Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 17 - Criminal London

[back to menu for this book]




A brochure of fifty pages, full of figures and tables, just issued, contains the criminal statistics of the metropolis, as shown by the police returns. It is not very pleasant reading, in any sense, but it no doubt has its value. We learn from it that last year the police took into custody 64,281 persons, of whom 29,863 were discharged by the magistrates, 31,565 summarily disposed of, and 2,853 committed for trial; of the latter number 2,312 were convicted, the rest being either acquitted or not prosecuted, or in their cases true bills were not found. About twenty years ago, in 1839, the number taken into custody rather exceeded that of last year, being 65,965; although since that period 135 parishes, hamlets, and liberties, with, in 1850, a population of 267,267, have been added to the metropolitan district, and although the entire population must have greatly increased in the interval. These returns exhibits strange variations in the activity of the police; while last year the apprehensions were, as stated, 64,281, in 1857 they amounted [-175-] to as much as 79,364. The difference is 15,000, and of that number in excess, not one-half were convicted, either summarily or after trial, the rest forming an excess in the whole of those discharged by the magistrates. It is a striking fact that nearly half the number of all whom the police take into custody are discharged, so that the discrimination of the police is far from being on a par with its activity.
    Criminal London spends some considerable part of its time at Newgate, Clerkenwell, Wandsworth, Holloway, and other establishments well-known to fame, and descriptions of which are familiar to the reader, but a favourite resort, also, is Portland Goal, which, by the kindness of Captain Clay, we were permitted, recently, to inspect. Portland Goal is situated on a neck of land near Weymouth.
    To reach it, the better way is to take a passage in one of the numerous steamers which ply between Weymouth and Portland. In half an hour you will find yourself at the bottom of the chalk hill on which the prison is built. If you are sound in limb, and not deficient in wind, in another half hour you will find yourself at the principal entrance of the goal. But to get at the Prison is no easy work. The Captain of the steamer will tell you, you must take a trap the moment you get on shore, but Jehu will ask you so long a price as to put all idea of riding quite out of the question. The people on the island will give you but little information, and that of rather a contradictory [-176-] character. Undoubtedly the better plan is to trust to your own sense and legs. On our way we met an officer of the Royal Navy - a captain, we imagine. Before us, at a little distance, was what we took to be the prison, but we were not sure of the fact, and accordingly asked the gallant officer. We trust he was not a type of the service. He did not know what that building was before him: he did not know whether there was a prison there; and then he finished by asking us if we were one of the officials. If the French do come, let us hope Her Majesty's fleet will have more acute officers than our gallant acquaintance! We arrived at the principal entrance, notwithstanding the non-success of our queries with the brave marine, at a quarter to one. Before we enter, let us look around. What a place for a man to get braced up in! What a jolly thing it would be for many a London Alderman could he come here for a few months. Just below is the prison, clean, snug, and warm. At our feet is the stupendous Breakwater, within which lie, as we trust they may ever lie, idle and secure, some of the ships comprising the Channel Fleet. Here, stealing into the bay like a bird with white wings, is a convict ship, coming to bear away to the Bermudas some of the convicts now shut up within those stone walls, if you look well at her through the glass you can see her live freight on board, for she only calls here for some fifty or sixty, - who, however, have no wish to leave Portland for harder work and a less healthy climate. Beyond is [-177-] Weymouth, and its comfortable hotels - its agreeable promenade - and with, in summer time, its pleasant bathing. Right across St. Albyn's Head, and on the other side the Dorset coast, and straight across some eighty miles of the salt sea, is Cherbourg, with a breakwater far more formidable than that above which we stand. It is a clear bright sky above us, and in the light of the sun the scene is beautiful almost as one of fairy land.
    We ring the bell-hand in, though a window, our letter of introduction-are ushered into a wooden cage in which the janitor sits-enter our name in a book, and sit down. The officers, consisting of about 160 men, exclusive of a small guard of soldiers, are coming in from dinner. In appearance they somewhat resemble our Coast-guard, are tall fine men, with very red faces, and big black bushy whiskers. The principal warden came to receive us; he has been here ever since the place has been opened, and we could not have had a better guide, or one more competent to explain to us the nature of the important works carried on. And now we have passed into the very prison itself, and stand surrounded by men who have committed almost every species of crime. There are some fifteen hundred of them here from all parts of England; stupid peasants from Suffolk and Norfolk, and clever rascals (these latter are very troublesome) from London, and Birmingham, and Liverpool, and other busy centres of industry, and intelligence, and life. Says our informant, [-178-] We have a good many captains in the army here, and several merchants, nor are we surprised at the information.
    When we entered, the men had just dined, and were collected in the yard previous to being examined and walked off in gangs, under the charge of their respective officers, to work. The gangs consisted of various numbers, of from fifteen to thirty; each officer felt each man, to see that nothing was hidden, and examined his number to see that it was all right, and as each gang marches through the gate, the officer calls out the number of the gang, and the number of men it contains, to the chief officer, who enters it in his book. As soon as this operation was over, the gangs marched out, some to quarry stones for the Breakwater below; and others, by far the larger number, to construct the enormous barricades and fortifications which the Government has ordered as a defence for that part of the world. The prisoners who cannot stand this hard work are employed in mending clothes, in making shoes, in baking, and. brewing, in the school-room, and other offices necessary in such an enormous establishment. In this latter employment no less a personage than Sir John Dean Paul had been occupied till very recently. The scene was a busy one; all around us were convicts-here quarrying, there employed in the manufacture of tools, or in carpenters's or masons's work - all working well, and many of them cheerful in spite of the presence of an official, and little apparently heeding the sentry standing near with loaded gun ready to shoot, if need be, a runaway. [-179-] We have heard gentlemen say that at Bermuda and at Gibraltar, the convicts will not work. All we can say is, that at Portland they do, and so effectually, as to cost the country but little more than four or five pounds a year. Our out door inspection over, we then went over the sleeping apartments, and the chapel, and the kitchen, and laundry, and bakery. The impression left on us was very favourable. The food is of the plainest, but most satisfactory character. The allowance for breakfast is 12 oz. of bread, 1 pint of tea or cocoa. Dinner, 1 pint of soup, 5 oz. of meat, 1 lb. of potatoes, 6 oz. of bread or pudding. Supper, 9 oz. of bread, 1 pint of gruel or tea. The chapel is a handsome building, capable of containing fifteen hundred people, and the sleeping apartments were light and airy, and well ventilated. Each cell opens into a corridor, there being a series of three or four storeys; each sleeping apartment can contain from a hundred to five hundred men; in each cell there is a hammock, and all that is requisite for personal cleanliness, besides a book or two which the convict is allowed to have from the library. Of course the manner of life is somewhat monotonous. Before coming to Portland, the prisoners have passed their allotted time, (generally about nine months), in what is termed separate confinement, at Pentonville, Millbank, Preston, Bedford, Wakefield, or some other prison adapted for the first stage of penal discipline. Upon their reception they are made to undergo medical inspection, a change of clothes, and are required to bathe; [-180-] they are then informed of the rules and regulations of the prison, and moved to school for examination in educational attainments, with a view to their correct classification. Afterwards they receive an appropriate address from the chaplain, and are allowed to write their first letter from Portland to their relations. They are then put to work, and are made to feel that their future career depends in some measure on themselves. Thus there are four classes, and the convict in the best class may earn as much as two shillings-a-week, which is put to his credit, and paid him when he becomes free, partly by a post-office order, payable to him when he reaches his destination, and partly afterwards. The dress consists of fustian, over which a blue smock frock with white stripes is thrown. Convicts who are dangerous, and have maltreated their keepers, instead of a frock have a coat of a somewhat loud and striking character. Then, again, a yellow dress denotes that the convict has attempted to escape; and further, a blue cloth dress denotes that the wearer, engaged as a pointsman, has but little more time to stay, and has a little more freedom intrusted to him. In the working days in summer the prison-bell rouses all hands at a quarter-past five, allowing an hour for washing, dressing, and breakfast. Then comes morning service in the chapel. They are then marched off to labour, where they remain till eleven, when they return to dinner. At half-past twelve they are again paraded, and dismissed to labour till six. Suppers are distributed to each cell at half-past six, and at seven [-181-] evening service is held in the chapel. The prisoners then return to their cells. In winter-time they are recalled from labour at hall-past four, prayers are read at five, and supper is served at six; the prisoners then return to their cells. At eight all lights must be put out, and silence reigns in every hall, the slippered night-guards alone gliding through the long and dimly-lighted galleries like so many spectres. It may be that sorrow is wakeful, but it is not so at Portland. If the men have troubled consciences and uneasy hours, it is when they are at work, and not during the period allotted to repose. They are asleep as soon as ever the lights are put out, and till the bell summons them to labour they sleep the sleep of the just. Nor can we wonder at it. There is no sleep so sweet and precious, as that earned by a long day's work in the open air.
    Attendance at chapel and walking exercise in the open air, are the two great features of the Sunday's employment; and, as a further change, we may mention, each. prisoner is allowed half a day's schooling per week. While at work, of course they talk together, - it is impossible to prevent that,- and they choose their companions, and have their friendships as if they were free; and even, as in the case of Sir John Dean Paul, maintain - or endeavour to do so - the social distinctions which were accorded to them when supposed to be respectable members of respectable society. Altogether here, as at many a worse place than Portland, the convicts must work hard, for the contractor depends [-182-] on them for the supply of stone which is sent down the tramway to the Breakwater; but many of the men at Portland have been accustomed to hard labour all their lives. They are chiefly young and able-bodied, and here they are well cared for and taught. Surely here, if anywhere, the convict may repent his crimes, and be fitted to return to society a wiser and a better man! We cannot exactly say what are the effects of all this but surely the convicts must be better from this separation from their usual haunts and associates. Portland Prison is admirably adapted for carrying out a great experiment in the treatment and improvement of the criminal classes. It has now been in existence twelve years, and the experiment hitherto has succeeded. At any rate, if it is a blunder, it is not a costly one, like some establishments nearer town.
    It is now nearly ten years since transportation to the colonies ceased to be a punishment for criminal offences. The Tasmanian and Australian authorities refused to receive them ; and the government establishment at Norfolk Island was abandoned, the home government resolving to make an effort to dispose of the convict population in some other manner. The convict establishment on the Island of Portland was the first scheme proposed for the employment and reformation of offenders. The principal object was to secure a place of confinement for long-term convicts; the next, to systematically apply the labour of such convicts to "national works of importance," the prosecution of which at once was pro-[-183-]fitable, and afforded the means of training the convicts to habits of industry. The Penal Servitude Act was passed in 1850, and under it the much-condemned ticket of leave came into operation. It substituted sentences of penal servitude for all crimes formerly visited by sentences of transportation to a less period than 14 years. As few of such sentences, comparatively, reached over that period, the Act practically reduced the transportation sentences to a mere tithe of what they were before- the average during the years from 1854 to 1857 not being more than 235 out of 3200. In 1857 the transportation sentences only amounted to 110, while the penal servitude sentences were 2474. In that year an Act was passed with a small proportionate remission of sentence as a reward for good conduct. The advantages of the system thus established, were considered to be- 1st, Its deterring effects. 2nd, Its affording encouragement to the convict.~ 3rd, As giving the means of dealing with refractory convicts; and 4th, As affording means of employment to offenders on their discharge.
    Portland Prison, as the chief punitive establishment under this new system, is, of course, most deserving notice. In 1857, the total expenditure on this prison was 48,782. The total value of the labour performed in the same year was 41,855, which, divided by 1488 (the average number of prisoners), gave 28. 2s. 7d. as the rate per man. We doubt if the labour in our county prisons has ever reached the half of this value. Large numbers of the Portland prisoners have obtained em-[-184-]ployment at harbour and other similar works since their discharge, and generally their conduct has been satisfactory. The Discharged Prisoners' Aid Society regularly assists the well-behaved convicts in finding employment on their release from confinement, and that society's operations have been remarkably successful. Pentonville prison has ordinarily from five to six hundred prisoners; while in Milbank the daily average number, in 1857, was about 1100. Parkhurst prison is kept for boy convicts, of whom the average daily number in 1857, was 431; and Brixton, for females, of whom 784 in all were received in that year. The Fulham Refuge is another female institution, in which convicts are received previous to being discharged on license, and in which they are taught a knowledge of household work, such as cooking, washing, &c., calculated to improve their chances of getting employment. Portsmouth, Chatham, Lewes, and Dartmoor are also used as Convict establishments the latter, however, is being gradually given up, as utterly unfitted for such a purpose, its temperature in winter somewhat approaching to that of Nova Zembla. It is difficult to say what are the numbers requiring to be disposed of in these convict prisons in the average of years, but they probably range about 7,000 males and 1,200 females. If the decrease of crime in 1858 continue in subsequent years, our home prisons will amply suffice for the reception of our convict population.