Victorian London - Prisons and Penal System - Prisons - Wormwood Scrubs Prison





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    As London grows crime increases, although not exactly in direct ratio; nevertheless the processes of detention, coercion, and punishment must be constantly enlarged. While existing prisons have been greatly improved, other establishments have been added from time to time, and one of the chief of these is the great edifice of Wormwood Scrubs. It stands, with its four wings and adjacent buildings, on the fringe of that large open space, once the principal duelling ground of London, where the Duke of York shot at Colonel Lennox, and where many other quarrels, social and political, were fought out. Nowadays Wormwood Scrubs is better known to Londoners as the drill ground for Household Cavalry or as a place where Volunteers practise at rifle butts and "sportsmen" destroy pigeons. The sterner uses of the place are seen in the black vans that wend their way daily along the prison road, bringing fresh contingents of wrong-doers to expiate their offences, or, again, in the daily exodus, soon after breakfast, of the ragged riff-raff, newly released and delighted to be once more at large.
    Wormwood Scrubs is essentially a prison for "doing time" - where all incarcerated, male and female, have been sentenced to imprisonment, principally for short periods. Convicts, however, or more precisely penal servitude prisoners, also come for the earlier part of their penalty. Yet inmates of another entirely distinct class are detained within the walls, and for no fault of their own - the poor blameless infants who have drawn their first breath in the prison, or are so young that they cannot be separated from their mothers, and are thus cradled in crime. Convicts and children: its whole population is comprised of these two extremes - the poles of the prison world. Too often, it may be feared, the outcome is the sequel to the start. To have been born or suckled in [-127-] durance is the inalienable heritage of woe. The child is father to the man; the hapless victim to environment and early vicious associations drifts back to its birthplace, and through chance - misfortune it may be - or nostalgia succumbs to destiny. Yet in many cases the prison born are better off than the free born - more cared for, more delicately nurtured than those who have first seen the light and have been dragged up in the purlieus and dark dens of the town. Prison mothers are generally a pattern to their sex. Discipline apart, and the stimulus it gives to good behaviour, there are no disturbing emotions within the walls, no incentives to neglect of offspring, no drink, no masterful men, no temptation to thieve or go astray; and thus their better feelings, their purer maternal instincts, have full play. So the prison baby has, for the most part, a good time. High officials, visitors, matron, warders, all are glad to pet and cosset it, there is plenty of wholesome food, it has toys to play with, fresh air and exercise in its mother's arms, while its nursery, though no doubt a cell, is bright, well-ventilated, not ill-furnished with its comfortable cot, and is scrupulously clean. Moreover, when the prison mother is drawn elsewhere by the necessities of her daily toil, she knows that her baby will be well cared for in the prison nursery or creche. 

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    Between the embryo criminal and the finished full-blown specimen there are many degrees and categories, nearly all of them to be found in Wormwood Scrubs, their antecedents very varied, their characters dis-similar, but their condition and treatment much the same. The records show that there are thieves in all lines of business - from the pickpocket to the garroter. The burglar, the forger, the fraudulent financier, the dishonest clerk are to be found here, and every kind of felon and misdemeanant is subjected to the same regime. In principle, the rule of "strict separation" is enforced, but not solitary confinement, for that form of torture has long been abandoned by us. We have escaped the bitter reproach contained in the well-known lines by Coleridge:-
        As he went through Cold-Bath Fields he saw
        A solitary cell;
        And the Devil was pleased for it gave him a hint
            For improving his prisons in Hell.
    [-128-] In those olds days the victims to far-fetched theory went made after long periods of unbroken seclusion. Now all British prisoners are segregated : they are located, each one, in a separate cell or small room; that is to say, when they are not under discipline and observation. They are alone when at leisure, when feeding, sleeping, resting from labour; alone, as a general rule when at work, although some forms of labour are now carried out in common.
worm3.gif (64779 bytes)    The isolation is never continuous, even for those kept in cells; it is broken by constant visits. The governor comes daily and the chaplain, the doctor, and other superior officers; the trade instructors and schoolmaster also spend much time with each pupil. Then there is the break for Divine service and again for exercise, when the prisoners leave their cells to pass along the galleries and file down the light staircases out into the open yards. Silence is sternly prescribed, but it cannot be invariably maintained. In chapel, especially, seated close together, it is easy to communicate. Conversation passes under cover of the hymns, which are sung with great heartiness; and, again, in the yards it is said that men can talk by the movement of their lips and without making audible sound. To see one another, to make signs, to speak together, altough not, of course, freely, are so many sets-off against the irksome rule of separation imposed on them.
worm4.gif (33817 bytes)    Of late the prison authorities have gone further, and now permit the well-conducted, after a brief period of separation, to be associated in their daily work. This is the case at Wormwood Scrubs, where the ground floors of the great halls are converted into rough and ready ateliers, and such simple trades are prosecuted as post-bag making, mat making, basket making, and the manufacture of rope. True artisans and handicraftsmen, those who acquired their [-129-] skill "outside" and those who have had the wit to learn something inside, are largely utilised in the service of the State. The outcry against prison competition has limited the quantity and quality of output, but no one can complain if the Government works for itself. So you will see that much tin-ware is turned out in the "shops," that the prison carpenters produce boxes of all sorts for his Majesty's Post office, that coal sacks for the Navy, bedding and blankets for the Army, are manufactured largely in prison. The work-rooms at Wormwood Scrubs are hives of intelligently conducted industry, and very satisfactory results are obtained. There are prison dressmakers, cutters-out, fitters, machine workers, milliners; and the female officers' uniforms, costumes, cloaks, and bonnets would not discredit a West-End place of business. In the bootmakers' shop a brisk trade is done; the tailors are genuine "snips," glad enough to be employed to keep their hands in; the bookbinder is an expert, who, although not quite a Derôme or a Grolier, deftly and neatly remedies the incessant wear and wear of the prison library. Long previous training is not needed in the kitchen: muscular strength only is indispensable for the handling of great sides of beef, for carrying heavy cans and dinner trays, but activity and good-will are essential, and the daily toil of the prison cooks is severe. Skilled bakers may be scarce in the prison world, but the art of bread-making is kept up here by tradition, transmitted from generation to generation, and there is never much fault to find with the "whole meal" loaves that come out of the prison ovens. The prison has a claim to the best efforts of the inmates in any capacity. All the house service is performed by them - cleaning, painting, white-washing, gardening, and the removal of produce in hand carts to which they are harnessed or which they push about the enclosure.

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    The industrial side in Wormwood Scrubs is its pleasantest, and is rightly thrown into strongest relief. There is another aspect, the disciplinary, the methods and processes by which good behaviour is ensured, and yet another, the reformatory influences applied by religious and friendly agencies. As a rule, there is little misconduct of a serious kind in Wormwood Scrubs. The offences that mostly crop up are due to temper, too often, but not unnaturally, hot and hasty; to ingrained idleness, showing itself in a strong dislike of work. Grave acts of insubordination are rare; assaults upon waders, overt attempts at mutiny all but unknown. The [-130-] coercion and the penalties inflicted are mild enough, and generally limited to the reduction of diet and close confinement, although in the twelvemonth cases of corporal punishment with the birch - not the cat - may number half a dozen. The offence most excusable to the lay mind, and most heinous in official eyes - escape - is but seldom attempted, at least with success, in Wormwood Scrubs. A man on one occasion, however, broke prison by ingeniously cutting his way out, though he was captured the same evening. So little fear is there if escape that prisoners are sent to work at some distance from the prison guarded only by a couple of warders, and this within sight and earshot of London. worm6.gif (40619 bytes)Moral control is found to be quite as effective as bolts and bars. That crime should be prevented rather than punished is daily gaining great force as an axiom in social science. This humane view extends also to prison life. The most earnest wish of the authorities at Wormwood Scrubs is not to force, but to persuade; to keep their charges well in hand, but to impress upon them that when their offence is once purged they should no more return to gaol. The prison chaplain, ever an active influence for good, is nowadays greated aided by kindly folk who have made the criminal their special care, and by whose noble endeavours so many societies and institutions have been called into existence to assist the well-intentioned to go straight after release.
worm7.gif (29725 bytes)    No description of the present palatial establishment at Wormwood Scrubs would be complete without some brief reference to its first beginnings, the manner in which it was planted and gradually grew into such imposing dimensions. The method adopted for its erection was a new departure, at least, in this country. It had been tried a century before at Sing-Sing, in the United States, and our practice has since been imitated in Austria-Hungary and in France. The whole work was executed by prison labour. The idea originated in 1874 with General Sir Edmund du Cane, an eminent Royal Engineer and publicist, at that time head of the Prison Department, who was the architect and designer of the edifice and the controlling spirit throughout. The preliminaries executed by contract consisted of the shell of a small prison of corrugated iron having a wall one brick thick, and a fence or hoarding with wooden gates and a small temporary lodge. Another shed served as kitchen and lodging for the warder staff.
    [-131-] This was in the winter of 1874. Nine specially selected convicts, men of good character and within a year of release, were now lodged in the only cells with doors and locks, comparatively secure. These pioneers completed the building, and with the accommodation thus provided fifty more prison lodgers were brought in - a sufficient force to erect a second prison wing and raise the population to a hundred all told. Building operations for the great permanent prison then began in earnest. A first necessity was "ballast" - the burnt clay of the London district; it was needed for road-making and as one of the constituents of mortar. At the same time clay, dug up on the spot, was prepared and treated to form "kerf," the material from which bricks are manufactured. All this time the numbers steadily increased; there were ere long a couple of hundred hands on the job; and as the summer of 1875 advanced bricks had been burnt and stacked ready to be built into the first great block or hall, the ground floor of which was finished as winter approached. This floor, although open to the sky, was, however, used as a receptacle for convicts, only a small pent-house, with small tarpaulin roof, being put up as cover to the cell doors.
    So the work proceeded steadily, without stint or difficulty, the felon bees industriously adding cell to cell in the hive, and presently the four great parallel blocks were pushed forward towards completion. Each building was a self-contained prison, and one and all had been the perfected work of convict hands; every brick having been made, every stone dressed and laid, every bar forged, every door raised and strengthened by the class for whom it has since been a place of penitence and expiation.

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George R. Sims (ed.), Living London, 1902