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THREE YEARS OF PENAL SERVITUDE.
IT is not necessary for me to tell my name, the exact nature of the offence
of which I was convicted, or the precise date of the conviction. I may say,
however, and the reader may take it as truth - as indeed he may every line that
is here printed - that up to the time when I was arrested I never before in my
life knew what that sort of trouble was - never was locked up for so long as a
single night, or saw the inside of a station-house cell.
How my misfortune came about is easy enough to explain. I was a young man, and I lodged away from home and I liked to do as other young men, go about a bit of evenings to see a play, or hear a song along with two or three mates employed at our firm, and young fellows like myself. That led to my picking up a sweetheart - a thorough good girl - and we kept company. She worked in the day, and had her evenings, and of course I took her out. Then the game that cost me three years' liberty began. My wages were only eighteen shillings a week, and out of that I paid twelve for board and lodging and washing, so that there was only six left for clothes, going out, tobacco, and everything. I won't state the nature of the goods our firm dealt in, but half a crown's worth might easily be stowed in the waistcoat-pocket, and in a manner of speaking you were free to help yourself out of thousands of pounds' worth.
[-32-] The young woman just mentioned was very respectable, and dressed well ; and so was I well-dressed, and, as she thought, respectable too. I went on courting her honourable, and from the first meaning to marry her, but I didn't have the pluck to tell her how small my wages were. If I had it would have opened her eyes at once, so I kept it dark, and by-and-by we got married, and still I didn't tell her how much I got a week. I asked her what she thought she could do comfortably with, and she said she thought she could do with a guinea if I bought my own tobacco and beer. "Very well," I says, "then it shall be a guinea a week, my dear."
That was three shillings more than I was earning, and of course it had to be made up, and I needn't again mention how, and things went on pretty comfortable (barring the thought that would at times come across me of the kick-up there would if I should be found out) for a year. We had two rooms nicely furnished (for Jenny was a beautiful little manager) and come the time a baby was born-a boy it was. That seemed the beginning of the down-hill. Everything was more expensive, she was ill a longish time, and the firm suffered. I was wretched for weeks and weeks before the blow-up came, and in my own mind was not at all surprised when on leaving the warehouse one evening a man whom I knew in an instant, in spite of his private clothes, taps me on the shoulder and says, "I want a word with you, young man. Just step in here."
Into the counting-house that was, and when I got in who should be there but two of my mates, looking as white as death, and sitting on two of the office-stools with handcuffs on. "Shall I search you, or will you hand over all that doesn't belong to you that you have in your pockets?" said the detective. So where was the use of having a word to say for myself? I pulled out what I had in my waistcoat-pocket, and something else that I had folded up in my neck-handkerchief; and laid them on the table. "Is that all ?" said the young governor, who was there [-33-] all the time. "That is all, sir," answered the plain-clothes man (who, it afterwards came out, had been watching us since the morning, and knew what goods we had taken and how we had disposed of them). "Very well; take them away, and I will be at the station presently to make the charge," said the young governor, who naturally was very savage and spiteful.
Well, the charge was entered, we were locked up, and next morning taken before the magistrate and committed for trial - all of which I will pass over, as well as the trial itself, and "the evidence of the prosecutor" and his witnesses, and the address of the lawyers in their wigs to the judge (for Jane's father was kind enough to find me a lawyer), and the finding of a verdict of guilty by the jurymen. I had quite made up my mind to be brought in guilty, and to be sent to prison for some time. Six months was the term that had somehow got into my head, and all the time the jury were making up their minds I was reckoning what time o' year it would be six months to come, and found that it wouldn't be far off of Christmas. "I'll begin the new year by turning over a new leaf, I'm blessed if I don't," I thought.
But there was something of a surprise in store for me and for the missus, too, poor thing (for she was in the court with the boy in her arms). I'm as certain as certain can be that of the three who were being tried there wasn't a pin's point to choose between us; we were much of an age, our wages the same, our opportunities for pilfering the same, and our inclination to avail ourselves of them as like as peas in a pod. But somehow the judge had got a notion that I was the worst of the lot, chiefly, I believe, because I had been longest in the employ of the firm. His sentence showed it. One of my mates nine months' hard labour, the other twelve months, and me three years' penal servitude. P'r'aps it might be easy enough to make out that I deserved it, but I do think if the judge had said I was to be hanged by the neck till I was dead, [-34-] I shouldn't have been more thunderstruck. There was some sort of noise and bustle just about where the missus was standing with the boy when the judge named my term, but I had no time to see what it was.
Just outside the dock there was a gaoler, and he instantly let us out, and separating me from the other two, marched me through some passages, and when he got to some steps that led down to the cells, he called out my name and the length of my sentence, and handed me over to another gaoler. Mine wasn't at all dirty work, and I always wore a decent suit of black clothes. Now, however, I had to take them off. "Strip," said the warder, and when I had taken off everything he gave me a gray suit, consisting of a jacket, waistcoat, and trousers, and a sort of Glengarry cap, and a pair of woollen stockings; but he allowed me to keep my boots, and as soon as I had put on the gray suit, he made a bundle of the clothes I had taken off, pinned a ticket to them, and threw them into a cupboard then he led the way to a cell, unlocked the door of it, and pushed me in. And all so quickly, that from the time when my wife saw rue in my own clothes till when I was in a prison suit and in a Newgate cell, if she walked home, she could hardly have got as far as Blackfriars Bridge.
Knowing nothing about prison cells, I thought the one I found myself in the most wretched place that could be imagined. It was a very little place, with a window with an iron grate before it, and lime-washed walls, and a floor of asphalte. There were two shelves in the cell, one to Stow the hammock away in the daytime, and the other to accommodate a tin pannikin, a copper bowl, a wooden spoon, and a wooden saltcellar, a piece of soap, and a brush-the soap, though I don't know for what reason, being carried away at night and returned the next morning. Besides the furniture mentioned, there was a stool and a wooden flap hinged to the wall and propped with an iron crutch that served as a table. The hammock was a comfort-[-35-]able thing enough, and there were two sheets and two blankets. By-the-by, I mustn't forget the books - three in number - a Bible, a Prayer-book, and a Hymn-book, ranged in a row with the copper bowl and the other things.
It was half-past two when I was locked in, and at five the warder brought me a pint of gruel and a good slice of bread for my supper. "Make the most of it," said he " you'll get no more till the morning." But he needn't have troubled on that score. I was too stunned yet awhile, and too heart-sick to think about eating and drinking. I had never made a bed in my life - and how I made that one in that awkward hammock, how I got into it and passed my first night in Newgate, isn't worth while to dwell on when there's so much more to be told.
At half-past six next morning the prison bell rang for getting up, and as soon as I was dressed a warder opened a little trap in the door, and put through into my cell a small brush and a dustpan, at the same time telling me to make my place tidy, and when I had swept up, and folded away my hammock on the shelf; he brought me a piece of cloth and told me to polish the floor, which, as before mentioned, was of asphalte, and would take a sort of shine if rubbed long enough. When that job was done, my day's work was brought to me, consisting of a pound and a quarter of oakum. Along with the oakum was an iron hook, with a strap to it, and this was to fasten to the knee to help tear the tarred rope, which is as tough almost as catgut. A pound and a quarter does not seem much, and it doesn't look much - a piece as thick as a man's wrist and as long as his hand would weigh a pound I should say - but a pound and a quarter of it to a man whose fingers are as soft as a woman's, and who hasn't the least idea how to go about it, is a tremendous day's work. I knew that for the first four or five days I was at work on it from morning till night, with my nails broken and my fingers bleeding, and [-36-] even then it was not done so well as it should have been - at least, so the warder said when he came to "weigh it away." The oakum is weighed after picking as well as before, a slight allowance being made for dust and waste - a precaution that seems unnecessary, only that (and I don't think I before mentioned it) there is a water-closet in the cell, and it would he easy to stow some of it there.
For breakfast I got one pint of gruel and a half-pound of bread - both very good. Then a bit of work till ten o'clock, when the chapel bell rang, and we were filed out and marched to chapel, where we heard a chapter read out of the Bible and a hymn sung, and then marched back to the cells again. At twelve o'clock dinner was brought, which I may as well here mention consisted, three days out of the seven, of a pint of meat soup and half-pound of bread, and the other four days of four ounces of meat and a pound of potatoes. During the day one hour's exercise in the yard is allowed - that is, you walk round and round with the rest unceasingly for an hour. At five o'clock, supper, as before mentioned.
After a man's conviction one visitor is allowed, and, if necessary, you may write a letter to the friend you wish to come and see you. The prison authorities find you in note-paper and an envelope, though if a man wanted to write to a relation who moved in respectable society lie would much rather be allowed to find his own writing materials, since those that are provided for you are stamped " Gaol of Newgate" in black printed letters both on the paper and the envelope. I of course had a friend come to see me - poor little woman! She had found out all about it by this time, all about the small wages I had always had, and the rest of it; and p'r'aps being fond of each other, she found more excuse for me than I deserved. She would have given something considerable, I'll wager, to have got close enough to shake hands. But there is no shaking hands between Newgate prisoners and their friends. There is [-37-] a grated door and a cross-passage about six or eight feet from it, and in this passage your visitor stands along with a warder. That's how I saw my wife that day, looking through the iron grating, and that's bow she saw me. For her sake, I was sorry that she came at all, and for my sake, too, for that matter, though I suppose it all went to make up the punishment I deserved, but never till it was my good luck to see it again could I get her woful face out of my sight, as I saw it that afternoon. It was worse to me than the oakum-picking, the knowledge that I was a convict-everything.
One day is so much like another in a gaol that I need not describe day by day the time I spent at Newgate. I was a month in that prison, and began to wonder if they meant keeping me there altogether, when one morning I was made aware that something unusual was about to take place, for they brought me no oakum to pick, and the breakfast made its appearance at least twenty minutes earlier than was common. But I was not kept long in suspense. Immediately after breakfast I was led from my cell to a great room, where were a goodish number of prisoners already, and a warder was busy taking handcuffs and anklets out of a canvas bag, and fitting them on to the prisoners wrists and ankles. Then I heard it whispered that we were going to Millbank. At first I wondered why some men were coupled two and two by the leg, a chain about as thick as a trace chain connecting them; but I think I found the reason in the fact that we were taken away in the ordinary police van, which has a passage up its middle and a range of boxes on each side, each one big enough to hold a man; but there were too many of us for the boxes, and some were crowded into the passage as well. We in the passage were leg-ironed, my companion having been a clerk to the secretary to a public company, as lie himself told us.
Our clothes (the private ones that were taken from us and bundled and ticketed, when we were convicted I mean) were [-38-] taken in the van with us, and as soon as we got to Millbank (which of all prisons it has been my misfortune to enter is by far the most appalling), we were stripped of our Newgate clothes and our irons, which the Ncwgate warders took back with them. Then we were bathed, and a Millbank suit was provided for each. It is a rather peculiar suit, consisting of a striped shirt, a snuff-coloured jacket and trousers, broadly striped with red, and a pair of red-ribbed woollen stockings, a pair of shoes, a cotton neckerchief, and ditto pocket. Nothing about the clothes, however, was so peculiar as their smell. They were new clothes, or very nearly, and were made of common coarse cloth, but the smell that arose from them was one that I never before or since have met with. It was pungent at the same time that it was sickening, and it seemed to fly off in a sort of dust, and lay on your lips and nostrils. If at any time - which the Lord forbid - I should be fool enough to think of jeopardizing my liberty again, just a sniff of those prison clothes would bring me to my senses sooner than anything.
The cell in which I was placed was smaller than the Newgate cell, but.not half so comfortable-looking. The floor was bare flagstones, and against the wall was suspended the rules of the prison. Furniture - a small four-legged table, slop tub, with lid to it, that serves as a seat, hammock, as at Newgate, with an addition to bed-clothes in the shape of a rug, a new Bible, Prayer-book, and Hymn-book, and a stick painted one end red and the other end black. This last was a puzzler, until I was told its use. In the wall, at the corridor side, was a narrow slit, and when you wanted anything you thrust your stick through the slit and kept it there till it happened to catch the eye of the warder on duty. If he saw the black end out, he knew that you wanted work, if the red end, that your wants were of a personal nature.
In the course of the day the barber came and shaved off what little whiskers I had, and cut my hair close. If a Mill-[-39-]bank prisoner is any trade that can be made useful in the prison he is set at it, but men of no trade are put to mat-making and tailoring (and they know all about that without asking, since a record of your trade, crime, and conviction, together with every antecedent that may affect you as a prisoner, attends you to every prison after leaving Newgate). I was no trade, and by-and-by the master tailor brought me a pair of blue serge trousers, already cut out, and some needles and thread, and showed me how to stitch the seams; and I was kept to work at tailoring all the time I was there, which, I am happy to say, was not long, the batch of which I was one remaining at Millbank only until some men were drafted off from Pentonville to Portland to make room. The horrible gloom of the place made it so terrible. The victuals was neither bad nor scanty. At breakfast you got a pint of cocoa and what I should think was fully three-quarters of a pound of bread; at dinner a pint of soup, five ounces of meat, and a pound of potatoes ; and at supper a pint of gruel and a slice of bread. The knife allowed at dinner was a tin knife and no fork. You can neither stab a warder with a tin knife nor use it as a pick-lock, though it is quite sharp enough to sever the meat, boiled to rags as it is at Millbank. The work was not particularly hard. You might almost take your own time at the tailoring, and all else you had to do was to exercise for an hour about the crank that raises the water to the upper cisterns of the prison; a quarter of an hour at pumping, and a quarter at marching up and down, off and on. But, as I said before, it is such a terribly gloomy place - gloomy walls, gloomy faces, gloomy silence, nothing but gloom from bell-ring in the morning till bell-ring at night. It was almost like escaping to actual liberty when one evening, after three weeks at Millbank, I got a hint that in the morning I formed one of a gang going to Pentonville.
The first step towards my transfer from Millbank was not of a sort to impress me favourably with my prospects. After an [-40-] early breakfast we were brought out of the cells and each fitted with a "bracelet," the lock of which was a sort of cap through which was a hole. As we stood in rows of ten, with the handcuff on, a chain was threaded through the hollow caps and secured at the ends-not a very stout chain, but quite strong enough for the purpose.
As though to make amends, however, for this degradation, our conveyance was not the prison van, but a genteel private omnibus, with covered seats. Being chained together, we could not enter and take our seats like ordinary omnibus passengers, but the leading man entering the bus on the right-hand walked right round it and finally took his seat next the door on the left-hand side, the rest of course following, and taking their seats in order. A warder sat inside with us, and there was another outside as conductor; it was a beautiful sunny morning, and quite a treat to look out through the windows, and see all the life and bustle of the streets, people going where they liked, and laughing and talking, and smoking comfortable pipes some of them, which last, to a man who has never missed his half an ounce of tobacco a day until two months ago he was shut out from it, is a much more tantalizing sight to witness than might be imagined.
Soon as we reached Pentonville we were again stripped and bathed, a suit of clothes lying ready for each bather. The clothes were as nearly as possible like those of Millbank, but the cell in which I presently found myself was more cheerful looking than the one at Millbank, and more resembled that at Newgate, with the additional convenience of a drawer fixed under one of the shelves. By-the-way, I should have mentioned that after bathing, and before dressing, the doctor made his appearance and thoroughly examined me, and asked me just the same sort of questions as I have heard that they ask people who go to insure their lives. Nor are they at Pentonville more careless about your education than your bodily [-41-] health. The very first visitor that came to my cell was the schoolmaster, who sounded me as to the extent of my scholastic knowledge, and shortly afterwards supplied me with two books of arithmetic, a geography, a dictionary, an atlas, and a slate and pencil; which, with the Bible, and Prayer-book, and Hymn-book brought with me from Millbank, made quite a show, ranged on my shelf. Beside these books, if you behave as you ought, you are allowed to borrow one from the school library, the library books being of the "Leisure Hour" and "Sunday at Home" kind. I had but one half-day at school in a week, but there were some - the most ignorant - who had two half-days. The prison chapel is used as the school-room, and the same rule as regards keeping silence towards each other is observed as rigidly there as in every other part of the prison. There are two warders on duty in the school-room, perched in something like pulpits, so that they can see all about them. But they cannot stop talking entirely either in the school or in chapel; at the latter place especially it is indulged in. The prisoners sit in gangs all in a row of a dozen or so, every prisoner having a space of about six feet between himself and. his neighbour, a warder being attached to each gang to see that order is kept. Some of the old hands, however, are too knowing for him. Long practice has taught them how to talk without moving their lips, and it is not uncommon to see the warder in command staring his hardest along the row and scrutinizing the face of every man with a most perplexed face of his own. He is certain that talking in an undertone is going on. He can hear the mysterious sounds, but every face is to the right and every eye devoutly fixed on the parson. There was one warder, however, who was particularly acute in detecting the talkers, instantly pouncing on them and conducting them back to their cell for punishment. It was understood amongst us that the warder in question had made the discovery that although it was possible to [-42-] utter sounds more or less intelligible without moving the lips, there were certain muscles in the region of the ear that could not be kept still during the process, and that keeping a sharp look-out for this tell-tale led to his success.
The food at Pentonville is very fair both as to quantity and quality. You get beef and mutton on alternate days, with enough bread and vegetables; and cocoa for breakfast and gruel for supper. The labour is performed in the privacy of your own cell, and if you don't know a trade they teach you one. They taught me shoemaking. I never made much of a fist at it; firstly, I suppose, because it was a trade into which I could never get my heart; and, secondly, because the work I had to practise on was of a particularly plain and unfashionable kind. But, if I may be permitted to express an opinion on the subject, I may say that I consider it a great advantage and privilege to be allowed to work when in prison at some trade free men work at. It saves you from sinking as low in your value of yourself as when you are set at spending an entire day at tearing a lot of tarred rope in pieces, all the while knowing that a machine would do the work in five minutes or less. Of course I can't answer for other men, but I can for myself; and although I always detested shoemaking, when I saw my "seat," all ready prepared for me, with a regular set of honest, hardworking tools ready to my hand, I felt more grateful than I could have expressed.
Nor is your work altogether unprofitable to you as regards wages. For the first six months - until, indeed, as I suppose, they think you know your trade - you get no remuneration at all: but after six months you get pay - sixpence a week if you are simply industrious, and eightpence if you are classed with the first grade, and known as very industrious. There is a third grade - the idle grade. Every day a mark is set against the names of the idle ones, and after these have been allowed a certain amount of rope, as the saying is, they are taken [-43-] before the governor, who on a first charge simply warns them; if they continue idle, the effects of a week of bread and water is tried on them. There is another good thing, besides coming to be a wages man, that happens at the end of six months - for the first time since leaving Millbank he is allowed to see a visitor. I needn't mention the name of the visitor that came to see me.
You get a clean shirt and stockings and neckerchief once a week at Pentonville, and a clean flannel shirt and drawers once a fortnight. A bath once a fortnight. For exercise you are allowed to tramp round a circle made of paving stones in the yard. There are three circcles, one within the other, with warders outside and within the circles, and you go round and round for an hour. At one time, in order to be sure that every man kept at a proper distance from his neighbour, there was a rope long enough and with knots in it at equal distance; while he was taking his walk, each convict held one of these knots in his hand, and it was the warder's duty to see that the rope through its whole extent was kept "taut." In wet weather you get no exercise in Pentonville, and sometimes when it sets in for a long spell of rain - the weather being always dull and heavy at such times - you have a rather miserable time of it. However, all get exercise when it is possible - even the refractory ones do who are condemned to the dark cells. There is a sort of round-house, divided into sections, with partitions too high to be overlooked, and up and down this "chicken-walk," as it is called, this class of prisoner tramps his allotted time in company of two warders.
There are certain inducements held out to the well-behaved three years' man, for which a prisoner with a longer sentence is not eligible. On certain mornings a "cleaners party," composed of prisoners, is mustered and taken down to the apartments of the prison officers to scrub, and clean windows, and make matters neat and tidy. I needn't say that every such party is accompanied by a sufficient number of warders. Even when [-44-] one of a "party," you must not say a single word to any one else, except it is to a warder to ask directions about this or that. But although this of course is regarded as a rare treat, there is another "party" to be preferred to that of the cleaners, and that is the "cook-house association," or in other words, a number of prisoners told off to assist in the cook-house. Here you may talk without much restraint, and besides come in for odd luxuries in the way of tit-bits and crackling, rarely to be found in your regular meat rations.
I remained at Pentonville through eight months, earning 4s. 6d. during the last nine weeks of that time, which was put down to my account. My school-books were examined on the eve of our removal, and if it had appeared that any of them had been injured beyond fair wear, the damage would have been deducted from my 4s. 6d. My other books - the Bible, Prayer-book, and Hymn-book - I made a parcel of; that they might accompany me to Portland, for that was the next prison to which we were drafted. Once more came the early breakfast that invariably marked a "moving day." After that we were paraded and examined, and decent garments substituted for those that had grown shabby, in order, I suppose, that we might make a respectable appearance as travellers, and not discredit Pentonville; it could have been nothing else, since the respectable clothes were only for our wear on the journey, and were taken away when we reached Portland.
It was a bitter cold and frosty morning when, chained as we were when going from Millbank to Pentonville, we rode in private omnibuses to the railway station and took train for Weymouth. Every man carried with him a little bag containing some bread and a quarter of a pound of cheese for refreshment on the road, and there went with us as well a biggish can of water, that we might not go thirsty. Once started on our journey, I was aware of the sort of companions I might reckon on when I got to Portland. I had mixed with similar gangs [-45-] to that which I now made one of, but they were bound to be quiet and well-behaved; now, however, that their tongues were loosened, they seemed determined to make up for lost time. There were armed warders in charge of us, but they were no check on the laughter and swearing and singing. "Look here, lads," said the warders, "keep it going just as you like, but draw it mild when we come to a station." They promised that they would, but the mildest that they drew it was tremendously strong, and must have considerably astonished respectable passengers who happened to hear it.
We reached Weymouth between two and three o'clock, and, still chained, entered other omnibuses we found in readiness for us, and drove away to Portland. Portland Prison is on top of a hill, and the public works cover the surrounding slopes. It was quite a long drive before we reached the prison gates.
If I disliked the outside of Portland Prison, I found its interior even less inviting. It is a second Millbank, making up in chill and bleakness what it lacks in gloom. Here for the first time I found myself a branded convict. We were stripped and bathed, and a Portland suit was laid before each. This was the suit - a pair of moleskin trousers stamped all over with staring red "Ps," a jacket ditto, a blue "slop" striped with red, a black japanned hat adorned in the same manner, a cotton pocket and neckerchief, a flannel shirt and drawers, a pair of thick worsted stockings, a pair of stout hobnailed boots, and a pair of light shoes.
Being winter time, it was growing dusk when I was shown to what was to be my "home" for a year and a half. It was a frightfully dismal-looking little den, and like nothing so much as a dog-kennel on a largish scale. Its dimensions were, as nearly as I can call them to mind, about seven feet high, eight long, and four broad. Its sides and roof were of corrugated iron, and its floor slate. With the frost increasing as night approached it was enough to make one's teeth chatter to look in.
[-46-] My privilege, however, extended beyond looking in, and when the bolt was shot on me I had opportunity to take inventory of my furniture. Zinc entered into it considerably. There was a zinc washing bowl, a ditto water jug, &c., and a candlestick (there is no gas in the Portland cells). Beside these, there was a tin plate, an iron spoon, a tin pint-pot, a pair of snuffers, a wooden salt-cellar, a little box with brickdust and rubbing rags, and a small hearth-broom. The hammock was the same as elsewhere, with two blankets, two sheets, and a rug. Not a bad allowance of bed-clothing, it may be said ; but still, the place was frightfully cold. This I found to be the universal complaint, though I believe nine men out of every ten went to bed in their flannels. It was impossible to get warm. The corrugated iron seemed full of deadly-cold damp, and everything that touched it took the same quality and kept it. Necessity is the mother of invention, and after I had been there a little time, I contrived "a foot-warmer." They are not stingy in the matter of candle at Portland, and, since there is nothing to burn in a man's cell but his bed and himself, not so strict as to lights and fires as at the other prisons. At eight o'clock the bell rings "lights out," and you are supposed at once to extinguish your candle, but it is possible to "dowse" it by placing the zinc washing bowl over it so that the light cannot be seen from the outside. There you have your foot warmer at once. The flame of the candle speedily makes the zinc so hot that you cannot hold your hand against it. Then you place it between the blankets at the foot of your hammock, and you are tolerably sure of warm toes at least till you fall asleep.
"Early to bed and early to rise" is the maxim at Portland, though, by-the-by, and as I discovered on the very first night of my imprisonment there, that early to bed does not of necessity mean early to sleep, for want of companionship. The walls of the cells, though of iron, are not very thick, and [-47-] scarcely had I laid down in my hammock when a gentle "tap, tap," close to my head gave me notice that a neighbour would like a few words with me. I put my mouth to the wall and whispered, "What do you want?" on which my neighbour (an old burglar, as I afterwards found, and now undergoing five years for a murderous assault) kindly inquired how I liked myself by this time, and where I came from, and what I was there for. His hope was that I might have come from his neighbourhood (he was a London man), and possibly be able to give him some information concerning his pals; but after a few questions he found that I could tell him nothing that interested him, and so he bade me good-night. Then my neighbour on the other side gave a tap, and with him my conversation lasted longer. He informed me that he had only five months longer to serve, and comforted me with the assurance that I should find it a little hell at first but would soon grow used to it.
I dare say it was eleven o'clock before I got to sleep, and at five o'clock the bell rang for getting up. It was, of course, quite dark, but as soon as I had turned out there came a knock at my door, and there were two men who carried a tub between them and some candles and a light. The light was to ignite your candle (they give you a fresh one if the last has burnt out), and the tub was for the reception of your slops. I may here mention that out of every convict "party" (distinguished by a number or a letter, and located in a part of the prison known by the same) there are always two who have an especially unpleasant time of it. The office falls on every man in his turn, and lasts for a week. The pair whose turn it is are the servants of the "party." They go round with the slop tub in the morning, they fetch up the great cans for gruel or cocoa, and they carry up the dinners - and all in the time they would otherwise have to themselves. The part of the prison where our gang was, was four long flights of stairs from the basement, [-48-] and it was no joke to toil up them with a load three or four times in your dinner hour.
When you get your light from the tub men, and the cell door is open, you take the opportunity to hang your tin pot on the outside handle, and stand your tin plate on edge just outside. Then, when you have "tidied up" a bit, your breakfast is brought, and your door being unlocked, you find on the floor a 12 oz. loaf and a pint of cocoa. At half-past six the chapel bell rings. The first morning of my going to chapel it was clear and frosty, with a bright moon, and it was a rather curious sight to see the candle-light within the cheerless place, and the moon without, and the breath coining out of the parson's mouth in a cloud, like tobacco smoke. The service lasted only half an hour, however, and then we were marched back to prepare for work.
And here I may mention a very simple way they have at Portland of telling whether a man is within his cell when he should be, or rather of ascertaining whether the warder has locked you in, as is his duty. I have mentioned that each cell is provided with a small hand-broom; every time a prisoner returns from chapel or what not, as soon as his door is locked, he is bound to poke the handle of his broom out at the bottom of the door, so that the chief warder, casting his eye along the row of cells, and finding the broom handles at proper range, knows that everybody is "at home. The broom-handle is the only means of communicating with the warders, and it sometimes happens that your signal is held out some considerable time before it is noticed; in the case of a man being taken suddenly ill this is awkward.
Not that there is much real sickness at Portland Prison, though there is a tremendous lot of shamming. I have known men who by a process too disgusting to describe have manufactured such evidence of blood-spitting that the doctor has been deceived, and the cheat allowed a spell of rest and [-49-] superior food in the infirmary. I have likewise known men to make themselves a genuine bad leg, in hopes of the same reward. The process is simple, and consists in threading a needle with thread well rubbed with copperas, making a large stitch in the fleshy part of the calf, and allowing the thread to remain in the flesh an hour or so. I have known a man play this trick to such perfection that it was the mere turn of a straw, as the saying is, that saved his leg from being sawn off at the knee. It must be the warm clothing and regular diet that keeps the Portland convicts in health. It certainly is not the medicine they have given to them. All that the majority ever see in the shape of physic is a tablespoonful of treacle twice a week. You can, however, see the doctor whenever you feel poorly. A warder takes you to him, and you find him in a sort of cage with wooden bars in front, with enough room between the bars to admit a man's hand. It is rather an odd sort of consulting-room; but the more open one that used to be was found not without objections. Of course, the doctor is the mortal enemy of the prisoner who wants a skulk in the infirmary and enjoys such confoundedly good health that do his best he can't get himself up as a fit subject. Such men have been known to conceal stones about them, and to fling them at the doctor's head as soon as he began to "pooh-pooh" their ailments. So, now they put the doctor in a cage; and, if it is necessary for him to feel your pulse, you have to put your hand between the bars. Looking at your tongue, however, seems to be the great health test at Portland. I remember after I had worked a fortnight at barrow wheeling, I felt such terrible pains in my shoulders and loins that I thought I had somehow hurt myself seriously, and I asked to be taken to the doctor. Before I had told him half my symptoms, "Put out your tongue," said he, and I did, "Be off, be off :" said the doctor, "there's nothing the matter with you;" and he was right, as it turned out, though at the thought it monstrously cruel to be made sport of, for I [-50-] could make nothing else of the notion of looking at a mans tongue to find whereabouts his back was sprained.
There is no mistake about it, the work at Portland is terribly hard to a man whose hardest day's work, before misfortune overtook him, was performed in a drapery warehouse or behind a clerk's desk. It is simply "navvy" work, and that of a by no means easy kind. The labour consists in drilling the rocks for blasting, shifting the great lumps of stone blasted, digging trenches, and wheeling big barrow-loads of earth up a 9 in. plank; and there is no fear but the old hands will take care that you do your share of labour, even if the overseers don't. If it rains you knock off. There are sheds at all parts of the works, and if the rain comes down as though it meant lasting some time you are ordered to shelter. The longer the rain lasted the better we liked it; not only did it give us a chance of a gossip, but also of playing the only game we could ever indulge in, which was that called "coddam." Of course we had to play very quietly, and the game itself - simply guessing which out of a group of fists holds the "piece," which is a button or a bit of stone - is not a particularly lively one under ordinary circumstances, but we got a tremendous lot of fun out of it. When it set in for a wet day we stayed at home idle, but I would a precious sight rather be at quarry work than moping in a half-dark cell.
When we were out working, at twelve o'clock we knocked off and went back to the prison to dinner. We got a pint of soup, a pound of potatoes, 6 oz. of bread, and 5 oz. of meat. Not a bad dinner if it was all as it should be, which it is not. I can conscientiously declare that I have stuck to the truth in the strictest manner in all I have related, and I do so now when I say that the meat at Portland is very bad indeed. Not as to freshness, but quality. It is coarse, insipid, and so tough that nothing is commoner than for the prisoners to chew it for the little good there is in it, and spit it into their slops. It is almost a waste of time to cook such stuff and, I shouldn't wonder, a [-51-] waste of Government money as well. I don't speak from my own single experience; it was the universal complaint, and that amongst men of such tremendous appetite that they would beg the food out of your mouth. There was one convict there-a Lancashire man, an awful glutton. He was a great ruffian, and selected his companions, to whom he sometimes afforded a little amusement according as they contributed a trifle towards. satisfying his everlasting hunger. They would smuggle him out a bit of pudding or a potato, and in return for the present each one was permitted to give him as hard a punch on the body as he pleased. These sort of larks, however, could only take place when the fellows were working in trenches and not in sight of the officers.
You are allowed an hour to your dinner, which gives you time for a read or a doze, and then back to work until four o'clock in winter time, and about six in summer. Soon as you return you wash and "dress," taking off your heavy hob-nailed boots and putting on the light shoes before mentioned, and then you go to chapel again, and spend twenty minutes there and return to supper, which consists of 9 oz. of bread and a pint of gruel. I may state here, as regards victuals, that the individual who is known as a "second-stage man" - that is, one who has served half of his whole term - has, provided he is well behaved, considerable advantage over the others. He gets 2 oz. of cheese on Sundays in addition to his dinner; and, what is of more consequence to him if his tastes are anything like mine, he gets a pint of tea, with milk and sugar, every evening instead of gruel. In summer time this is indeed a luxury; for, as may easily be imagined, to come sweating in your flannels from the quarries to your iron cell (which is just as hot and oven-like in summer as it is cold in winter) and find nothing more refreshing to drink than a measure of warm thick gruel, is not all that could be desired. When a prisoner has served another length of time he becomes a "third-stage man," and [-52-] is entitled to further privileges. He is allowed, in addition to the tea and the cheese, to sit up an hour after the ordinary bedtime, and three times a week he has baked meat for dinner; whereas, as I should before have mentioned, the ordinary convicts never get anything but boiled meat - and always beef. If it was salted it would be less insipid, but it is fresh beef.
It will hardly be believed that there are "swells" and dandies amongst the Portland convicts ; but such is the fact. I have known men obtain a needle and thread on the sly and alter the set of their trousers - the trousers stamped with the red Ps - to what was the prevailing fashion when they were last in the world. I have likewise seen as much as a precious quarter (a quarter of an inch) of tobacco paid by a swell for the privilege of exchanging his trousers for another convict's, because the swell "liked the cut of 'em." The swell convict greases his hair by means of a bit of fat saved from his dinner, and curls it if it is long enough. Saturday night is the convict swell's greatest time. Once a fortnight on a Saturday every man gets his clean flannels, in addition to socks, shirts, and neckerchief and these he finds in his cell when he returns in the afternoon from work. On a Saturday the blacking and brushes go round, so that the men may polish their light shoes then, what with his shiny hair and his shiny shoes, and his nattily tied neckerchief, and his fashionable fitting trousers, the convict swell looks quite grand marching to chapel on a Saturday evening.
I have spoken above about a precious bit of tobacco. I need not say that tobacco is not allowed by the authorities - it is snmggled in. Working in the quarries are free men as well as convicts, and it is through these free men that the tobacco is procured. It is managed in this way. Supposing a man has friends able to send him half-a-sovereign, he scrawls on a bit of paper, "Write to So-and-so for so much, and have it directed to you;" and then, catching the eye of one of the free workmen, the [-53-] convict tips him a wink, and dropping the morsel of paper to the ground, kicks a stone over it, and goes about his work. The free workmen knows what is meant. In the course of the morning he picks up the paper, and speculates a penny in writing as the convict desires. If the money comes the free man keeps half for his trouble, and takes on himself the laying out the remainder for the convict in tobacco. It is leaf tobacco, and is conveyed to the convict by his agent just as the "order" was conveyed in the first instance-the free man slips it under a stone, and the convict picks his time for securing it. It is wonderful how it is prized. There is a regular scale of value for it. "One wing" (just a skiver of a single leaf) is worth a "sixer" (a 6 oz. loaf); "one chow" (or chaw), "a twelve and a bull" (a 12 oz. loaf and a 5 oz. ration of meat) ; a "quarter" (¼ inch), "two bulls and a pudding " (two meat rations and the 6 oz. of suet pudding allowed on certain days). Of course, there is no chance of smoking a pipe at Portland; the tobacco can only be chewed, or I dare say it would fetch still higher prices.
The clothes worn by the convicts are all alike, whatever their term or their crime, except in special cases. Amongst the gangs in the quarries may be seen here and there a convict with one leg yellow and the other of a cinnamon colour, and the same as to his arms and each half of his body. These men work in irons, having "anklets" and a chain long enough to hitch up to their waist strap, and which for further convenience is likewise gartered to each leg below the knee. These are known as "canaries," and are convicts who have attempted to escape. There is another class of chained workers called "magpies," whose dress is black and cinnamon, and these are so punished for assaults on warders and other crimes that may not here be mentioned. Every Portland convict wears on his arm a leather shield-shaped badge backed with white drill, and with his length of service cut out in the leather, and showing [-54-] white. Besides the numbers "3," "5," or "7," as the case may be, a convict's badge likewise shows what his behaviour is ; thus, "V.G." is "very good," "G." "good," and "O." nought, or good for nothing, I suppose. "L." signifies that the wearer's sentence is to last during his life. This letter of the law, however, is not invariably adhered to. I was on intimate terms with a gentleman there who had already served "a life," and who was then undergoing ten years for a crime committed since he got his pardon.
Having the good luck to be considered a "V.G," after eighteen months at Portland, I one evening had the great gratification to find myself ordered before the governor, who told me that in consequence of my good behaviour I was to be sent with a batch next day to Broadmore, and as I heard Broadmore spoken of as something like Paradise as compared with Portland, I thanked the governor very heartily for the information.
Broadmore is in Berkshire; and ironed, as on all the previous journeys, next day we were packed there by rail. I had not been misinformed as to the sort of a place it was. At Portland no two men were ever trusted together out of sight of a warder - three men on rare occasions might be, but two never ; whereas at Broadmore there was a great barrack room, and with beds ranged round, and there we slept and messed, free to talk and amuse ourselves in a quiet way as though we were lodgers at a lodging-house. The food was plentiful and excellent, contrasting strangely with that allowed the poor folks at the workhouses sometimes exposed in the newspapers.
At breakfast time we got a pound of bread, a pint of cocoa, and 2 oz., of cheese. The hungry ones ate the lot up at once, but the prudent ones reserved the cheese and a piece of the bread, for at eleven o'clock there was half a pint of beer for lunch, and that with a mouthful of bread and cheese, made quite a comfortable snack. At dinner we got a pint of soup, a pound [-55-] of potatoes, and 5 oz. of boiled meat for three days, and the other four days 5 oz. of roast meat, a pound of potatoes, and 6 oz. of suet pudding. In the evening a pint of tea, and 8 oz. of bread. They allow your hair and whiskers to grow at Broadmore.
The work there is field and garden work, and they keep you to it stiffly. You get half a day's schooling a week, chapel twice a day (the service is held in the schoolroom), and two hours' exercise on Sunday. I was at Broadmore three months, and, speaking as a prisoner, I liked it very much indeed.
Altogether I had now served two years and seven months of my sentence, and as a well-behaved man was entitled to my "ticket." To get it I had to be taken with the rest (no chains this time!) back to Millbank, where I remained nearly a fortnight, and one never-to-be-forgotten morning, after having my photograph taken, I was discharged, and let out at the gate a free man to go wherever I pleased. I did not get my own clothes back, but corduroy trousers and waistcoat, and a tweed coat, and a black billycock cap. My earnings in prison had amounted to £7 10s., which, however, is not come-at-able all at once ; it is doled out to you a pound or so at a time, which, I think, is not a good arrangement. If a man means to be honest he wants all he can get to set his home to rights again, and buy a few tools to follow the trade the authorities have taught him ; if he doesn't mean to be honest, you may as well give him his money first as last for all the difference it is likely to make.
After all, however, I did not wait for my bit of money. I found out the Prisoners' Aid Society, and they advanced me the £7 10s., and I did the best I could with it. The best was not much, I am sorry to say; however, I live in hopes of matters coming all right again by-and-by. It shall be no fault of mine if they do not, I will venture to say.