lordships were entitled to inquire how far the recommendations of the Committee of that House, which sat in 1856, had been carried out; and he desired to know how far the Government were prepared to accede to the prayer of the memorial which had recently been presented by colonists from Western Australia. He first called attention to this subject in the other House twenty-two years ago, when the Government at that time, in which the noble Earl opposite (Earl Russell) was Home Secretary, were abandoning the system of transportation, and resorting to the system of confining criminals in the hulks. It appeared to him that the hulk system was open to every possible objection. In April, 1841, he had carried an Address to the Crown against it by a majority of the House of Commons. The hulk system was, in consequence of that Vote, abandoned; but some years later, and from a train of other circumstances, transportation to New South Wales and to Tasmania came to be abolished. In 1856 he had moved for a Committee of their Lordships' House, which was appointed, and made some special recommendations, to which he hoped their Lordships would direct their attention. It was said, that under the existing system prisoners were not reformed, and that they only waited to be free in order to revert to evil courses. He would concede, if it were necessary, that every convict was desirous to live honestly; but in an overcrowded country like this, where the demand for labour did not equal the supply, there were insuperable difficulties in the way of men obtaining employment in the absence of good character. In the case of women the difficulty was much greater. Every one knew how unforgivingly women regarded those of their own sex who had fallen from the paths of virtue; and a woman released from prison, if she desired to get her living honestly, had but two courses open to her—either she had to assume some name and character which was not her own, or she had to take employment in her own, at the risk of seeing all those who worked with her rise up against her, and declare that they would leave unless she were immediately dismissed. The state of the labour-market in this country was a serious obstacle to persons in this position getting employment. In the colonies, however, the case was very different. There was always a demand for labour there, and it was the recognised system to ask no questions as to anybody's antecedents in the old country. The difficulty of which he had spoken had been so much felt, that at various times numerous institutions had been set up for the purpose of assisting persons released from imprisonment to obtain employment. No sooner, however, had they begun to work well than they were assailed by the cry that they were interfering with honest labour, and were seeking to place convicts in the stations which honest labourers would have filled. There could be no doubt as to the advantage to this country of a well-organized system of transportation. On this point he would cite only the opinion of the late Lord Campbell, who had said that— He had passed a good deal of time in continental cities, and had conversed with the most eminent jurists there, and he had found a general concurrence of opinion as to the inestimable advantage enjoyed by this country in having colonies to which to send her convicts. But then it was, or should be, a necessary and indispensable condition, that a system so beneficial to the mother country should also be beneficial to the colony in which it was applied. This point was very well stated by his Committee of 1856, which came to this general conclusion— That a continuance of the system of transportation to some colony or colonies, with such improvements as experience has suggested or may suggest, would he highly desirable, provided that the system can be carried on with advantage to the colony and with satisfaction to the colonists. The colony of Western Australia had always been willing to receive our convicts; in 1855 there were grievous and general complaints of the class of convicts sent out in the ship Nile. Since that time a better system of selection had prevailed. There was, however, stated to be of late one exception to the general discretion of the system on which convicts had been sent out to that colony; and this was a point on which he should be glad to receive some explanation from the noble Duke. Her Majesty's Government had lately decided to break up the convict establishment at Bermuda. That might be a very wise decision; but he understood that the Government had disposed of the convicts by sending them all en masse to Western Australia. If that were so, they had departed from the principle they had hitherto adopted with respect to convicts sent to that colony; for the practice had been to send out selected convicts only. Another point was as to the upset price of land in Western Australia. According to the recommendation of the Committee of 1850 the upset price of land had been reduced from 20s. to 10s. per acre, but there still remained the question whether, as to the gradual payment of that upset price in successive years, the system might not be assimilated to that in the colony of Victoria. On this point also he should be glad to receive some information. The noble Earl then movedThat an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty for, Copy of a Memorial presented on the 12th of February 1863 by a Deputation of Colonists from Western Australia to the Duke of Newcastle, and praying for a more extended System of Transportation to that Colony: Also, Copy of any Answer to the same.


said, he was sure his noble Friend did not expect that on this occasion he should enter into either the general question of the best system of punishment for offenders, or that of the comparative merits of imprisonment at home and transportation to the colonies. These questions were before two bodies at the present time—a Committee of their Lordships' House and a Royal Commission. Their Lordships would feel that it would be unbecoming in him, as a Member of the Government, to prejudge either of these questions after gentlemen of station, position, ability, and knowledge of the subjects, had consented to give much time to the investigation of the im- portant problem of the treatment of our convicts. But before he proceeded to the subject of Western Australia, he wished to undeceive his noble Friend as to the circumstances connected with the transfer of convicts from Bermuda to Western Australia. Three years ago a discussion was raised in reference to the prisons of Bermuda. After full consideration of the whole question the Government came to the conclusion that it would be desirable to diminish the number of convicts sent there, and ultimately to abandon the practice of sending convicts to that island. This was a most important element in the consideration of the question—that transportation to Bermuda was not like transportation to Western Australia—Bermuda was nothing but a colonial prison. But under the system, adopted several years ago the number of prisoners available for removal from this country had been greatly diminished, and the Government had to consider which of three places—Western Australia, Gibraltar, or Bermuda—they would abandon as a place for convicts under sentence of transportation. Bermuda appeared to them to be the least desirable place of the three, on the grounds of climate and facilities for enforcing discipline; and, in addition to these considerations, the fortifications and other works on which convicts had been employed there were nearly finished. It was therefore determined that the establishment there should be abandoned, and that such of its inmates as had not completed their period of punishment should be removed to Western Australia. His noble Friend, however, seemed to be mistaken as to the number of convicts so sent to the latter colony. The fact was, they only amounted to one shipload; and though there was no selection, the convicts at Bermuda, when the removal took place, were by no means of that extremely bad class which his noble Friend was led to suppose. The sending away of those convicts was hastened somewhat by the fact that the colonists of Western Australia were asking for more convict labour. In sending out convicts from this country, though some care was taken, it was impossible under existing circumstances to be so careful as to avoid sending out some very bad cases. Of the convicts sent to Western Australia in 1860 15 had been convicted of murder, 23 of manslaughter, 29 of assaults with intent to murder, 95 of robbery with violence— garotters and others of that very class respecting whom there had been so much discussion of late—31 of robbery without violence, and 16 of cutting and wounding. His noble Friend seemed to think that it would be advisable to adopt the regulations respecting land introduced in the colony of Victoria; but if he had made inquiries from persons who had had experience of that system, he would have found that the changes lately made in Victoria had not proved so successful as they were expected to he, and a wish was now expressed that they had never been adopted. At any rate, it would not be prudent to introduce such a change in the colony in question without more consideration than the subject had yet received. With regard to the cost of conveying the families of convicts to the colony, a change had been made in the repayment of this cost, and with good effects. He did not think it would be desirable to charge such an outlay upon the parishes to which these families belonged, because it was not for the sake of the parishes that they were sent out, but for the sake of morality and good order in the colony; and the Government, therefore, thought it right that that expense should be defrayed out of the Imperial Exchequer. In order to counterbalance the convict element in Western Australia, it was necessary to carry out a system of free emigration; and therefore while the number of convicts sent there during the last eleven years was 7,000, there had been a simultaneous introduction within the same period of 7,300 free labourers. It was necessary to take care not to overdo transportation in Western Australia, and this was one of the chief dangers to the continuance of the system. It was this overbalancing the free by the convict class that led to the outcry in Tasmania, and the ultimate abolition of transportation thither; and if the same system were pursued in Western Australia, precisely the same results would ensue. He could not agree with his noble Friend that the time for action had arrived, for he thought they ought to wait for the Report of the Commission; and even then it would be requisite to proceed with caution, in order that the danger he had alluded to should be avoided, and that the fears entertained by other Australian Colonies should be dispelled. As regarded the memorial lately presented to him, he should, of course, have no objection to lay it upon the table, as indeed it appeared in The Times on the day after its presen- tation. As his answer to this memorial was not in writing, having been made verbally to the deputation, he could not produce it; but the substance of the answer was, that although Her Majesty's Government desired to do all that they could to continue and improve the present system of transportation, he could give no pledge on the subject until the Report of the Commission was forthcoming; pending which time it was not the intention of the Government to make any important alteration.

Motion agreed to.