International Working Men’s Association 1866

The Irish State Prisoners.
Sir George Grey and the International Working Men’s Association

Drawn up: by P. Fox;
Source: Minutes of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, 1864-1886, Progress Publishers, 1964, according to the newspaper text;
Published: in The Commonwealth, No. 157, March 10, 1866;
Transcribed: for by Andy Blunden.

The said document was drawn up by Fox following the General Council discussion, on February 20 and March 6, 1866, of the question of the Irish state prisoners. The document, signed by Odger, was published by decision of the Council in The Commonwealth, No. 157, March 10, 1866.

Some weeks ago Mr. J. Pope Hennessy addressed the following communication to the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette:

Sir, — It appears that the Pall Mall Gazette has thrown the Home Office into a state of vigorous activity. It is currently reported that Sir George Grey and other members of the Government have within the last few days been seen in the almost impenetrable disguise of practical and zealous citizens looking into casual wards and night refuges. Now, if this be so, I would ask you to let me point out to the transformed officials of the Home Office a rather gloomy institution where a visit or two might not be thrown away — I mean the convict prison at Pentonville. Nor should the visitors consist only of Sir George Grey and his secretaries. Pentonville has at present (or ought to have) a peculiar interest for Lord Russell and Mr. Gladstone. The political prisoners recently convicted in Ireland are undergoing within its walls the severest form of discipline next to death known to the English law — the Pentonville separate system. It is on behalf of these political prisoners especially that I venture to suggest some kind [of] inquiry. It must be admitted that Lord Russell and Mr. Gladstone in their remonstrances on the treatment of political prisoners were not always as temperate in their language as eminent statesmen in these days are expected to be. The principle they laid down, that political offenders should not be treated in all respects like common convicts, was sound enough; though to characterise the violation of that principle as a “breach of all moral law,” as an “abominable persecution,” as “a savage and cowardly system,” was going a little too far. In borrowing Lord Russell’s and Mr. Gladstone’s principle, I therefore disclaim all connection with the rather violent phraseology in which they thought fit to enforce it. One reason for being somewhat more moderate than they were is self-evident. They were exposing the misconduct of foreign governments; I am endeavouring to correct the misconduct of a government in which these benevolent champions of imprisoned politicians are highly responsible members. It would be ungenerous to turn their own weapons against such champions in such a cause. Therefore, without borrowing any of the warm and indignant invectives of Lord Russell and Mr. Gladstone, I simply charge them with being parties to a breach of that well-known principle they have embodied in so many dispatches, speeches, and letters — that political convicts should not be treated like common convicts; and I also charge the present administration with treating the Irish political prisoners so severely that probably some of them will go mad. In Mr. Gladstone’s famous letter to Lord Aberdeen (p. 31) he says:

I had heard that the political offenders were obliged to have their heads shaved; but this had not been done, though they had been obliged to shave away any beard they might have had. I must say I was astonished at the mildness with which they spoke of those at whose hands they were enduring these abominable persecutions.

Not many days ago Mr. Gladstone might have read how the political offenders in Ireland half an hour after they were sentenced had their heads closely cropped, their beards and whiskers shaved off; how they were then stripped of their ordinary clothes, put into the convict dress, handcuffed, and sent off to Pentonville. “In thirty minutes,” said a Government organ describing the operation, “they were so changed that their dearest friends could hardly recognise them.” In another part of his pamphlet Mr. Gladstone describes the unhappy condition of the political prisoners confined in the Bagno of Nisida after their sentence:

For one half-hour of the week, a little prolonged by the leniency of the superintendent, they were allowed to see their friends outside the prison. This was the sole view of the natural beauties with which they were surrounded. At other times they were exclusively within the walls. — P. 29.

About a fortnight ago an Irish magistrate applied to the Home Office for permission to see the political prisoners now in England. Sir George Grey refused his application on the ground that for the first six months no stranger whatever can be allowed to visit a convict undergoing the separate system at Pentonville. What is the separate system of Pentonville? It is very unlike the system so eloquently exposed by Mr. Gladstone. The prisoners are not “allowed to see their friends outside the prison,” nor are they allowed to see them inside the prison; nor are they allowed to see each other. Each prisoner has a solitary world of his own, thirteen feet by seven. A portion of this cell is occupied by a water-closet, and within two yards of this he takes his solitary meals, performs his solitary task work, and rests at night. If he omits to scrub and clean out his cell every morning, or if he breaks any other law of his little world, the directors can order him to be flogged, and put on bread and water for twenty-eight days in another little world where there is no light. What is the effect of this separate system? The Blue Books of the recent Royal Commission on Transportation and Penal Servitude give us the latest and most accurate information on the subject. Sir Joshua Jebb in his evidence speaks of what he calls “the serious physical effects” of the Pentonville separate system.

When the prisoners were embarked in ships in order to go to Van Diemen’s Land, a number of them fell into fits, and it was only by associating them for a fortnight or so before they left Pentonville that these fits ceased on embarkation.

Earl Grey: The suddenness of the change I suppose had that effect? — Yes. The medical men could not account for them; the fits were of an anomalous character.

Sir John Pakington: What was the nature of the fits? — The medical superintendent was in dismay. He had never seen anything of the kind before. They were very peculiar.

Sir John Pakington: Did the fits affect the health of the men afterwards? — The men got better afterwards; but they were reported to be very quiet. There is reason to believe that the effect was produced by the strictness of the separation. — P. 18.

Sir John Pakington will find in Judge Therry’s “Reminiscences of New South Wales” (1863) a further answer to this question. The only English convict prison to which Judge Therry refers is Pentonville. “It in a great degree unfitted them (the discharge of convicts) for domestic and general service. It imparted to them abstracted and eccentric habits.” The medical profession were of opinion that the system “had seriously impaired the mental faculties of several of the Pentonvillains, as they were termed."(P. 354.) The present practice is to send the prisoners at the termination of the Pentonville system, to Chatharn or to Portland to work in gangs with other convicts. This is called letting them into the world again. It is then that the full effect of Pentonville upon the mental faculties becomes manifest. Mr. Measor, the Deputy Governor of Chatharn, in his evidence before the Royal Commission, says: “I have observed when they come down to the public works’ prisons that they are in a very flabby condition of mind, and a very flabby condition physically, and I believe it (the Pentonville system) produces both effects.” He is asked, “You are able to state this from your own experience?” He answers:

Yes. I have seen men who have come from separate confinement to whom I should be sorry to talk upon any subject with the expectation of getting any reasonable view from them. They appear as if they had been undergoing something which had so utterly depressed their system that you would no more think of treating them as reasonable beings, capable of being strongly remonstrated with, than you would a man who was almost at the door of death. (Vol. ii, p. 446)

The proportion of those who are driven permanently insane by the Pentonville system is by no means small. The annual report of the Directors of Convict Prisons for the same year (1863) that the Deputy Governor of Chatham gave his evidence contains a table showing the number of convicts arriving at Chatham in twelve months, and the numbers transferred from Chatham in twelve months. From this table (p. 222) the following figures are taken. They confirm Mr. Measor’s evidence, though they tell amore precise and painful tale:

  No. of Convicts
Received into Chatham convict prison since the 1st of January — 852
Transferred to Millbank — 1
Transferred to Dartmoor — 2
Transferred to Woking — 26
Transferred to Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum 85

It is only fair to state that, though this proportion of persons who are made mad by the separate system [is smaller than when this system] was carried out with greater severity. In the same report from which these figures are taken there is a statement of the medical officer of Pentonville, in which he remarks that “since 1859 the separate system has assumed a milder character, and for the last triennial period the insanity is less than any previous one, and the suicidal cases are also less.” — (P. 29.) It is evident that the Pentonville system breaks down the mind, and that the number of those who are rendered absolutely insane is in direct proportion to the severity of the treatment After such facts, it is hardly worth while mentioning that the dietary at Pentonville is lower than in any other convict prison (vol. i. p. 274, of the Royal Commission). In short, confinement in Pentonville is the severest punishment, except death, allowed by the law. I am not certain that I ought to say “except death,” for I find the Protestant chaplain in his report saying that any one who thinks a convict is petted would change his opinion if he could visit Pentonville and “behold (a specimen of the sterner type of treatment here) a ruffian now under a sentence of life penal servitude for a savage assault committed in another prison, and ready to imbrue his hands here in the blood of any one who might come helplessly within his reach, glad to exchange his present state for the gallows.” — (P. 17.) If a convict attempts to kill a warder at Portland or any other convict prison, he is punished by being sent to Pentonville. There he is left till he dies, or sent in a strait-jacket to Broadmoor. Whether those members of the Government who made themselves so very busy about political prisoners abroad will trouble themselves about political prisoners at home one can hardly venture to guess. Mr. Gladstone has before now changed his opinions, and so has Lord Russell. But this much I think may safely be said, that the people of England will not approve of condemning political prisoners in this country to the Pentonville separate system.

I am, Sir, your faithful servant,

J. Pope Hennessy

1, Paper-buildings, Temple, Feb. 2, 1866

This letter having fallen under the eye of a member of the Central Council of the International Working Men’s Association [Fox], he communicated with the wife of one of the State prisoners, and learnt from her these facts, viz., that the State prisoners now confined in Pentonville Prison were removed thither on December 23, 1865; that only one letter on either side was allowed to pass between the prisoner and his wife during the first six-months term of this mode of incarceration, and that a relaxation of this cruel rule would be a great boon to the prisoner and a consolation to his suffering family.

When these facts were laid before the Central Council of the International Working Men’s Association, that body whose leading principle it is to appease national animosities and to encourage a sentiment of international fraternity — that body, which lamented the long-standing feud between the English and Irish nations, and could see only a new source of hatred between the two nations in the event of the reduction to a state of mental imbecility of the Irish State prisoners — thought it its duty to take the matter into its serious consideration.

The Central Council, after full deliberation, resolved to ask Sir George Grey to receive a deputation, consisting entirely of English and Scottish members, whose prayer to the Home Secretary should be to take care of the mental health of the State prisoners, and in particular to allow of a more frequent correspondence between the prisoners and their nearest and dearest relatives. The aim of the Council, in resolving that the proposed deputation should consist exclusively of Britons, was to offer a pledge of amity from the dominant nation to the suffering people of Ireland. The following letter was accordingly sent to Sir George Grey:

To the Right Hon. Sir George Grey,
Secretary of State for the Home Department

18, Bouverie Street, Fleet Street, Feb. 24, 1866

Sir, — A deputation, consisting exclusively of Englishmen, from the Working Men’s International Association, solicit an interview with you at as early a day after next Tuesday as is convenient to you, to urge upon you the propriety of mitigating, to a very slight extent, the severity of the prison discipline now enforced at Pentonville Prison upon the Irish State prisoners.

I am, Sir, &c.,

W. R. Cremer, Hon. Sec.

To this application the Secretary has received the following reply:

Whitehall, March 1, 1866

Sir, — I am directed by Secretary Sir George Grey to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 24th ult., requesting him to appoint an early day for receiving a deputation from the “International Working Men’s Association” on the subject of the treatment of the Irish State prisoners in Pentonville Prison, and I am to acquaint you that the Secretary of State must decline to receive a deputation on this subject.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

H. Waddington

Mr. W. R. Cremer,
18, Bouverie Street, E. C.

The Central Council submit this correspondence to the British public, and through them to the public of both continents, without comment.

G. Odger, President