Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Days and Nights in London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1880 - Chapter 13

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"SHALL I wait to bring you back, sir?" said a cabman to me the other morning, as he landed inc at an early hour before the gloomy pile, which has hitherto been known as the Middlesex House of Correction, placed, as my readers may know well, on Mount Pleasant, just out of Gray's Inn Road. On a dull, dreary morning, it is anything but pleasant, that Mount, in spite of its name, and yet I dismissed the cabman and got out into the street, not to enjoy the view, or to inhale the raw fog, which threw a misty gloom over everything, nor even to admire the architecture of the substantial plain [-262-] brick-wall-order of the building, which, erected in 1794, and greatly enlarged since, occupies no less than nine acres, and was devoted to the maintenance of a thousand male persons belonging to the small but thickly-inhabited county of Middlesex. Government, in its wisdom, has altered all that, and it is not exactly clear to what purposes the Middlesex House of Correction will be applied in the future, or to whom it will belong. Imperialism requires centralisation, and thus it is local government gradually disappears.
    But I am not standing out here in the raw gloomy November morning to write a political disquisition which few will read, and which they will forget the next minute, but I am come to see the prisoners released from gaol. There is a little mob outside, who stand close, apparently to keep each other warm, and who regard me evidently with not a little suspicion as I light up a cigar to [-263-] keep the cold out and prepare for the worst. Every now and then a "Favourite" omnibus rumbles past with its load of clerks and warehousemen to their places of business, while a perpetual stream of pedestrians, aiming at the same destination, passes on. Evidently, they regard us with pity, and one sees that in the casual glance, even if there be no language escaping from the lips. It does not seem to me that we are a very showy lot. A little way off a dark and dingy brougham drives up as if it were ashamed of the job and only put in an appearance under protest, as it were; but all around me are wretchedly poor, and chiefly of the costermonger class, whose language is more expressive than refined. There are sorrowful women in the group - mothers who have come for Sons who have been, not to put too fine a point on it, unfortunate wives with babies in their arms, perhaps horn since the husband was in "trouble," [-264-] and sisters who wait to take their brothers where they can have something better than prison fare and a lighter life than that which exists within the four walls of a prison. Some of the women are to be pitied - one, in a widow's garb, with a tear-stained face, particularly attracts my attention. She has brought all her family with her as she comes to take back from the hands of justice her erring son, who, let us hope, may yet live to be a comfort to the poor mother, who evidently needs it so much; and who, perhaps, reproaches herself that she has been a little to blame in the matter. It is hard work to train up young ones, whether they be rich or poor; but the children of the latter in the filthy lodging-houses in low districts have little, alas! to lead them right, and much in the way of precept and example to lead them wrong. With Board schools to teach honesty is the best policy, we may expect better things in [-265-] the days to come; and, if that be done, I feel certain the Board will have deserved well of the country; if it fails in imparting that higher instruction which some of its leading members seem to think the one thing needful, and to be gained for the poor man's child at any cost to the unfortunate ratepayer of the class immediately above. But this is a digression - and it only helps to pass away the time which here this cold, raw morning appears to have quite forgotten to fly. It seems to me an age since I heard the neighbouring chimes indicate that it was a quarter to nine, and now at length they strike nine, and still the big gates are closed, and we are silent with expectation - as if, at least, we expected the arrival of a Lord Mayor or a Prince of Wales. A few policemen have now come up to keep the crowd back, whilst a quiet, respectable, unassuming individual comes to the gate, ready to give each prisoner a ticket to a little [-266-] breakfast in a Mission Hall close by. Mr. Wheatley, the individual referred to, has his heart in the work, and I see he has friends and assistants in the crowd, such as Mr. Hatton, of the Mission Hall in Wylde Street, and others. In a few minutes they will be hard at work, for the big gates suddenly are wide apart, and a couple of lads appear with a smile on their pale countenances, for they are free. Face to face with the crowd outside they seem a little amazed, and scarce know which way to turn. Mr. Wheatley gives them a card of invitation, and Mr. Hatton and his friends outside follow it up with pressing remarks, which lead them to march off to a neighbouring Mission Hall. Again the doors are closed, and we are silent. Then the gates fly apart, and out come two or three more, who seem to wish to slink away without being remarked by anyone. However, a little pale-faced girl cries, "Charley!" in a soft trembling voice, [-267-] and Charley looks, and as the girl leaves the rank he takes her hand, and goes his way rejoicing. A big bullet- headed fellow has no cap as he comes out, and a friend in the crowd chucks him one, which he puts on his head, and is soon lost to sight. Another one appears at the gate, and a pal comes up to him, and offers him a pipe, which he straightway begins to smoke, with a gusto easier imagined than described. One old man as he hobbles out refuses the proffered card, saying that he was quite wicked enough, and did not want none of that. Evidently he is a hardened sinner, and I fear the chaplain has found him rather a bad subject. One man, a bit of a wag, creates a laugh, as, looking at the women in the crowd, he calls out, "Come along, my dears," and away he goes to his own place.
    Again there is another pause, and then a respectable-looking man makes his appearance. Suddenly his wife clasps his hand, [-268-] and leads him off. There is irrepressible emotion in her face, though she does not say a word, nor he either. It does not seem to me that he is a hardened criminal, and lie may yet retrieve the blot on his character. Order again prevails, and a voice out of the middle of the gate asks if anyone is waiting for Jones and Robinson. That means Jones and Robinson have behaved well- have earned a little money, which is to be handed over to their friends. And thus half an hour passes away, and as I look at the crowd I see that it has partly changed, and is composed more of casual street boys and pedestrians who have stopped to look. I miss almost all the women who were there an hour ago, and most of the costermonger class have disappeared, though a few still linger on. The voice from the closed doors says that there arc no more to come out to- day, and slowly the crowd melts away. Some are evidently sad. They had expected [-269-] a father, a brother, a husband, and now they have to wait awhile. On our right, as we make our way to Gray's Inn Road, there is a little Mission Hall, and I turn in. Already the place is full, and as the gas falls on their faces as they devour the morning meal provided for them by Mr. Hatton and his friends, it seems to me that I never saw a more ill-favoured lot. There was not a pleasant face among them - not a man or a lad that I would have cared to set to work in my garden or house; and as to their poverty, that was indescribable. These are the men whom none had come to meet - the waifs and strays, without money or friends or work, with that defiant scowl which denotes how low the man has sunk, and how little it matters to him whether he spend his days in the workhouse or the gaol. Mr. Wheatley talks kindly to them, and after singing - not by them, for they all sit glum and silent - Mr. Hatton prays, and the meeting is [-270-] over. A good many then come forward to sign the pledge, and I leave them as they explain their position and their need. I see Mr. Wheatley gives a few a trifle; but a trifle, alas! won't keep a man in London long out of gaol.