HL Deb 09 March 1880 vol 251 cc671-80

in rising to call the attention of the House to the presentment of the jury empanelled to sit on the body of William Cassidy, executed in Cheetham Prison, with respect to the admission of reporters; and to move— That it is the opinion of this House that it is advisable that other than official persons should he present at intramural executions. said, that this was a matter that had created considerable public interest; and the conversation which took place the other night, in the House of Commons, was not sufficiently satisfactory to enable him to dispense with the necessity for bringing the matter forward. There was, no doubt, a change in public opinion upon this subject; for during the long period that he took an interest in this question he was not able to induce any Government to bring about the change in the law that had now taken place. It was also, by a strange accident, that he was now called upon to ask a very different question. Among the Ministers that he had communicated with upon the subject was one in whose abilities he had the greatest confidence (Sir James Graham); but he was unable to convince him that it would be proper to execute criminals away from the public gaze within the walls of a prison, or that this could be done without offending the sense of public justice. The important change, however, was made by an Act of Parliament in 1868. That Act provided for the execution of criminals within the prison walls; but no provision was made for the admission of reporters, the discretion of admitting anyone within the gaol being invested in the Sheriffs. They all knew, from the reports in old chronicles, that scandalous scenes were enacted in the prisons after this period, and eventually an order was made by the Home Office to exclude reporters. Even then, however, the reporters mingled with the crowd outside and obtained from the officials an account of the execution, and were able to write an account. The Act of 1868 provided that certain persons should be admitted—such as the chaplain, the gaoler, the surgeon, and such relatives of the criminal as the Sheriffs thought fit; but as time went on the powers of the Sheriff got smaller and smaller, until such matters were left, for the major part, in the discretion of the Visiting Justices. The Act that had transferred the jurisdiction over the prison from the Visiting Justices to the Home Office had virtually and by implication altered the operation of the law. The authority of the High Sheriff was supposed to remain paramount when it was not interrupted by direction from the Home Office, and the Visiting Justices could no longer admit such persons as they thought fit. The practice of the admission of reporters had been variously exercised. In the prisons of his own county—Yorkshire—all reporters were excluded on one occasion; on another more than a dozen were admitted; generally three or four were present; and at the execution of Peace, whose case had created great sensation, there were about 40 applications, but only four reporters were allowed to be present. No special attention appeared to have been called to those circumstances. But in the case of Cassidy, who was executed in the early part of this year, the High Sheriff of Lancashire, on his own special authority, refused to allow any reporter to be in attendance. The importance attached to that refusal showed that a public opinion had been formed upon the question; and he believed that such an action as that pursued was not only peculiar, but that it was not in accordance with public opinion. The Coroner, in the full exercise of his right, declined to hold the inquest on the body within the prison, and empanelled a Jury outside. The Jury made a presentment to the Home Office, expressing a wish that on future occasions reporters of the Press should be allowed to be present at executions. In the same county—Lancashire,—namely, at Kirkdale Gaol, two prisoners had been executed, and on that occasion the High Sheriff absolutely refused to allow any reporters to be present. Some communication appeared to have taken place between the Home Office and the High Sheriff, and subsequently the latter expressed his willingness to admit the representative of one of the papers, whose editor had written to him on the subject, but on three conditions, which were, in effect—to report the fact that the execution was carried out humanely or otherwise; to publish no detailed account of the appearance of the prisoners, either before or after the execution; and to supply no other paper with information in contravention of those conditions. The editor of the paper in question declined to accede to the conditions laid down, and the other Liverpool journals took a similar step. At the inquest the Jury expressed a strong opinion that the representatives of the Press should be present, not only at the inquest, but also at the execution. Looking at this question from a larger point of view, he might fairly call upon the House to affirm the proposition he submitted to their consideration—that it was advisable that other than official persons should be present at intramural executions. If ever any notion got abroad that this terrible penalty of the law was not carried out with due solemnity, and with the greatest possible humanity, such an impression would have an injurious effect upon the public mind. If the Government took the same view, he would be content to leave the whole matter to the discretion of the Home Office, whether they should adopt the American plan of empanelling a Jury of execution—that was, a Jury of independent persons who could be present at the execution; or whether a certain portion of the prison yard might be used for the admission of the general public; or whether a selection should be made from the representatives of the Press where the applications where numerous? Whatever course the Home Office might adopt, he trusted they would, at any rate, satisfy the just demands for publicity, combined with the requirements of public feeling.

Moved to resolve, "That it is the opinion of this House that it is advisable that other than official persons should he present at intramural executions."—(The Lord Houghton.)


regretted that a proposal, abrogating to a great extent a just and proper law against public executions, should emanate from a noble Lord who was well known to be of a poetical and refined mind. He was sorry that the noble Lord should make himself the mouthpiece of the public Press on a question of this kind. It had been established, beyond doubt, that executions conducted in public had a brutalizing effect; that certain classes delighted in the horrors attending such spectacles; and that the facts were exaggerated by the worst part of the public Press. Surely the functions of the Jury were sufficient to satisfy public opinion; and then, in addition, there was the character of the persons who were entrusted with the execution as a security that the execution was carried out in a decent and proper manner. He thought that it would be well that the Legislature should provide that reporters should be altogether excluded from executions.


thought that the High Sheriff of Lancashire had exercised a sound discretion in excluding reporters from these scenes. He regretted, however, that at one of the executions referred to the jurors had not been admitted as spectators. He did not see why a complaint should be made as to the non-admission of reporters, if they would not consent to confine their accounts to the unsensational circumstances connected with the execution. If this were not done, the object for which public executions had been abolished would be defeated, and they would again have those revolting and disgusting details of public executions, which a leading article in The Times had so graphically discouraged. The clamour against capital punishment had very much died away since those details had ceased to be brought under the public eye; and he did not wonder, therefore, that the opponents of capital punishment joined in the cry against the exclusion of reporters from the places of execution.


said, he had followed the remarks of the noble Lord who made the Motion with some surprise, because they naturally led to a repeal of the Act of 1868. There was no adequate ground of complaint that publicity was not given, and there was no desire not to give due publicity to executions under the law. He thought that the action of the High Sheriff must be viewed with satisfaction by most persons. It might be said that the newspaper Press consisted of gentlemen to whom the public were very much indebted; but no body of reporters was wiser than the most foolish one of the whole number; and if they admitted the right divine of the whole body of reporters to be present at executions without cheek or without control, they would leave it in the hands of the most foolish and the most sensational of the reporters to send forth to the people any statement that he might think proper, regardless of the consequences to the morals of the population. It was clear that whatever was left to the discretion of a. person was left to his indiscretion; and he would rather leave the matter in the hands of the High Sheriff than in those of any other persons who were irresponsible. The High Sheriff of Lancashire did not impose any absolute condition of absence on the reporters; but the conditions which he laid down as to their admission were wise and judicious. Formerly, the Visiting Justices had power to admit persons to wit- ness executions; but by the Prisons Act that power was transferred to the Secretary of State for the Home Department; but he, having no local knowledge, and having no means really in his power of exercising any discrimination, which would be itself an invidious task, left it entirely to the High Sheriff, who was responsible for the due administration of the law. The noble Lord had said that the High Sheriff was not paramount, and was not responsible for the due administration of the law. That was not a fair representation of the case. The High Sheriff was paramount, and was responsible for the due administration of the law; and he very much doubted if the Secretary of State for the Home Department imposed upon that functionary conditions which were not warranted by law, whether the High Sheriff would not regard them as advice merely, which he might or might not follow. The question was really a very simple one. Were they to allow facilities for discussing the degrading details of the last moments of notorious malefactors? If they were disposed to say that such things should be allowed, they would strike a great blow at the Act of 1868. The noble Lord said that publicity was the essence of British justice. No doubt that was so, and Parliament had laid down that due publicity should be given to executions; but that publicity was to be in the presence of those whose duty it was to see that justice was fully carried out, and not to allow disgusting and degrading details to be given by every wretched penny-a-liner to be sent to the newspapers. He contended that the Press could not be indiscriminately admitted. The High Sheriff made an offer to the various Liverpool newspapers to be admitted under the conditions which had been described, and which they declined; and unless their Lordships were prepared to say that there should be indiscriminate and uncontrolled admission, they must place some restriction on the admission. The Act of Parliament said that certain officials should be present, and when the execution was over there had to be an inquiry before the Coroner and a Jury. The noble Lord suggested that there should be one of three courses pursued. The first was, that there should be a special Jury empanelled in the prison. He (Earl Beauchamp) did not say that that could not be done; but he thought that in the end they would come to be regarded as mere officials, and their presence would really give no additional satisfaction to the public. The next course he suggested was, that a portion of the open yard should be devoted to the public; but that would reproduce all the worst features of the scene that used to take place before Newgate; and so far from its securing the proper fulfilment of the law, it would be the means of bringing its highest punishment into contempt. The third remedy suggested by the noble Lord was that a certain number of selected reporters should be sent from the newspapers who should be present; but he thought he had sufficiently answered that by what he had said with reference to the discretion exercised by sensational reporters. Believing, as he did, that the Act of 1868 provided all necessary safeguards to secure that the law was fully vindicated and the identity of the criminal executed established, he must oppose the Motion.


said, that he was not at all satisfied with the statement of the noble Lord who represented the Home Office in that House. He (Lord Aberdare) would not be for indiscriminate admissions to executions; but he thought that the Statute contemplated considerable publicity, and that it was not in accordance with English notions that executions should be witnessed by only the officials of the gaol. There were two means by which publicity might be secured—first, by the presence of the High Sheriff; secondly, by that of the Visiting Justices, or some such persons appointed for the purpose. Now, publicity was desirable to a certain extent. But the Secretary of State for the Home Department threw upon the Sheriff the whole responsibility as to the admission of persons at executions. Was that a satisfactory state of things? The answer given was that the High Sheriff was a person whom they could implicitly trust. But why? What guarantee was there that the High Sheriffs would exercise that discretion wisely? They were not appointed because of any special qualifications, but because they possessed so many thousands or hundreds a-year. One High Sheriff might take one view of the matter, and another take a different view. One great source of publicity had disappeared—namely, that of the presence of the Visiting Justices. The Visiting Justices were far more likely to exercise a sound discretion than the High Sheriffs. He thought it desirable, therefore, that some other means should be adopted of securing that the circumstances of humanity and decency were observed than at present. He regretted the alteration which had taken place by the action of the Government in passing the Prisons Act. He thought that the Secretary of State for the Home Department would do well to consider how the matter of publicity should be duly attended to without introducing any of those details the publication of which they all deprecated. He hoped that some general regulation on the subject would be made by authority.

Viscount CRANBROOK and Lord DENMAN

rising at the same time to address the House,


moved that Viscount CRANBROOK be heard.

On Question, agreed to.


said, that there appeared to be no difference of opinion, with the exception of that which had been expressed by the noble Lord who had introduced the subject, as to the value of the alteration which had been made in the law; and, so far as he was aware, there was no complaint on the part of the general public that the prisoner left for execution was not duly and properly executed according to law. But it was a very remarkable fact that those persons who wished for more publicity had been exactly those who were in favour of the abolition of that punishment; whereas those who were in favour of private executions were those who were against the abolition of capital punishment. A good deal had been said as to the injury done to the morals of the public, and that was one of the most important points connected with the question; and he contended that there was a great injury done to morals by the descriptions given of what was said and done by criminals in their last moments. Now, why had this question arisen? It was in consequence of a remonstrance on the part of the Coroner's Jury that reporters were excluded; but there was no desire to exclude them absolutely. Certain officials had to be present, and the High Sheriff had the power to admit persons; and he had no doubt that power would be exercised with discretion. He thought it would be very unwise that other than official persons should be allowed, as a general rule, to be present. He submitted that there was at present sufficient publicity. The law had been in force for 12 years, and its operation had never been called in question until recently, and he hoped the Motion would be rejected.


said, that an hon. and learned Relative of his had 12 years ago predicted that, if the Act in question passed for a few years, complaint would be made of private assassinations in prisons. This debate showed that such a complaint would have been unfounded, and High Sheriffs whom he had seen in every part of England were well worthy of the trust reposed in them; and the High Sheriff of Lancashire, whose office was paid, and whose expenses used to be guaranted by the Under Sheriff on account of the fees received by him, had exercised a wise discretion in not allowing the danger of scenes like those which followed Peace's execution, being again incurred.


said, there was no difference of opinion as to the necessity for preventing those demoralizing accounts of executions which used to appear in the public papers. His noble Friend (Lord Houghton) had said there was no security at present that executions were properly carried out; and he pressed upon the Government that the Secretary of State for the Home Department should consider whether an arrangement could not be made by which the officials should be guided upon all occasions. They had all great confidence in the Executive Government of the country; but they would like persons to be present who were independent of the State. He would refer to an analogous case. There had been a Commission as to the working of the Penal Servitude Acts. The Commissioners reported that the administration of the convict system was, on the whole, excellent. But they, nevertheless, suggested that in order to strengthen the authorities and give confidence to the public, some non-official persons should be appointed to visit the prisons. He understood that the Secretary of State for the Home Department had determined to act upon these suggestions, and he thought that something might be done in the same way in this matter.


begged to remind the noble Earl (the Earl of Kimberley) and their Lordships that the publicity desired by the noble Earl, beyond that of the presence of the officials, was already secured by that of the friends of the sufferer, and of any magistrates who might choose to attend. The question had, therefore, no analogy whatever to that of the penal servitude system quoted by the noble Earl.


in reply, said, this matter had occasioned a great deal of excitement in the large centres of population, and he feared, unless something were done, it would continue. In the Press notices about "strangulation" were to be read, and almost the whole of the London Press supported the admission of some non-official person to be present at these executions. At present the matter seemed small; but it might rise to be one of public danger in the administration of the law. Some steps ought to be taken through the Home Office; for if, public opinion were not in some degree satisfied, the results would be serious and unfortunate. Under all the circumstances, he would not divide the House upon the Motion.

Original Motion put, and resolved in the negative.

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