HL Deb 29 May 1879 vol 246 cc1412-5

asked, Whether permission to be present at the intramural execution of Catherine Churchill in Taunton Prison on Monday the 26th of May was refused to all reporters and other persons than the officials of the prison? In doing so, he would ask their Lordships to remember that though the removal of the place of execution from Tyburn Gate to the outside of Newgate was effected solely by the authority of the Secretary of State, yet when he suggested many years ago to Sir James Graham that executions should take place inside the walls of the gaols, that distinguished statesman said that it was a matter of such importance as to seriously affect the question of punishment by death, and he would not meddle with it except under the authority of an Act of Parliament. The public mind became similarly impressed, and an Act was passed authorizing intramural executions in 1868; but, at the same time, precautions were taken that there should be an element of publicity about them for the purpose of properly bringing so awful an occurrence fully before the public mind, and a promise was given by its promoters that though, if it passed, executions would no longer occur in public places, they would be public in the best souse of the word. Now, he submitted that that promise ought to be invariably fulfilled, so that the public should know that the solemn act of the law had been properly carried out. He thought that executions thus regulated had been very successful and productive of great moral results, and it would appear that the people were contented with the alteration in the law, the scenes of violence and confusion which once existed having been abolished. Therefore, he was very anxious that nothing should be done to cause any bad feeling against the change which had taken place; but, at the same time, he feared that a most obnoxious effect would be produced on the public mind if the practice were continued of excluding persons from witnessing the manner in which an execution had been carried out, as had taken place in the ease under notice. He had read statements of bad management on the part of some persons at executions; and, therefore, he thought that everything should be public, so that the people might know what had taken place within the walls. Besides, during the last year or two, prisons had been transferred to the jurisdiction of the Home Office; and it was possible that less attention would be paid to these matters, now that the authority of the Visiting Justices had been reduced. No doubt, executions were carried out under the jurisdiction of the High Sheriff of the county or the Sheriff of the town, as the case might be. In the present case the power of exclusion was exercised by the High Sheriff himself, and, therefore, the Home Office, as such, could not be considered as responsible for any malfeasance or fault in the matter; but still it raised the important question as to the transference of the whole of the authority of the Visiting Justices to the Home Office; and it might be well that at all executions a public reporter should be present, because, in the event of any horrible mishap occurring, the facts would be sure to come out even if they were not present, and might appear in an exaggerated form, and a great deal of injury might result. Another point to be considered in connection with this question was, that a Commission in France had reported in favour of public executions being conducted in accordance with the present English system; and, no doubt, attention in France would be drawn to this subject, and any scandal occurring here with regard to intramural executions might extend beyond the Channel. His wish was that nothing should be done or said to damage the law which was at present in force, and under which there had been great success through its admirable working.


said, he was not in a position to answer the Question precisely; but he could give the noble Lord some general information with respect to the subject. The Act of Parliament now in force received the Royal Assent 11 years ago that day; but the noble Lord did not seem to be fully aware of the provisions of it. It provided that executions should be within the walls of a prison, and that the Sheriff, chaplain, gaoler, surgeon, and other officers of the prison should be present. Those persons were compelled by the law to be the official witnesses of the execution; and their presence, therefore, was an adequate guarantee of the judgment of the law being carried out. The Act also provided that the Justices of the Peace within whose jurisdiction an execution took place, should be permitted to be present, and power was given to the Sheriff to admit such other persons as he might think proper to be present. Under the Act of 1868 the whole of the responsibility in this respect was, therefore, thrown on the High Sheriff and the Visiting Justices. By the new Prisons Act the powers of the Visiting Justices were transferred to the Home Secretary; but as the local authorities must have better means of knowing what was advisable in particular cases, the Home Secretary had thought fit not to make any regulations in respect of admissions to executions, but to leave the matter in the hands of the High Sheriff. Therefore, when the Prisons Act was passed, it was thought desirable to make the High Sheriff' responsible. Duo publication was given to the carrying out of the law by the holding of the Coroner's inquest, and careful provision was made in that regard by the Act of 1868, so that he thought that ample facilities existed for securing publicity to the fact that the judgment of the law had been solemnly executed. He had no information as to the particular case referred to by the noble Lord, but assumed that the High Sheriff had exercised his discretion in a proper manner.


said, that it was generally understood that the object of making executions private was that the public might be spared disgusting and sensational details in connection with them, and that object would be defeated if reporters were allowed to be present at them. His understanding was that the publicity requisite for establishing the fact that the execution had been properly carried out was already provided for by the presence of a certain number of prison officials, and a Coroner's inquest to be held afterwards on the body; and he could not help thinking that in the case of the Taunton execution the High Sheriff of Somersetshire had exercised a wise discretion in excluding reporters, and he hoped that the example would be followed by other High Sheriffs. He would remind their Lordships that, owing to the reading of a very graphic description of an execution—that of Peace—a party of children had actually in play recently hanged one of their own playfellows. Looking at the precautions adopted for the carrying out of the sentences, the more private, therefore, the executions were, the better.


said, he still remained in the opinion that it was of the utmost importance that there should be persons present at these executions other than the mere prison officials. While executions might be private, they ought not to be secret, and his belief was there was a danger of their becoming so.