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Treatment Of Mr O'connor

Volume 54: debated on Wednesday 27 May 1840

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having subsequently moved the Order of the Day for a Committee on the Juvenile Offenders' Bill,

said, as it regarded prison discipline, he begged to put a question to the Under-Secretary of the Home Department as to the treatment of Mr. Feargus O'Connor, which had been fully detailed in the petition which he had presented this evening. This was the first case in which a person convicted of a seditious libel had been treated with all the ignominious punishment of felons. It was treatment which had never been experienced by such persons even in the worst days of Toryism —even in the days of Pitt and Castlereagh. Why had not Sir Francis Burdett been so treated, or Mr. Edmunds, or, to come to later times, why had not Sir John Hobhouse been so treated when he was convicted of a libel? The question he wished to ask was this— whether the treatment of Mr. Feargus O'Connor was under any orders from the Government, and if not, whether it would be discontinued?

said, he was glad the question had been asked, for an erroneous impression had gone abroad that Mr. O'Connor was so treated by direction of the Government. Now, he begged distinctly to state, that the Government had issued no orders whatever as to the manner in which the sentence should be carried into effect. If there had been any additional severity in the treatment of persons lately convicted of libels, it arose from the provisions of the act for regulating prison discipline. Orders had, however, been sent by the Secretary of State to the governor of York Castle, directing certain relaxations, but to that communication no answer had as yet been received.

believed that the treatment which political offenders at present underwent was owing to the state of the law upon the subject. A bill had been brought into that House several months ago for the purpose of changing that law. Which, however, had not yet passed the House of Lords; and he should say, that he did not feel that her Majesty's Ministers had shown that attention to the subject which it merited. It was his opinion, that under the existing state of that law, the Government could not interfere in the treatment to which political offenders might be subjected; but they had the power of removing them from one gaol to another, in which there might be a less severe discipline. He would ask, why her Majesty's Government should refuse to avail themselves of this power? At any rate, why did they not take means to pass the bill, which had already received the sanction of that House, in order that new regulations might be adopted for the purpose of mitigating the present severity of the law? While on his legs, he would allude to the treatment Lovett and Collins had been subjected to. When that subject was brought before the House, there was a uniform expression of opinion, including the Under-Secretary for the Home Department, that as those parties had under the existing regulations been subjected to more severe discipline than it was imagined political libellers could be subjected to under the existing law, the parties should be released from the remainder of the term (three months) they having been imprisoned nine months. The course her Majesty's Government took was, after the expiration of another month, to send down an order for the release of these two prisoners, if they would enter into recognizances for good behaviour for a period of twelve months after the expiration of the term of imprisonment to which they had been sentenced. Ho considered that was an illegal demand on the part of the Government, and the parties of course rejected it. He hoped her Majesty's Government would take means to expedite the passing of that bill, in order that her Majesty's Justices of the Peace and the Government together might be enabled to frame such regulations for the treatment of that class of offenders as would be more in accordance with former practice.

said, they now understood from the Under-Secretary that the treatment Mr. O'Connor received was owing to prison discipline. He wished to ask whether two days before the removal of Mr. O'Connor certificates had not been sent to the Government from two eminent medical men, stating that he were removed to York Castle and so treated his life would be endangered, and whether these certificates had not been utterly neglected? It seemed to him that the Government exhibited a cool indifference and an utter disregard of the feelings of the community, and he could assure them that they were estranging those who were anxious to be their friends. He hoped some explanation of the matter would be given.

said, two questions had been put to him—the one by the hon. Member for Kilkenny, and the other by the hon. Member for Bridport. He should first answer the question of the hon. Member for Kilkenny, with reference to Mr. O'Connor. It was perfectly true that the Government had received the medical certificates to which the hon. Gentleman had alluded, and that those certificates set forth that Mr. O'Connor was not then in a fit state of health to be removed. Those certificates had at once received attention, and Mr. O'Connor's removal was inconsequence delayed. At a subsequent period Mr. O'Connor was placed in the custody of the marshal of the Queen's Bench prison, who was a responsible officer, and who had the power to decide whether that gentleman's health was in such a state as to admit of his removal to York. The result was, that the marshal sanctioned the removal of Mr. O'Connor from London to York, and had given the Government to understand that there was, in his opinion, no good ground on the score of ill health to render it necessary to delay his removal for a longer period. As to Messrs. Lovett and Collins, their case had been fully brought under the consideration of the House by the hon. Member for Bridport, when the Prisons' Bill was under discussion. On that occasion he had admitted, and he still adhered to his admission, that he thought the punishment which those persons had received was more severe than there had been reason to anticipate it would be when they were first confined. He had also borne his testimony to the exemplary manner in which those persons had endured their punishment, and he had given his sanction and support to the alterations which had been proposed in the Prisons' Bill, which gave the Secretary of State the power of allowing the visiting justices to frame such rules as they might deem necessary to meet the case of this class of offenders. It was said that that bill had been unnecessarily delayed, but such was not the case, for it had only left that House on Thursday last, and he could assure the hon. Member for Bridport, that there was every disposition on the part of his noble Friend the Secretary for the Home Department to forward that measure as fast as possible. His noble Friend shortly after Easter had recommended the remission of the remainder of the sentence which had been passed on Messrs. Lovett and Collins, and he had done so on the condition that they should enter into their own recognizances to the amount of 50l. He was not aware that there was anything illegal or unusual in that condition, nor did he think that it was an unwise precaution. There certainly were precedents for such a condition, and it had appeared to his noble Friend the Secretary for the Home Department, that it was a fair course to require those persons to enter into their own recognizances when they were to receive a remission of a portion of their punishment.

was very much surprised to hear that the regulations of York Castle compelled persons imprisoned for political offences to associate with felons. He trusted that such regulations would be speedily put an end to, because such a mode of treatment, instead of acting as a punishment, would excite the indignation of the country.

said, there was this view of the question which he wished to submit to the House. It was the duty of the judge to apportion the punishment to the crime, and he was the responsible person. Now they took away that power entirely from the judge, if by these prison regulations they left it in the hands of other parties to say whether the imprisonment should be mere restraint or actual torture; the judge was no longer the responsible party in such a case. He merely gave the duration of the punishment, and it was for the visiting justices to say whether the imprisonment was to be insufferable or not. He remembered hearing the Member for Southampton stating, that his experience of prison discipline was, that any man who came out of the prisons of England after two years' imprisonment had his health materially impaired and his life considerably shortened. At that time he really thought the hon. Member was mistaken, but he now believed that it was perfectly just. They had taken the punishment out of the hands of the judges and lodged it in that of the visiting justices. He did not know that it would be much better if left in the hands of the Government. It should be laid down and defined by the law so that the judges should in open court award the punishment due to any offence, and if the punishment were cruel it should be awarded before the bar and the country. There could be nothing so hideous as that treat- ment awarded to Mr. O'Connor. It was not in consequence of any approbation of the conduct which placed Mr. O'Connor in prison that he spoke, but comparing that gentleman's treatment with the manner in which Sir F. Burdett had been treated, he could not help raising his voice against the injustice. That was a subject which could not rest—the nature of punishments must be defined, so that in awarding them the judge should do so in the words of the law.

said, that the hon. and learned Member had pointed out the real evil of the present system, which was the variable nature of the punishment, it being different, according to the different localities where it was enforced. There was a constantly shifting responsibility: even in the conveyance of Mr. F. O'Connor to York Castle, he was not conveyed under the authority of the Government or the Judge, but under that of the Marshal of the prison in which he happened to be. The Home Office did not consider itself responsible, nor could the visiting magistrates alter the rules by their own power. It was scarcely credible that a gentleman condemned for a political offence—a gentleman of acute feeling—one who had lately been a member of that House— should have been condemned to perform the most menial offices. That must have been far more wounding to Mr. O'Connor's feelings than anything which he could conceive. He hoped that the expression of opinion on this subject which had taken place—participated in, as he was sure it had been, by gentlemen opposite—would have its effect, and that the bill would speedily be passed for establishing a simple and plain remedy, which at least might prevent such cases for the future.

thought it was not fair to throw on her Majesty's Government the responsibility of a transaction which rested entirely with the Judges, and the visiting magistrates. The magistrates were, he was convinced, men of honour; many of them he personally knew to be men of humanity also, but in this instance they certainly had made a great mistake—arising, perhaps, from their excessive zeal to carry out their new regulations. It was right, however, that a public investigation should take place, and he hoped that when the magistrates heard what had passed on the subject, they would, find an immediate remedy.

said, it did certainly appear to him objectionable, that persons convicted of the same offence should be treated differently. It could not, however, be expected that the Judge should be able to sentence with any equality or uniformity, when the prison discipline varied in different counties. This showed the necessity of establishing some uniform system of prison discipline throughout the country. Mr. O'Connor had been made to perform offices which he ought not to have been called upon to perform, and which to a person in his situation of life would be extremely irksome and injurious. He thought the punishment of this individual had been far more severe than he ought to have received.

said, that in the medical certificates which had been first forwarded in regard to Mr. O'Connor, it was stated that he was suffering from inflamation of the lungs, and that he could not in consequence appear before the Court of Queen's Bench. Mr. O'Connor's health was so bad that he could not appear without danger before the court, and yet on the day after he had received his sentence, and after the exertions which he had made in his defence, he was removed under the authority of the marshal of the Queen's Bench Prison, and placed in York Castle in a cold cell, where there was only a stone to sit upon. Now suppose the inflamation under such treatment had returned, and that life had been destroyed, who would have been responsible for that loss of life. Would not the Government have been held guilty? If an inquest had been held upon the body, and if the jury had returned a verdict of manslaughter or of murder—and he had no doubt that the one or the other verdict would have been returned—against whom he would ask, would that verdict have been given? He hoped this case would be a warning to hon. Members on his (the Ministerial) side of the House, who had last year voted in a body in favour of all the restrictive clauses of the Prisons, Bill, while hon. Gentlemen opposite had voted in a body against them. For himself, he thought they ought to have a full report as to the state of the prisoners in York Castle, and they would then see who the persons were who were to blame for the severity which had been practised; they would then see whether the blame rested with the Government or not. He contended that a bill ought at once to be brought in to place the different prisons in the hands of the Government, for he must say, that the visiting justices were not the persons to whom they ought to be intrusted. The justices of the peace were not responsible to any one; but if a Minister of the Crown mis-conducted himself, he could be questioned as to his proceedings in that House. He trusted they would in a short time hear from the Government, that in the case of Mr. O'Connor such a relaxation in the mode of his treatment had taken place as justice and common humanity required.

felt some degree of hesitation in bringing the subject forward until the rules and regulations of York Castle were laid before the House. He begged to suggest to the noble Lord, that when those rules were laid on the Table, there should also be a return setting forth whether any, and what relaxation had taken place in respect to Mr. O'Connor; for the House and the public had a right to know if that Gentleman was still kept in the department of the felons, and was subjected to the same degrading severities with that class of criminals. Mr. O'Connor's offence had been similar to that of Mr. Stephens. Why should their punishments differ, merely because they had gone to different prisons?

said, no individual in the country would more deeply regret than himself that the statements as to Mr. O'Connor's treatment should be found correct. He had felt it his duty to prosecute Mr. O'Connor for libels which he considered highly dangerous to the peace of society. If these statements were correct, certainly Mr. O'Connor had been treated with a severity not contemplated by the Judge. But he believed it would be found that the law did not justify this treatment, because the law made that distinction between felonies and misdemeanours, which the complaint was, had been overlooked in this case.

wished to state, that on Mr. O'Connor's arrival at York Castle, he wrote a letter to him (Mr. Sergeant Talfourd), informing him that the gaoler had stated he would be treated as a felon, except that he might wear his own clothes. He returned an answer, that this statement was too vague for him to act upon, and that he must have some more specific allegations. Mr. O'Connor then sent a long account, in the shape of a petition; which, though rather informal, contained statements undoubtedly very powerful; and he thereupon had waited on the noble Marquess at the head of the Home Department on the subject, in the presence of the Attorney-general, who yielded not even to the hon. Member for Cockermouth, who also was present, in a strong feeling that such treatment ought not to be persevered in. That feeling was shared by the noble Marquess, who, not till then, had received full information of the case—and immediate steps had been taken to afford redress, which, however, should all the statements of Mr. O'Connor be found correct (and he believed they would be found mainly so, for they were written in a most fair and candid spirit), he much feared would not completely be afforded to Mr. O'Connor, unless it was by doing that which certainly the Government had the power of doing, removing Mr. O'Connor either to the debtor side of York Gaol, or to some other prison, as in Mr. Vincent's case, who had been removed from Monmouth Gaol to the Penitentiary. He would just add, that the statements of Mr. O'Connor cast no blame on the prison authorities, who, he admitted, had only acted under the regulations which were established, and also spoke highly of the surgeon of the gaol.

Order of the day read,