Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pauper, The Thief and the Convict, by Thomas Archer, 1865 - Chapter 10 - The Gaol of Newgate

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   Newgate Gaol occupies a considerable portion of one side of the thoroughfare known as the Old Bailey. Grim and soot-blackened, its massy stone walls stare blankly at the establishment of the Sunday School Union opposite, at the five or six flaring, dirty taverns, and at the one or two dingy coffee-shops, where seedy men, draggled women, impenetrable policemen, and irritable witnesses or prosecutors while away the dreary hours spent in waiting for the calling on of the cases in the criminal courts.
   To one or other of these taverns, policemen, officers of the court, friends of prisoners, and hawkers of nuts and small wares, repair during the sessions at the Old Bailey, and here, tired prosecutors who are kept waiting for their cases to be called, are compelled to seek refreshment from the stifling atmosphere of the courts. It may sometimes happen that an Old Bailey official in rusty serge gown, and with dishevelled hair, will rush wildly across for a dram at the expense of some hopeful witness, who is informed that his case may be put forward on the list in return for judicious liberality in the matter of brandy and water, but everybody hanging about the dirty bar, or seeking repose in the long close room, where a woman is busy frying sausages, comes at last to have a faded, jaded, drooping appearance, as if he had been up all night. The hard Windsor chairs and beer-stained tables [-173-] provided for the public accommodation, always bear the marks of yesterday's occupants of these dingy rooms. Even the seller of nuts, who endeavours to enliven the proceedings by a little gambling, becomes listless; and talks to some casual acquaintance, with a furtive look now and then at the celebrated detective officer, who bites the top of a stumpy cedar pencil, and makes a pretence of consulting his note-book for amusement. Such slight jocularities as he may bestow upon the frier of sausages seem strangely out of place amidst the general weariness, and the Newgate blight hangs heavily in the air.
   Standing opposite and looking at the relentless stonework, there is but one light spot in the whole expanse from the dead wall at the corner of Newgate Street to the last gate entrance to the courts where the sessions are being held. This one spot is the governor's house, which intercepts the solid masonry, and, falling back a step, shows a range of bright windows and a shining brass plate upon a narrow door. Even this, however, is accessible only by a flight of stone steps, its entrance being barred (as not altogether disclaiming prison associations) by a railing of iron. But this door, and, indeed, the whole space occupied by the official residence, is utterly superseded and extinguished into gloom by another door, which is in itself the very type of all those dread recollections that make the very name of Newgate significant of terror and vain remorse. It is a small, black, iron-studded, door, this; black, as with the dead blackness of dirty crape, low and narrow as the entrance to a vaulted grave, ascended by a ragged step, the dust on which lies untrodden. In hideous mockery of ornament, this ghastly portal is surmounted by a set of gyves and chains, which hang in a square niche, and look like the remains of some human skeleton [-174-] kept there in its death fetters as a horrible warning to scare the gaol-birds yet at large.
   From out this gloomy gate many a trembling wretch has walked as from a living tomb to meet a shameful and a terrible death; many a blatant villain has played the bully to the last and stared with bold and bloodshot eyes at the crowd who had come, full of greedy interest, to see him hanged.
   On the heavy, corrugated stonework of the surrounding wall are holes, and clefts, and notches, where the workman's hammer has left its mark and the ends of beams have rested. Each notch and crevice might represent a human life, and yet the dark records of the hangman's office be but scarce begun.
   But, with all its tainted atmosphere and sickening details of crime and suffering, the present history of Newgate bears in either but little proportion to the past. The interior economy of the prison itself has undergone a change scarcely more salutary than have the laws which tenant the building with the erring and the guilty.
   Having obtained the necessary credentials, I present myself before the darkly frowning prison entrance and, ascending the high flight of stone steps, peep between the long iron spikes and look into the lobby, before I ring the bell by the long iron handle which hangs beside the gate. Once admitted, not without a caution amounting to habitual suspicion on the part of the officer who attends to the gate, I have leisure to observe that the prison-like elements of the building are evident even at this early stage of my progress, for there before me, to the right, is another black door, or grille, looking, with its massy bars of trellis-work, like a fearsome window through which no ray of genial sunshine ever entered.
   [-175-] The first thought of Newgate is associated, of course, with Jack Sheppard, and impresses me with the difficulty which I remember beset him on his attempting to escape; that is to say, the uncertainty of his finding his way through the winding passages. This particular feature is still preserved in the building, and, indeed, many of the corridors and lobbies remain entirely unaltered in their gloomy strength and dark intricacy. Following my guide, however, I stop for a moment before a glazed room (like an unwholesome frame for forcing the ill weeds of crime) in which prisoners before their trial hold conference with their legal advisers, under the surveillance of an officer. Beyond this, and looking into one of the yards, is a partition of iron bars closely intertwined with a network of twisted wire; at a distance of about three feet from this are more upright iron bars, behind which, in the yard, the prisoners stand to talk to their friends, who speak to them through the trellis-work in the lobby, so that they are separated in such a manner that no other than verbal communications are possible, especially as an officer walks up and down in the intermediate space. Very strange and melancholy it is to see a place like a doubly secured cage for wild beasts by which it is necessary for these unfortunate wretches to be separated from their fellows lest they should attempt some further breach of the law. Strange and terrible it must be, too, for the wrongfully accused. Who does not remember Kit Nubbles, and his agony of grief, when he is visited by his mother and little Jacob?
   With some desire to follow as closely as may be, the route by which a prisoner first brought to Newgate reaches the various stages in that awful journey from arrest to conviction, I pass on towards the main body of the building.
   [-176-] From these winding and gloomy passages I enter a hall of great area - light, warm, and clean - in the centre of which two staircases, like those that lead to the passengers' cabins in an Atlantic steamer, communicate with the basement. The place reminds me at once either of a large wholesale warehouse before the wares are brought in or of a new railway hotel, where the proprietors have retained the old arrangement of the bedrooms in corridors surrounding a central space. There are four of these corridors of light-looking ironwork, approached by staircases of the same construction, and resembling those same old hotels, inasmuch as there are numbered doors at regular intervals, which only require the boots and hot water outside to give the place an air of comfort superior to that of many a mouldy old inn in the City. There are no windows, however; and no boots stand outside ready for the inmates; while, instead of the central area being open to the sky, the entire building is roofed and lighted from a lofty ceiling. These numbered doors are the prisoners' cells; but, in pursuance of my original intention, I have to descend an iron staircase and follow the course taken by the culprit during his temporary confinement in the gaol.
   In the basement there are two large but not very light rooms, each containing an ample bath and means for washing. To this the prisoner is first consigned until he has been thoroughly cleansed, while his clothes are submitted to a similar process in another apartment, and afterwards dried in a hot-air closet. This completed, he has his hair cut (not very closely, however), is shaved, if he needs shaving, and appears in the prison dress. It is astonishing how these regulations and the greyish-brown jacket and trousers seem to obliterate the identity of the  [-177-] prisoners to a casual observer. The man who, with full, drooping whiskers and fashionable attire, may even be of distinguished appearance outside, dwindles in Newgate to an uninteresting convict enough. Such of the prisoners as have held a superior station are only easily distinguishable from the rest when they are in the exercise-yard; there they are to be recognised by their manner of walking, which, in the more highly bred men, offers a marked contrast to the slouching gait of the common felon.
   Prisoners before trial or during a remand are of course under somewhat less restraint than those who have been convicted, and unless there is absolute need, for the sake of the general cleanliness, are not compelled to wear the prison dress; they are permitted also to live at their own expense on food of their own choice, within certain limits, but are, of course, restricted in the matter of drink, being allowed, in most cases, only a pint of malt liquor a day. In case of an unusual number of prisoners during the sessions those who await their trial are placed, with some degree of classification, to sleep in the now unused wards, formerly the ordinary sleeping or dining rooms of the old gaol; but care is taken that those who are selected for this liberty are only such as are confined for the less felonious class of offences, and there is little chance of a well-known thief or burglar being able either to corrupt others or to obtain hints by which to contrive further depredations.
   The convict, however, is placed under the complete discipline, and, after his purification, a medical examination, and an interview with the chaplain, is conducted to a cell in one of the corridors, where he is generally set to work at picking oakum. These cells are entered by a stout, painted wooden door, in which an aperture about breast high is closed by a flap which opens downwards from the [-178-] outside, and forms a sort of shelf upon which food is passed in to the prisoner. This arrangement enables the gaoler to look into the cell at any moment without opening the door.
   There are few attempts at escape now; and, although there are no formidable arrangements of bars or iron-studded doors in this part of the prison, it is so regularly watched by the officers, who are constantly in attendance both night and day, that it would be futile to attempt to pass out of the corridor without an alarm, even if the cell-door could be opened.
   Perhaps the most terrible thing about the aspect of the cell itself is its intense and hopeless cleanliness. Everything within it is so bare and spotless that no association of ideas can cling to it or serve to break its blank monotony. The flat walls are whitened so that the print of a thumbnail might be discovered on their unbroken surface. The light from the small high window falls upon nothing that will cast a fanciful shadow. The floor is of asphalte, never washed, but dry-rubbed; firm, but almost noiseless to the tread. The furniture consists of a fixed copper basin for washing, over which stands a water tap, supplied from a separate cistern holding as many gallons of water as may suffice for all purposes of cleanliness and for drinking; a small, square flap of white deal, fastened to the wall by hinges, supported by a movable bracket, and used as a table; a three-legged wooden stool; and a nest of three deal shelves. The prisoner sleeps in a hammock suspended from wall to wall by four hasps, and containing a bed and as many blankets as may be found necessary for comfort. Over the table is a gas jet, protected by a white-painted tin shade, but of course without a tap, the gas being turned on from outside. The hammock is slung before eight o'clock [-179-] at night, at which hour the gas is turned out; and at six o'clock in the morning the prisoner cleans out his cell, the bedding is taken down, folded in regular order, so that it may be inspected at a glance, and packed on the top shelf. The lower shelves contain the tin porringer holding about a quart, a tin plate, a spoon, and a tin knife-sharp iron instruments being forbidden, not so much on account of their being used in any endeavour to escape, but to guard against any momentary temptation to self-injury in that excess of excitement and misery which frequently supervenes immediately after conviction. In one corner of the lower shelf is a Bible, a prayer-book, and some volume for general reading which is supplied from the prison library, and may be changed every day if the prisoner should desire it. It is pleasant to see a volume of a well-known magazine, cheerfully wholesome and amusing in its character, lying there; and indeed this is a merciful-nay, only a just arrangement, when we count the weary hours in which the evildoer is left to wait sitting at his work for the coming of the gaoler who brings his food. The separation of the prisoners is entire, the lock being turned upon them in their cells for the whole day, except during the two hours' exercise in the yard and the three quarters of an hour spent at chapel.
   The chapel itself is as gloomy-looking a place of worship as can be seen anywhere away from the old underground vaults beneath Canterbury Cathedral, and there is the same air of secrecy and suppression pervading it. It occurs to me, even on this week day, with the sun shining outside the walls, that I might have come here to attend some proscribed funeral ceremony, and am brought here in custody by the way of the dark and narrow staircase. The pulpit is of plain dark wood, and the communion-table and [-180-] rails, which stand opposite the pulpit, are black, and evidently but seldom used; a short flight of steps on each side leads to two large galleries screened almost to the ceiling, one of them being occupied by male, the other by female prisoners. About half a dozen seats in the body of the chapel, not unlike the ordinary free seats in churches, are occupied by some of the less secluded prisoners, while a plain Windsor chair, on the right of the pulpit, and almost beneath it, is assigned to those who are sentenced to death. It is a strange and depressing place this chapel of Newgate, awfully solemn when we think of those who compose the congregation-but black, and bare, and dull in itself, suggesting little else than a spiritless hope that its influences maybe more stirring when it is peopled even with prison life. And yet, as day by day the unwearied preacher strives to bring his hearers to repentance, and speaks of a spiritual freedom which shall give liberty to the captive soul, there may be-doubtless are-subtle workings and strong, unspoken agonies of supplication behind those impenetrable screens which may bear good fruit in time. So the sun's rays, struggling through the windows and touching the dull sordid benches, and the blank, unpromising furniture with a golden glory, may be but a type of what is effected there, unknown, perhaps, to him who preaches, but not the less a blessing and an eternal good. While at chapel the prisoners are guarded and constantly overlooked by several officers, and, of course, all attempts to speak to each other are instantly repressed, and, if persisted in, punished. The same regulation is observed in the exercise yards, so that the confinement is only less severe than the solitary system. Indeed, it would seem unbearable were it not to be taken into account that Newgate is only a gaol of detention from which the convicted [-181-] prisoners are removed to the houses of correction or other penal establishments, and that their stay seldom or never exceeds five weeks, and is generally for a shorter period. It may easily be imagined how great may be the influence of the gaolers in occasionally entering the cells and evincing some human sympathy with their wretched inmates. There is reason to believe that this opportunity is mercifully exercised.
   The punishment for unruly prisoners who, after being warned, persist in repeating their offence, is bread and water for a day; or, in refractory cases, the dark cell. These dark cells are situated in the basement, and are the very abodes of blackness--not of dirt and foulness, for they are clean enough and contain a traylike bedstead and a bed, but of darkness which may be felt.
   They open out of a stone room like a cellar, where I see a stone-deaf prisoner chopping wood by gaslight. The doors (for there are two) are about a foot apart; and that which renders the darkness more terrible and oppressive is that not a sound made by the prisoner can be heard outside, and that he is acquainted with this fact. A few minutes, during which I suffer myself to be incarcerated in this cell, convince me that only the most dogged and brute-like prisoners can submit for any length of time to this punishment. I remember that a popular writer, in describing a similar place, represents a highly educated man as arguing from his own experience after voluntary imprisonment, that if he, with all the resources of learning and memory, found it so terrible, it must be much more terrible for the man who had no such resources. I am of opinion that this is not altogether conclusive, since it is the man of active brain and keen susceptibilities who would feel the punishment to be the greatest torment. My own sensations [-182-] were, first, the utter blankness of everything, including my own identity; then an intolerable feeling that one might lose count of time, be forgotten, and yet never lose a horrible consciousness. A few hours are frequently enough to bring a stubborn rebel to submission, but the punishment is continued until there is reason to believe that this effect is produced. Every half hour or so the captive is, not inspected, perhaps, for he is invisible from the outside, but listened for through an opening till he yields, and the governor gives permission to restore him to the light.
   The exercise-yards are situated at various points outside the building, and enclosed between it and the high external walls, some of which, in the older portion, are guarded by enormous iron spikes trenching downwards like barbs, and bristling in all directions.
   In the old time these yards were scenes of profanity, obscenity, and wild riot, which it seemed impossible to check, much more to control. Now they are quiet enough, since, as each detachment of prisoners go out for exercise, they walk apart from each other and under constant surveillance. In one or two of the yards which are near the passages to the prison entrance the prisoners' friends come to speak with them, but they are separated from them by a double row of iron bars some three feet apart. Occasionally, as in the case of condemned criminals or reprieved prisoners, they exercise alone.
   These yards mostly occupy the older portions of the area of the gaol, and adjoin the long wards already mentioned. On the stone staircases leading from these to the building are to be seen certain round iron plates, hanging by pivots to the wall at regular distances, and looking like the tin coverings of peepshow spy-glasses. In effect [-183-] they were the coverings of ancient and terrible spy-holes, through which a show was to be seen which will never be exhibited more. They were the points at which the gaolers of Old Newgate looked into the dark and filthy wards to note the riots of the ruffians who were confined there. Not Infrequently some brutal sentinel would, in his turn, watch for the appearance of an eye at one of these holes, which widen into a square aperture on the room-side, and make a dart at it with a burnt stick or some sharp weapon amidst a yell of groans and curses. Near these yards, too, are the old well-holes, now used as air-shafts for ventilating the lower passages and staircases, and one of the yards leads to the condemned cell.
   Apart from the awful reflections with which they are associated, there is little in the condemned cells to excite the imagination; they are simply two ordinarily sized cells knocked into one, with the substitution of a low wooden bedstead for the usual hammock. The increased size is necessary from the fact that three people occupy the space together--the prisoner and two officers, who watch him day and night until the dreadful end.
   I am led to inquire of my thoughtful guide whether, in his opinion, the fear of capital punishment does deter any who may be prisoners in Newgate from the commission of murder; and learn, as part of his own experience, that convicts who have been brought back from distant penal settlements in the old time for assaults on their officers have acknowledged that they would have completed their murderous work if they had not been certain of hanging.
   In one or two of these cases there seemed to be little remorse for their misdeeds. They conceived that their lives were made a torture by the warders, and that but for [-184-] the gallows they could be in no worse condition by committing a fresh crime.
   Returning to the main building and the lightsome iron corridors, we see one of the prisoners bearing a large square wooden tray, on which is arranged about a dozen porringers of soup, and as many thick slices of bread; this is placed upon a lift, which raises it to the first, second, or third story, as may be required, and the gaolers then take the porringer and a slice of bread and pass them in to each prisoner through the trap in his cell. The dietary scale is--for breakfast,Ż lb. of bread and a pint of gruel; for dinner, on four days in the week, Żlb. of bread, Żlb. of potatoes, and 3 oz. of beef; and on the other three days, Żlb. of bread and a pint of soup containing 3 oz. of beef; supper, the same as breakfast. The prisoners seldom require more food, but frequently feel the loss of the tobacco and beer to which they have been accustomed. Every precaution is used for keeping the inmates of Newgate in health and physical comfort, and the cells are each provided with gratings in the wall, for the respective purposes of drawing off the foul atmosphere and supplying its place either with fresh or warm air, as may be required. In cases of sickness, arising either from mental or physical causes, the prisoner is removed to the infirmary, a long room like a shabby workhouse ward, in another part of the building. Here he is allowed to talk to the other inmates, if there are any, and is placed under medical care and altered diet.
   For any moderately sufficient reason, the prisoners are allowed to see the governor on expressing their desire to do so; and they can at any time summon one of the gaolers by pulling a handle which hangs in their cell and communicates with a large bell outside, whose alarum [-185-] is sufficient to rouse the whole corridor. Lest some of the unruly might ring this bell for their own amusement, however, the ringer is at once identified by a simple contrivance, in the shape of a tin plate, painted with the number of the cell, which, ordinarily lying flat against the wall by the side of their door, is acted upon by a spring released on pulling the bell, and immediately starts out like a semaphore hand to point out the spot from which the summons proceeds.
   One common trick of the prisoners in Newgate is to save a few spoonfuls of their gruel, and, after diluting it from the water tap, to ring for the governor, in order to complain of the bad quality of the food. I learn that this is counteracted by a sample of each day's boiling being kept in reserve, in order to offer a practical contradiction to such ingenious charges, and that many of the prisoners are aware of this arrangement.
   The female side of Newgate resembles the male side in almost every particular, with the addition of a commodious laundry, in which there are stalls, fitted up with sinks, washing-trays, &c., and a row of gigantic coppers, a patent wringing-machine, a great expanse of deal table for folding, and a series of hot-air drying-closets.
   But little now remains to be seen, and the final localities are full of associations too terrible to dwell upon. They are the last scenes upon which the condemned felon looks before he leaves that low black door to die before the walls of Newgate.
   Whence comes the instinctive shiver which creeps over me as I turn in a hitherto untraversed stone passage and emerge into this long dank alley, with the door at the further end leading to the law courts? It is a squalid but yet an awful place, this alley; shut in by the high and [-186-] gloomy walls which seem to moult away their unhealthy surfaces on each side; - paved with uneven flagstones, roofed by heavy iron bars set in the walls on each side, and between which the slow drizzling rain falls on the dingy stones with a heavy, melancholy plash.
   In the wall, on the prison side, are letters roughly cut in the brickwork, at about four feet from the ground - single initials which may mean anything or nothing; they are fraught with awful meaning, however, as are those same irregularities in the flags, where some have sunk away from the rest and slope in contrary directions. I am standing on the graves of felons-murderers who, having been hanged, lie mouldering four feet beneath us, the occasional letter in the wall the only memorial save that in prison records-their name and crime remembered in the "Newgate Calendar;" their bodies, still forfeited to the law, "buried within the precincts of the gaol."
   By this dreadful passage the miserable criminal goes up to the court for trial. A felon convicted and sentenced to death, settled to a dark sullen despair or writhing in an agony of terror, traverses it in his way back to the condemned cell, and so drags his half-palsied limbs over the place already destined to become his grave.
   Retracing my steps towards the entrance lobby of the prison, I am led into a large apartment known as the "bread-room." It resembles a big, bare kitchen, and is fitted with a square deal table and a wide, useful range. Upon this table the prison bread is cut and weighed. There is a small cupboard in this kitchen, where it seems probable (looking from the outside) there are kept a small stock of eatables or dinner requisites.
   But when this door, somewhat to my surprise, is opened, it turns out to be a horrible pantry enough, for in it are [-187-] preserved, handcuffs and several pairs of the old fetters and heavy irons formerly used for criminals. All fetters are abolished in Newgate at the present day, and handcuffs are only used when the prisoners are removed to fulfil their term of penal servitude at other places; but here are the veritable fetters which confined Jack Sheppard-anklets joined by massy iron links, which can either be caught up in the middle between the knees and joined to the chains depending from the handcuffs, or fastened (as was usual) to a ringbolt in the floor of the cell. They weigh altogether 29 lb.; and a facsimile of those which confined Dick Turpin at York Gaol are of the enormous weight of 37 lb. In this ghastly closet, too, is the axe intended for beheading Thistlewood and the Cato Street conspirators, made for that purpose, but never used, as they were ignominiously hanged. Most terrible of all, here hang the straps, belt, and buckles, used to pinion the wretched convict on the morning of his execution. This "bread-room," indeed, is part of his route to the gallows, and he is brought here to be prepared for death. Once more crossing the passage, I stand in the kitchen of Newgate, a common-place looking room, not unlike the furnace-room of a laboratory, as regards the large coppers; certainly not much like an ordinary kitchen, inasmuch as it contains none of the usual adjuncts to the preparation of food, since few culinary utensils are requisite for the ordinary meals. All speculation regarding the real use and ordinary duties of the place, however, are superseded by a revelation which seems, at the moment, truly horrible, and at the same time destroys a long illusion. That awful door, through whose black and narrow portal the wretch condemned to die passes to his tomb - that "dark, frowning, debtors' door" - is none other than the door of the kitchen; and through this room, in which [-188-] a narrow lane is made by means of black drapery which hides the coppers and furnaces, the malefactor pinioned in the "bread-room" walks to death.
   Scarcely staying longer than a minute in the ante-room, close to the lodge, where are kept the casts taken from the dead (though evidently not much distorted) faces, I turn to go; for, slowly and painfully pondering these things, the air of Newgate clogs and stifles with a strange oppression. The figure, which, even in spite of an occasionally assumed bravado, is cowed with trembling horror, gasping till the shoulders work in spasms as it is led slowly onward; the wild imploring tenacity of that final grasp of the gaoler's hand, which is held as though it were felt to be the last remaining spar upon which to keep a moment's hold of life before the final hurling into the awful, fathomless sea beyond; the sickening moment, when the sheriffs recoil behind the drapery, holding their fingers in their ears to stop the sound of the sharp click of the bolt and the thud of the falling trap; the swaying crowd rolling and surging in one awful wave of white upturned faces, all pass before me like an unearthly dream, till I find myself waiting at the grim, spiked door to be let out into the glimpse of sunshine and the morning air.


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