Discharged Prisoners Act of 1774

face of a prisoner

In eighteenth-century England, jailors often demanded fees before releasing prisoners who had been acquitted or who had fulfilled their sentences. The Discharged Prisoners Act of 1774 (14 Geo. III, c. 20) abolished those fees for acquitted prisoners. In lieu of fees from acquitted prisoners, the Act provided for compensation to the jailor, not exceeding thirteen shillings and four pence per acquitted prisoner, to be paid from country rates (public revenue). A similar bill was introduced in the House of Commons in 1773, but it did not progress.

Legislative history associates this Act with John Howard’s collection of information on the state of prisons. On February 17, 1774, a bill that included provisions relieving acquitted prisoners of jailors’ fees and for securing the health of prisoners was brought into the House of Commons:

Ordered, That Leave be given to bring in a Bill for the Relief of Prisoners charged with Felony, or other Crimes, who shall be acquitted or discharged by Proclamation, respecting the Payment of Fees to Gaolers, and giving a Recompense of such Fees, out of the County Rates; and for more effectually securing the Health of Prisoners in Gaol, during their Confinement: and that Mr. Popham, the Lord Folkestone, Mr. Ward, Mr. Saint John, Mr. Whitbread, and Sir Thomas Clavering, do prepare, and bring in, the same. {Journal of the House of Commons, v. 34, p. 469 (14 Geo. III, Parl. 13, Sess. 7 (1774))}

Alexander Popham, Lord Folkstone and Sir Thomas Clavering had also sponsored the similar 1773 bill. A Committee of the whole House divided the 1774 bill into two bills on Mar. 15, 1774. Both bills were enacted. The second bill was enacted under the title, “An Act for preserving the Health of Prisoners in Gaol, and preventing the Gaol Distemper” (14 Geo. II c. 59 (1774)).

Alexander Popham, who was the first listed sponsor of the 1774 combined bill, was the member for Taunton. In Taunton in 1730, bringing prisoners into court created an outbreak of jail fever that killed a lord chief baron, a sergeant, the sheriff, and hundreds of other persons. Another outbreak of jail fever in a Taunton jail sometime between 1768 and 1773 killed eight out of nineteen prisoners.^ ^ While Popham seems to have been Anglican, Taunton was the site of an important dissenting academy from 1672-1759.^ Dissenting intellectuals may have connected Popham to John Howard.

Samuel Whitbread also sponsored the 1774 bill. Whitbread also sponsored a bill in 1773 to provide clergy for prisoners. Samuel Whitbread was John Howard’s close personal friend.

The bill sponsor John St. John may also have been connected to Howard. St. John was a close personal friend of William Eden. Eden’s Principles of Penal Law was published in 1771 and attracted considerable attention. Eden subsequently acquired a reputation as a friend of prisoners.^ John St. John was also intimate with Kitty Kennedy, a well-known lady who had considerable sexual influence on elite men in London. Spurred by her pleading and influence, John St. John in 1770 had worked strenuously and successfully to release her two brothers (who had been convicted of murder) from Newgate Prison and sentences of execution.^

Field (1850) states that Howard’s friend “Mr. St. John” took an active part in preparing and supporting the bill on discharged prisoners. That source apparently misidentified “Mr. St. John” as St. Andrew St. John. St. Andrew St. John was from Bedfordshire and the brother of Whitbread’s son-in-law. Howard in letters to Samuel Whitbread expressed “affectionate compliments” to Lady St. John, i.e. Whitbread’s daughter.^

However, “Mr. Saint John” who was among the sponsors in 1774 of the bill concerning prisoners could not have been St. Andrew St. John. St. Andrew St. John first became a member of the House of Commons in 1780 (representing Bedfordshire). In 1774, three St. John’s served in Commons: Sir Henry St. John, Hon. Henry St. John, and Hon. John St. John. The Journal of the House of Commons refers to the first as “Sir Henry Saint John” (23 Feb. 1773: v. 34, p. 148) and the third as “Mr. Saint John” (Jan. 13, 1774: v.34, p. 392 and PH (1813) v. 32, pp. 898-9, 942). McConville (1981) indicates that one sponsor was John St John, but incorrectly states that John St John was one of Howard’s neighbors. John St. John was born in Kent and represented Newport, Isle of Wight, in the House of Commons.

In short, sorting out the St. John’s is very difficult. But sources have linked Howard to the St. John that sponsored the 1774 bill. Such a connection is plausible, even if fraught with identification errors.

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