As chairman of the committee of the House of Commons appointed, on February 25, 1729, to inquire into the state of the English prisons, Oglethorpe prepared and delivered three major reports: those concerning the Fleet, the Marshalsea, and the King’s Bench. He delivered also three brief preliminary and supplementary reports, of which this is the first.
What occasioned this preliminary report was the attempt of Thomas Bambridge, the warden of the Fleet, to prevent his prisoners from giving information to the investigating committee and his mistreatment of Sir William Rich, fourth Baronet Rich of Sunning, Berkshire, whose grandfather Sir William Rich had been a member of the House during the years 1698–1705. Imprisoned for debt, the fourth baronet, on January 25, 1729, had stabbed the warden while Bambridge and his minions were, Sir William alleged, assaulting him. Rich was then closely confined and shackled. His treatment was described by Sir Edmund Knatchbull, a member of Oglethorpe’s committee:
We went to the Fleet and was there by eight in the morning, and first visited the several apartments, many of which were so nauseous that we were forced to hold our noses; there were many poor people in sort of dungeons without light or fire and some in chains and others 30 or 40 in a room packed so close that it was likely in hot weather to breed a distemper; the poor wretches were overjoyed when we came in and with a general God bless us we were saluted. We then proceeded to examine Mr Bambridge, the warden . . . ; being asked how many were in irons, he said one for stabbing his man viz. Sir William Rich, and one for an escape; so the committee proceeded to examine Sir William Rich, having ordered his irons to be knocked off during his examination (they weighed 15 lb.), which proved a very cruel usage of him.
On the following day “they found Sir William Rich’s irons had again been put on after the committee went away yesterday and he loaded with treble the weight and so close that his hands and arms were swelled greatly and he had been in torture all night, and this was done, as they apprehended, by the warden for the discovery he had made of his usage the day before to the committee and to intimidate the other prisoners from any complaint; and Maj. Selwyn declared he was there and overheard him intimidating and threatening others if they made complaints. . . .”1
My text is taken from The Journals of the House of Commons (London, n.d.), 21:243, 247.
Mr. Oglethorpe, from the Committee, appointed to enquire into the State of the Gaols of this Kingdom, acquainted the House, that the Committee had entered upon their Enquiry into the State of the Fleet Prison; and had directed him to report to the House, how highly the Warden of the said Prison had misbehaved himself upon that Occasion: And he read the Report in his Place, and afterwards delivered it in at the Clerk’s Table; where the same was read, and is as follows; viz.
That, upon the Receipt of a Letter this Morning, being the 28th Day of February, 1728, from Sir Wm. Rich, Baronet, complaining of severe Treatment from Mr. Bambridge, Warden of the Fleet, since his Examination before the Committee, the Committee thereupon examined the said Sir Wm. Rich, and found,
That, as soon as the Committee adjourned Yesterday, he, the said Sir William, had his Legs loaded with Irons, and Handcuffs put on, by an Agent of the Warden’s, much straiter than those, that were on before his Examination; so that his Wrists were much swoln, and he was in Torture all Night;
Mr. Bambridge being called in, and examined, what induced him to change Sir Wm. Rich’s Handcuffs, and put on straiter, by which he was in great Pain and Torture all Night;
The said Bambridge answered, that one of the Handcuffs was broke Yesterday; and that he had no other Reason for changing them.
That, upon the Inspection of the Committee Yesterday, it appeared, that the Handcuffs, which Sir Wm. Rich had on, before he was brought to the Committee, were sound and good, and, after they were weighed, were returned unbroken to Mr. Bambridge, or his Agents.
That it further appears to this Committee, that the changing the Handcuffs of Sir William Rich, and the ill Treatment he has met with from the Warden, and his Agents, was the Consequence of Sir William Rich’s having given Evidence to this Committee, and was in order to intimidate others from giving further Evidence to this Committee.
Resolved, nemine contradicente, That Thomas Bambridge, Esquire, Warden of his Majesty’s Prison of the Fleet, having misused, in a very cruel and barbarous Manner, Sir William Rich, now a Prisoner in his Custody, for having given Evidence before a Committee of this House, is guilty of a high Indignity to this House, a Contempt of the Authority, and a Breach of the Privilege, thereof.
Ordered, nemine contradicente, That the said Thomas Bambridge be, for his said Offence, taken into the Custody of the Serjeant at Arms attending this House.