Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - At a Gaol Delivery

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 EXACTLY opposite the prison great gates there is a public-house, and it is a long-established custom with the prisoners, on their discharge from the former, to make for the latter straightway. One might reasonably suppose that they would be anxious to escape with all speed from the neighbourhood of the sombre building that had so tediously held them but it is not so, and for a very substantial reason. It is an understood thing amongst the fraternity that when this particular gaol is delivered of one of them, he shall at once repair to the hotel in question, in certain prospect of there finding a faithful friend or acquaintance, rich enough at least to "stand" comfort for the emancipated to the extent of a pot of beer and a pipe of tobacco.
    I cannot explain how it happens, but as a rule these gaol deliveries are more numerous on a Monday morning than any other of the week. Perhaps there is a rule against the discharge of a prisoner on a Sunday, even though the term of his sentence then expires, and it is the overdue batch that swells the number anyhow, so it is. On a Monday morning you are sure to find some of the faithful, male and female, drinking at the bar and engaged in whispered converse (and oh, so civil to Mr. Landlord!) or shyly peeping through the windows towards "over the way."
    [-239-] Not many Mondays since it was my fortune to be there abouts just at the right time, and I saw emerge from the sullen wicket three young men, an old man, two women, and a small boy. The women, who were scarcely so in years, but who in vice were aged almost to decrepitude, burst out laughing as soon as they were on the free side of the threshold, one of them turning and making an impudent gesture at the grim gate-keeper with his keys. The old man, who was dressed in seedy black, was evidently not one of the hardened sort, for he pulled his hat over his eyes in shame, and hung his head lest honest people should see and recognize him, and, buttoning his thread-bare coat, shuffled off at a half trot. As for the three young men, "petty thief" was written unmistakably in every line of their features, in every movement of their lithe limbs. It is doubtful if they had ever seen each other before or exchanged so much as a nod of greeting, but coming out at the gate they flocked together instinctively, as do all birds of a feather, looking neither pleased nor sorry nor more ashamed than if oakum-picking were ordinary journeyman's labour and they were journeymen coming from the workshop and going over the way to drink a half-pint of beer for lunch. It is much more difficult to describe how looked and behaved the last prisoner of the batch-the small boy. He was wretchedly clad, and the morning air was keen; but he had a clean face, and such good looks as he possessed appeared to advantage. He was a sharp-eyed, keen-looking boy, not with a ill-shapen head, as might easily be judged since his brown hair was cropped close, and he wore no cap to speak of. I should guess his age to be about fourteen but it is difficult in such cases to judge of years from physiognomy - a hard-faced boy, with a thin-lipped, resolute-looking mouth. As he emerged from the prison, coming after the three young men before mentioned, he was evidently at a loss, The three young men walked slowly, and the small boy seemed of a mind to join them, at [-240-] the same time being painfully conscious that his extreme youth was against him, and that to attempt to do so might be regarded as an act of presumption, and be so resented. So in the twinkling of an eye the small boy clapped two years on his age. He shifted the peak of his old cap so that it tilted with a rakish and devil-may-care bang over his left ear, and plunging both his hands into the pockets of his monstrously too big trowsers, he quickened his pace and came up with the veteran trio. He did not speak-he merely kept step with them, and looked as though he wanted to be sociable. Presently one of the three made a little joke, and his friends laughed, as did the small boy. This brought matters to a climax. The youngest of the companionship, with a close cropped carroty head and a most villanous countenance, paused in his laughter, and regarded the poor cringing little beggar sternly. "You can hook it," said he, which, rendered into polite language, is equivalent to "Go away; we don't want you. "It was just outside the prison boundary where this heartless cut was given, and there was nothing to be done but for the snubbed and rejected small boy to sneak off, while the three young men crossed over to the public-house, following in the wake of the two impudent young women.
    Two other young women, brazen-faced, sluttish wenches, were in readiness to receive their female friends - nay, soon as the impudent ones were descried stepping out at the gate opposite a half-pint of gin was called for, and two brimming glasses of it poured out for the released prisoners. Why it appeared strange, almost startling, that these four women should kiss each other, is hard to explain. That they should toss down their glasses of gin with the dexterity of drunken cobblers seemed not nearly so unnatural. "And how have you been doin'?" asked one of the recently liberated or she who had paid for the gin. " Rubbin' on; much about the old style," was the reply, accompanied by a significant shrug of the [-241-] shoulders. The old style was a very deplorable one, if it might be judged by the speaker's personal appearance. Compared with it, that of the two women just set free was far preferable ; for whereas the one was dirty and famished and gin-soddened, the others were sleek and plump and wholesome-looking which is, of course, incontestihle proof of the salutary working of the law, and should be an inducement to irresolute folks not to stand shilly-shally between crime and honesty, but to embrace the former at once and so ensure those rewards that the friendly, though seemingly severe, hand of the law holds out.
    The three young men in the adjoining compartment facing the bar were not friendless. Succour for them appeared in shape of three male friends and one elderly female, who was shedding tears of rejoicing on the shoulder of the carroty-haired individual before mentioned. An unnatural brute! "That's twice I got a light for my pipe, and you've made it go out ; why the 'ell can't yer leave a cove alone?" was his ungrateful response to the old lady's third demonstration of grandmotherly affection. It. was singular to watch the avidity with which all three of them fell to smoking tobacco. Even the beer measure was neglected for it, and the wrapt enjoyment with which each of the young men took long and steady pulls at their pipes was denoted by their lazily blinking eyes. It is always so, I was informed. A deprivation of spirits and beer a prisoner may grow resigned to, and have no great yearning for when he obtains his liberty; but his passion for smoking is unconquerable, and towards gratifying it his ingenuity is boundless. The friends of prisoners who have visited them, although rigorously searched before they are permitted to approach the gate through which the conversation must be held, have been known to evade the prison rifles by carrying in their mouth a neatly rolled "quid," and deftly shooting it through the bars should the warder's attention be for an instant withdrawn. Tobacco so [-242-] obtained, a prisoner, having somehow become master of a lucifer match, has been discovered smoking as a cigarette, a bit of paper or rag forming the envelope-having first of all, with infinite pains and no little peril, climbed up to the ventilator in his cell, so that the tell-tale smoke might not lead to his detection. A more extraordinary instance than this of a prisoner's passion for tobacco was given me by an officer attached to Portland Prison. Somehow a bit of tobacco and a pipe were smuggled in in a manner that made it the joint-stock property of three of the convicts, and it was treasured until there transpired a fair opportunity for its enjoyment. At last the long-looked for time for the treat arrived, and then came the question how was the luxury to be fairly shared. One suggested six whiffs each till the pipe was exhausted, but he was a strong- lunged villain, and his device was at once seen through-it was clear that he could "pull " as much smoke in his six whiffs as could the others in ten. It was a nice point to decide, but presently one of the party, whose ingenuity somewhat exceeded his delicacy, hit on the exact thing. Two straws were procured, and possession of the precious pipe was tossed for. This preliminary settled, the trio sat down, and the pipe was lit, the holder of it taking in his lips one of the straws as well as the pipe-stem. The other end of this straw the second man took in his rnouth, as well as a tip of the third straw, at the further extremity of which sat the third man. Then the treat began. The man with the pipe took a whiff, enjoyed the mouthful of smoke awhile, and then carefully blew it through the straw into the mouth of the second man, who, after taking toll of it, passed it on through the straw to the third man, who, in consideration of what virtue the tobacco might have lost, coming to him, as it did, at third hand, was permitted to swallow it - a precaution rendered necessary lest the warder should get scent of the prohibited indulgence.
    To return, however, to my uncaged gaol-birds. Having dis-[-243-]posed of their half-pint of gin, and of a quartern more, the four women went their way, and the hunger of the three young men for tobacco becoming somewhat assuaged, they went in for beer-drinking, all excepting the grandmother, who, finding her tender regards repulsed, was silently weeping in a quartern of rum, which for her consolation she had ordered; so, foreseeing that matters were in a groove in which they were likely for some time to remain, I took my departure. Having gained the street, however, the first object that my eyes encountered was the disconsolate small boy, whom the young men had so unfeelingly slighted. Round about the prison are posts connected by hanging chains, and on one of these latter he was sitting, idly swinging his feet.
    "What are you doing here? Why don't you go away ?" I asked him.
    "Why don't I go away to where ?" he replied, eyeing me suspiciously.
    "Home; you've got a home, I imagine. What were you doing before you were sent to prison ?"
    "I warn't a doin' no harm to you, anyways, afore I were sent to prison," he answered, after a considerable pause; "what call have you got to ask ? I can get off these yer chains if they're yourn." And so saying he disdainfully swung clown.
    "It is no business of mine where you sit or why you are waiting," I remarked " but if you will take my advice you will avoid the company of those fellows you parted from when they went into the public-house. It is easy enough to see what they are."
    He laughed. "What am I then, mister, since you are so good at seein' ?" he asked.
    "I can't tell you what you have been, but I can tell you what you now are.''
    "Tell us.''
    "A boy free to be honest if he chooses, and to learn to forget what the inside of a prison is like."
    [-244-] "I don't want to forget it; it's the most comfortable crib as ever I was in. I wish I'd a got three months stead of three weeks. I'll do summut wot'll make it hot for me next time, no fear."
    "It is very shocking to hear a child like you talking so."
    "Child! That'll do, mister. Don't you make no bother about me. I shall be all right when I find somebody to pal in with. That's the wust on it. I don't know nobody, like another cove."
    "Have you no father ?"
    "No mother ?"
    "Oh, how do I know? Don't you make no bother about me, I tell you."
    "What has become of your companions ?" I asked at a venture.
    "Inside here," he replied, with an envious glance towards the prison ; "all three on 'em got four months, and I got six weeks; and I was the wust. Never mind ; don't you make no bother about me, I'm all right."
    "Do you mean to say that you have resolved to remain a thief ?"
    "I mean to say that I ain't a-goin' without grub."
    "But why not work for it honestly? You are compelled to work in prison."
    "I ain't got no trade."
    "Would you like to learn a trade? If I were to endeavour to get you admittance to a reformatory, would you -"
    "No, I wouldn't," he interrupted, with an emphatic wag of his head ; " no reformatories for me, thanky ! Four 'ear 'ard labour to learn to be a snob! Don't you make no bother about me, I'm all right." And to show it he dexterously threw a summerset over the post chains.
    "How are you going to get a dinner?" I asked him.
    [-245-] "Sell these yer boots," he answered readily. They were coarse new boots, provided, as I suppose, by the prison authorities.
    "Don't do so. I will give you half-a-crown on one condition - that you will promise to think of what I have told you and keep your hands free from dishonesty until you have spent it fairly in lodging and food."
    "Oh, I'll promise that, mister, and jolly glad to do it. I won't do a wrong thing till the 'arf crown's gone, swelp me Gord I won't ; there. Give us hold."
    "And you'll be off at once away from the men in the public-house there?"
    "Yes; I'll do that too."
    I gave him the half-crown, and he received it with such hearty thanks that I was quite hopeful of him. Moreover, he walked away with a manner as determined as though nothing short of violence would induce him to return ; but when I had proceeded a quarter of a mile on my way, happening to look back, there I saw him hanging about the door of the public-house, where I have no doubt my half-crown secured him a welcome at the hands of the carroty-haired one and his friends.