Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hill, Matthew Davenport

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HILL, MATTHEW DAVENPORT (1792–1872), reformer of the criminal law, the eldest son of Thomas Wright Hill [q. v.], by Sarah Lea, his wife, was born at Birmingham on 6 Aug. 1792. He was brother of Sir Rowland Hill, the inventor of penny postage. [For an account of his parents and the circumstances in which he was brought up see Hill, Sir Rowland, and Hill, Thomas Wright.] Till the age of twenty-three he assisted his father in his school. At an early period of his life he took an active part in the political movement of which Birmingham some years later became the centre, writing articles for the ‘Midland Chronicle.’ In 1814 he entered at Lincoln's Inn, being the first man from Birmingham who went to the bar. He did not begin to keep terms till two years later. In his student days he reported in the House of Commons, and wrote for the newspapers. With two friends, John and Samuel Steer, he carried on for a short time a weekly journal, ‘The Sunday Review,’ or ‘The Saturday Review,’ as it was styled in its edition for the provinces, with the motto of ‘Pro rege sæpe, pro patria semper.’ In Michaelmas term 1819 he was called to the bar, joining the midland circuit. He at once obtained a brief in a case arising out of the Manchester massacre. On his first circuit he was engaged for the defence of Major John Cartwright [q. v.] and others who were prosecuted for conspiracy in attending a meeting to elect what they called ‘a legislatorial attorney’ for Birmingham. Hill's known sympathies with the radical party and his ability led to his being retained for the defence in many other political trials. In 1820 he defended the wife of Richard Carlile [q. v.] on a charge of selling a seditious libel, and in 1822 Carlile's shop-boy on a charge of disseminating blasphemy. In 1831 he was leading counsel for the Nottingham rioters, in 1839 for the Canadian prisoners, and in 1843 for the ‘Rebecca’ rioters in South Wales. In 1844 he was one of the counsel for Daniel O'Connell in his appeal to the House of Lords, and in 1848 for the plaintiffs in the Braintree church rate case, and for the crown in the case of the appointment of Dr. Hampden to the see of Hereford. He was for many years actively engaged both in parliament and in the courts of law in the celebrated case of the Baron de Bode, who claimed as an English subject compensation for the loss of his property confiscated by the French government. The money had been paid by the French government in 1814 into the English treasury; but in spite of the support given to the baron's claim by Lords Derby, Truro, Brougham, and Lyndhurst, all Hill's efforts for his client were fruitless.

In 1822 he had published his work on ‘Public Education’ [see underHill, Sir Rowland], which led to an intimate acquaintance with Jeremy Bentham and other advanced liberals. In 1823–4, under the pseudonyms of William Payne and Martin Danvers Heaviside, he contributed to Knight's ‘Quarterly Magazine,’ and so became intimate with Macaulay. In a contribution entitled ‘My Maiden Brief’ he gave a lively account of his first case. In 1826 he took part with Brougham in founding the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. In the political agitation which resulted in the Reform Bill he was largely concerned, and on the resignation of Lord Grey's ministry in 1832, when it was believed that the Duke of Wellington was going to use military force, he, like many of the reformers, purchased a rifle to use on the side of the people. Being returned for Hull in the first reform parliament, he strongly supported all measures for improving the law and extending liberty. He had the charge of the bill for the colonisation of South Australia, which in 1834 received the royal assent. In a speech at Hull in 1833, imprudently repeating a statement which he had heard in private conversation, he charged an Irish member with opposing a bill, and at the same time privately intimating to the government that it ought to pass. This led on the opening of the session to an unseemly debate, in the course of which Lord Althorp, who avowed his belief that the statement was true, and Sheil were committed to the custody of the sergeant-at-arms, as a duel between them seemed impending. A committee of inquiry was appointed, before which Hill, convinced that the report which had reached him could not be sustained, finally withdrew the charge. In the general election of 1835 he lost his seat. In 1838 he published a pamphlet, ‘A Letter to Thomas Pemberton, Esq., M.P., on the Privileges of the House of Commons.’

In 1834 he took silk, and in 1839, on the erection of his native town into a municipal corporation, he was appointed recorder of Birmingham. It was in this office, which he held for twenty-six years, that he delivered that series of charges to the grand jury which greatly helped to effect a reform in the criminal law. These charges were published in a collected edition in 1857 under the title of ‘Suggestions for the Repression of Crime.’ He had for a fellow-worker his youngest brother, Frederic Hill, who as first inspector of prisons in Scotland had remodelled the gaols in that part of the kingdom, and published the results of his experience in a work entitled ‘Hill on Crime’ (1853). In dealing with criminals the following were the principles which Hill laid down: (1) The object of criminal jurisprudence should be the repression of crime to the lowest possible amount, the treatment of the criminal being a means to that end, not an end itself; (2) with retribution for sin, man, in regard to his fellow-man, has nothing to do; (3) punishment used solely as a deterrent being often futile, at the best insufficient, and always uncertain in effect, two methods alone exist of preventing crime by penal means, namely, incapacitation or reformation. Under incapacitation come capital punishment and imprisonment. Criminals guilty of murder, but who have been reprieved, or guilty of inflicting irremediable injury, and those whom repeated convictions for grave offences have shown to be incorrigible, he proposed to imprison, not nominally as at present, but really for life, in a special gaol. From this there was to be no release except by the recommendation of the judicial committee of the privy council. In dealing with all other prisoners he adopted the principles laid down by Captain Maconochie, formerly governor of Norfolk Island, which Hill thus summed up: ‘Begin to reform the criminal the moment you get hold of him, and keep hold of him until you have reformed him.’ By good conduct and work alone the prisoner was to earn indulgences and liberation. By the Penal Servitude Act of 1853 this principle was in part adopted. A prisoner whose conduct had been good was to be released before the expiration of his sentence on a ticket of leave, the chief condition of which was that he would be sent back to prison on proof being given that he was associating with persons of evil repute, and was not in possession of any visible means of earning an honest livelihood. This measure was almost wrecked at the outset by the folly of the home office. Convicts, however bad their conduct had been, were discharged on the expiration of a certain portion of their sentence, and scarcely a single license was revoked except on the commission of a fresh crime. Crimes of violence increased, and the public laid the blame on the system. Fortunately it was worked with great efficiency in Ireland by Captain Crofton, the head of the convict prisons there. By the reduction of convicts in that country in eight years from 4,278 to 1,314, its merits were vindicated. It was not till the Penal Servitude Act of 1864 that tickets of leave ceased to be granted in England as a matter of course, but were rigidly earned by good conduct.

The juvenile criminals, who in 1844 amounted to one in 304 of the population between the ages of ten and twenty, engaged much of Hill's attention. He joined with Mary Carpenter [q. v.] and other philanthropists in advocating the establishment of reformatories, which should be worked not as barracks, but on the family principle, as at Mettray in France; and of industrial schools for those who, not yet convicted, were hovering on the brink of a criminal life, and of free day- or ragged-schools for neglected children. The cost of the maintenance of the child was as far as possible to be thrown on the parents. These views Hill supported not only in his charges, but in large conferences held from time to time of those interested in these questions. The result of improved legislation was seen in the rapid lessening of the number of known criminals, which fell from 155,000 in 1861 to 77,000 in 1871, and 32,910 in 1887–8. In 1851 Hill was appointed commissioner of bankrupts for the Bristol district, which post he held till the abolition of the provincial courts by the act of 1869. His judgments were unusually sound. ‘I don't know how it is, Hill,’ remarked Lord-justice Knight Bruce, ‘but we can't manage to upset any of your decisions.’ ‘Nevertheless,’ answered the commissioner, ‘I do my best to give you a chance—I always try to be right.’ While commissioner of bankrupts he continued his efforts at reforming criminal jurisprudence, and took an active part in the work of the Social Science Association and in the co-operative movement. One of the last schemes which occupied his attention was the boarding-out of pauper children. He died on 7 June 1872, at his residence at Heath House, Stapleton, near Bristol, and was buried by the side of his wife in the cemetery of Arno's Vale. A bust of him has been placed by the town council of Birmingham in the public library of the town. He married in 1819 Margaret Bucknall, the elder daughter of a Kidderminster brewer. She died in 1868. By her he had six children, five of whom survived him—Alfred Hill, late registrar in the Birmingham court of bankruptcy; Matthew Berkeley Hill, professor of clinical surgery in University College, London; Rosamond Davenport Hill, member of the London School Board; Florence Davenport Hill and Joanna Margaret Hill, who have both been active in poor law reform, especially in the boarding-out system.

[Remains of T. W. Hill, ed. M. D. Hill, privately printed, 1859; obituary notice in the Times and Daily News, 10 June 1872; Memoir of M. D. Hill, by his Daughters, 1878; Public Education, by M. D. Hill 1822; Suggestions for the Repression of Crime, by M. D. Hill, 1857; Life of Sir Rowland Hill, by G. B. Hill, 1880; Knight's Quarterly Magazine, 1823–4; The Bench and the Bar, 1837; Transactions of the Association for the Promotion of Social Science; Co-operator, July and Aug. 1863, Jan. 1864.]

G. B. H.