The people have made enormous strides in all that tends to civilize and soften mankind, while the laws have contracted a ferocity which did not belong to them in the most savage period of our history; and, to such extremes of distress have they proceeded that I do believe there never was a law so harsh as British law, or so merciful and humane a people as the British people. And yet to this mild and merciful people is left the execution of that rigid and cruel law.
This measure was defeated, but the numbers of votes were so nearly equal, that the defeat was actually a victory.
Time went on. In 1831, Sir Robert Peel took up the gauntlet against capital punishment, and endeavored to induce Parliament to abolish the death-penalty for forgery; the House of Commons voted its abolition, but the Lords restored the clauses retaining the penalty. One thousand bankers signed a petition praying that the vote of the Commons might be sustained, but in vain; still, in deference to public opinion, after this the death-penalty was not inflicted upon a forger. Nevertheless, there remained plenty of food for the gallows. An incendiary, as well as a sheep-stealer, was liable to capital punishment; and so severely was the law strained upon these points, that he who set fire to a rick in a field, as well as he who found a half-dead sheep and carried it home, was condemned without mercy. But the advocates of mercy continued their good work until, finally, the gallows became the penalty for only those offenses which concerned human life and high treason.
CONVICT SHIPS AND CONVICT SETTLEMENTS.
More work opened before the indefatigable worker. Frequently batches of female convicts were despatched to New South Wales, and, according to the custom at Newgate, departure was preceded by total disregard of order. Windows, furniture, clothing, all were wantonly destroyed; while the procession from the prison to the convict ship was one of brutal, debasing riot. The convicts were conveyed to Deptford, in open wagons, accompanied by the rabble and scum of the populace. These crowds followed the wagons, shouting to the prisoners, defying all regulations, and inciting them to more defiance of rules. Some of the convicts were laden with irons; others were chained together by twos. Mrs. Fry addressed herself first to the manner of departure, and, rightly judging that the open wagons conduced to much disorder, prevailed on the governor of Newgate to engage hackney-coaches for the occasion. Further, she promised the women that, provided they would behave in an orderly manner, she, together with a few other ladies, would accompany them to the ship. Faithful to her promise, her carriage closed the line of hackney-coaches; three or four ladies were with her, and thus, in a fashion at once strangely quiet and novel, the transports reached the place of embarkation.