[-49-] CHAPTER II
DEBTORS’ PRISONS—THE QUEEN’S BENCH.
various debtors’ prisons—The average number of prisoners in each—The
Queen’s Bench; extent and nature of the accommodation in it—The practice of
chumming prisoners—Shops, business, .&c. - Story of the Pie-man—The
tap-room—Eccentric characters—Tom Snaggs—Circumstances under which persons
are imprisoned—Partiality of some of the prisoners to the Queen’s
Bench—Striking instance of this—Efforts made by some of the prisoners to
keep up their former dignity—Story of a dinner—Various classes of persons in
the Queen’s Bench—Changes in the external appearance of the better class of
prisoners after they have been a short time in the place-Unexpected meetings of
friends in the Bench—Illustrative anecdotes—General observations, and
The question of imprisonment for debt having been of late so often under the consideration of the legislature, the attention of the public has been drawn to it within the last few years much more generally than at any former period. Intimately connected with this subject is that of the Debtors’ Prisons in London; and as very few, with the exception of those who have had the misfortune to be inmates, know any thing regarding these places, I shall devote this chapter to them. I have only one preliminary remark to make, which is, that all the facts and anecdotes which I shall give relative to the Queen’s Bench Prison, have been verbally communicated to me by persons in the place, in the course of repeated visits which I lately paid to it, for the purpose of obtaining such information.
The Debtors’ Prisons in London are five in number. They are, the QUEEN’S BENCH, the FLEET, the MARSHALSEA, WHITE CROSS-STREET, and HORSEMONGER-LANE prisons.
As I shall afterwards have occasion to speak at considerable length of the first-named prison, I shall make a few observations on the others in this part of the chapter. The FLEET is a prison for the confinement of persons under process of debt issuing out of either the Court of Common Pleas, or the Court of Exchequer; or for the confinement of parties who have been guilty of contempt of either of these courts. The Fleet is also the place of imprisonment for persons who are held guilty of a contempt of the Court of Chancery, or of the Duchy Court of Lancaster. There is a certain space without the prison which is called “The Rule.” Within this space the prisoners are permitted to reside at large, on furnishing satisfactory security against their escape.
[-50-] This is done by a warrant of attorney to confess judgment, and on paying the warden of the prison a certain percentage upon the debt, the amount of which percentage varies according to the magnitude of the debt, and the circumstances of the debtor, but never exceeds five per cent. on the first 100l., nor two and a half on the second. The space within the rules embraces a circumference of three miles, and includes the London Coffee House. Day rules may be had any day, during term, on which the Courts of Common Pleas and Exchequer respectively sit, on applying to the warden, and furnishing the same kind of security as in the case just mentioned. A day rule enables the prisoner to go at large during the particular day for which it is granted, from the opening of the prison gates in the morning till eleven o clock at night. The expenses of a day rule, exclusive, of course, of the amount of security required, are four shillings and sixpence. Of this sum the warden gets one shilling; the clerk of the papers one shilling and tenpence; and the officers of the court, who grant the rules, receive the remaining one shilling and eight-pence. With regard to “chumming” and other internal arrangements of the prison, I shall not say any thing here, as they will be fully described when I come to speak of the Queen’s Bench; the arrangements being essentially the same in both places. The average number of persons confined in the Fleet is about 230.
The MARSHALSEA PRISON is situated in Southwark. The number of persons confined in this prison is always much smaller than in any of the other prisons in the metropolis. The reason of this is, that it is restricted to the reception of two classes’ of men; first, officers and privates of the Royal Navy under sentence of naval courts-martial for mutiny, desertion, &c.; and, secondly, persons committed for debt or contempt, by the Palace Court, whose jurisdiction extends to the distance of twelve miles round the Palace at Westminster. It has no rules like the Fleet:
once consigned to it there is no getting out again, until you are liberated altogether. The prisoners in this place are obliged to find themselves in their own bedding, furniture, fuel, and everything else. Their number does not average more than 130.
WHITE CROSS-STREET PRISON is a place appropriated exclusively to those who are debtors to society. It is divided into three departments; the first is set apart for those persons who are freemen of the city of London, and is called the Ludgate side of the prison; the second is set apart for persons within the jurisdiction of the city, and is called the London side; and the third is appropriated to the reception of those arrested in the county, and is called the Middlesex side. The number of persons committed much greater than in the case of any other of prisons. This is to be accounted for from the fact, that the majority of those ordered for imprisonment by the [-51-] Courts of Requests, are sent to this place. And such is the facility of the debtor and creditor law in consigning human beings to prison, that a person has only to go and swear a debt of a shilling or sixpence against any other party, before the City Court of Requests, to have that party, if unable or unwilling to pay the debt, shut up in this prison for twenty days. The number of persons annually committed to White Cross-street prison is supposed to be very nearly 2000; and the average number of persons always confined in it exceeds 470. Its locality is in the City.
HORSEMONGER-LANE PRISON is very similar in its constitution to that of White Cross-street. It is situated on the other side of the water, at no great distance from the Queen’s Bench prison. A large proportion of its inmates consists of persons committed on process issued by the Courts of Requests. The average annual commitments are about 1200, and the average number of individuals confined in it at a time is upwards of 100.
The QUEEN’S BENCH PRISON, from its greater importance, is deserving of a more detailed notice than either of the others. It is situated in the Borough of Southwark, and embraces, with its open space, about four acres of ground. The principal building is 300 feet in length, and has a good deal of the appearance of a barracks. The whole is enclosed by a wall 35 feet in height; and which, to render the assurance of the safe keeping of the inmates doubly sure, is surmounted by large iron spikes. The exterior of the building is gloomy, owing partly to the dingy hue of the bricks, and partly to the smallness and plainness of the windows. The entire number of rooms within the walls of the Queen’s Bench prison, is 225, of which eight are called “state rooms,” and are set apart for the better class of prisoners. Half-a-crown a-week is paid as rent for one of these rooms. For the other rooms, with the exception of a few back ones which poor prisoners occupy rent free, the inmates pay one shilling weekly, and have to provide their own furniture. If, however, two persons are appointed to the same room, they are only charged sixpence each; if three, only fourpence each. In addition to the 225 rooms, there are a coffeehouse and public kitchen, and a public-house. At one end of the prison there is a kind of market, consisting of several sheds, occupied by butchers, poulterers, green-grocers, &c., each tenant paying a weekly rent of one shilling. These shillings, with the amount received for the various rooms, go into the pockets of the marshal, and are one source whence he receives his remuneration. His other sources are fees on commitments and discharges, or for granting the rules, or the liberty of living within the walls of the prison. The last-named source is the most productive one, as may be inferred from what I have said when speaking [-52-] of the rules of the Fleet Prison. Altogether, the marshal’s emoluments are usually, or were lately, after deducting drawbacks, worth nearly 30001. a-year.
Should the number of prisoners happen, which is very rarely the case, to be under the number of rooms in the place, then each prisoner is entitled to a room to himself on the payment of one shilling rental weekly. When the shilling cannot be paid, the marshal, as before stated, foregoes his claim, and allows the party to occupy his apartment rent free. The rooms are all very small; they must of necessity be so, from the number there is of them in so limited a space.
When there is more than one person to each room, which, as just observed, is almost always the case, the new-corners are, what is called “chummed” on the previous inmates. The system of “chumming” is difficult to be understood, to one who has not been an inhabitant of the place. It was some time before I could comprehend it: I shall explain it as well as I can. When a prisoner is first confined within the walls, he is entitled to what is termed a “chum ticket,” which is a small piece of paper on which one of the officers of the prison, called the chum-master, writes the name of the party, and the number of the room in which he is to be “chummed.” With this ticket he proceeds to the room in question, and showing it to the inmate, the latter must either share his apartment with him, or pay him five shillings, by way, as the phrase goes, of purchasing him out. If the new corner be offered the five shillings, he is compelled to take it, and then go and provide himself with the share of some other room, as he best can. The chum-master generally takes care to chum a poor prisoner, to whom the five shillings must be a great object, on one who is able to purchase him out. There are always a number of poor people in the place who will be glad to let any new prisoner have a part of their room for one shilling or eighteen-pence a week; so that the new prisoner gains four shillings or three-and-sixpence per week by the transaction. When the prison is full, the previous inmates are liable to have two persons chummed on them, so that, if they are desirous of possessing their rooms to themselves, they must pay ten shillings a week to the “ chums,” exclusive of their own shilling in the shape of rent to the marshal. Some years ago, instances occurred in which three persons were chummed on one individual who previously tenanted a room. Since then, however, an act of parliament has been passed, prohibiting the chumming of more than two individuals on a previous inmate. This, however, does not prevent a greater number than three individuals lodging and sleeping in one room. The anxiety of the poorer class of prisoners to save a few shillings per week, by congregating together in one room, has often led to six or eight persons vegetating [-53-] together in a dark dirty apartment, measuring only sixteen by nineteen feet. In other cases, the same desire to save a trifle wherewith to administer to the necessities of the belly, leads numbers of the poorer order of prisoners to sleep on the benches in the tap-room, without any other covering than their clothes. It was stated in a report drawn up on the subject some years since, by a committee of the House of Commons, that as many as forty-eight persons have slept in this way in the tap-room at once. Why should we wonder, then, that the imprisonment of the poorer classes in the Queen’s Bench proves, in many cases, the pathway to a premature grave; and that, in others, the constitution receives a shock from which it never afterwards recovers.
There is a class of tickets called “in-chum tickets.” This means that the chum-master gives a new-corner, who wishes to have as comfortable a room as possible rather than the five shillings and the certainty of being obliged to live with other persons of the lowest class, a ticket on a previous prisoner who is known to be willing to receive into his room any person in the same rank of life as himself, in order that he may be spared the necessity of paying five shillings weekly to purchase any one out.
Formerly, the practice was to chum all new prisoners on the junior inmates, in the first instance, in order that those who had been longest in the place might have the chance of exemption, as a sort of privilege to which their long residence in the prison was supposed to entitle them. It accordingly often happened, that all the junior inmates had persons chummed on them, while those who had been there for a number of years escaped entirely, except in those cases when the prison was so crowded that there were chums for every person in it. A different course has been adopted for some time past. The practice, I believe, has been of late, to begin the process of chumming with the senior prisoners, regularly descending downwards to those who have most recently entered the place. This is a very improper arrangement; so, at least, I am assured by those who have been some years within the walls of the building. In order that I might glean as much original information about the place as possible, I spent the greater part of a day in it, in August last; and on that occasion, the hardship of saddling all the new-corners on the oldest inmates, in the first instance, was depicted to me by some of the latter in the strongest and most feeling terms. They say that the thing is most partial in its operation, inasmuch as that, while the senior prisoners have to submit almost all the year round to the calamity of having mere novices in the ways of the prison chummed on them, the “six-week” class of persons, that is to say, those who only come to the prison for a six weeks’ probation there, prior to their transit through the [-54-] Insolvent Debtors’ Court, often escape altogether. As far as I can comprehend the merits of the case, this ought not to be. “And if I were the marshal,” as one of the prisoners of a long-standing date emphatically observed to me, “it should not be.” But I am not the marshal, any more than the party making the observation, and therefore cannot redress the grievance.
Some of the prisoners, who manage to get their rooms decently done up and furnished, let them out to those new prisoners who can afford to pay for them. A guinea a week is often got in such cases for a room; while the party Jetting it goes, perhaps, and shares one, with some one in the same rank of life, at half-a- crown. There are generally one or more prisoners who let out articles of furniture to those who wish to speculate in furnished lodgings in the Queen’s Bench.
There are always, in addition to the butchers, green-grocers, &c., formerly mentioned, a number of tradesmen, prisoners in the Queen’s Bench, who pursue their respective callings there. When I last visited the place, which was two months ago, I found almost all the apartments on the ground-floor tenanted by what Robert Owen would call the sons of industry. One of these rooms is converted into a sort of bazaar in miniature, brimfull— that is to say, if one may judge from a passing glance at the window—of the most miscellaneous assortment of merchandise ever collected together; while no individual article could possibly have cost more than three-halfpence. Next door to this depot of small-wares, was a barber’s shop. But the best of it was, that the man of soap and suds arrogated to himself the professionally aristocratic title of “hairdresser and perfumer ;“ and, to complete his pretensions, he added, on his paper placard—which rejoiced in broken-backed and deformed letters, evidently the triumphs of his own pen—” From Regent-street.” Then followed, in characters formed of more colours than I can enumerate, but in which the black, blue, and yellow predominated, the words “Shave for a Penny.” Hear this, ye hair-dressers and perfumers of the aristocratic Regent-street! Here is one of your number—if his own story may be credited—who scrapes the lower extremities of the frontispieces of her Majesty’s subjects in the Queen’s Bench, “and all for the small charge of one penny!” If Tonsor’s razors be no better than his orthography, I envy not the unfortunate wights who are doomed to encounter the operation of shaving at his hands: (far rather would I, were I in their situations, turn Jew at once: I mean as regards the article of my beard. The aforesaid inscription or sign-board, appeared thus: “Mathew Maggs, Har Drsr and Parfoomr frome Regnt Street—Sheve for a Peny."
A few doors from this importation from Regent-street is a [-55-] room in which tailorifics are practised by a knight of the thimble, whom some ill-natured creditor—so, at least, it is intimated on the sign-board—transferred to that locality from the “exquisite” regions of New Bond-street. I could not help compassionating poor Snip, as I thought of the mortification he must feel when he reflected on the contrast between “decorating” the very elite of aristocratic dandyism in New Bond-street, and patching the tattered corduroy unmentionables of the poor mechanics in the Bench. But I find—and, I doubt not, so does the industrious man of buckram now in the Bench, though late of New Bond-street—that there is no use in moralising on such things. We live in a changeable world; and I admire the philosophy of the man who can adapt himself to circumstances which he can no longer control. It were an endless task to enumerate the various descriptions of “callings” pursued in this part of the Queen’s Bench. The range of rooms on the ground-floor is, in fact, almost exclusively occupied by an industrious colony of merchants and operatives. At the back part of the buildings, again, which is chiefly tenanted by the very poorest of the prisoners, there are shops of an humbler class. The first one which attracted my notice was set apart for the sale of sausages, and had a placard in the window with the words, after the name of the vender, “.Sausage-maker to the Queen.” This may appear a joke; I assure my readers it is nothing of the kind. The fact can be attested by every person who was in the place some few months ago. Whether this sausage-maker to her Majesty be still engaged in the useful occupation of vending these articles to her subjects, is a question which I cannot answer. The stock in hand, when I passed the window, consisted of half-a-dozen,—not one more nor less. As to the quality of the sausages, I am not competent to speak, not having tasted them. If, however, one may judge from appearances, I should doubt whether they were what. they were warranted to be, namely, “prime ‘uns.” Let me not be understood by this as “insinuating,”’ as the American was charged with doing when he one day went up to a sausage vender in New York, .and asked him very significantly whether “them ‘ere saussengers were good ‘inns ~“—let me not, I say, be charged with “insinuating” that the half-dozen sausages I saw in the window in question were not of the best quality. They may, to use the words of the Yankee just referred to, have been “werry good saussengers, for anything as I knows to the contrary; but this I knows, as how they did not look werry like good ‘uns.” I would say further, in favour of the sausage manufacturer alluded to, that though the assortment which greeted my vision as I passed the back part of the building were not particularly attractive in [-56-] appearance, they may have been a bad lot owing to accidental circumstances, and by no means fair specimens of the quality of sausages manufactured and vended in the same quarter.
Next came “The Original Shop For Cleaning Knives, Spoons, And Boots.” Why forks were omitted in the brief catalogue of articles cleaned, I have not, up to this moment, been able to divine; however, I have a strong impression that the tenant of the shop will suffer but little, if at all, from the omission. I saw no appearance of any business doing in the cleaning of either of the three other articles; and though forks had been included in the list, I am afraid the insertion would not have increased the custom. The fact I take to be, that those in the Queen’s Bench who ever enjoy the luxury of clean knives, spoons, or boots, must perform the polishing operation themselves. I am sure I need not add, that, to a very large proportion of the unfortunate inmates, the luxury of knives, spoons, or boots, clean or otherwise, is one of which they never partake while within the walls.
But I must not take up more of my space with the shops in the Queen’s Bench prison; nor shall I, having already alluded to the different kinds of stalls kept in the open air, advert again to them. It is right, however, I should here mention one species of merchandise carried on in the prison to which I have not before alluded. I refer to a portable stand, kept by an old man who never gets any other name than John, for the sale of penny pies, “all hot.” This antiquated worthy is most eloquent and incessant in praise of his pies. All day long does he heap the most superlative commendation on them. An African says, “Strike me, but do not curse my mother :“ John will a thousand times sooner submit not only to be abused, but even personally assaulted, rather than that a word should be said against the quality of his pies His character as pie-man is dearer to him than life itself. If he had a purse, which he has not, he would say, in the words of Shakspeare, with an emphasis superior to any with which the phrase has ever been repeated before, “Who steals my purse, steals trash; but he who filches from me my good name,”—that is to say, as a pie-man,—” takes from me that which not enriches him, but makes me poor indeed.” “Let me have one of your pies, John,” said a hungry-looking cobbler, while I was one day present, as he gazed on the assortment before him, at the same time laying down a penny on the tin stand.
“Will you have an eel ‘un, or a pork ‘un, or a weal ‘un?” inquired John.
“Whichever’s best,” was the answer.
“That’s vich vay people’s tastes goes,” said John. “They are all of the werry best quality as can be made,” he added.
[-57-] “I thinks I’ll take an eel ‘un,” observed the cobbler, eyeing the whole lot as eagerly and hungry-like as if he could have swallowed every one of them at once.
“An eel ‘un?” said John, as he handed him the desired commodity.
“O, this is a cold ‘un !“ exclaimed the cobbler, laying it down again the moment it had been placed in his hand. “Vy don’t you give me a hot ‘un at once?"
“And vy didn’t you ax for a ‘ot ‘un?” answered the pie-man, somewhat tartly. “How vas I to know as how you liked a hot ‘un in pref’rence to a cold ‘un?”
John rummaged through his entire stock of pies, in quest of an “‘ot eel ‘un,” but the search was in vain. ‘Not got any ‘ot eel ‘uns,” he intimated in accents which showed that he possessed that caloric, as the chemists say, in his temper which was lacking in his eel-pies.
“Then let me have a hot weal ‘un,” said the other, gruffly, being manifestly more powerfully impelled to the step by hunger than by choice.
“There’s a weal ‘un, all ‘ot,” exclaimed the pie-man, with an evident air of complacency, as he transferred the article to the mender of shoes. The latter conveyed it to the interior of his person, through the conduit of his throat, with amazing expedition.
“It tastes queerish, old chap,” said the cobbler, looking rather droll, in a second or two after the pie had accomplished the passage of his mouth. “I say, I vishes to know vether that ‘ere pie wich I ate vas a weal pie?” he added somewhat sharply.
“Yes, it vas,” -answered John, in still angrier accents.
“Vy, it doesn’t taste like a weal pie, anyhow, that’s certain,” observed the other.
“None of your insinivations, you ragamuffin-looking feller: you says that, bekase ye’ve got no money to get no more on”
“Never mind that ‘ere person there, John,” interposed a ragged starved-looking youth, about sixteen, who was employed to supply the racket-players with balls.
“He’s werry imperent, to make any reflekshuns o’ the kind. He vishes to ruin my professional respectability of karackter,” remarked the pie-man.
“He’s not worth the mindin’, John,” said the young fellow, with a knowing wink at the cobbler. “Let me have one o’ your pork ‘tins,” he immediately added.
“Have you got a penny ?“ inquired John, significantly looking the youth in the face, and not stretching out his hand to supply him with the desired commodity.
[-58-] “I should think I have,” answered the other drily. “It’s time enough to give it though, ven I gets the pie.”
“I von’t do no sich thing, without the penny first.”
The youth made a form of fumbling in his pocket in search of a penny, but none, of course, was to be found. “I finds I’ve lost the penny, John: vill you just give me the pie on tick, and I’ll pay you to-morrow.”
“I von’t do nothin’ o’ the kind,” answered John, energetically, “You owes me three hap’nies already.”
“O, wot a thundering lie !“ exclaimed the other. “I owes you nothing but one ha’penny.”
The cobbler telegraphed the little rascal encouragingly.
“You’re a little too fast, young man; but mind, I stands none o’that ‘ere gammon—dash my vig, if I do!” said the pie-man, shifting one of his “weal ‘tins” from one part of the tin case to another.
“I only owes you a ha’penny, old chap, and no mistake,” reiterated the other. “I say, John, you gets more hobstinate as you gets older,” he added, looking the “all ‘ot”-man jeeringly in the face.
The latter took no notice of the remark for a few moments; but then, as if suddenly seized with a fit of boundless indignation, he shouted out, giving the words the accompaniment of a lusty application of his fist to the tin concern before him,—” If you says that ‘ere agin, I’ll smash every bone in your ugly carcase to pieces. I’m bless’d if I don’t.”
The cobbler again winked at the youthful tormentor of the pie-man, by way of encouraging him to proceed. The latter, taking the hint, observed, “I don’t vonder that that ‘ere gemman,” pointing to the shoe-surgeon, “shouldn’t like them ‘ere pies; ‘cos they’re made of cats’-meat.”
John’s eyes flashed the “fire of infinite indignation” at the base and unfounded imputation; and, bristling up, he thundered out the threat of making cats’-meat of the body of the “imperent Old Bailey-looking youth,” provided he could lay his hands on him.
“Vy, old ‘un, you knows as how I got a bit of an ‘oss’s hoof in that ‘ere consarn I got from you yesterday, and vich you called a weal pie.”
“Blow me tight, young gallows, if I don’t pound your ribs to powder !“ shouted John, and with that he made a bound towards his juvenile tormentor; but his apron having got entangled somehow or other in the feet of his tin machine, the latter was upset, and the whole stock of pies hot and cold, whether made of pork, veal, or eel, or any other animal,. was scattered in [-59-] all directions. Possessing, as they all did, the circular form, some of them rolled themselves to an amazing distance. The little rascal, however, who was the cause of the disaster, took care to run much farther and faster.
A crowd of prisoners immediately gathered around the subverted stand of the pie-man, some condoling with him in his affliction, and others assisting in collecting the widely-circulated pies. John himself held up his hands, and looking aghast at what had happened, growled out curses loud and deep on the head of the “gallows-looking young feller” who had caused the disaster.
In less than a minute, the whole of the runaway pies were brought back, and replaced on the stand, which had been kindly restored to its proper position for their reception. Some of them were, as an American would say, “pretty considerably covered with mud;” others were so much broken and shattered, that the contents of the interior wore exposed to the unhallowed gaze of every spectator.
John looked with a most rueful countenance at his stock of pies. And it was no wonder; for the muddy aspect of some, and the fragmentary appearance of others, were very materially aggravated by the collectors of them having huddled them together in a heap, just as if they had been intended for pigs-meat.
“I can never sell them ‘ere pies to any respektable customer,~’ said John, in doleful accents, as he gazed on the confused heap before him.; “cos, if I did, it would lose my karakter. O, wot shall I do!” he added with great emphasis, and wringing his hands.
At this moment, a humane gentleman, who had the day before been received into the prison, advanced to the spot to see what was the matter. He was informed of the disaster, and how it had happened. “How many were there of them !“ said he, addressing himself to John.
“Just three dozen and a half, Sir,” was the answer.
“Is there any one here who will eat any of them!” asked the gentleman, looking round among the poorest and most hungry-like parties in the little crowd.
“I vill !“ “I vill !“ shouted at least two dozen voices at once.
“Then let these people have them,” said the gentleman, putting three-and-sixpence into John’s hand.
The words were no sooner uttered, than there was a brisk scramble among the proprietors of fifteen or sixteen unwashed paws, to possess themselves of the pies. In an instant the whole vanished. Most of the parties, instead of waiting to carry them to their rooms, and eat them there, set to work, and despatched [-60-] several of them at once. What is worthy of observation is, that one and all of those who tested the qualities of the pies declared, in the hearing of all present, that they were incomparably the best they ever tasted. This, coupled with the three-and-sixpence, was compensation of the most ample kind to John for the extreme misery caused by his youthful tormentor. His countenance brightened up, and he looked the very personification of self-complacency as he heard the praises of his pies thus publicly proclaimed; and he withdrew with his empty tin stand, observing that the young rascal could have got no greater punishment than to be denied the luxury of a “prime weal ‘un.”
The Queen’s Bench has its general and twopenny post-offices. In both establishments a good deal of business is done, chiefly consisting of letters sent by the prisoners to their friends, supplicating pecuniary assistance.
There is one room in the place which is contradistinguished from all the other apartments. It is called the strong-room, and is appropriated to the reception of those who commit criminal acts in the prison. They are doomed to a fortnight’s or month’s solitary confinement, according to the magnitude of their offence, or the light in which the marshal happens to view it, ho having the power in all such cases vested exclusively in his own hands.
The tap-room of the Queen’s Bench is decidedly the most interesting locality in it. It is but very imperfectly lighted, and is vaulted at the top, while the walls, instead of being lathed and plastered, exhibit the bricks of which they are composed. When I last saw it, the walls and vaulted ceiling seemed to have, some short time before, undergone the process of white-washing. I should suppose, judging from my recollection of its size, that it is about sixteen feet in length by twelve in breadth. There are four boxes, if so they must be called. The tables, which look as thick and strong as if they were cut out of a solid piece of wood, are all covered over with every variety of figures, to say nothing of their exhibiting all the letters of the alphabet in glorious confusion. They were, I suppose, originally meant, as successively carved out, to signify the initials of the names of the parties who engraved them there; but they are now so incorporated together, and with representations of horses, cows, dogs, cats, hens, &e., that the tables exhibit one mass of hieroglyphics. Some of the letters, and also of the pictorial abortions—for such they assuredly are—are two or three inches in length, and engraved full one quarter of an inch in depth in the tables. The appearance of the majority of the inmates of the tap-room is in perfect keeping with the place. There you see a variety of “waft” characters: judging from their beards, you would come to the [-61-] conclusion, that there were not only no barber, but no razor in Christendom. As for washing their faces—I speak, of course, only of a portion of them—that is an idea that never enters their head. That would require soap, provided it were to be done effectually; they have got none. It would also require trouble, a thing they do not like to put themselves to. Their hats are almost, without exception, either crownless altogether, or they contain so many perforations as to answer all the purposes of first-rate ventilators. A whole brim is a perfect rarity; the last remains of the wool have vanished, so that it is sometimes a very nice question to settle the original colour of the article. Their coats have in many instances degenerated into jackets; while in others, one tail remains to indicate what the article of apparel originally was. As for the other portions of the generality of the, wardrobes to be seen in the tap-room of the Queen’s Bench, I will not attempt to describe them, because I know I should not succeed. The group of characters which are always to be seen in this classical spot, presents an edifying appearance, heightened as is the effect of that appearance by the various employments in which they are engaged, and the attitudes in which they are to be seen. That dark-looking man, with the reserved expression of countenance, cooped up in the corner of the nearest box as you enter, and reading the advertisements of a double-sheet “Times” with as great an apparent avidity as if he would eat them,—ms one of the most respectable individuals in the room, which is the chief cause why he takes so little interest in the occupations of others. You see that thin-visaged personage, “whose tattered clothes his poverty bespeak,” standing at the fire-place, turning over seriatim the three or four dozen herrings which are the property of a little bandy-legged man who visits the Bench tour or five times every day, for the purpose of vending his tinny commodities: you see this personage, do you not! He is a rum customer,” as the herring-merchant calls him, for he never purchases but one per diem, and before he commences his negotiation as to price, he examines and re-examines every bloater in the basket. Even when he has fixed on the herring he prefers, he usually spends a quarter of an hour before he concludes the bargain. In the box directly opposite the fire-place you see four or five favourable specimens of regular recklessness; they are just as comfortable inside as out, always provided they get plenty of beer. The one half of the day they sleep with their heads resting on the table, and the other they spend in swilling Barclay and Co.s Entire. And what is worthy of observation is, that as if actuated by a sort of Siamese sympathy, they address themselves, as Don Quixote would say, to sleep, and awake from their [-62-] slumbers much about the same time. Give them beer enough, and they will never seek to pop their heads, far less their feet. out of the walls of the place. Mahomet, were he still alive, might keep his paradise to himself for anything they care: they are in a perfect elysium as it is. In another box there are four or five strange-looking broken-down personages, enveloped in so dense an atmosphere of smoke, manufactured by themselves, that it is with difficulty you can recognise their features. The head of one of them is buried amidst a heap of empty pewter pots, and his face is immersed in a pool of heavy wet, which one of the others has made, without awakening him from his profound sleep. Six or seven other “gemmen,” as they call one another, are knocking one another’s hats down over each other’s eyes, and displaying their ingenuity by inventing new tricks at each other’s expense. Those three persons in the seat farthest off, with unwashed faces, and beards which would defy any razor in London, in earnest conversation together,—are just as busy and united as they can be in abusing Sir John Campbell and the Whig Ministry, for not passing the abolition of imprisonment for debt bill. If these same Whigs, as Dr. Wade would say, only heard what the triumvirate are saying, it would make their ears tingle again. Sterne himself had he flourished in our time, and been present on the occasion, would have found some new hints which would have been well worth his consideration in framing his celebrated curse. The man in the opposite side of the box, with a most revolutionary head of hair, and a most republican-looking countenance, is quite occupied in signifying his assent to every word they say, by a hearty nod, and in withdrawing his pipe at intervals from his mouth, to enable him to mutter an audible concurrence. The middle— aged little “gemman,” with the flannel jacket and one eye, who is leaning with his back against the box opposite the fire, owes the extraordinary elongation of his countenance to the fact of his having spent his last “bob,” knowing as he does that no “tick” is to be had in “this here shop.” See the envious glance he every now and then casts at those who have the luxury of a pot of beer before them, or of a “pipe o’ baccy” in their mouths. Poor fellow, his misery is aggravated by contrast. Others again are quite uproarious. Nature has given them first-rate lungs, and they are constitutionally disposed to make the best possible use of them; in which disposition they are ably assisted by the oceans of “Entire” which they are everlastingly swigging. Every one has heard the observation, that some people are born with a silver fork in their mouths; you cannot help fancying, from the enthusiastic devotion of some of the inmates of the Queen’s Bench tap-room to heavy wet, and from the circumstance of the lower part of [-63-] their visages being constantly inserted in pewter pots, that they have been born for no other purpose than to chronicle the turbid liquid of the London brewers.
But the scene altogether is one to which no description can do justice. On a stone painted black, above the fire-place, I observed the words, written in chalk, “Tuesday, August the 29th, 1837.” I inquired the meaning of this, and found that it was a regular practice to chalk up the day of the week and the day of the month, in the same way all the year round; as, otherwise, many of the poorer and more ignorant of the prisoners would have no idea of either. Connected with this diurnal chalking affair I may mention an anecdote of one of the prisoners, who was under thirty years of age, and evidently a tailor. He rejoiced in a tolerable wardrobe, certainly the best in the place; a circumstance, however, which might be satisfactorily accounted for from the fact, that he was the most recent importation to the prison. But though his exterior appearance was not amiss, he soon gave woeful proof that he. was most miserably furnished within. In fact, he was as ignorant as his own goose. When I asked the reason why the aforesaid “Tuesday, August the 29th, 1837,” was chalked on the black stone above the fire-place, he, addressing himself to the brother in adversity next to him in a geographical point of view, at once chimed in with me, and said, “Aye, and vy is that ‘ere put up there!” Snip got, I need hardly observe, the same answer as myself. “Very good,” retorted he, “but I think as how they might have spelt ‘August’ right, any how.”
The word was correctly spelt.
“If you spelt that ‘ore word any other way, you would spell it wrong,” observed a middle-aged man, withdrawing his pipe from his mouth to let a small condensed cloud of smoke escape.
“it’s all you knows about it,” said Snip, “ven you says so.”
“What way would you spell it, then, old dunderhead?’ inquired another, opening his eyes, as if just awakened from sleep, and closing them again the moment he had put the question.
“August, august, a—ag—ags,” said the man of buckram, making an ineffectual attempt to master the orthography of the word. “Vy, I don’t know as how it should be spelt, but this I knows as how that ‘ere vay is a rum ‘un,” he added.
Poor Snip looked as if particularly confounded.
“And how do you know that it’s wrong, when you can’t spell it !“ inquired the first of his opponents.
“I do know it though,” he replied, assuming a bold front.
“You’re a downright dunce,” interposed his half-slumbering, second opponent, again thrusting his face down in his breast when he had paid Snip the flattering compliment.
[-64-] “I say you’re a —
“A what, Sir !“ interrupted the other, starting up to his feet, and having the appearance of anything but a slumbering man.
Snip was prevented completing his sentence by another of the prisoners first clapping his hand on his mouth, and then drawing him out of the place by the breast of his coat, he meanwhile darting a most furious glance at his opponent.
“You are a ——,“ repeated the tailor, twisting about his head as his friend was dragging him out of the room; but the renewed application of the aforesaid open fist to his mouth, again prevented the completion of the sentence.
“Only say that again, you blundering blockhead, you nineteenth part of a man,” shouted his lately slumbering adversary, “an’ I’ll knock your ivory down your throat.”
“I do say you’re a——“ Snip again made an effort to apply some ugly epithet to his opponent, but the latter part of the sentence was lost, in consequence of the violence with which his friend shut the tap-room door as he got the “nineteenth part of a man” outside.
But for the timely interposition of the latter, a regular affray must have taken place; and the probability is that the consequence would have been a broken head to both parties. Hence the result would have been certain, namely, that both would have got a month’s location in the strong-room. I thought with myself how narrowly Pope’s lines escaped an exemplification,— “What dire effects from trivial causes spring !“
But decidedly the most eccentric character with whom I came in contact, in the course of my visits to the tap-room, was a personage who went by the sobriquet of Tom Snaggs. He was altogether an extraordinary personage. He was as different in appearance and manners from all the other human beings I have ever met with, as if he had belonged to some other species, or been projected from another planet, in consequence of some eruption; just as philosophers tell us of meteoric stones being thrust from the moon into our world, through some volcanic or other powerful agency. Tom belonged, as the phrase is, to the lower classes. He was a singularly odd-looking character. His face was thin, and as much shrivelled as if he had been dried in a kiln for the purposes of preservation in the collection of some naturalist. His complexion bore a strong resemblance to the colour of a radish; while his long lean neck, which was much exposed in consequence of the absence of a neckerchief; had precisely the appearance of a plucked turkey. In time expression of his countenance, there were actually blended all the peculiarities of physiognomy presented in the faces of Lord John Russell and [-65-] Mr. Goulburn. His eyes were especially remarkable; they seemed the most tractable pair I have ever seen in human head. At one time their mutual affection was so powerful, that you would have thought they would actually embrace each other. But for the obstruction presented by the bridge of Mr. Snaggs’ nose, I am sure they would have done so. Never did two “peepers,” as Tom himself called them, look so lovingly towards each other. If they had possessed the faculty of speaking, attributed by the fabulists of old to inanimate things as well as to beasts, birds, and fishes, I can well imagine with what cordiality they would have concurred in anathematizing the aforesaid section of Tom’s nose, because it interposed to prevent a closer intimacy. At other times, both the luminaries of our hero dart-ed off at a tangent, and looked in the most opposite directions, just as if some ground of deadly quarrel, unknown to any but themselves, had suddenly started up. This latter singular attribute in Tom’s eyes may behest illustrated by the remark, that had he been sitting in the centre of a large room, with his face directly to the opposite wall, he would have seen, without moving his head in the slightest degree, two persons coming into the room at either end, with the same distinctness as if his gaze had been exclusively directed to one. Every one has heard a great deal about the “seeing capabilities” of Argus, with his century of eyes. Had Tom possessed two additional ones of the same power in the back of his head, he would, I doubt not, have been quite as well furnished, for all practical purposes, as the hundred-eyed personage of antiquity whose name I have just mentioned.
Tom’s wardrobe was in tolerable keeping with his personal appearance. He was wrapped up—and this, be it remembered, in the warmest weather of last summer—in a dreadnought coat of most ample proportions. It was of a brown colour; and I beg to be understood as not exaggerating in the slightest degree when I say, that the wool or pile was about half an inch long. I would have given something to know the weight of the article ; but had not an opportunity of gratifying my curiosity. If Tom, instead of vegetating in time tap-room of the Queen’s Bench, where, in addition to the oppressive warmth of the weather, there is always a blazing fire kept for culinary purposes; had Tom, instead of this, been the inmate of some habitation in the polar regions, formed of snow, he would not, one would have supposed, have required any addition to his clothing. I have a strong impression that he must have a good deal of the salamander in his composition; for amidst all this excessive warmth of weather, and his constantly wearing this mountain of a great coat, he always took care to take the seat next to the fire. He evinced an unconquerable aversion to solid meat, at [-66-] any rate, he ate nothing, so far as I saw, during the day I was there; and I did not learn from any one that he ever, under any circumstances, put his masticators into requisition. Let me not be understood as insinuating by this that Tom Snaggs lived on chameleon’s fare; that would be doing him an injustice of which I would not, on any consideration, have the sin on my head. Everybody must be aware that there is an intermediate alternative, if I may so speak, between not eating any solid food and living on the thin and unfattening air. Tom lived on Barclay, Perkins, and Co.’s Entire; and I doubt if these gentlemen, amidst their myriads of customers, could ever boast of a better one than Tom. To thrust his head into a pot of their frothy liquid, was the very first act he performed in the morning; to do ditto was his last employment in the evening. To say that he was similarly engaged during the whole of the intervening day, would be an exaggeration; for drinking heavy wet, as well as eating solid food, requires that there should be at least temporary pauses, to allow one, were it for nothing else, to take his breath. But this I can say, that there was rarely an hour of the day in which Tom had not his jug of beer before him.
His manners and conversation were quite as singular as his appearance; and most largely did he contribute to the amusement of those who frequented the tap-room. He possessed much natural shrewdness, and was happy in turning the laugh against those who sought to raise it at his expense. I saw at once, on entering the place, that he was a character. He was in the act at the time of carrying on a political discussion with a shoemaker of the middle size and of a pug-looking dark-complexioned countenance.
“You don’t know your own principles, Tom,” was the first observation which greeted my ears, as I walked up towards the fire.
“Don’t I?” said Tom emphatically.
“No you don’t; I’m bless’d if you do.”
“I ‘spose you thinks, old leather-mender, as how you knows your’n,” observed Tom, raising the jug of beer to his mouth.
“I’d be ‘shamed of myself if I didn’t,” answered Crispin, taking out of his waistcoat pocket and unfolding a small dirty paper which contained the remains of his limited stock of tobacco.
“Then vat is your sentimens?” inquired Tom.
“Vy, I’m a Radical to be sure,” replied the other, with emphasis.
“A Radical, eh! I’m blow’d if you an’t like un.”
“Yes, and vill be while the world lasts,” added Crispin.
“You’re quite sure of that ‘erc, are you ?“ observed Mr. Snaggs. “I am quite sure of it,” answered the other, with great emphasis. “I’ll stand by my principles while I has a button to [-67-] my coat. May I be — if I don’t,” he added with increased energy, giving a violent blow with his fist on the table.
“If you don’t stand by them any longer than that ‘erc, I think that vont be very long,” remarked Tom, significantly eyeing his opponent’s coat, which had only two buttons remaining.
“None of your ignorant jeers, Tom. I’ll be hanged if I stand them,” said Crispin, pulling himself up and assuming a most valorous aspect.
“Vy this is liberty-hall,” retorted Tom. “Every one has a right to speak vat he thinks in this ‘ere place.”
“I won’t be insulted by no man as vas ever born,” said the testy shoemaker.
“Vy you speak as if you were the prime minister, old shoe-doctor.”
“I have a right to speak as I please, you stupid jackass.”
“And so have I,” observed Mr. Snaggs, winking at the bystanders. “Ve lives here in liberty-hall, don’t ve, Harry !“ he added, addressing himself to a sturdy son of Vulcan, who was lighting his pipe with a match.
“To be sure we do, Tom, my boy,” answered the latter in encouraging accents.
“I don’t vant to have anythink at all to say to an old fool like you” remarked Crispin, in a pettish tone.
“Vy,if so be as I be an old fool, we’re well met, my chap.”
“Vat’s that, you old dotard, you were a-calling me ?“ inquired the shoemaker, looking fiercely at Tom.
“Should you like to hear it again, old boot-butcher?” answered Tom, with provoking coolness.
“You’ll better take care of vat you say, that’s all,” was the only reply.
“You said take care, did you not, old Radical?” rejoined Tom, drawing the jug of beer towards him.
“I did,” was the answer.
“You’re a Melbourne chap, are you not?”
“Vat’s that to you, I should like to know?” was the reply.
“Because as how all you Radical-looking fellows are Melbourne chaps.”
“I vont stand this ‘ere any longer. I’ll be — if I do,” shouted Crispin, as he suddenly started up to his feet, and assumed a menacing attitude.
“Vy you’re a-standin’ it now,” said Tom, with provoking coolness; “you’re on your legs, are you not, old leather-head?“
“I say you’re a —“
“And you’re a Radical,” interrupted Tom, before his opponent of the bodkin and the awl could complete his sentence.
“If you say that ‘ere agin, I’ll knock your rascally head into [-68-] atoms with this here veapon,” said Crispin, now worked up to an alarming pitch of anger, and brandishing in his right hand a last which he chanced to have with him at the time
“You’re a Radical, and a Melbourne chap too,” repeated Torn, with the most perfect composure, and knocking on the table with a jug, as an intimation to the waiter to bring him another pint of beer.
“Just say that agin, you vagabond-looking fellow, and as sure as I’m a livin’ man I’ll —“
“Holloa ! what’s the matter? interrupted one of the officers of the prison, who happened to enter at the moment.
“O nothin’ at all,” answered Crispin, softening down all at once into the calmest tone,—a fear of a month’s confinement in the strong-room having suddenly flashed across his mind; “O nothin’ at all, I was only a-showin’ Tom Snaggs the vay in which I once heard two men a-quarrelling in the streets; vasn’t that it, Tom?”
“Here’s jolly good luck, my boy !“ said Tom, by way of response, thrusting his mouth into the jug, and taking a hearty draught.
“Gemmen,” said Tom, as soon as the officer withdrew, “Gemmen, I’ll sing you a song, vich is better than disputing about politiks.”
“Aye, do!” shouted every person present.
Mr. Snaggs chanted six verses of a song, which afforded internal evidence of its being one of his own composition. I was struck with one very appropriate idea which Tom introduced. It contained an admission that he had contracted debts which he was unable to pay.
“Sing the song over agin, Torn, if you please,” said a short, squatting consequential personage, who had been a butler in a gentleman’s house, addressing Mr. Snaggs in a tone of offensive authoritativeness.
“If you have a servant,” answered Tom, “ask him to execute your orders; I don’t quite like being spoken to in that ‘ere way. I’m not hobligated to sing to please you, my little pot-bellied chap.”
“True, Tom; quite right, Tom,” cried a dozen voices.
“But I’ll tell you vat,” he resumed, addressing the ex-butler; “I’ll tell you vat, I’ll sing, it over agin for a pint of beer.”
“Done, Tom; you shall have it. Come, begin,” said the admirer of Mr. Snaggs’ vocal talents.
“Von’t we better have the beer a’fore we begins? It clears and improves the windpipe, you knows,” observed Tom.
“O, certainly, if you prefer it,” was the answer.
“Vell, I do prefer it,” said Tom, emphatically.
[-69-] The beer was ordered, and was forthwith on the table. Tom took a liberal draught of the beverage, and keeping fast hold of the handle of the jug, treated his co-inmates to a repetition of the song.
“That’s a true part of it, Tom, which says you have contracted debts you’ll never be able to pay.”
This was spoken by a tall demure-looking personage, who had been some time an apothecary in a small town in the neighbourhood of London.
“Is it?” said Tom, looking the apothecary sarcastically in the face.
“Never mind, Tom,” said an attorney’s clerk; “never mind, so as you gets out.”
“I don’t vant to get out,” interposed Mr. Snaggs, hastily.
“You don’t, oh?”
“No, I don’t; and surely I knows best myself.’
“Certainly you must, Tom,” said I, now venturing for the first time to make a remark, with the view of eliciting more fully some of his more eccentric traits of character.
”Yes, I does knows best,” repeated Mr. Snaggs, giving a knock on the table with the bottom of the pewter pot, which made the greater part of its contents leap out in the faces of those who were next to him.
“And are you so much attached to this place ?“ I inquired, in as encouraging a tone as I was master of.
“Quite delighted with it, Sir; it’s a perfect paradise.”
“Well, Tom, I can’t fancy anything which could make the place so attractive.”
“Lots of beer, Sir, and plenty of racket: call you that nothing, eh?”
Tom looked up in my face with an air of infinite self-complacency, and then decanted the remainder of the beer in the pot before. him. I was about to answer his question when he resumed.
“But I’ve other reasons, and better ‘uns too, for preferring to remain here: blow’d, if I haven’t !“
“Can you mention them, Mr. Snaggs?”
“I can mention one on em.”
“What may it be, Tom?”
“Vy, Sir, if so be as I must speak the truth, I likes this place, because I’m out of the reach of my vife; bad luck to the ‘ooman !“
“Ah, Tom! you’re married, then ?“
“Aye, I believe you; married, indeed!” answered Mr. Snaggs, fetching a deep sigh, and accompanying it with a most significant shake of the head.
“So, then, you are no advocate for matrimony, Mr. Snaggs?”
[-70-] “Vy, I says nothink against being spliced once; but, I’m bless’d, if I like second ‘uns.”
“Second what, Tom?”
“Second vives, Sir.”
“Oh! married a second time, then !“
“Vy, yes, I be’s, as I knows in experience,” replied Tom, with a very emphatic groan. “People,” he added, “says second thoughts is best; I’m bless’d, if second vives be; they are all reg’lar bad ‘uns.”
“And you don’t, then, approve of second matches ?“
“Matches !“ exclaimed Mr. Snaggs, starting up, and looking surprised at my using the word. “Matches! May I never swig another pint of beer, if so be as there be any match in it. I knows as I’m more than matched, anyhow.”
“Yes, Tom,” interposed a dark-looking little-faced man, withdrawing his pipe from his mouth to enable him to articulate more distinctly. “Yes, Tom, you’ve been regularly done by your second wife.”
“You may say that, Ben, my boy; she’s a precious bad ‘un. But its all my own fault; blow’d, if it ain’t.”
“How so, Tom?”
“Vy, because I vas so big a fool as to take the ‘ooman on character,” replied he, looking at the beer-pot.
“On what, Mr. Snaggs?’
“On character, Sir.”
I intimated to Tom that his meaning was beyond my comprehension.
“What I means, Sir, is this ‘ere: I took the chap,”—an odd term to apply to one’s wife,~” I took the chap on the faith of a good character I got of her from one of her former acquaintances, without knowing anything about her. Made short work of courtship, Sir,-.-knew her only for seven days,—married the eighth.”
“That was certainly making short work of it, Tom.”
“You’re right, Sir; never take any vife on character agin; never be in such a hurry to get married agin. Made a deuced bad speculation of it.”
“Possibly Mrs. Snaggs may improve, Tom.”
“Improve !“ he shouted. “Did you say improve ?“
“I did, Tom; it is to be hoped she will.”
“Vy, if she improves, all I can say is this,~—it will be like the cow’s tail,—in the wrong direction. She improve! You knows nothing about her, Sir, othervise you vould never say~ so.”
“Ay, Tom, you’re a very unfortunate person,” suggested one of his boon companions.
“That’s a truth, Henry, my boy; however, I’m out of the [-71-] reach of the hussey here. Plenty of freedom in this ‘ere place. here’s the liberty-hall of the right sort. May I be scragged (hanged) if I ever seeks to leave this place so long as they lets me remain in it.” Mr. Snaggs again had recourse to a liberal potation.
“Does your wife never come to see you, Tom?”
“She come to see me ! —not though I vas a dyin’ by the yard. I’ve now been nine veeks in this ‘ere paradise, and she’s never come to see me once. No loss, as to the matter of that; never vish to be vhere she is; but I vish she had sent me a clean shirt. I’ve only had this one,” pointing to a piece of linen in his breast, whose soiled appearance afforded presumptive proof of the truth of his statement; “I’ve only had this one for the last nine veeks.”
“Too bad, Tom,” said his friend Ben, who had on one or two former occasions interposed a word or two of modified commiseration. “Too bad, Tom; it is, indeed.”
“Never mind,” observed Mr. Snaggs, looking into the pot before him to see if there was any remnant of the turbid liquid in the bottom. “Never mind; one consolation, anyhow.”
“What’s that, Mr. Snaggs?” inquired a short, flabby-faced-looking personage, who all the while had been standing before the fire, but had never until now opened his mouth. “What’s that, Mr. Snaggs ?“
“Vy, I left her at home without a farthing; consequently she’s on starvation allowance ;“ and his two eyes sparkled with delight as he made the observation.
“O Tom, Tom!” observed Ben, “you’re just as bad as she is. Come, that’s werry wrong.”
“You knows nothing about it, you booby; you have never had a second vife, or you vouldn’t say so.”
“Why, Mr. Snaggs, you might as well beat Mrs. Snaggs to death, as starve her to death,” observed a rather respectable-looking man, of a reserved expression of countenance.
“O, Sir, she von’t die; she’ll neither be starved to death, nor beaten to death: second vives has as many lives in em as an eel.”
“I say, Tom, you vouldn’t speak in that ‘ere way, if your vife vas in this ‘ere place to hear you,” remarked his friend Benjamin Bell;
“O vouldn’t I, Ben, my boy? Aye, that I vould, and give her a good walloping to the bargain.”
“Come, come, Tom; you don’t mean to say you would beat Mrs Snaggs?” observed the aforesaid respectable reserved-looking man.
“Say it; aye, that I do; and vat’s more, Sir, I vould do it too.” As Tom spoke, he gave a violent knock with his fist to [-72-] the crown of his hat, which forced the article down over his eyes. “ I vish,” he continued, with great energy, and raising up his hat again; “ I vish I had my vife here just now. O, vouldn’t I wallop her so, I’m
Here Tom, who had risen from his seat to show his auditors, by a forcible flourish of his right hand in the air, with what effect he would “wallop” Mrs. Snaggs, suddenly paused in the midst of a sentence, and, in an instant afterwards, uttered an exclamation of “Oh, Lor !“ and turning as pale as death, fell back in the box.
“O, you rascal, you! I’ll give it you !“ shouted a strong masculine, virago-looking woman, who had that moment entered the tap-room. As she spoke, she rushed up to the place where Tom was sitting, shaking her hand at him all the way, while her eyes glared with ungovernable rage. The stranger woman, it was soon discovered, was no other than the redoubtable Mrs. Snaggs herself. What passed between the couple I will not mention, on the ground of the acknowledged impropriety of taking any notice of matrimonial quarrels.
It is interesting to reflect on the various circumstances under which the inmates of the Queen’s Bench Prison have been brought there. The vast majority, as may be inferred from other parts of this chapter, have to attribute their deprivation of liberty to their own folly and utter want of principle. They are men who care nothing about the sufferings they entail on individuals and families, and the injury their bad example reflects on society, provided only their own humours can be indulged, and their propensities gratified.
There are others who are there because they either are, or fancy themselves to be, the victims of injustice. There is at the present time, or at least there was some few months since, a young gentleman, the representative of a family of wealth and antiquity in one of our English counties, who has spent the meridian of his life in prison, rather than relinquish, in compliance with the decision of a court - of law, what he conceives to be his right, and what he thinks would be doing an unpardonable injustice to his family were he to give it up. To his determination not to part with property which he holds to be by every consideration of morality and justice the property of his family, and which, regarding himself as a trustee for them, he feels bound to protect,—he I have no doubt still adheres, though with the certain prospect before him, if he does not change his resolution, of perpetual imprisonment. In this there is much to admire; it is a specimen of heroism and self-denial in what the party conceives—whether right or wrong does not affect the question—a good cause,—worthy of the best days of ancient Greece or Rome; [-73-] for his own pecuniary circumstances, altogether independent of this case, are so ample that they would enable him to move in what is called fashionable life.
A third class of persons are confined in the Queen’s Bench Prison from adverse circumstances over which they had no control. These are the only persons who feel their incarceration to be a punishment, and yet they are the only inmates of the place who ought not to feel it a punishment; for they did everything which, human exertion made in an honest and honourable way, could do, to meet the demands of their creditors, and consequently escape imprisonment: they are the victims of adversity brought about by an agency not their own. One would think that this reflection would tranquillise their minds, and reconcile them to that which no exertions of theirs could have shielded them against. Such, however, is not the fact: they are degraded persons in their own estimation, and neither the dictates of reason nor the representations of friends can remove the erroneous impression. Their susceptibility on the subject is in some cases so excessive, that they are impelled to the frightful alternative of committing suicide. In other instances, though their sense of religion guards them against a step so revolting to society, ‘and so opposed to revelation, their sense of self-degradation preys so forcibly on their minds, that they pine away, and eventually die under it. I could mention many instances of this; but it is unnecessary, as most of my metropolitan readers will be able to recal to their minds cases of the kind which with their own personal knowledge. There are at this moment three or four individuals in the Queen’s Bench Prison, whose of self-degradation, in consequence of their
incarceration, is so great, that they never venture out to the open area allowed to the prisoners, nor on any account suffer themselves to be seen by their fellow-inmates. They shut themselves up in their narrow cells all day, brooding over their adversities, though these are not the consequence of any misconduct of their own; and never cross the threshold of their rooms until it has become quite dark. Even then they wrap themselves up in cloaks, lest any one should by accident get a glance of their features. I know instances of this kind, in which other parties, who have no feelings of shame, but who rather glory in their confinement though entirely the result of their own misconduct, have lived for upwards of twelve months in the next room to the individuals to whom I refer, and yet have never been able by any accident to get a glance of their features, What stronger argument than this could be urged against the principle of imprisonment for debt? That principle subjects the very parties to punishment who ought not to be punished, because their embar-[-74-]rassed circumstances have been brought about by causes which it was not in their power to control; while those unprincipled persons who really do deserve punishment, do not feel confinement within the walls of a civil prison to be any punishment at all. The honest man is thus punished, while the rogue virtually escapes. It is high time that in this Christian country and this enlightened age, so monstrous a state of things were put an end to.
There is a fourth class of persons who are confined within the walls of the Queen’s Bench Prison from choice. This may appear a startling announcement; it is a true one nevertheless. I do not mean to say that such persons are numerous; they are, on the contrary, extremely few; but they do exist. It is only a few months since, that an extraordinary instance of this kind was pointed out to me, in the person of a man apparently about fifty-five years of age. This individual was first confined in this prison about eighteen years ago; and after being fifteen years an inmate, he was liberated. At first he fancied that his liberation would add to his happiness, and consequently rejoiced at the circumstance. He had not, however, been many days out, when he began to feel himself in the midst of a social desert, though living in the neighbourhood of Newport Market. which is in the very centre of London. All his former acquaintances were either dead or removed to other parts of the country, or, at all events, to places which rendered it impossible for him to obtain any traces of them, far less to hold intercourse with them. The desolateness of his new position was rendered still greater by contrast. The new acquaintances he had formed in the Queen’s Bench Prison were all left behind him; so were the exercises and amusements in which he was wont daily and hourly to indulge when an inmate there. Even the very stones of the pavement, the walls of the building, and the place altogether, had become, through so lengthened and intimate an acquaintanceship, dear to him. These things all rushed on his mind; they haunted it by day, and. he dreamed of them by night. The man, in other words, was miserable in his altered position. He felt as if he had been alone in the world—as if he had been, in one sense, the “last man,” and he literally shed tears at the thought of his freedom. It was feared by some, who were acquainted with the circumstances, that he would either pine away, or, if he did not, that he would lay violent hands on himself. It was suggested to him that he should return to the Queen’s Bench Prison. In that suggestion he at once and most cordially concurred; but he did not, at the moment, possess the requisite qualification: he was not then in debt. He soon, however, did acquire it, and was again confined in his old quarters, where [-75-] I saw him some months ago, one of the happiest of the three or four hundred inmates in the place.
I am sure that most of my readers will readily remember a story which is very similar to this: it is the only parallel one which my memory can bring to my mind at this moment. I allude to the well-known story of the man who had been forty years a prisoner in the Bastile of France. When the populace burst open the doors of that building, and liberated the prisoners, an old man, whose appearance had, by forty years’ confinement in a dark dungeon, become almost unearthly, was found among the number. He was carried to the part of the town in which he had lived previous to his imprisonment. The whole aspect of the place was altered, and he could discover no trace of even one solitary former friend. The aged man felt himself as it were, in a new and strange world. The very light of heaven proved a burden to him; he felt he could not long survive in the altered circumstances in which he was placed; and, with tears streaming down his cheeks, he implored those who had liberated him, in mercy and for Heaven’s sake, to have the humanity of carrying him back again to his dark and gloomy dungeon in the Bastile. Habit is, indeed, a strange thing: there never was a more just observation, than that it is a second nature.
It is curious to witness the efforts which are made by some of the inmates in the Bench to keep up their former dignity,—in appearance, at least,—in despite of their altered circumstances. There are scores of persons there who fancy themselves as important (and are infinitely surprised and mortified to find others do not also think them so) as when they were living in the greatest splendour, residing in princely mansions, and keeping up magnificent establishments. Though practically on the same footing with the humblest of their co-inmates,—with this difference, that,
having more money at their command, they can procure greater comforts in some respects,—they affect to look down on all others as if they were not of the same species. This is ridiculous enough out of prison,—in prison it is peculiarly so; for a place like the Queen’s Bench is, to all intents and purposes, a republic. When the purse of such persons is empty, their attempts to keep up their fancied dignity not only often reach the ultima thule of ridiculousness; they are sometimes amusing in the highest degree. A lady formerly moving in the highest circles of society, who had for several years been one of the inmates, determined, within the last twelve months, or it may be a little more, to ask four others of her West-end friends to dinner one Sunday afternoon. The invitations were duly forwarded, and answers, accepting them, were received in due course. Unfortunately, the lady had not a sovereign in her pos-[-76-]session, and what was the next worst thing, she had neither credit enough with any of her fellow-prisoners to get the loan of a few, nor with the individual who furnishes the dinners to get a dinner—to use the phraseology of the place—” on tick.” She had, in other words, a heavy score in that quarter already. What was to be done? It would be a fearful wound to her pride, an awful outrage on her dignity, to ask friends to dinner and yet have nothing to set before them when they came. She saw there was no alternative but to endeavour to do something by some means or other, with the party who acted as “provider” on such occasions. After in vain using every argument and entreaty she could think of, to induce him to furnish the requisite repast, and add the bill to the previous account, she at last proposed that he should have a dinner, consisting of certain things which she mentioned, ready by six o’clock next Sunday afternoon; adding, that she would by that time receive some money, and pay him the amount before she would ask him to lay the things on the table. To this he agreed, at the rate of a guinea a-head, not doubting that when the guests were come, they would rather pay for it than see their friend and themselves made ridiculous. At all events, he determined that, if the amount of the bill was not forthcoming, not a morsel should be tasted, either by mine hostess or the guests. The day appointed arrived; so did the hour, and so did the friends. The lady was as unencumbered by the circulating medium then as before. She had not a shilling in her possession. To ask the loan of the requisite sum from the friends she had invited,—in other words, to ask them to pay for the dinner of which she had asked them to partake, —was an expedient to which she was most unwilling to resort. Telling her friends that dinner would be on the table presently, she begged to be excused for a minute or two; and so saying she hurried off to the party engaged to provide the feast. She renewed her entreaties for credit once more, and was most prodigal of her protestations that the amount of that particular bill, as well as the old score, would be honourably and cheerfully paid in a few days, by which time she was sure of a liberal remittance from her friends. But all would not do; the “provider” was inexorable. His motto, after the experience he had had already, was—” No money, no dinner.” She left him, and returned to her friends, thinking that if his heart did not soften, the circumstance of the dinner being sure to be spoiled, if not speedily eaten, and his thus losing money by it, would in two or three minutes operate favourably on him. The lady told her friends on her return, that dinner was not quite ready, but would be in a minute or two. They, of course, assured her they were in no hurry. About three minutes afterwards a knock [-77-] was heard at the door. Mine hostess immediately opened it.
“Are you, ma”am, to have the dinner, or not !“ inquired a voice on the landing.
“Hush! hush! don’t speak so loud,” answered the lady.
“Say at once, ma’am, whether I’m to bring it, or not.” Yes, do; bring it presently; we’re all waiting for it,” said she, in an under tone.
“The money, then, if you please, ma am.
“O, do bring it, and I’ll pay you to-morrow; I will indeed.” “No, ma’am, not a morsel shall be brought without the money: if you do not pay first, before I quit this place, I shall go and dispose of it at a reduced price to the other prisoners. On that, ma’am, I’m resolved,” said the “provider,” laying a peculiar stress on the word resolved, and giving a forcible stroke with the palm of his right hand to one of his legs a little above his knee.
This announcement, coupled with the energetic manner in which it was made, alarmed the lady. She saw that if the dinner was not got by some means or other, without loss of time, it would not be got at all. The thought was horrifying; it was still more so, if possible, to think that it should be disposed of to, and be eaten by, the vulgar herd of prisoners; that their palates should be regaled by the dainties provided for herself and friends. “ O! the very idea was enough to annihilate one She opened the door, and rushed half frantic into the room. “My dear friends, how awkward! O, I can scarcely utter a word! but the truth is, that I have been disappointed in a small remittance I expected yesterday, and which I am sure to receive to-morrow; and this brute of a man is so rude and unmannerly as not to give me credit even for a few hours. I’m quite ashamed; indeed; I am!”
The explanation of the cause of the non-appearance of the dinner was unnecessary; the party had overheard every word that had passed between the lady and the other party.
They were as much confounded as herself; each looked at the other; and what aggravated the unpleasantness of the circumstances in which they were placed, was the fact that they had not above a guinea amongst them all. In fact, not dreaming of -so “untoward” an affair, they had not thought of taking any money with them. The confusion of the intended guests was only made so much worse by the countless apologies and unspeakable mortification of their friend, the lady prisoner. And if anything could have added yet more to the confusion of the lady’s friends, and rendered her own mortification complete, it would have been the fact of hearing the party providing the dinner singing out, in tones sufficiently stentorian to make all the prisoners hear it, as he walked up and down the place—” A dinner [-78-] provided for –* (The name was pronounced in full), to be disposed of in small portions, at reduced prices. The lady’s friends were obliged to return home with empty stomachs, and she herself has not yet recovered the shock which her pride received on the occasion.
I am convinced that the deprivation to which I have referred. of that respect and obeisance which are paid to the aristocracy outside the walls of the prison, embitters their situation within, much more than the mere confinement itself. In the course of my visits to the place I have been often struck with the crestfallen appearance of the scions of the aristocracy, when I have seen them walking about on the pavement without any one deigning to take the slightest notice of them. Those only who have been accustomed to be treated with the greatest deference, and to have all manner of respect shown to them, just as if they were a sort of superior beings, can form an idea of the depth to which those persons fall in their own estimation, when they are reduced to a level with the humblest individuals in the land.
It is worthy of observation, that there are generally a fair sprinkling of the nobility in the Queen’s Bench. Considering the proportion which the aristocracy bears to the other inhabitants of the country, their relative number in the Bench to the other prisoners is strikingly great. Take the aristocracy, strictly so called, of the country at 5000, and the population of the United Kingdom at 25,000,000, that would give only one aristocrat for 5000 of the people. Go to the Queen’s Bench, and you will usually find the nobility to be, to the people, in proportion of one to one hundred and fifty; which conclusively shows that. considering their relative numbers, they much more generally incur debts they are unable or unwilling to pay, than those in the lower walks of life.
It were desirable for the sake of what Lord Grey would call “the order,” that the number of the nobility, who from time to time grace the Queen’s Bench, were not so great.; but there is another class of persons whom every one must much more regret to see there. I mean the clergy of the church of England. The number of clergymen imprisoned in that place for debt is relatively great. Not long since there were no fewer than nine or ten at once. I know of nothing more prejudicial to the interests of that religion, whose ministers they profess to be, and whose principles they solemnly swore on the day of their ordination to have adopted from conviction, than that, through habits of extravagance, to use no harsher terms, they should render themselves amenable to the civil jurisprudence of their country. A clergyman in the Queen’s Bench, through misconduct of his [-79-] own, is a most painful spectacle. Not only is his own usefulness ever afterwards impaired, but scandal is, through his means, brought on Christianity itself. It is due to the Dissenters to say, that while the Queen’s Bench prison is scarcely ever—I doubt if it be ever—without several clerical inmates, the circumstance of one of their ministers being confined within its walls, is an occurrence which hardly ever takes place.
There are always a considerable number of attorneys and barristers in the Queen’s Bench. I need scarcely say that in the great majority of cases the attorneys were without practice, and the barristers briefless, before their entrance. Some of the former, however, manage to raise a tolerable business within the walls of the prison. Strange as it may appear, it does sometimes happen that persons have to date their prosperity in life to their incarceration in the Queen’s Bench. One remarkable instance consists with my personal knowledge. The party was a barrister, but had never in his life had a single brief in his bag. I am not sure, indeed, having no use for it, whether he had a bag at all. He was sent to vegetate for ten or twelve months in the Bench. While there he contracted an intimacy with one of the prisoners of some station in society, and of considerable wealth, though, through some illegal proceedings, temporarily deprived of it. The case was laid before the briefless barrister, and having abundant time on his hand he made himself completely master of it in all its bearings. On his liberation he undertook to bring it before the proper tribunal, making his remuneration entirely dependent on his success. He did succeed: the party was liberated, and he amply rewarded for his trouble. But the remuneration he received was but a very subordinate portion of the benefit he derived from the case. Possessed of very respectable natural talents, and knowing the case so thoroughly, he made so creditable a professional appearance in court, that briefs, from that time, poured in on him in copious abundance. This was the tide in his affairs of which Shakspeare speaks: he wisely took it at the fountain, and it led on to fame and fortune.
Of military men there is always a good number in the Queen’s Bench Prison. They consist of all degrees of rank in the service, from the general down to the officer of the humblest grade. You can easily distinguish them from the rest of the prisoners by the stiffness of their gait.
But of all classes of men to be found in the Queens Bench, that of authors, in proportion to their relative numbers to society generally, is by far the most numerous. On some occasions they are to be seen in crowds, in that locality. Napoleon called the English a nation of shopkeepers; and when George [-89-] the Fourth visited Scotland, mistaking the holiday clothes in which the people were dressed to greet his arrival, for the apparel in which they daily appeared, he called the Scotch a nation of gentlemen. Were a foreigner, again, to make his first place of visit, on his arrival in this country, the Queen’s Bench, he would, from the number of literary men he would find among the inmates, immediately come to the conclusion that we were a nation of authors. Formerly, when the privations and misfortunes of authors were adverted to, the garrets of Grub-street were mentioned as the place where literary men were chiefly to be found pining in want and wretchedness. The miseries of authorship are still more forcibly illustrated in the Bench. It is, beyond all comparison, the worst trade going. For one man that succeeds in it, thousands fail. No wonder that Sir Walter Scott always admonished young men of literary tastes, not to dream of earning their bread by their writings. Had he ever visited the Queen’s Bench, he would have been still more earnest in his cautions to them not to lean, as he himself used to say, on so broken a reed. I have heard of literary men who had themselves largely experienced the wretchedness of making literature a profession, giving it as their most earnest advice to their sons, never to think of making authorship a trade; and they have enforced their counsels and cautions by a reference to particular cases of misery which have resulted from the attempts thus made to earn their bread by their literary labours. If such parents were to take their sons to the Queen’s Bench, and by that means bring before them examples in wholesale, demonstrative of the pains and penalties of living, or rather endeavouring to live, by literature,—their counsels would have a much greater chance of making a permanent impression, and of producing the intended effects.
The number of female prisoners in the Queen’s Bench bears but a small proportion to the male. I should think that, on an average, there is not one woman for seven or eight of the male sex.
It is curious, on a visit to the Queen’s Bench, to contrast the external appearance of the higher classes of the prisoners, after they have been a short time in the place, with what it was before their admission. The metamorphosis they undergo in the course of a few months is almost incredible. It is sometimes so complete, that their own friends, one would think, would have some difficulty in identifying them. Were they to meet them accidentally in the street, I am sure they would pass them by without recognising them. It is quite a common thing to see noblemen and gentlemen, who but a few months before were dressed, or, as a tailor would say, “decorated,” in the extreme of fashion; [-81-] persons, on whose apparel Stultz, and Willis, and Crellin, and our other first-rate tailors, had expended all their ingenuity and taste, in order to make an exquisite fit; it is, I say, quite a common thing to see such persons in the Bench nothing better than the mere wrecks of dandyism. In some instances, you see their wardrobe “all tattered and torn,” just like that of the little hero in the nursery-book, price one halfpenny, “who kissed the maiden all forlorn.” In many cases parties who on their introduction to the Queen’s Bench were dandies of the first water, have not the means of “keeping up the steam of Beau Brummellism ;“ they have no cash, and what is worse for them, no credit. In other cases, they have no inducement to sustain their reputation as dandies: they see nobody, and are seen by nobody, as they themselves phrase it. Hence they get careless in the article of apparel; and that carelessness eventually degenerates into slovenliness. The brush comes in contact with their clothes: button after button drops off without being replaced, until they are pretty nearly buttonless. There is a hole here, and a rent there. “The shine” is taken out of their shoes, and is not put into them again. If Warren had no better customers than the inmates of the Queen’s Bench, he would be obliged to advertise less. The columns of so many country papers would not be enriched by the poetical praises of his “unrivalled,” nor would those journals be so often embellished by the picture of the cat fighting with her own shadow as reflected in the well-polished hoot. Then there are the hats of these broken-down demi-dandies: they are, indeed, “shocking bad” ones, if they are worthy of the name. The pile is gone, the colour is faded; they are broken and bruised all over. As regards their beards, again, they find it the least troublesome course to let them have their own way of it; hence the chin, which on their entrance was scraped by some tonsor as bare as if no crop had ever grown on it, is embellished by a most abundant harvest of hair, which is dignified with the name of mustachios.
There are always some persons in the Bench who illustrate the old proverb of not learning wisdom from experience. A few months since, there was a lady there, who had, after having been for seven years an inmate before, procured her liberation. By a curious coincidence, within a few days of her discharge she had the further good fortune of coming in to the possession of property which had been left her by a deceased relation, to the amount of 40001. This might have kept her comfortable for life, as she had no one dependent on her for support. In a few weeks afterwards, she saW an advertisement in “The Times” newspaper, in the advertiser intimated his desire to meet with a party, commanding a capital of 4000l. to enter with him into a speculation which he pledged himself would, the very first year, yield [-82-] a return of 50 per cent. on the money embarked in the affair. The lady answered the advertisement; it was too tempting a prospect to be slighted. A personal interview followed. The advertiser, who was an exceedingly plausible person, assured her that he had discovered a method of making candles of the first quality without tallow, and that, if he had the command of 4000l wherewith to erect the necessary machinery, and to fit up suitable premises, the party advancing the sum should be received as full partner into the concern, and that the fortunes of both would be made in a few years. The simple lady was exceedingly pleased with the scheme; she advanced the last far-thing of her money; the ingenious rogue was, of course, no more heard of; and, in exactly twelve months afterwards, she was sent back to her old quarters in the Bench.
Very unexpected meetings sometimes take place between near relations or intimate friends, in the Queen’s Bench. Not long since, a woman, moving in a respectable sphere of life, was committed, as the phrase is, to the custody of the Marshalsea. She had not been three hours in the place, when she was surprised to see her daughter, who had lived in lodgings of her own, make her appearance in the coffee-room. “Mercy on me, Matilda! how did you hear so soon of my being here?“ she exclaimed, advancing to embrace her daughter. The latter uttered a shriek, and fainted away at the sight of her mother. She had not heard of her parent’s incarceration. The coincidence of both being imprisoned in one day for their individual debts was curious enough. We often hear of agreeable surprises: this was a surprise of a very different kind: it was a most disagreeable one for both parties.
But a meeting of two friends in the Queen’s Bench, under still more singular circumstances, occurred a short time ago. Mr. Bagster, a literary man in a small way, was most devotedly attached to Miss Bridget Shrimps, who had been many years known as a dress-maker, in the neighbourhood of Leicester-square; and his ardent affection was reciprocated on her part. Never, indeed, did novelist lavish more high-wrought encomiums on the ardour of the attachment entertained towards each other, by any couple of imaginary lovers which his own fancy called into being, than were merited by Mr. Bagster and Miss Shrimps. Their love was on the eve, as it was right it should do, of attracting each other, by a sort of Siamese sympathy, towards the hymeneal altar. Just three days more, and Miss Shrimps would have been metamorphosed into Mrs. Bagster; but “the course of true love “—the reader can complete the sentence. Mr. Bagster was one evening on his way, through Coventry-street, to Miss Shrimps, to renew to her his protestations of ardent and unalterable attachment, and to make some necessary prepara-[-83-]tions for the approaching nuptials, when he received a rather smart tap on the right shoulder. He turned about, and encountered the physiognomy of a personage whose visage, even in the contemplation, had been associated for six months before with very unpleasant feelings. Mr. Bagster was landed in an hour or two afterwards in the Bench. That night did pass away; but it was an age to poor Mr. Bagster. The image of Miss Shrimps haunted his mind continually, not even allowing him one moment’s repose. He thought next day what a wretched person he must be if he was kept many weeks from the embraces of Miss Shrimps. On the afternoon of the second day, he sat down to unburden his mind by pouring into her ear, through means of a letter, his woes, caused by his sudden and unexpected separation from her. The letter, so far as it had proceeded, was instinct with affection: it was full to overflowing of protestations of undying attachment. “O, Miss Shrimps! my ever adored and ever adorable Miss Shrimps! how shall I endure the pangs of separation from you! Last night was an age; this night will be an eternity, because of my not seeing you. Your presence here would convert this miserable place into a para— Mr. Bagster was in the act of completing the sentence, by inditing the word “paradise,” when interrupted by what he thought a gentle knock at the door. “Who’s there Any one there?“ said he, leaving the word “paradise” in its incomplete state, and raising his head and looking towards the door. He resumed writing.
No answer was returned to his queries.
He was again-interrupted by what he conceived to be another gentle knock at the door.
“Any person there?“ he again inquired, in a subdued tone of voice, directing his eye towards the door.
Still there was no answer to his question.
“It’s all imagination with me,” he observed to himself.
“Yes, my dearest!” resuming his epistolary employment; “yes, my dearest Bridget, your presence, which is but another name for happiness, would convert even this miserable place into a perfect paradise; but how—”
A loud knock, which there was no mistaking, interrupted Mr. Bagster a third time; and throwing down the pen, he started to his feet, and threw the door wide open in a moment. A female figure appeared before him. “Bridget !“ he exclaimed, with an expression of countenance which showed that he could hardly credit the evidence of his eyes.
“O, Francis! O, my—” The remainder of the sentence was lost, in consequence of Miss Shrimps thrusting her face into Mr. Bagster’s breast. Mr. Bagster opened his arms as wide as [-84-] their length would admit of, to receive his Dulcinea, and then, pressing her to his bosom, exclaimed, with a most emphatic sigh, “O, Bridget! Bridget! O.”
“Francis!” faintly ejaculated Bridget, looking up languishingly in her lover’s face.
Bridget, my dear!” responded the latter, with a sort of sob which defies specification.
Miss Shrimps looked up in Mr. Bagster’s face, but uttered not a word.
Mr. Bagster looked down in Miss Shrimps’s face, and was equally silent.
“This is a meeting,” gasped Bridget after a minute’s pause; “a meeting –“
“ It is a meeting, my dear !“ answered Mr. Bagster. “ But, come inside.” As he spoke, he led Miss Shrimps into his room, seated her on a chair, and after both had begun to recover from the effects of so unexpected an interview, Mr. Bagster handed to Miss Shrimps the letter he had been writing.
She forthwith commenced reading it, and on coming to the tender passage which Mr. Bagster had been in the act of inditing when she knocked at the door, she threw down the letter, and thrusting her arms round his neck, cordially embraced him.
“O, Bridget! I’m so delighted you’re come. But how shall I bear the pang of parting from you when the gates arc about to be shut in the evening?”
“My dear Francis, I’ll stay here; I won’t leave you.
“But you must, my angel; all strangers must quit previous to the gates being shut.”
“O! but they won’t ask me to go.”
“Indeed they will, my dear; they never allow any one but the unhappy inmates to remain.”
“Francis! Francis! How shall I tell you —“
Here Miss Shrimps gasped for breath, and seemed within a few degrees of a regular swoon.
“Tell what, my dear ?“ inquired Mr. Bagster eagerly.
“How shall I tell it ?“ repeated Miss Shrimps, with additional emphasis.
“Do tell it, my dearest Bridget.”
“I am an inmate—a prisoner, Francis,” answered Miss Shrimps, and she again buried her head most poetically in the breast of Mr. Bagster.
“You don’t say so !“ exclaimed the latter, starting back on the first intimation of the fact.
“I do, indeed,” rejoined Miss Shrimps, clinging still closer to Mr. Bagster.
“Bridget! my adored Bridget! I’m happy to hear it,” observed Mr. Bagster with great emphasis, after a moment’s reflec-[-85-]tion; and as he spoke, he pressed Miss Shrimps with redoubled vigour to his bosom.
“O, I’m so happy to hear you say so!”
I was afraid, Bridget, that I might forfeit your affections when you discovered that I was in embarrassed circumstances.”
“And I laboured under a similar apprehension when you found out the state of my pecuniary matters,” rejoined Miss Shrimps.
“We are now again on a footing of perfect equality,” remarked Mr. Bagster.
“Quite so,” answered Miss Shrimps; and the lovers again embraced each other.
They were both liberated in six weeks; and before the seventh week had passed away, Miss Shrimps was transformed into Mrs. Bagster was, after all, more philosophy in the mutual congratulations of the lovers, on finding themselves both in prison or debt, than might appear on the first blush of the thing. The one would not, in the bickerings which are incidental, as if by some sort of moral necessity, to the matrimonial state, be able to reproach the ether with a stigma which attached equally to each. The same philosophy dictated the mutual confessions of Dr. Johnson and the lady to whom he was paying his addresses, immediately before their marriage. “I had a near relation who was hanged,” said the lady, in order that the Doctor might not afterwards have any ground for accusing her of concealing the fact, or of reproaching her, with any justice, with the circumstance. “My dear,” said the lexicographer, “there is no inequality in our circumstances in that respect; for though no near relation of mine has been hanged, I have at least twenty who deserve to be so.”
I have alluded, in a former part of the chapter, to the length of time which some of the present prisoners have been inmates of the, Queen’s Bench; and also to the causes, in some cases, of their protracted imprisonment. There is one of these individuals who has been fifteen or sixteen years in the place, simply because he refuses to answer certain questions put to him by the commissioners of bankrupts. He has been several times before those gentlemen, and might, at any time since he was first committed, have procured his liberation by saying either “Aye,” or “No” to their queries. But no consideration will induce him to use either of these monosyllables in connexion with their questions, though he has no particular objection to the words in other circumstances. On one occasion he was brought before Lord Brougham, then Lord Chancellor, with a view to the overcoming what the commissioners of bankrupts call his obstinacy; and his Lordship made every effort in his power to get either an affirmative or negative answer to the questions referred to; but without effect. “Why, my good man,” said his Lordship, in the most [-86-] winning tone of which he was master,—never, by the way, very winning at any time,—” why, my good man, would it not be a very simple thing to answer affirmatively or negatively the question put you?”
The prisoner was silent.
“Your conduct is most extraordinary,” added his Lordship, giving a twitch or two to his nose.
Still the prisoner uttered not a syllable.
“You are not asked to answer the questions in any particular way, but only to give such answers as are in accordance with the truth.”
Not a word proceeded from the prisoner.
“Can’t you,” resumed his Lordship, in his usual tart and hasty manner, and imparting a variety of very violent twitches to the aforesaid part of his face; “can’t you say ‘Yes or No?”’
Whether his Lordship was aware that, in putting the matter to the prisoner in this way, he was quoting the title of one of Lord Mulgrave’s novels, I cannot say; but the prisoner continued as mute as before.
“Then, Sir, you won’t say either ‘Yes or No ?“‘ repeated Lord Brougliam, with additional warmth.
“No,” said the prisoner, in an audible voice.
“O, then,” observed his Lordship, in a subdued tone, and his countenance assuming a much milder expression; “O, then, you mean, at last, to answer the questions in the negative, do you?”
“Certainly not,” answered the prisoner in a firm and steady voice. I meant by ‘No,’ that I did not intend to answer them either way.
“Officers,” shouted Lord Brougham, addressing the parties in whose custody the prisoner was; “officers, remove this person back to prison.” And he was re-transferred to the Bench accordingly, where he has remained ever since.
There are some prisoners, again, who, so far from going into the Bench with the determination of remaining there for a lengthened period, enter it with the full determination, and under the assured conviction, of not being in it above a few weeks at furthest. There was some months since, and I suppose is still, an individual in it, of the name of Such, who has been an inmate, without once crossing its threshold, for more than twenty years, who on his incarceration felt so assured of his being liberated next day, that be observed to Mr. Sams, a fellow-prisoner who had been a previous acquaintance, that he had come to a resolution not to take off his boots while he remained there. “Don’t be too sure of regaining your liberty so promptly,” observed the other.
“If I don’t get out to-morrow, I’ll jump down my own throat,” rejoined the other.
This promise to jump down his own throat was a favourite [-87-] expression of his, when pledging his word to anything which he was confident would occur.
The hour for shutting the gates next evening arrived, without any appearance of Mr. Such being liberated. “Come, now, said Mr. Sams, on the bell being rung for the departure of strangers,—” “Come, now, I suppose you’ll have no objection to take off your boots?”
“Take them off! Certainly not; perfectly sure of getting out to-morrow. If I don’t, I’ll jump down my own throat; blame me, If I don’t !“
“P’r’aps you would like your boots cleaned, Sir?” said a man of all-work, on seeing the unpolished aspect they presented next morning, as Mr. Such promenaded the pavement.
“O, not at all, my good man. I’ll have them cleaned in the Tavistock Hotel in a few hours.”
“Vould’nt you better have them done now?” inquired the other, having an eye to the penny which was his usual charge.
“Certainly not: I’m resolved they shall never come off my feet while here; far less, have them cleaned.”
“Veil, Sir, but you knows as how, if you don’t get out o’ this here place so soon as you expects, you must take them off to get them cleaned, for decency’s sake:”
“O, I’m quite certain of getting out to-day: there can be no mistake about the matter. I’ll jump down my own throat, if there be.”
That day passed away like its two predecessors and still Mr. Such’s efforts to procure his liberation were unsuccessful. “Come, come,”’ said his friend, “don’t be so foolish; off with your boots, and go to bed at the usual time, and in the usual manner, like other people.”
‘“Will I !—Not for worlds. I have pledged my word that I shall not take off my boots while I remain in this place. However, I know the causes why I have not already regained my liberty. All owing to accidental circumstances: but sure to be out to-day. Here goes, if I don’t.” As he uttered the last sentence, he pointed his finger to his open mouth.
Nearly a month elapsed, during every day of which Mr. Such was repeatedly urged by one or more of his fellow-prisoners to take off his boots; but to each of their entreaties he replied by a threatened descent of his own throat, if he did not get out before night. By the close of the fourth day of his incarceration, he was so uncomfortable and exhausted with sitting up all night, or only lying down for a few hours with his clothes on, that he was obliged to go to bed like other people, only that he neither doffed his boots nor trowsers. Just about the commencement of his fifth week, his toes began to peep out between the soles and uppers of his “understandings”—as he sometimes facetiously [-88-] called his boots. This was deemed by Mr. Sams a fortunate circumstance. He thought the boots of Mr. Such must come off now, whether he was willing or not. “Mr. Such,” said he, “your boots want mending.”
“Why, I know that,” observed the latter, coolly.
“Take them off; and I’ll send for a cobbler to have them mended.”
“O, not at all, Mr. Sams; though equally obliged to you for your kind offer.”
“Why, really, Mr. Such, you are carrying the joke a little too far. You look quite ridiculous with your toes staring people in the face that way,” pointing to his feet.
“Can’t help it; it will only be for this one day more. I’m sure to be out before nine this evening. If I be not, I’m down directly.” The latter sentence was accompanied by the appropriate action of again pointing to his open mouth.
“Come, come, no more nonsense, Mr. Such. Let me bring you a cobbler at once.”
“O, bring him by all means, if you please; only, if my boots are to be mended, they must be so on my feet.”
“Well, Sir, have your own way of it. Keep them on till doomsday, if you wish it,” observed Mr. Same in an angry tone, as he quitted Mr. Such’s room. Mr. Sams determined with himself that he would never again utter a syllable to him on the subject.
In about a fortnight afterwards, one of the prisoners, in passing Mr. Such, chanced to accost him with “Not out yet, Mr. Such?” He was surprised at not receiving the usual reply of “I will be out to-night, though. If I don’t, down my own throat I go.”
“You should be advised, and take off your boots, Mr. Such.”
“I won’t take them off,” replied Mr. Such in a subdued tone, looking significantly at his feet. “Will you allow me to take them off?”
“O, if you wish it, I have no objections; only, I don’t do it myself: I won’t break my word.” The other endeavoured to release him from the state of living martyrdom in which he had been for seven weeks, but found his legs were so swollen, that the boots could not be got off in the usual way. They were obliged to be cut off in pieces. When the process had been completed, and Mr. Such saw the fragments lying before him, he observed, with something between a sigh and a groan, “O, there they are! I have now no longer any wish to regain my freedom. Here I am willing to live and die.” From that time, nearly a quarter of a century ago, the eccentric gentleman has never been heard to express a desire to get out of the Bench; while his favourite threat of jumping down his own throat has never since escaped his lips.
[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.]