Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pauper, The Thief and the Convict, by Thomas Archer, 1865 - Chapter 13 - The Convict Establishment at Portland

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   When I left my two convicts to work out the period of their second stage of servitude at Pentonville Prison, I remarked that one of them, at least, probably looked forward with some hope to his removal to the Government establishment in the island of Portland. Had he known how large a measure of liberty would be secured by attaining this third stage his anticipations would have been even more pleasant; or, on the other hand, I may wrong him by not having taken into consideration the likelihood that he had heard all about it from some acquaintance who had recalled the pleasant memories of this penal settlement long after obtaining that "ticket," of which he found it difficult to make any practical use.
   However this may be, it is certain that in this last and considerably longest stage the thraldom of separate confinement and silent labour, commenced at Millbank and rather refined than mitigated at Pentonville, is virtually abandoned. Increased diet, healthy work in the open, bracing air, and companionship (which includes conversation) during the hours- of labour, must make Portland a sort of paradise, where imprisonment is abolished in favour of friendly guardianship and wholesome restraint. This would doubtless be the impression upon the mind of a convict on whom his previous discipline had produced the desired effect, and who came out into the corridor at [-223-] Pentonville on the morning of his removal, chastened, reformed, and repentant; that it is really the opinion of a very large majority of the eleven hundred and fifteen felons, most of whom are now quarrying stones for Portland Breakwater, would be too much to expect. The faces of the eight men who have just been assembled in the prison-yard at Pentonville, and amongst whom the two whose course I have been following now meet closely for the first time since their conviction, express very little if any emotion beyond that involved in the endeavour to keep warm; for it is a dull, chilly morning, and their sudden transition from the temperate atmosphere of the cells has made them shiver a little in the raw air from the yard. Very little alteration is observable in their demeanour until they reach the railway station, to which they are taken in the prison van, pretty securely fastened by a light chain passing from one to another through the handcuff. Once there and seated in the carriage, they look for some opportunity to communicate with the outer world, and probably surprise some strange passenger who is standing on the platform and who happens to regard them intently, by telegraphing with their fingers the number of years they have to serve. With this and such few observations amongst themselves as are permitted by the officer in charge they must be content until they reach Weymouth; but it would be difficult to estimate the effect upon men so long confined within prison limits, and especially the dull routine of the separate cells; of that ride through the pure, bracing air, with the sight of the wild, open country, the sheltered homesteads, the clustering villages, the birds upon the wing, the cattle browsing on the hills. Whatever may be its influence, however, they are not very demonstrative; many of them look on, if not listlessly, at least with an appearance of stolid [-224-] indifference like that which rests upon the face of our beetle-browed ruffian. His companion notes these things, indeed, with a quick glance and a slight smile, not without a shade of sarcasm; once or twice he indicates some object in the landscape, but finally relapses into that dogged half-patient look which seems habitual even to the best of the convicts, and under which who shall tell what are their real thoughts?
   With very little alteration in this demeanour, but with quick, suspiciously inquiring glances, they make the journey from Weymouth to Portland; only now and then one of their number fixes his eye steadfastly on the ships far out at sea. Its great expanse must bring upon him a strange sense of freedom. Then, as they begin to climb the rugged road which leads to the summit of this "hearthstone" island; as they pass Fortune's Well, and at length emerge amidst the broken stony ground: the treeless waste; the rough, zigzag stone walls; the bare, yellowishwhite cottages and scattered taverns; the chaos of stone, from which in this part of the island some rude settlement seems to have sprung, they have enough to occupy their attention. Past the last rude farm plot, beside the steep road cut up with iron tramways, and round by that row of high white cottages (the quarters of the married prison officers), and they have arrived at their destination. And this is my destination also, for which I have sternly resisted all the fascinations of Weymouth, its pleasant resorts and fashionable society, the dignified composure,not to say dulness of its broad promenade and the attractive beauty of its broad bay, with the green hills and the "White Horse" in the distance,--not even the guide book ( "Antiquities of Portland" ) itself can, for the present, change me from the purpose for which I have made the [-225-] journey from London. The Castle once the residence of that Bluff King and bloated criminal, who himself essayed to put down cutpurses and footpads, to which end he planted the gallows trees in such goodly numbers; the Portland Arms where George the Third of glorious memory was wont to dine, and where is kept the old Danish Reeve staff, - that ancient tally or score on which the bailiff of the island kept account of acreage and manor dues,--Rufus, or Bow and Arrow Castle; the Old Church; the New Church; even the Light-houses fail to divert my interest from the great waste of stone-quarry, wild hill-rise, and furzy-grass, where even the "wheat-ear," - the only bird which seems to be found upon the island, - is seldom seen, and amidst which the convict settlement lies hedged in with long straggling walls.
   From a queer old hostelry near the pier,--where there seems to be neither bar nor parlour nor friendly tap, the burning brandy being served to you from a long irregular space behind a low metal-topped counter, and with an air of secrecy as though it were dimly associated with some reminiscences of smuggling; I contrive to hire, after much doubt on the part of the landlord (who speaks a polyglot jargon of Jersey French, Welsh English, and Basque Spanish), a springless vehicle composed apparently of two primitive gigs fastened together and set upon four wheels, and in this am driven by a silent boy up the steep and boulder-broken roads, and across the rugged tramways leading to the home of the British convict.
   Portland Prison, which is constructed to contain 1500 convicts, is composed of three long and lofty parallelograms (one of which is a double building), and a large block in form of a wing lying somewhat in the rear of one of the main structures. All these are built of stone, in [-226-] the same way as the houses on the island; the single buildings containing four and the double buildings five stories of cells, the upper ones opening from light iron corridors, similar to those at Pentonville, the corridors and the whole of the main building being lighted principally from the roof. The spaces between the blocks of building, which are spanned above by an iron bridge extending from one block to another, serve as open areas in which the prisoners are paraded every day before being taken out to labour. Beyond these, in front of the prison is the garden where the vegetables are grown for the prison consumption. The other garden, which is in fact no more than a neat grass-plotted yard, in the area before the inner entrance, contains some curious remains dug up from the quarries during the progress of the works: among them are stone sarcophagi in which skeletons were discovered-remnants of the Roman occupation of the island; an immense petrified tree-trunk, still exhibiting the grain and bark of the wood; an altar-slab, and some large description of stone-imbedded shell or marine animal which goes in Portland by the name of "conger eel," and in which the articulations, or rather corrugations, are quite distinct.
   Leaving these reminiscences of its former condition, however, for the more commonplace divisions of the prison, I am conducted to the storerooms, where the clothes and shoes which have been made in the London establishments are kept for the inmates at Portland. Here I recognise the heavy, nailed boots, the rough clothing, and the quilts and blankets which I have previously seen in their various stages of manufacture at Millbank and Pentonville.
   Amongst the few convicts who are engaged within the [-227-] building I notice some variety of costume, and learn that the regulation dress consists of cord trousers, a blue "slop," or coarse frock of blue striped with white, and a light blue striped cap; these, which are the summer garments, give place in winter to a brownish-gray jacket similar to those worn at the London prisons, and a black oil-skin hat painted with coloured stripes. Those men whose term has nearly expired, from its having been shortened in consequence of good conduct, are dressed in a blue suit, with "P. P." stamped upon it in red letters- "an odd arrangement," which gives them the appearance of having been wrongly "delivered" at various stations by some parcels' conveyance company. The party which has just arrested my attention are bringing in bread, under the direction of a couple of officers, and I follow them to the bakery-necessarily a large building, since it has to provide for such an army of eaters. At Portland none of these offices are under the basement, so that the bakery is, in reality, a lofty and well-lighted adjunct to the main building, opening on to one of the yards, its row of ovens and the bins and troughs scrupulously clean, and the whole place well ventilated. Every day a separate loaf of the required weight for each meal is furnished to the prisoner; the bread being of the same quality as that used at the London establishments. The kitchen is a similar building to the bakery, and contrasts favorably with those of the London prisons on account of its lightness. The arrangements are precisely similar, except that at Portland only beef is provided; but the method of cooking is the same, and the great coppers of soup, the joints of meat, and the huge steamers which hold the potatoes give forth a savoury smell to appetites sharpened by that clear sea air. Although [-228-] no trades are taught or carried on at Portland, there are workshops where such of the men as are selected for the purpose (from having previously had some experience in these callings, either in or out of prison) carry on the necessary repairs connected with the establishment. For this purpose one or two large rooms are appropriated to the tailors and shoemakers, who mend the boots and clothes which have been worn by former inmates, and the carpenters' and blacksmiths' shops are busy with the sound of saw and hammer, in order to keep up the repairs connected with the building, or to replace the furniture of the various departments. In these shops the men work under the direction of instructors; but the silent system is not a part of the discipline at Portland, so that the business of the day goes on under very few depressing influences. Perhaps the most interesting of the workshops is the forge, where the machinery is repaired, and the men work at bellows and anvil, upon the iron fittings of the cranes and stone-carriages. I wish I could say that the work is willingly and cheerfully performed; but I am bound to state, that in many instances the weight of the hammer slowly performs the labour. There is very little weight of arm or energy of muscle displayed beyond that which is actually required to lift the tools. The cells are comfortable little cabins enough, not of course as large as those of the London prisons, since no labour has to be performed in them. They are sleeping apartments, of about four feet wide, seven in length, and seven feet high, each furnished with a window, and the walls formed of corrugated iron. They contain a slung hammock, with mattress, blankets, sheets, and quilts; a stool and washbasin; and a nest of deal shelves, in which the prisoner keeps his plate, mug, and pannikin of tinware, such books [-229-] as he is allowed to borrow from the library, and other small articles of daily use.
   On their arrival at Portland the prisoners receive a considerably augmented provision of food, since it is understood that their constant labour in the open air requires that the quantity should be increased. The ordinary meals consist of breakfast, for which they receive a pint of cocoa, with milk and sugar, and 28 oz. of bread for the day. The dinner allowance of each man is, Sunday, 5 oz. of cheese; Monday, 5 oz. of mutton for dinner, and its own liquor flavoured with onions, and thickened with any bread left from the previous day. Tuesday, 1 pint of soup made from 9 oz. of shin of beef; 4 oz. of fresh vegetables; 2 oz. of pearl barley, soup flavoured and thickened as on Mondays; Wednesday, same diet as on Monday; Thursday, 1 pound of suet pudding Friday, 5 oz. of beef, with a pint of beef liquor, flavoured and thickened as on Tuesday; Saturday, same diet as on Friday; during the week, 1 pint of cocoa for breakfast, and 1 pint of gruel for supper. Each allowance of meat is weighed, after being cooked, and must be free from bone. One pound of good potatoes is served to each man daily at dinner, except on Sundays, when the convicts do no hard work. To these rations the goodconduct men whose period has nearly expired have certain very welcome additions. They may obtain tea in place of the evening gruel, and sometimes dine off baked beef, with the addition of suet pudding. On Sundays, too, they are often allowed half a pint of beer with their slice of cheese.
   This, which is the diet according to the new regulations, and is diminished from that which was allowed until July of the present year, would, I cannot but imagine, be a luxurious scale of living to many an honest labourer;--one, indeed, beyond his utmost dreams; and yet when this [-230-] dietary table was first acted upon there were indications both at Dartmoor and at this settlement at Portland, which caused the authorities to fear a dangerous riot. The pampered ruffians absolutely refused to work, and were very properly placed in irons, but the military were called in, and threatened to fire on the ringleaders unless they submitted.
   While I am gathering this information under the intelligent guidance of one of the principal warders, our convicts have been admitted to the prison, where the roll has been called over by an officer, after which they have been submitted to the baths, similar to those with which they were recently familiar, have been freshly cropped and shaved, have been examined by the medical officer, and have assumed the uniform of Portland in exchange for their former dress. After having been draughted to their cells and furnished with the regulation meal, they are conducted to the chapel, where they will be spoken to by the chaplain and have a half day in every week appointed on which they will be expected to attend school. The chapel, which is also used as the schoolroom, is a spacious building, containing a pulpit and reading desk, and a deep gallery for the wives and families of the officers.
   The prisoners, who all assemble here twice a day for prayers, occupy forms on the floor, while the officers sit on seats elevated against the wall where they can overlook their various divisions. School is going on as I enter the building, and three or four teachers are giving instruction by means of books, slates, and black boards. One of the prisoners, a keen, quick-eyed fellow, is engaged apart at a table in re-binding some of the books belonging to the prison library; and I observe that he is not only neat and skilful in his manipulation, but is at work with a rapidity [-231-] and apparent earnestness which is one of the most surprising things I have witnessed during my visit.
   I cannot but remark, too, that the faces of the majority of the scholars are less dull and dogged than those of the London prisoners; that they have brightened, not only with the evidences of health, but with those of renewed interest. In this light, lofty chapel, and with a tolerably attractive lesson, there must be something very holiday-like in their afternoon's occupation.
   A bell which rings presently is the signal for the return of the convicts from work, and, as our two criminals once more retire to their cells, the various companies come in for the night and assemble for evening prayers.
   It should be remembered that the present system of penal servitude was originally intended only to prepare convicts for working out the remainder of the term in another country, and that the "ticket of leave" was not at first designed for any but transported felons, who might look forward hopefully to a more virtuous career under entirely new conditions. This fact was warmly insisted on by the late Sir Joshua Jebb during a conversation with the writer; and, indeed, it will serve to explain the apparent failure which seems so often to attend the sequel of our present scheme of secondary punishments.
   Apart from this consideration, however, the visitor to the two metropolitan prisons of which I have already given some description will be impressed with the anxious care with which not only the health but the complete physical comfort of the criminal is preserved. At Pentonville this is more observable even than at Millbank; but the idea acquires strength as it advances, and at Portland the full development of the system renders it impossible to avoid comparing the lot of the convicted felon, [-232-] not alone with that of the more unfortunate amongst the paupers, but with that of the soldier or sailor under duty, or of the poor, honest labourer, whose daily bread is dependent upon his continued exertion.
   It is true that this comparison does not necessarily involve the conclusion that criminals should either receive less tender nurture or more positive punishment; but in a district like Portland, where the contrast is so easily made between convicted felons, well clothed,well lodged, fully fed, comfortably provided, and by no means overworked, and a,number of labourers in the same locality, to whom the prison fare would be something very much like "high living," the impression naturally takes the form of an argument, and the anomaly is too easily confounded with practical injustice.
   The various "companies" (they are too susceptible of a convict's feelings to call them "gangs" at Portland, and on my using this term, I am at once put to confusion by the deprecatory correction of my guide), are now coming in from the quarry, and enter the gates as they arrive in their divisions, under the charge of the armed officers, in blue uniforms, who superintend their work. They are, for the most part, healthy and fleshy looking fellows, and with all the variety of countenance which an assembly of mixed prisoners would necessarily present. As I stand looking at them, and still with the comparison of which I have just spoken in my mind, I think of the anecdote of that worthy gentleman who, in reply to the demand of his butler for an increased salary, said-
   "Do you know that your income already exceeds that of many clergymen in the Established Church?"
   "I have always been exceedingly sorry for those gentlemen," replied the butler, with dignity, "but that is no [-233-] reason why I should forego my own reasonable advantages."
   What are the reflections of the two inmates whose progress I have been following it would be difficult to determine. On their way to the prison they have caught a glimpse of some of those sentries, armed with sword and carbine, who form a cordon round the works, and the sight may not have been reassuring. On the entrance of the labourers, and after a glance at their faces, however, the more hopeful ruffian brightens up a little, and each of them is presently conducted to his cell, there to prepare for the new field of exertion which will open to him tomorrow.
   They, in common with the rest, are awakened by the ringing of the bell at five o'clock in the morning, and are expected to sweep their cells and to perform their toilet in time for breakfast, the serving of which commences at a quarter to six o'clock, by means of wooden trays (resembling the gratings used to stand upon at baths), on which the rations are carried from the kitchen to the cells. At half-past six o'clock all the prisoners assemble in the chapel for morning prayers, which occupy only a few minutes, and at a quarter to seven they are paraded in their various divisions in the open areas which divide the blocks of building forming the prison. In advance of these, and extending almost along the entire front of the prison, is a raised embankment, its smooth sides covered with mown grass, and with an even walk upon the top, and here the officers stand to inspect the divisions as they are arranged to proceed to the quarries. Confusion is prevented by the number of each detachment being distinctly painted upon a sort of large garden-labels, one of which is stuck in the slope of the embankment opposite [-234-] the spot which each company is to occupy on parade. Here they undergo a rapid superficial search at the hands of the officers, and by seven o'clock the various companies have mostly passed beyond the precincts of the building, and have reached their various stations.
   The scene of their labour is sufficiently striking on a first visit, not from any great appearance of activity which it presents, but on account of the wild and rugged aspect of the country. The portion of the island on which the penal settlement is stationed is, by its position, entirely cut off even from the sight of the town or villages occupying the other side; and, except a seascape in one part of it, and a view of the green slope of the fortifications in another, is entirely confined to the convicts. With this important exception, however,--that closely adjoining the Government quarries, lie those which are being wrought by ordinary labourers. In alluding to the fortifications it is almost necessary to mention the Portland sheep which browse upon its grassy slopes. They are small, compact, military-looking animals, the latter qualification being due to the practice of rubbing the entire fleece with red ochre-probably for the purpose of distinguishing them amongst the yellowish-white stones with which the whole island is covered.
   Nearly surrounded by a rough stone wall, which formerly included the whole of the works connected with the prison, lies the Old St. Paul's Quarry, where some of the blocks which were rejected for the building of the metropolitan cathedral are still cumbering the ground. Getting out the huge blocks dispersed along the cutting, or removing the rubble from the surface where the new operations are commenced, the convicts work in detachments of from eighteen to twenty-two men, each division being watched [-235-] by a warder whose hours of duty are longer, and his onerous charge more wearisome, than the labour of the felons. Other companies are engaged in loading the heavy stone-carriages, in dragging them along the tramways, or in "dressing" the great blocks in an open space amidst great gaunt cranes of timber and rusty chains used for lifting and swinging the heavy masses of building-stone.
   All round by the encircling wall, from look-out stations on the top of it, or standing on high mounds artificially raised for the purpose, the armed sentries keep constant watch; but the men are under as little control as is in any degree consistent with the fact of their being prisoners, and talk together with comparative freedom while they leisurely pursue their allotted occupation: there is certainly a great difference between their rate of working and that of the ordinary quarrymen who are engaged by the contractors at the neighbouring cuttings.
   There is something singularly picturesque in the appearance of the broken ground and the high white walls of solid stone full of great fissures whence blocks have been taken. This is, perhaps, more apparent in the newer quarry just without the old boundary, where a huge slice seems to have been cut away from the surface - as though the island had been treated like a cheese and partly demolished with a broad scoop.
   The walls left half round this amphitheatre are in some places thirty or forty feet high, and the timber bridge which crosses a cleft in one part is supported on buttresses left standing when all around them had been removed. Almost the whole surface is broken and rugged, and winding tramways lead to a great shed raised on timber piles and containing an enormous "drum," on which a chain is coiled for letting the stone-waggons down a steep [-236-] incline towards the breakwater, where they are received and carried away by the locomotive engines. The prison area does not, however, extend so far as this, the stone being delivered at the boundary, where it is taken in charge by the proper officials.
   It would, perhaps, be absurd to suppose that the convicts do not occasionally communicate with persons outside the prison, and, notwithstanding the vigilant supervision, there is no doubt that they sometimes contrive to obtain money from their friends, or become possessed of small quantities of tobacco; the endeavours to make use of the most trifling opportunities to obtain contraband articles being probably keen enjoyments which are pretty often experienced, especially as any small article which can be covered with the foot is scarcely likely to be detected. The topics of conversation, too, may be numerous and personally interesting, even under such apparently unfavorable circumstances.
   The exceptions to the system of general indulgence are the men who have attempted to escape, have assaulted an officer, or have generally misconducted themselves by refusing to work, or by defying the authorities. For the first two of these offences the culprit wears a distinguishing dress of gray and yellow, or gray and black, and are chained when at work. For the latter the punishment is separate confinement on bread and water, or, in extreme cases, the dark cell. At half-past eleven the bell calls them all to dinner. A few of the men working at a distant part of the quarry have their rations brought out to them, and dine al fresco. The majority, however, reassemble in the prison and dine in their cells, where they have a full hour to eat and rest, and if they please, to read the books lent them from the library on school days. At one o'clock they return to [-237-] their work, and are recalled for the night at a quarter to six, when, after a few minutes, during which they assemble for evening prayers, they once more enter their cells, receive their supper and a candle (for only the corridors and general buildings are lighted with gas, which is made on the premises), and may again amuse themselves with their books till about eight o'clock, when they go to bed, the night warders remaining on duty to watch the cells.
   Once a week, on his school day, each prisoner takes a bath and has his hair cut, and they are all expected to shave three times a week. At various points upon the works there are places to which the men retreat for shelter should the weather be unfavorable; and on unmistakably wet days they are not taken out to labour at all, but remain in their cells, where they are allowed to read, the doors of the cells not being closed. On Sundays also, in the intervals between their attendance at Divine service, the doors of the cells are allowed to remain open, and detachments of the men walk in the prison-yard.
   Those prisoners who have received good-conduct marks are rewarded by numerous indulgences, mostly taking the form of comfortable additions to their meals, such as baked beef, treacle pudding, and, if they prefer it, the substitution of tea for cocoa or gruel. Throughout the whole arrangements, this promotion of physical comfort seems to be the pervading principle, and even in the case of the few convicts who are consigned to Western Australia the difference of rations on board the transport-ship must at first be a serious inconvenience, to say nothing of the confined space and the more restricted liberty of a crowded vessel. As I have already been reminded, many alterations are now to be made in the administration of convict prisons, and a reduction has been proposed in [-238-] the future rations of those who are now under punishment; the total number of those who were received under sentence last year was 2848.
   Amongst all the proposed alterations, however, there is one from which some very useful results may be anticipated. It is that the period of a convict's imprisonment shall be measured by the actual quantity of work which he performs, no remission being granted for "good conduct," which must be indispensable to entitle him to any reward for his industry, a reward which he will forfeit by subsequent misbehaviour.
   Of our two criminals the fiercely stolid ruffian, who scarcely unbends those overhanging brows even with all these advantages, works with some will, and uses his hammer sometimes in a way which excites the contemptuous laughter of his companion; but he is restive and defiant-brutal in his obstinacy. It is very doubtful whether his sentence will be shortened. The other allows his hammer to work by its own weight, is smugly silent and attentive, and keeps his own counsel. He will soon be high in the prison books, and have money entered to his credit. When their respective terms of servitude expire the steward will make up their accounts, and they will be sent in charge of an officer to the place from which they were convicted; that is to say (in their case) to London and to Millbank Prison, where they will receive a dress suitable to the calling they ostensibly followed previous to their sentence, and a part of the sum which has become due to them on account of the prison gratuities. After a period of three months, and if they can produce testimony, such as a letter from the clergyman of the parish or some other respectable person, that they have been living honestly, they may receive a further instalment, and so on, [-239-] until it has all been paid. It is matter for regret that few convicts discharged with a "ticket of leave" apply for more than the second instalment of this money. This may be partially explained by the knowledge that many of them go to distant parts of the country, and that others do not wish to revive the recollections of the prison authorities or the police, but assume fresh names and fresh pursuits. But it is also too well known that a large number of them re-enter upon a course which may ultimately lead them back to the comforts of Portland Prison. It is well understood, too, that in this country, and especially in London, a discharged convict has very little chance of obtaining honest employment by which he can live comfortably; or of keeping it even when he has obtained it, after his antecedents once become known; and these are the significant facts which are most difficult to deal with in any earnest inquiry respecting the defects of our present system of penal servitude.

The End.


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