Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - A Flight of Gaol Birds

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OVER against the prison, which is one of the most extensive within twelve miles of London, is a public house, the landlord of which, supposing him to be a man of only commonly keen observation, should be able to speak as to a thief s identity with any gaol warder in the kingdom.
    Should it ever become illegal to serve a thief, knowing him to be such, with intoxicating drink, mine host of the Bull in the Pound would be driven to the hard necessity of putting up his shutters. The Bull in the Pound is a recognised house of call for thieves, both petty and formidable-for burglars, "smashers," shoplifters, garotters, and highwaymen. It is the trysting-place where, after prolonged and painful severance, the at-present-free bird of prey meets and renews loving friendship with the gaol bird clean clipped and perky after his well-cared-for incarceration. The landlord of the Bull-in- the-Pound is a highly respectable tradesman. He has not the slightest sympathy with evil doers, and fifty guineas would not tempt him to permit on his premises the hilarious celebration of bold Toby Crackitt's release over a bowl of punch, by a select circle of admiring "magsmen." I have seen the worthy publican in question, and conversed with him, and I feel quite convinced that even if "thieves' talk" were indulged in aloud before his bar, it would be instantly put a stop to, and the offenders ejected. At the same time, it cannot [-283-] be denied that the Bull in the Pound is a house of call for every type of offender to whom the grated cell and prison are familiar.
    I am unable to explain the circumstance, but at the prison facing the Pound, as at every other, there are a greater number of prisoners discharged on Monday than any other morning - always in the morning, and about ten o'clock. Over the discharging of a man from prison there is nothing like the fuss that distinguishes his reception there, In the first case, the black carriage that conveys him is guarded fore and aft by stalwart policemen; and in the narrow passage within the dismal omnibus which divides the double row of little hutches, each containing a prisoner, is bestowed a third blue coated and helmeted man, who has quick ears for rash scraps of conversation that one captive may venture to indulge in with another. The great outer gate is opened, the vehicle is admitted, and the great gate closed and locked again before the inner gate is opened.
    But at a prisoner's discharge, whether he be a grey-haired sinner or some poor little ten year old waif, friendless, homeless, and with no other resource but to "go at it again," all this ceremony is quite dispensed with. They are not let loose, these gaol birds, in a batch, but by twos and threes. Between the prison gate and the highway there is a spacious gravelled forecourt, bounded by railings and an open gate; so that literally a prisoner is free before he entirely quits the prison premises. Why on earth do they not run that thirty yards or so ? They may if they please there is no one to prevent them. Nay, there are plenty to encourage them - eager, anxious friends, with all the force of the heartfelt "Here he comes! jolly good luck [-284-] to him, here he comes at last!" shining out of their eyes-they never venture, these attentive friends, within the open gate just mentioned; but the newly emerged ones don't run to meet them. The massive studded door slams them a parting salute, and they come along with as deliberate and cautious a step as though this long pined for liberty were like a pair of tight and uncomfortable boots to their feet.
    On the Monday when I witnessed the gaol delivery here described, I think fourteen was the number of liberated prisoners, and they all came away thus soberly and sedately. Here I might tell of the sin-weary penitent who shuddered again to face a world so bristling with temptations; of the mere boy whose hitherto untried affections had so attached themselves to the governor and the chaplain that it was nothing less than heartrending to tear himself away - away from a prison so called, but in reality a paradise, where for the first time in his wretched small existence, he had tasted the sweets of home. I might write in this strain, but, frankly, it would be without the warrantry of experience. I have talked with scores of boys who have over and over again received the punishment due to thieves, and are thieves still - dirty, ragged, starving little thieves - and not one ever yet expressed a yearning towards the advantages offered them in the shape of prison board and lodging. Not that they were in the least alive to the disgrace attaching to gaol durance. I have said to them - "Is it not true that in prison you get good hot food, and a comfortable bed, and that you are not worked too hard ?"
    "That's right enough, mister," was the answer; one experienced gentleman of twelve years old adding emphatically, "Specially at Maidstun."
    [-285-] "Very well ; and is it not likewise true that in the life you are now leading, you are glad to sleep in any hole or corner, and have seldom or ever enough to eat?"
    "Tis so, mister ; but you forgets how 'orful all alike the days is. When you're out you might be hard up, but you never knows what's goin' to turn up one minit afore another; when ye're in quod it's all marked out for yer, and nothing can't turn up, 'cept it might be punishment;" adding proudly, "I'd rather have 'arf a bellyful 'on the loose,' than roast meat and baked taters all day long in the steel (prison)."
    You can't break them in, these ragged young wild colts, by means of the system at present adopted. It is all very well while the gaoler has them under lock and key, and the stern eye of the taskmaster is on them. It is good for the fierce and lawless youngsters to be made to feel "how orful all alike the days is." The next proper step to take would he to place them in a position in which they might learn how short and pleasant is a day passed honestly and industriously, and with profit alike to employer and employed. Instead of this, they are now and again caught and stalled, and groomed and fed for a season, and then cast out reckless and masterless, to be presently pursued and captured anew, as though they were creatures that afforded pleasant hunting, but belonged to a race likely to die out unless they were taken in hand occasionally, and fortified with a little blood and muscle.
    These fledglings of the gaol-bird breed, like their elders, almost invariably find friends waiting for them outside the strong cage when the term of their incarceration expires - friends of about their own age, generally speaking, shoeless, ragged, faithful little wretches, who were, perhaps, the unlucky one's colleagues in the little [-286-] transaction that ended so disastrously, but who were nimble enough to outrun the constable, and so make their escape. They have kept careful reckoning of when Jack's time would be up, and, breakfastless, they have made a barefooted pilgrimage from Whitechapel or Clerkenwell just to let young Jack see that they have not forgotten him, and show how much they sympathise with him in his misfortune. That, in their ignorance, is the view they take of the case ; whereas it is plain as a pikestaff to the beholder that Jack has had very much the best of it.
    It is simply absurd to regard Jack as a young person who has suffered punishment. He has passed a wholesome and healthful month in the country. He has a clean skin, the natural covering of his head has been cured from its old resemblance to a cast-aside stable mop; his eyes have recovered from that painful lacklustre which comes of looking so very far ahead for a dinner, that very frequently it is tea time and past before it is overtaken; and his cheeks have attained a little of the plumpness that in a boy of ten is as natural as the bloom on a cherry. "What cheer, Jack? Come along, old son; you'll soon get over it." That's the mischief of it. He was fairly on his way towards "getting over it" - over the clean skin, and the satisfied eyes, and the peaceful hair - the moment he fell in with those kindhearted young ruffians, his friends, and they set their faces Whitechapelward. But that the chances are against young Jack's at present finding courage to repeat the exploit which snatched him during a blissful thirty days out of the kennel, one might feel almost tempted to the Christian act of walking before young Jack with one's silk handkerchief lapping a good hand's-grip out of the coat-tail pocket.
    [-287-] Gaol birds older than Jack do not flit from the precincts of the prison so readily. They too have their "friends" waiting for them. Not a nice looking lot of people. Hulking heavy-jawed gentlemen, with a great deal of the lower part of the face hidden in the thick folds of a "ropper," and with close-fitting caps and seafaring looking jackets, into the side pockets of which the hands are thrust deep as the wrists, as though in guard of the neat and elegantly finished tools of his trade - the "jemmy," the skeleton keys, the life preserver. Individuals as different in appearance from the pickpocket as the cart horse and the saddle horse. The last mentioned as well as the individuals who are in the heavy line of business are here to greet their released friends. Lithe, shabby-genteel young fellows, restless of eye and with the threadbare black coat buttoned at the waist, as though at any moment the wearer might be called on to perform some prodigious feat of running. Women, too. There is unfortunate Mrs Maloney, whose lord and master six weeks since was condemned to imprisonment with hard labour for beating her face with his blacksmith's fists, and jumping on her till her staybusk was split into twenty splinters. Yes, here is Mrs Maloney to this day wearing surgical sticking-plaster across the bridge of her nose, and with her eye still bloodshot from the onslaught of the murderous fists, pacing too and fro with the step of a lover waiting for her sweetheart, and with sixpence clutched tight in her hand - an olive-branch that shall in good time bear fruit in the shape of a pot of beer - her token of good will and peace towards the released Maloney.
    And there, over by the lamp-post, stands watchful, another woman, the silk velvet trimming on whose hat alone cost more than Mrs Maloney's entire rig out, from [-288-] her pattens to her bonnet, but who is not by a thousand times so worthy a soul. This is a she-devil, whose den, probably, is situated in one of these respectable streets that branch out of the Haymarket; and her errand here this morning is to coax back to her clutches some poor wretch of a girl, whose felony, committed six months since, was every penny of it the hag's profit, and not the least her own. Here, opposite, and within fifty yards of the prison, they wait for the opening of the gate-not clustered together, but "hanging about" separately or in couples. There is hardly one that is not "known to the police," but this meeting-place before the gaol would seem to be neutral ground, on which no man may raise his hand against his fellow.
    -And now you might know - even if you had not witnessed it-by the eager and incessant swinging to and fro of the doors of the Bull-in-the-Pound that those other doors have opened. Here they come, crowding in, not hilarious and boisterous with gladness, though there are a few cases of mutual delirious delight - including that of Mr and Mrs Maloney, and, strangely enough, of the bulky brute in the burglarious jacket; whose scowling eyes are moist as over and over again he shakes hands with a she gaol bird, a mere girl of nineteen or so-but as eager for drink as though deprivation of it was the very essence of the punishment the late prisoners had endured. A pot of beer for the men - a full quart with a foaming head, and for the women, gin. Gin for the burglar's betrothed, - she brought a good "tract" in her hand out of the prison with her, a parting gift of the hopeful chaplain, and now the quartern gin measure stands on it as it lies on the metal counter; gin for the virago who has just "served" three months for a murderous assault committed while in a state of mad drunkenness; gin for [-289-] the lost gaol bird that has been looked for by the old hag, who for her own part pledges her restored captive in a big glass of neat brandy, and wishes her "better luck next time."
    They do not stay long drinking at the bar of the Bull in the Pound; not one in half a dozen has the pot or glass replenished. The only remarkable part of the affair is that, almost without exception, discharged prisoners take to this "stirrup-cup as a formality not to be set aside or dispensed with; as a sort of rebaptising, without which they would be ineligible to reenter the world whence they have so long been shut out. I am not disposed to assert that there is any great harm in the ceremony, or that there would be less crime in the land if the Bull in the Pound were turned into a sweetmeat shop; but certainly it is not gratifying to know that these birds of peculiar feather habitually refresh their wings in gin or beer before they take flight back to their old hunting-grounds.

source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874