THE FEMALE CONVICT PRISON AT BRIXTON
The Female Convict Prison at Brixton lies
in a diametrically opposite direction to the "Model Prison" at
Pentonville - the former bearing south, and the latter north, of the heart of
London; and the one being some six miles removed from the other.
It is a pleasant enough drive down to the old House of Correction, on Brixton Hill, especially if the journey be made, as ours was, early one spring morning, without a cloud to dim the clear silver-gray sky, and before the fires had darkened and thickened the atmosphere of the Metropolis.
It is curious, by the by, to note the signs of spring-time that come to the Londoner's ear. Not only does the woman's shrill cry of "Two bunches a-penny-sweet wa-a-ll- flowers !" resound through the streets, telling of the waking earth and the bursting buds, and wafting the mind far away to fields and gardens; but there are long trucks in the thoroughfares, the tops of which are a bright canary-yellow, with their hundred roots of blooming primroses, and others a pale delicate green, with the mass of trailing musk-plants, while the hoarse-voiced barrow-men are shouting, "All a-blowing! all a-growing!" as they halt by the way. Then there are tiny boys and girls either crying their bunches of exquisitely odorous sweetbriar, or thrusting little bouquets of violets almost under your nose, and following you half-down the street as you go; whilst many of the omnibus-drivers have a small sprig of downy-looking palm stuck out at one corner of their mouth. Farther, there are the hawkers balancing their loads of spring vegetables on their heads, the baskets laden [-173-] with bundles of bright flesh-coloured rhubarb, and with small white wicker platters, as it were, in their hands, some filled with pale waxen-looking sea-kale, and others bright green, with an early dishful of spring salad.
Moreover, the streets echo throughout the day with women's cries of "Any o-ornaments for your fire stove!" pleasantly reminding one of the coming warmth; and presently you see these same women flit by your window, carrying a number of light and bright-hued cut papers that arc not unlike so many well-be-flounced ladies' muslin aprons, and bearing on their arm a basket filled with tinted shavings, that remind one of a quantity of parti-colourcd soapsuds, or, better still, the top of a confectioner's trifle.
On the morning of our visit to Brixton, as we passed along the streets towards Westminster Bridge, we met hawkers coming from the early market at Covent Garden, with their trucks and baskets laden with the pretty and welcome treasures of the spring; and the tank- like watering-carts were out in the thoroughfares, playing their hundred threads of water upon the dusty roadways for the first time, that we had noted, in the course of the present year. Then it was peculiar to be able to see right down to the end of the long thoroughfares, and to find the view of the distant houses no longer filmed with mist, but the gables of the buildings, and the steeples of the churches, and the unfinished towers of the Houses of Parliament standing out sharp and definite against the blue back-ground of the morning sky; whilst, as we crossed the crazy old Westminster Bridge - where the masons seem destined to be for ever at work - the pathways were crowded with lines of workmen (though it was not yet six o'clock) streaming along to their labour, and each with his little bundle of food for the day, dangling from his hand.
Then, shortly after our "Hansom" had dived beneath the railway viaduct that spans the Westminster Road, we came suddenly into the region of palatial hospitals and philanthropic institutions, as well as Catholic cathedrals and St. Paul's-like lunatic asylums, and handsome gothic schools for the blind, together with obelskine lamp-posts built in the centre of the many converging roads, and gigantic coaching taverns, too - that one and all serve to make up the "West End," as it were, of the large and distinct Metropolis over the water.
The atmosphere was still so clear and fresh, that though we turned off by the Orphan Asylum we could see far down the bifid thoroughfares, and behold the dome of Bethlem Hospital, as well as the cathedral tower of Saint George's, soaring into the air high above the neighbouring roofs.
In a few minutes afterwards we were in the peculiar suburban regions of London, where the houses are excruciatingly genteel, and each is prefaced by a small grass-plat hardly bigger than a Turkey carpet; and where, in the longer garden at the back, an insane attempt is usually being made to grow cabbages and cucumbers at something under a crown a-piece-the realm of Cockney terraces, and crescents, and ovals, and commons, and greens, and Horns Taverns, and donkey stands, as well as those unpleasant hints, in the shape of lodge-like turnpikes, that one is approaching the outskirts of London.
Then, as we turn off by St. Mary's Church, the thoroughfare begins to assume a still more suburban look; for now the houses get to be semi-detached, the two small residences clubbing together so as to make each other appear twice as big as it really is; while every couple of villas is struggling to look like a small mansion in a tiny park, with a joint-stock carriage-drive in front, that is devoted to the use of the fly that is occasionally hired to take the ladies out to tea and scandal, with the female president, may-be, of the Blanket, Coal, and Baby-linen Society, in the neighbourhood. Here the residents are mostly of a commercial and evangelical character; the gentlemen all go up to town in the "Paragons" every morning to attend at the Stock Exchange; and the young ladies set forth on their rounds in connection with the district visiting societies - their only dissipation being the novelty of a sermon from some black missionary preacher who may come down to the neighbouring chapel.
Here arc seen gloomy-looking shops, inscribed "Tract Depôts;" and as we pass the [-174-] church at the angle of the road, with the showy tomb standing at the extreme point of the burying-ground, and begin to mount the hill, we see houses with a kind of summer-house built on the roof for enjoying the extensive view of the cloud of London smoke for ever hanging over the adjacent Metropolis.
Here, again, are large half-rustic half-cockney taverns, where the City and West End omnibuses start from, and here, at the end of a rural "blind alley" hard by - a narrowish lane, known as the Prison Road, to which there is no outlet at the other extremity - stands what was once the Surrey House of Correction, and is now the Female Convict Prison.
The History, Plan and Discipline of the Prison.
The Brixton, or rather Surrey House of
Correction, is situate in one of the most open and salubrious spots in the
southern surburbs of London. "Like all the jails erected about forty or
sixty years ago," says Mr. Dixon, in his work on the "London
Prisons," "it was built in the form of a rude crescent, the governor's
house being in the common centre, and his drawing-room window commanding a view
of all the yards. It was, par excellence," he adds, "a
hard-labour prison." Indeed, the treadmill, which now generally forms a
part of the machinery of correctional prisons, was first set up at Brixton. This
was in the year 1817, the apparatus having been invented by Mr. Cubitt, of
This prison was originally built and adapted for 175 prisoners, having been fitted with 149 separate cells, and 12 double ones. The separate cells were each 8 x 7½ x 6 feet, and almost unventilated, so that they were considerably more than half as small again as the "Model cells" at Pentonville, the latter having a capacity of 911 cubic feet, whilst the capacity of those at Brixton was only 360 cubic feet; and yet, though from their defective ventilation they were unfitted for the confinement of one prisoner, and because the law did not allow two persons to be placed in one cell, it was the practice, in order to evade the statute by a legal quibble, to cram as many as three into each of the "dog-holes"- as the Germans term their ancient dungeons- while bedding was supplied only for two. The consequence was, that though the prison was built for the accommodation of only 175 prisoners, the usual number confined within it was more than double that amount, or upwards of 400. Hence it is not to be wondered at, that, despite its standing in the healthiest situation, the old Surrey House of Correction was one of the unhealthiest of all the London prisons; and that out of 4,043 persons passing through it in the course of the year, there should have been not less than 1,085 sick cases reported, 249 of which were fevers, caused, in the surgeon's opinion, by the over-crowded state of the jail.
On the removal of the Surrey House of Correction to the New Prison at Wandsworth, the Brixton Jail was ordered to be pulled down; but, owing to sentences of penal servitude at home having been substituted for transportation abroad (16 and 17 Vic.), it became necessary to establish a prison for female convicts. With this view the Surveyor-General was authorized to treat for the Brixton House of Correction. It was ultimately purchased of the county for the sum of £13,000; and immediately afterwards certain additions and alterations were commenced, so as to render it capable of accommodating from 700 to 800 female convicts.
These additions consisted principally of the erection of two wings - one at either end or horn of the old crescent-shaped range of buildings - as well as a new chapel, laundry, and houses for the superintendent and chaplain. The wings were adapted for the accommodation of 212 prisoners in each, so that the prison accommodation, when these were finished, consisted of 158 separate cells, 12 punishment cells, 424 separate sleeping cells, besides two sets [-175-] of four association rooms - one at the south-eastern and the other at the south-western angle of the building, and each capable of containing some 60 prisoners (15 in each room), or 120 in all; so that altogether the present accommodation afforded by the new prison cells and the old ones is sufficient for about 700 prisoners, whilst the altered building has now the general appearance and arrangement shown on page 176.*
* At the time of our visit, the following were the number and distribution of the female convicts confined within this prison
On the other hand, the subjoined table shows on one side the number of prisoners received at Brixton in the course of the year 1854, and on the other side how some of these were disposed of:-
"In the course of the autumn of 1853," say the Government Reports, "steps were taken to organize the staff for the new establishment. It was then decided that the efficient female officers at Millbank should be removed to Brixton, and that the female establishment at the former prison should be gradually broken up, all articles that could be used being made available for the latter.
"Towards the end of November in the above-mentioned year, there were 75 cells completed and fit for occupation, and as the numbers of female convicts in the several prisons - [-176-] augmented by the cessation of transportation-had increased to an inconvenient extent, it was thought desirable to relieve them by making use of even this limited amount of accommodation. Accordingly that number of females was removed from Millbank to Brixton on
the 24th of November, 1858-those selected for removal being
chosen in their previous good behaviour and their acquaintance with prison
As regards the discipline enforced at Brixton prison, it may be said to consist of a preliminary stage of separation as a period of probation, and afterwards of advancement into successive stages of discipline, each having superior privileges to those which preceded it; so that whilst the preliminary stage consists of a state of comparative isolation from the world, the female prisoners in the latter stages of the treatment are subject to less and less stringent regulations, and thus pass gradually through states first of what are termed "silent association," under which they are allowed to work in common without speaking, and afterwards advance to a state of association and intercommunication during the day, though still sleeping apart at night.
The following are the reasons assigned for this mode of treatment:-
"Until very lately female convicts," the authorities tell us, "were taught to regard expatriation as the inevitable consequence of their sentence; and when detained in Millbank - usually for some months, waiting embarkation - they were reconciled to the discipline, however strict, by the knowledge that it would soon cease, and that it was only a necessary step towards all but absolute freedom in a colony. Now, however, the circumstances being materially altered, and discharge from prison in this country becoming the rule, it is essential that a corresponding change in the treatment of female prisoners should take place, with the view to preparing them to re-enter the world. Hence the necessity for establishing a system commencing with penal coercion, followed by appreciable advantages for continued good behaviour.
"As therefore a systematized classification, denoted by badges, and the placing of small gratuities for industry to the credit of the deserving, have been found by experience in all the convict prisons to produce the most satisfactory results, the same principle has been extended to Brixton."
[-177-] With this view the prisoners there are divided into the following classes :-(l) First Class-(2) Second Class-(3) Third Class-(4) Probation Class.
All prisoners on reception are placed in the probation class, and confined in the cells of the old prison - in ordinary cases for a period of four months, and in special cases for a longer term, according to their conduct; and no prisoner in the probation class is allowed to receive a visit.
On leaving the probation class the prisoner is promoted to the third class, and when she has conducted herself well in that class for the space of two months, she is allowed to receive a visit. Then, if her conduct continue good for a period of six months after promotion to the third class, she is transferred to the second class, and is not only allowed to wear a badge marked 2, as indicative of her promotion, but becomes entitled to a gratuity of from sixpence to eightpence a week for her labour, such gratuity going to form a fund for her on her liberation.
If after this she still continue to behave herself well, while in the second class, for another period of six months, she then is raised into the first class, and allowed to wear a badge marked 1, as well as becoming entitled to a gratuity of eightpence to a shilling a week for her work.
No prisoner is recommended far removal or discharge on license (or ticket-of-leave) until she has proved herself worthy of being intrusted with her liberty previous to the expiration of her sentence.
Old or invalid prisoners, or those who have infants, or who, from any other cause, may be unable to work, have their case specially considered (after having gained their promotion to the first or second class), with a view to their being credited with some small weekly gratuity.
Prisoners may be degraded (with the sanction of a director) from a higher to a lower class through misconduct, but their former position may be regained by good conduct, and that without passing the full time in each class over again. All privileges, moreover, for good behaviour, such as gratuities for work, and the permission to receive visits, may be forfeited by bad behaviour.
"The means at our command," add the directors, "for improving, if not actually reforming, female convicts in prison, though carefully designed and faithfully executed, will be insufficient in many instances unless some asylum be found to receive them on their discharge from prison. The difficulties in the way of such women, as the majority of these prisoners, returning to respectability are too notorious to require description or enumeration. They beset them in every direction the moment they are discharged, and drive them back to their former evil ways and bad associates, if they be not rescued through the medium of a refuge from whence they may obtain service."
Interior of the Brixton Prison.
It was not much after six o'clock when we
began our day's rounds at the above institution. The gateway here looks as
ordinary and ugly as that of Pentonville appears picturesque and stately, the
Brixton portal being merely the old-fashioned arched gateway, with a series of
"dabbed" stones projecting round the edge, and the door itself studded
with huge nails.
On the gate being opened, we were saluted in military style by the ordinary prison gatekeeper, and shown into the little lodge, or old-fashioned porter's office at the side, where we were soon joined by the principal matron (whom the superintendent had kindly directed [-178-] to accompany us for the entire day), and requested to follow her to the interior of the building.
The matron was habited in what we afterwards learnt was the official costume or uniform belonging to her station; there was, however, so little peculiar about her dress that it was not until we saw the other principal matrons in the same coloured ribbons and gowns that we had the slightest notion that such a costume partook in any way of a uniform character. She wore a dove-coloured, fine woollen dress, with a black-cloth mantle, and straw bonnet, trimmed with white ribbons, such being the official costume of the principal matrons. The uniform of the matrons, on the other hand, consists of the same coloured gown, but the bonnet is trimmed with deep blue, and when in the exercising grounds, the cloak they wear is a large, deep-caped affair, that reaches nearly to the fact, and is made of green woollen plaid.
While treating of this part of the subject, we may add that one of the main peculiarities of Brixton Prison is, that the great body of officials there belong to the softer sex, so that the discipline and order maintained at that institution become the more interesting as being the work of those whom the world generally considers to be ill-adapted for government. So much are we the creatures of prejudice, however, that it sounds almost ludicrous at first to hear Miss So-and-so spoken of as an experienced officer, or Mrs. Such-a-one described as having been many years in the service, as well as to learn that it is some young lady's turn to be on duty that night, or else that another fair one is to act as the night-patrol. It will be seen, too, by the subjoined list of officers at Brixton Prison,*
* The following is a list of the several officers of the Female Convict Prison, Brixton, in the year 1856:-
that even the posts of superin-
[-179-]tendent's and chaplain's clerks are
women; but those who are inclined to smile at such matters should pay a visit to
the Female Convict Prison at Brixton, and see how admirably the ladies really
manage such affairs.
There is but little architectural or engineering skill to be noticed in the building at Brixton, after the eye has been accustomed to the comparative elegance and scientific refinement visible in the arrangements of Pentonville.
At the end of a large court-yard, as we enter, stands a clumsy-looking octagonal house, that was originally the governor's residence, or argus, as such places were formerly styled, whence he was supposed to inspect the various exercising yards and sides of the jail itself. This argus, however, is now devoted to the several stores and principal offices required for the management of the prison.
The most remarkable parts of the jail are the two new wings built at the corners, or horns, as we have said, of the old crescent-shaped building. These consist each of one long corridor, the character of which is somewhat like the interior of a tall and narrow terminus to some railway station; for the corridors here are neither so spacious nor yet so desolate- looking as those at Pentonville, since at Brixton there are stoves and tables arranged down the centre of the arcades, and the cell-doors are as close as those of the cabins in a ship, to which, indeed, the cells themselves, ranged along the galleries, one after another, bear a considerable resemblance.
But though there are many more doors visible here than at the largest railway hotel, and though the galleries or balconies above, with their long range of sleeping apartments stretching round the building, call to mind the arrangements at the yards of the old coaching inns, nevertheless there is nothing of the ordinary prison character or gloomy look about this part of the building; and though the corridors are built somewhat on the same plan as the arcades at Pentonville, they have a considerably more cheerful look than the apparently tenantless tunnels at that prison.
The old parts of Brixton Prison are the very opposite to the newer portions of it, for in them we see the type of a gloomy and pent-up jail. There the passages are intensely long and narrow - like flattened tubes, as it were - and extend from one point of the crescent to the other, at the back of every floor; the doors of the cells too are heavy cumbrous affairs, with a large perforated circular plate in each, such as is seen at the top of stoves, for admitting or shutting-off the heated air-which clumsy arrangement was originally intended as a means of peeping into the cells from without.
These passages of the old prison are as white as snow with their coats of lime, and seem, from the monotony of their colour and arrangement, to be positively endless, as you pass by door after door, fitted with the same big metal wheel for spying through, and the huge ugly lock of the old prison kind.
The cells in this part of the building are not unlike so many cleanly cellars, with the exception that their roofs are not vaulted, and there is a small "long-light" of a window near the ceiling.
These cells are each provided with a gas-jet and chimney, and triangular shelves, as well as a small stool and table, and a little deal box for keeping cloths in, anti which can also be used as a rest for the feet. Then there is a hammock, to be slung from wall to wall, as at Pentonville, and the rugs and blankets of which are usually folded up and stacked against the side, as shown in the annexed engraving.
The cells here are all whitewashed, and as white as Alpine snow, with their coat of lime, so that they try the sight sorely after a time; indeed, we were told that a gipsy woman (one of the Coopers) who was imprisoned here, suffered severely in her eyes from the dazzling whiteness of the walls that continually surrounded her; and if it be true that perpetually gazing at snow has a tendency to produce "gutta serena" in some people, we can readily understand the acute pain that must be experienced by those whose sight is unable to bear such intense [-180-] glare, and from which it is impossible to transfer the eye even up to the blue of the sky by way of a relief. We were informed that the gipsy woman was very violent during her incarceration, and it does not require a great stretch of fancy to conceive the extreme mental and physical agony that must have been inflicted upon such a person, unaccustomed as she had been all her life even to the confinement of a house, and whose eye had been looking upon the green fields ever since her infancy; so that it is not difficult to understand how the four blank white walls for ever hemming in this wretched creature, must have seemed
not only to have half-stifled her with their closeness, but
almost have maddened her with the intensity of their snow-like glare.
The cells in the east and west wings, though smaller than those in the old part of the prison, have not nearly so jail-like a look about them ; for the sides of these are built of corrugated iron, and though fitted with precisely the same furniture as the cells before described, they greatly resemble, as we have said, the cabin of a ship (see engraving on next page), whilst the arrangements made for the ventilation of each chamber are as perfect as they well can be under the circumstances.
Respecting the character of the inmates of this prison, the Government reports furnish us with some curious information. "The prisoners," say the Directors of her Majesty's Convict Prisons, "may generally be classed, as regards their conduct, in two divisions, viz., the many who are good, and the few who are bad. in one or other extreme these unfortunate females have been usually found. It also by no means uncommonly [-181-] occurs that a woman who has conducted herself for several months outrageously, and been to all appearance insensible to shame, to kindness, to punishment, will suddenly alter and continue without even a reprimand to the end of her imprisonment; whereas, on the other hand, one who has behaved so well as to be put into the first class, and on whom apparently every dependence may be placed, will suddenly break out, give way to uncontrollable passion, and in utter desperation commit a succession of offences, as if it were her object to revenge herself upon herself.
"Among the worst prisoners were women who had been sentenced to transportation just
previously to the passing of the Act which practically
substituted imprisonment in this country for expatriation. A few of these had,
according to their own statement, even pleaded guilty for the purpose of being
sent abroad; but when they became aware that they were to be eventually
discharged in this country after a protracted penal detention, disappointment
rendered them thoroughly reckless; hope died within them; they actually courted
punishment; and their delight and occupation consisted in doing as much mischief
as they could. They constantly destroyed their clothes, tore up their bedding,
and smashed their windows. They frequently threatened the officers with
violence, Though it must be stated, at the same time, they seldom proceeded to
put their threats in force; and when they did so, some among them - and generally
those who were most obnoxious to discipline - invariably took the officers' part
to protect them from personal injury.
[-182-] "Of these a few are not at all improved, notwithstanding the kindness they have met with, or the punishments they have undergone, or the moral and religious instruction they have received; and they will probably remain so until their sentences have expired. Some, however, are doing very well, and give promise of real amendment.
Farther, the medical officer, in his report for the year 1854, says, "I may, perhaps, be here allowed to state that my experience of the past year has convinced me that the female prisoners, as a body, do not bear imprisonment so well as the male prisoners; they get anxious, restless, more irritable in temper, and are more readily excited, and they look forward to the future with much less hope of regaining their former position in life.
"Neither can I refrain from saying that there are circumstances which help to reconcile the male prisoner to his sentence, but which are altogether wanting in the case of the female. The male prisoner not only gets a change from one prison to another-and though small as this change be, yet it is a something which, for the time, breaks the sameness inseparable from his imprisonment-but, what is of far greater moment, he looks forward to the time when he will be employed in the open air on public works.
"The length of the imprisonment of the woman, however, combined with the present uncertainty as to the duration of that portion of her sentence which is to be passed in prison, as well as the more sedentary character of her employment, allowing the mind, as it does, to be continually dwelling on 'her time' - all tend to make a sentence more severe to the woman, than a sentence of the same duration to the man.
Farther, the chaplain gives us the following curious statistics as to the education and causes of the degradation of the several women who have been imprisoned at Brixton - "Of the 664 prisoners admitted into this prison from November 24th, 1853, to December 31st, 1854, there were the following proportions of educated and uneducated people:-
Number that could not read at all . . . . 104
" " could read a few syllables . . . 53
" " could read imperfectly . . . 192
Total imperfectly-educated . . . . . - 349
Number that could read tolerably, but most of whom had learned in prison or revived what they had learned in youth . . 315
Moderately-educated . . . . . . . . . None
Total . . - 664
"Hence it appears," adds the chaplain, "that among
664 prisoners admitted into this prison, there is not one who has received even
a moderate amount of education. Among the same number of male prisoners, judging
by my past experience, I feel persuaded that there would be many who had
received a fair amount of education. This confirms me in the opinion which I
expressed last year, that the beneficial effects of education are more apparent
among females than men.'
"Of the same 664 prisoners, the minister tells us-
453 trace their ruin to drunkenness or bad company, or both united.
97 ran away from home, or from service.
84 assigned various causes of their fall.
6 appear to have been suddenly tempted into crime.
8 state that they were in want.
16 say they are innocent.
A Day at Brixton.*
* We may add here, that the Brixton County House of Correction, according to Brayley's History of Surrey, wan erected in 1819-20, for the reception and imprisonment of offenders sentenced to bard labour, either at the county assizes or sessions, or summarily convicted before a magistrate. "The boundary-wall," says the county historian, "is about twenty feet in height, the upper part being of open brick-work, and encloses about two and a half acres of ground. This prison is chiefly formed by a semi- octagonal building, having a chapel in the centre, in front of which, but separated by a yard, is the treadmill, which was formerly more than sufficiently notorious from the severity of its application.
The total cost of the building, together with the sum paid for the purchase of the land and erection of the treadmill, was, we are informed by Mr. Woronzow Greig, the obliging clerk of the peace for Surrey, £51,780 17s. 7d. whilst the sum paid for the construction of the mill itself was £6,913 3s. 6d.
On our way across the gravelled court-yard, we had our first
peep at the female convicts imprisoned at Brixton, and so simple and picturesque
was their convict costume that they had none of the repulsive
and spectral appearance of the brown masked men at Pentonville, nor had they
even the unpleasant, gray, pauper look of the male prisoners at Millbank.
Their dress consisted of a loose, dark, claret-brown robe or gown, with a blue check apron and neckerchief, while the cap they wore was a small, close, white muslin one, made after the fashion of a French bonne's. The colour of the gown was at once rich and artistically appropriate, and gave great value to the tints of the apron, and even the whiteness of the cap itself. On their arms the prisoners carried some bright brass figures, representing their register number; while some bore, above these, badges in black and white, inscribed one or two, according as they belonged to the first or second class of convicts.
Occasionally there fitted across the yard some female convict, clad in a light-blue kind of over-dress. These, we were informed, were principally at work in the laundry, and the garb, though partaking too much of the butcher-tint to be either pleasing or picturesque, was still both neat and clean.
The first place we visited was the bakery, and on our way thither we passed women carrying large black baskets of coal, and engaged in what is termed the "coal service" in the yard.
The bakery was a pleasant and large light building, adjoining the kitchen, and here we found more females, in light blue gowns, at work on the large dresser, with an immense heap of dough that lay before them like a huge drab-coloured feather-bed, and with the master baker in his flannel jacket standing beside the oven watching the work. Some of the female prisoners were working the dough, that yielded to their pressure like an air-cushion; and some were cutting off pieces and weighing them in the scales before them, and then tossing them over to others, who moulded them into the form of dumplings, or small loaves.
At the end of the bakery was the large prison kitchen, where stood kind of beer-trays - such as the London pot-boys use for the conveyance of the mid-day and nocturnal porter to the houses in the neighbourhood. These trays at Brixton, however, served for the conveyance of the dinner-cans to the several parts of the prison, whilst the huge, bright, spouted tin beer- cans that stood beside them were used for the dispensation of the cocoa that was now steaming in the adjoining coppers, and being served out by more prisoners, ready against the breakfast- hour, at half-past seven*
* For breakfast the ordinary prison diet consists of 6 ounces of bread, and ¾ pint of cocoa to each prisoner, whilst those engaged in the Iahour of the laundry, bakehouse, &c., are severally allowed 8 ounces of bread and one pint of cocoa.
For dinner the prison allowance is 4 ounce, of cooked meat, ½ pint of soup, with ½ pound of potatoes and 6 ounces of bread, whilst the labourers get each 5 ounces of meat, and 1 pint of soup, with 1 pound of pota-[-184-]toes and 6 ounces of bread - the convalescent, having the same as the labourer, with the exception of being served with mutton instead of beef.
For supper, on the other hand, the labourers and convalescents have each 8 ounces of bread and 1 pint of tea, whilst the laundry-women have all 1½ ounce of cheese in addition - the ordinary prison diet for the same meal consisting of a pint of gruel and 8 ounces of bread for the No. 3 women, as they are called (i.e., the third-class prisoners) ; whilst the No. 2 women get the same allowance of gruel and bread four times in the week, and a pint of tea instead of gruel three times in the week; and the No. 1 women a pint of tea every night.
This dietary scale is very nearly the same as that at Pentonville, with the exception that the prisoners there get 1 lb. of potatoes instead of ½lb., as at Brixton.
[-184-] The Serving of the Dinners at Brixton.-We were present
at the serving of the dinners in this establishment, which were dispensed after
the following manner:-
At a few minutes before one o'clock the "breads" are counted out into large wicker baskets, in the shape of those used for dinner-plates, while the tin cans-which, like those at Pentonville, have a partition in the middle, similar to the ones carried by bill-stickers-being filled with soup and meat on one side, and potatoes on the other, are ranged in large potboy-like trays, which are inscribed with the letters of the several wards to which they appertain.
Precisely at one o'clock a bell is heard to ring, and then the matrons of the old prison enter in rotation, each accompanied with four prisoners, one of whom seizes one tray, while two more of the gang go off with another that is heavier laden, and the last hurries off with the basket of bread, with an officer at her heels.
After this, large trucks are brought in, and when stowed with the trays and bread-baskets for the "wings," they are wheeled off by the attendant prisoners, one woman dragging in front, and the others pushing behind.
We followed the two trucks that went to the east wing of the prison, and here we found a small crowd of women waiting, with the matrons at the door, ready to receive the trays as the vehicles were unladen. "That's ours!" cried one of the female officers in attendance; and immediately the prisoners beside her seized the tray with the basket of bread, and wont off with it, as if they were so many pot-girls carrying round the beer.
Then a large bell clattered through the building, and one of the warders screamed at the top of her voice, "O Lord, bless this food to our use, and us to thy service, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen!"
No sooner was the grace ended, than the officers of the several wards went along the galleries, opening each cell-door by the way, with three or four prisoners in their wake, carrying the trays. The cell being opened, the matron handed in the bread from the basket which one of the prisoners carried, and then a can of soup from the tray, the door being closed again immediately afterwards, so that the arcade rang with the unlocking and slamming of the doors in the several galleries. When the dinners were all served, the cell-doors were double locked, and then another bell rang for silence; after which, any prisoner talking, we were told, would be reported to the superintendent for breach of rules.
The distribution of the dinners was at once rapid and orderly, and reflected no slight credit upon the several ladies who are engaged in the conduct of the prison for the almost military precision with which the duty was carried out.
A curious part of the process consisted in the distribution of the knives before dinner, and collection of them afterwards. For the latter purpose, one of the best-conducted prisoners goes round with a box, a matron following in her steps, and then the knives, ready cleaned, are put out under the door. These are all counted, and locked up in store for the next day. But if one of the number be short, the prisoners are not let out of their cells till the missing knife be found, each convict and cell being separately searched, with a view to its discovery.
During the dinner hour we went over to the infirmary kitchen, to see how the sick pri-[-185-]soners fared in Brixton. here we found the cook busily serving out a small piece of boiled cod for some who had been ordered to be placed on fish diet, and dishing up some mutton chops for others. Then there were poached eggs for a few, and a batter-pudding and some rice-milk for some of the other invalids; so that it was plain the majority of the poor creatures fared more sumptuously under their punishment than they possibly could have done outside the prison walls.
Exercising at Brixton.-The airing yards at this prison have little of the bare gravel school play-ground character, so common with those at the other jails, for here there are grass-plots and flower-beds, so that, were it not for the series of mad-house-like windows piercing the prison walls, a walk in the exercising grounds of Brixton would be pleasant and imprison-like enough.
The prisoners exercise principally for one hour-from eight till nine; the laundry- women, however, whose work is laborious, walk for only half the usual time.
It is a somewhat curious and interesting sight to see near upon two hundred female convicts pacing in couples round and round the Brixton exercising yards, and chattering as they go like a large school, so that the yard positively rings as if it were a market-place with the gabbling of the many tongues; indeed, the sight of the convicts, filing along in couples, reminds one of the charity children parading through the streets, for the prisoners are dressed in the same plain straw bonnets, and not only have a like cleanly and neat look, but are equally remarkable for the tidiness of their shoes and stockings. (See engraving.)
As we stood, with the principal matron still attending us, watching the prisoners pace round and round, like a cavalcade at a circus, while the warders on duty cried, "Hasten on there, women-hasten on!" our intelligent and communicative guide ran over to us the peculiarities of the several convicts as they passed.
"Those you see exercising there, in the inner ring, sir," she said, "are the invalids, and we let them walk at a slower pace. This one coming towards us, she whispered, "is in for life, for the murder of her child. You wouldn't think it, would you, sir, to look at her ?" and assuredly there was no trace of brutal ferocity in her countenance. "Her conduct here has been always excellent-she's as gentle as a lamb; I really think she's sincerely penitent.
"That one now approaching us," she added, "is one of the worst tempered girls in the whole prison. By her smile, you would take her to be the very opposite to what she is.
"Yonder woman, continued the matron, "is one of the best we have here, and yet she's in for biting off a man's ear; but the man had been frying to injure her very much before she was roused to it. They are mostly all in for thieving, and, generally speaking, they have led the most abandoned lives."
The truth of the last remark was evident in the smiles and shamelessness of many; for, as they paraded past us, not a few stared in our face with all the brazen look of the streets, and yet many of their countenances were almost beautiful, so that it was difficult to believe that there was any deep-rooted evil in their hearts.
"It is curious, sir, the vanity of many of these women," whispered our intelligent guide. "Those straw bonnets none of them can bear, and it is as much as ever we can do to make them put them on when they are going to see the doctor. They think they look much better in their caps. One woman, I give you my word, took the ropes off her hammock and put them round the bottom of her dress so as to make the skirt seem fuller. Another we had filled her gown with coals round the bottom for the same object; and others, again, have taken the wire from round the dinner cans and used it as stiffners to their stays. One actually took the tinfoil from under the buttons, and made it into a ring. You would hardly believe it, perhaps, but I have known women scrape the walls of their cells and use the powder of the whitewash to whiten their complexion. Indeed, there is hardly any trick they would not be at if we did not keep a sharp eye upon them."
[-186-] The Chapel at Brixton Prison.-The little church for the female convicts is at once simple and handsome in its internal decorations. The roof, which is of oak, bears a rude resemblance to that of Westminster Mall, ornamented as it is with its brown "hammer-beams" and "collar-beams;" and when the sittings are filled with the convict-congregation, habited in their dark claret gowns and clean white caps, we hardly know a prettier or a more touching sight m the world; for the suspicion of hypocrisy that lurks in the mind, despite the apparent fervour of the prisoners at Pentonville, serves greatly to lessen our sympathy with the contrition of the criminals there. We all know, however, that women are naturally not only less skilled in simulation and cunning, but of a more religious and ardent temperament than men, so that we no sooner hear the confessions of sin and supplications for mercy uttered in the general responses of these wretched unfortunates, than it becomes impossible to withhold our commiseration, or to refrain from adding our own prayer for their forgiveness to the one common cry.
Moreover, never did we see a congregation more zealous and apparently truthful in their devotions, for though we ourselves were, with the exception of the gate-keeper and the minister, the only male among the number there assembled, and a stranger to the place, nevertheless our presence served in no way to take the attention of the women from their books; and we could tell, by the fixedness of their gaze upon the chaplain during his discourse, how intent they all were upon his precepts and teachings.
Nor was it any wonder, to those who had previously witnessed the feeling which existed between the minister and the prisoners at l3rixton, that the convicts should hang upon his every word as children listen, in purest faith, to all that falls from a father's lips.
We bad gone over the prison in company with the chaplain himself, and noted, long before the service commenced, that he was esteemed as a kind and dear friend by every one of the wretched inmates there. The smile in each countenance as he passed, the sparkle in every eye, and the confiding look of all into his face, told us that the wretched women clung, in their sins, to him who was their protector against the fury of the world without- even as the adulterous woman sought shelter from the wrath of her assailants in the loving- kindness of Christ himself.
As the chaplain accompanied us on our rounds, we soon saw that his was no mere profession of Christian duty, and that those he had undertaken to watch over and lead into new and happier paths he took no common interest in - being acquainted with almost all the members of their family, and speaking first to this one of her mother, and then to another of her son, while to a third he told how some old fellow-prisoner whose time had recently expired, was doing well, and in a comfortable situation at last.
Nor was it only the chaplain himself who was thus friendly with the inmates of the jail, for every member of his youthful family was equally well known, and, one could see at a glance, equally beloved by them all; the young people had evidently made themselves acquainted with the history of each wretched woman under their father's care, and while the sons displayed no little interest in the chaplain's duty, the daughter spoke of the poor fallen women with exquisite tenderness, and delighted to recount to us how some of the convicts had been reclaimed, and how little the world really knew of the trials and temptations of such characters. Indeed, we never met with a finer and nobler instance of Christian charity than we here found practised daily by this most righteous and unassuming family.
"Reports," Punishments, and Refractory Cells at Brixton.- We requested permission of Mrs. Martin, the superintendent, to be present during her examination of the prisoners who had been reported for misconduct. The superintendent sat at her desk, in the principal office of the argus or octagonal house, in the centre of the prison yard, and gave directions to the matron in attendance to bring in the first prisoner who had been reported.
[-187-] "This," said the superintendent to us, awaiting the
return of the matron with the woman, "is a case of quarreling and fighting
between two of the prisoners-a charge that, I ma sorry to say, is by no means
Presently the door opened, and the matron brought in a prisoner whose features and complexion were those of a creole, and who was habited in the blue dress of the laundry-women.
"How is it, prisoner," inquired the lady governor, "that you are brought here again?"
"Well, mum," replied the woman, as she shook her head with considerable emotion, and drew near to the table of the superintendent, "I couldn't stand it no longer! She offered to strike me three times afore ever I touched a hair of her head - that she did, mum; and as my liberty hadn't come, you know, mum -" and the half-caste was about to enter into a long explanation on the latter part of the subject, when she was stopped by the lady saying, "Yes, I know; and I make great allowance for you."
"I was sure you would, mum," briskly replied the woman; "she called me a-"
"Oh, dear me!- there, I don't want to hear what was said," again interrupted the superintendent. "Well, I shall not punish you until I have looked into the affair; so you may go back to your work."
"Thank you, mum," and the prisoner curtseyed, as she left the room with the matron; whereupon, immediately afterwards, another convict was ushered in.
"You have been behaving very ill, I hear," said the superintendent.
"I'm very sorry," was the prisoner's reply; "but I'm a woman as doesn't like quarreling."
"There, don't say that ; for I have your name down here rather often!" returned the superintendent; "besides, my officer tells me that you were at fault, so I shall punish you by stopping your dinner."
"These are all the refractory cases," said the female officer, as the prisoner curtseyed and left the room; "but there are three women who wish to speak with you, ma'am."
"Very well, bring them in," said the superintendent.
The first of these was a young Scotch girl, who said that she came about her letters, and that she hadn't got her letters, though her mother had written her several letters, but that all her letters had been kept back. Whereupon the superintendent explained to her that she was only allowed to receive and write one every two months; and on the female clerk being consulted as to the number the girl had received, the answer returned was that she had been permitted to have three within the stated time; so the prisoner left the room muttering that the letters were from her mother, and that she wanted her letters, and no one had a right to keep back her letters.
"That girl," said the superintendent, "has got ten years, and is very irritable under it; indeed, I often think the women make up the cases for the sake of coming here and getting a little variety to their life."
The second prisoner seeking an interview with the superintendent, was likewise a Scotch woman, and she also came to speak about her letters. "You gave me permission, mum, to write to my son," said the convict; "he's come home from Balaklava, and gone to Bombay since." "Well," was the answer, "if I did, you must leave the letter here and I will see about sending it for you." "Bless you, mum!" said the old woman, as she hobbled, with repeated curtseys, out of the room.
The last woman seeking an interview was one who came to know about being recommended for her ticket-of-leave. "The women that got their badges at the same time as me has had their liberty already, please mum," urged the prisoner. Whereupon the superintendent asked the woman whom she had got to receive her when she was let out. "My sister," was the answer. "And how do you mean to support yourself?" "Oh, please mum, my sister says she'll get me into service," replied the prisoner, curtseying. "I [-188-] hope you will do well," was the kind-hearted exclamation of the superintendent; "and your recommendation shall be sent up next time."
"Is that all, Miss Donnelly?" the lady-governor asked, as the prisoner retired thanking her; and being informed that she had seen all the applicants, the female officer was dismissed.
"We have sent away altogether upwards of 200 women on ticket-of-leave, and only 4 have come back," said the lady, in answer to a question from us, "and even with those four we can hardly believe them to be guilty; the police are so sharp with the poor things. When they are brought back to me here, the women feel dreadfully ashamed of themselves, and one was the very picture of despair. She's the mother of twins, and has attempted her life several times since. The police are very severe with them, I think; and I can't help feeling an interest in the wretched creatures, just as if they were children of my own. Last night I was obliged to order handcuffs to be put on the ticket-of-leave woman who has just been sent back to us; she had commenced breaking her windows, and threatened to assault her officer. This re-commitment has made her quite different, and I think the state of her mind is very doubtful now. When I first came here," continued the lady, "I'm sure it was like living in another planet. As a clergyman's wife, I used to see all kinds of people of course, but never any like these. Oh, they are most peculiar! There are many of them subject to fits of the most ungovernable fury; very often there is no cause at all for their passion except their ow-u morbid spirits; perhaps their friends haven't written, so they'll sit and work themselves up into a state of almost frenzy, and when the officer comes they will give way. Sometimes they know when the fit is coming on, and will themselves ask to be locked up in the refractory wards."
"When they are in these fits they're terribly violent indeed," the superintendent went on; "they tear up and break everything they can lay their hands on. The other day one of the prisoners not only broke all the windows in her cell, but tore all her bed-clothes into ribbons, and pulled open her bed and tossed all the coir in a heap on the floor; and then she wrenched off the gas-jet, and so managed to pull down the triangular iron shelf that is fixed into the wall at one corner of the cell. When the prisoners work themselves up to such a state as that, we're generally obliged to call the male officers to them. The younger they are the worse they behave. The most violent age, I think, is from seventeen to two or three and twenty - indeed, they are like fiends at that age very often. But, really, I can hardly speak with certainty on the matter, the life is so new to me. Often, when the prisoners have behaved very badly in one prison, they'll be quite different on going to another; a fresh place gives them an opportunity of turning over a new leaf, I fancy. Oh, yes! I find them very sensitive to family ties, and I'm often touched myself to think such wicked creatures should have such tender feelings. The son of that old Scotch woman you saw here writes her the most beautiful letters, and sends her all the money he can scrape together. Generally speaking, they have most of them been previously convicted, and more than once; often, too, the very worst outside are the best behaved in the prison - that makes it so difficult to get situations for them."
Afterwards, in the course of an interview with the medical officer, we sought to ascertain whether any physical cause could be assigned for these sudden and violent outbursts among the women. The surgeon informed us that he knew of no bodily or organic reason to account for them; four per cent, of the whole of the prisoners, or 20 in 600 were subject to such fits of violent passion, and these were almost invariably from fifteen to twenty-five years of age. The elder women were equally bad in nature - perhaps worse - but they did not break the prison rules like the younger ones. "Women, even in their most furious moments," he told us, "seldom injure themselves or those around them, though they will break their windows, and even occasionally tear their own clothing to ribbons."
On a subsequent occasion we spoke of these ungovernable bursts of violence to a lady friend of ours-one who was really of an exceeding gentle nature; and she frankly confessed [-189-] that she could understand the luxury of smashing things in an overwhelming fit of temper. "You men," she said, as she saw us smile at her candour, "are stronger than we, and therefore you rent your passions upon the people about you; but women cannot do this from their very weakness, and so those poor ignorant things who have never learnt self-control expend their fury upon the tables, chairs, and glasses, that are unable to turn upon them - even as some husbands vent their passion on their wives, who are incapable of defending themselves against them."
"Temper," she added, "is always cowardly, and wreaks itself only upon such things as it fancies it can master."
At another part of the day we inspected the refractory cells, which are situate in the old prison. These are six in number, and not quite dark, the screen before the windows being pierced with holes; for on entering one, and requesting that the double doors might be closed upon us, we found we could see to write after a few moments, when the eye had grown accustomed to the darkness; and it was curious to watch how each part of the cell that was invisible at first started into sight after a few minutes. Then we could see that there was the same rude wooden couch, with the sloping head-piece, on the floor as in others, and a large air-hole, from the passage near the ceiling, for the ventilation of the cell.
There were also the "hoppered cells," where those women are put who are accustomed to break the windows, or to speak or look out of them-the hopper being a slanting iron screen m front of the casement, so called from its resemblance to that wedge-shaped trough in a mill into which the corn is put to be ground. Sin of these cells were without glass and six with, whilst one was constructed upon a new plan, and bad a perforated zinc screen to prevent the women smashing the windows.
"The punishments," says the Brixton chaplain, in his report for 1854, "are apparently numerous; but a careful inspection of the misconduct-book will prove that most of them have been inflicted upon the same persons, and that the great body of the prisoners has not been subjected to any punishment at all. Violence of temper is one great evil with female prisoners: they are so easily excited, and so subject to sudden impulses, that it is very painful to consider what misery they bring upon themselves, owing to the influence of bad temper." *
* The following list is extracted from the last published Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons
RETURN OF PUNISHMENTS AT THE FEMALE CONVICT PRISON, 1854.
In Handcuffs 31
Confined to Cell 34
Straight Waistcoat 1
Withdrawn from Association 70
Refractory Cell - Full Rations - 141
Refractory Cell - Bread and Water - 147
On Bread and Water Diet - 92
Not punished on Special Grounds - 19
Deprived of One Meal or Part of a Meal - 246
Total - - 1209
By the above table it will be seen that the most frequent punishment resorted to was confinement in the refractory cell, of which there were 288 cases in the course of the year. That the next punishment in the order of frequency was a simple reprimand, of which there were 257 cases, whilst the chastisement, of which the number of cases stood next in the list, was the deprivation of a meal, or part of a meal, and of which there were 246 instances. The more serious impositions, such as handcuffs and straight waistcoat, were comparatively limited.
The Convict Nursery at Brixton.-
most touching portion of the female convict prison, and what distinguishes
it essentially from all the penal institutions appropriated to male prisoners,
is that which forms the heading of the present portion of our description of the
internal economy of the Brixton establishment.
To those who know the early life and education of the habitual criminal-who know how, in many cases, he was born among thieves, reared and schooled among thieves', and thieves only-how he was begotten, perhaps, by a convict father, and nursed by a felon mother, and [-290-] trained, too, at the earliest age to dishonest practices by light-fingered tutors, as regularly as our children are disciplined into virtuous courses-how he was taught by his companions in crime to look upon the greatest ruffian as the greatest hero; and how with the vagabond and wayward class, from whom his paradoxical morals have been derived, the plundering of the industrious portion of society is regarded as a part of virtue, if not religion - (for the gipsy says to her child, "And now, having said your prayers, go out and steal, even as the Thug offers up his worship to Kalee, before starting to ensnare and murder his victim") - and how, moreover, your true hereditary criminal has learnt from his earliest childhood to admire and approve of only feats of low cunning, and that brute courage, which his class terms "pluck;" and to believe that to "do your neighbour, as your neighbour would do you," constitutes the real summum bonum of life; he, we repeat, who knows this, and who knows, moreover, that there are distinct races of outcasts and wanderers, moved by the very opposite philosophy and principles to that which we and our children have, as Christians, been taught to revere, must surely feel, that had it been his lot to have been born and bred among such tribes, his own conscience would, most probably, have been as warped and tainted as that of those he has learnt to condemn, if not to loathe; and feeling this, the first great lesson of toleration, viz., that even his own individual exemption from jail is due rather to the accident of his birth and parentage, than to any special merit on his part, he cannot but in his heart get to pity the poor wretches who have been less lucky in the lottery of life than he.
But this is mere sentimentality, the sterner reader will perhaps exclaim-maudling philanthropy, that comes of the prevailing morbid desire to cuddle and caress creatures whom we, in our honest indignation, should shun and despise. Those who think thus, we answer, should visit Brixton prison, and see the little babes there, clinging to their convict mothers' skirts, or playing with their rag-dolls in the convict nursery; and then ask themselves what fate they think can await the wretched little things that have made so bad a start in the great race of life. Will not the goal they are destined probably to reach have the vowels transposed, and be written gaol instead ?-for even though now they be, as the Great Teacher said, "types of the kingdom of heaven," and with an almost angel-innocence beaming in their pretty little cherub faces, is it not most likely that, in after life, those who drew their first breath inside the prison walls will come to breathe their last gasp there also? Is this so-called Christian country sufficiently enlightened and charitable yet, think you, to allow such as they the same chance of success in the world as honest men's children? Will they meet with no gibes in years to come, for their felon extraction? Would you, reader, like to take them into your household and your family, when they grow up, to tend your own little ones? And if all the arrogant prejudices of society be at war with their advancement, think you they will live at peace with the rest of mankind; or that they can possibly find in after life that honesty is the best policy, when almost every one is prepared to deny them the privilege of labouring for their livelihood-or, in other words, the very means of practising the virtue?
"This," said our attendant, as we entered the pathetic place, while the matron led the first babe she met towards us, "is little Eliza; she was born in the jail at York, and is rather better than two years old."
The tiny creature hung its head, and struggled to get back to its mother, as we stooped down and held our hand out towards it; but the little thing had long been accustomed to see no man's face but that of the chaplain and the surgeon, so it screamed to get farther from us, the nearer we drew towards it. She was a pretty gray-eyed child, and dressed the same as the other infants in the room, in a spotted blue frock-the convict baby-clothes. The mother of this one was the wife of a labouring man, and condemned to five years' imprisonment.
With the tears stinging our eyes, we passed on to the next little innocent-innocent for how long? She was called Jeanie, and was nearly two years and a half old; she had been [-191-]
born in Glasgow prison; the mother was unmarried, and
sentenced to four years' penal servitude.
Little Sarah, the next we turned to, was a poor, white-faced infant, that had been born in Brixton prison itself seven months ago, and was sickly with its teething. The mother had to suffer four years' penal servitude, and was married to a private in the Fusilier Guards, but had not heard from him since her conviction.
The next babe was younger still, having been born in Brixton on the 7th of February last. This was a boy, and named Thomas. The mother was unmarried, and had four years' penal servitude to undergo.
Martha was the name of the next convict child; and she was a fair-haired, fresh-checked, pretty little thing, rather more than two years old, and asleep in the prison bed.
"That is the most timid child I ever met with," said the kind-hearted matron, who accompanied us throughout the day. "She was born in Lincoln Castle, and the mother - (" She's unmarried, sir," whispered the officer, apart, to us, as we jotted down the facts in our note-book) - has ten years' transportation, and more than seven years still to serve.
"Ah! she's a sad romp," said our attendant, as we passed on to another child-Annie, she was called. She was tottering along, as she held her mother's finger. "She's two years and three months on the 21st of May, sir," said the mother, in answer to our question, "and was born in Lewes jail. I've got six years' penal servitude." Poor Annie! we inwardly exclaimed; for she was a clean, flaxen-haired, laughing little thing, that smiled as she looked up into our face. "Not married!" added the wretched mother, timidly.
At this moment the chaplain entered, when several of the little things toddled off towards the good man, and he raised them in his arms, and kissed them one after another. "Oh! I saw Tommy's mother, the other day," said he to one of the women, in reference to an old prisoner who had obtained her liberty. "She's been doing very nicely. Tommy's been rather poorly, though. I hope I shall be able to get her another situation."
"There, you see," said the minister, turning to us, and pointing to the tins on an adjacent table, "is the nursery breakfast. There's a pint of milk for each child, and tea for the mothers."
As we left, the matron whispered to us that the pictures for the children, hanging up against the wall, were given by the clergyman. And when we returned to the nursery, later in the day, we found the mothers at work at some new frocks that the chaplain's daughter had presented to the poor little things.
"There's one apiece all round, baby and all," said the matron, as she held up a tiny frock that was finished, by the little short sleeves. It was a neat chintz pattern, that was at once serviceable and pretty. "They'd only those white-spotted blue things before, sir."
At another part of the day we spoke with the chaplain himself concerning the prison regulations upon such matters, and then he told us that at one time there had. been as many as thirty children in that establishment; hut lately the Secretary of State had issued an order forbidding them to receive children from other prisons. "If the child be born here it is to stay with the mother-how long I cannot say," added the minister, "but if born in jail before: the mother comes here, it is to be sent to the Union immediately she is ordered to be removed to this prison. We never had a child older than four years, but at Millbank one little thing had been kept so long incarcerated, that on going out of the prison it called a horse a cat. The little girl that we had here of four years of age, my children used to take to the Sunday school, so that she might mix a little with the world, for she used to exclaim, when she was taken out into the road and saw a horse go by, 'look at that great big doggie.'"
There is, indeed, no place in which there is so much toleration, and true wisdom, if not goodness, to be learnt, as in the convict nursery at Brixton!
The Delivery of the Prison
Letters.- A letter, at all times, is more highly
prized by women than men. The reason is obvious. The letters addressed to males
are more frequently upon purely business matters, so that after a time the sight
of such documents conjures up no pleasant association in men's minds; whereas
the letters of females are, generally, so intimately connected with matters of
pleasure, and so often with the outpourings of affection from friends or
relations, that the very sight of an envelope bearing their name and address is
sufficient to excite in them not only the most lively emotions, but the most
Towards the evening of the day of our visit to Brixton prison, the chaplain's clerk (who, be it observed, was no serious-looking gentleman in dingy black, but an intelligent and pleasant-looking young woman, who, in the female prison, combines with the clerk's duty the equally male office of general postman) came towards us with a bundle of letters, and asked us whether we would like to accompany her on her rounds. "It's one of the pleasantest duties, sir, that we have to perform here," said the considerate post-woman; "and no one knows but ourselves how the poor prisoners look forward to the arrival of their letters. Day after day they'll ask me to be sure and bring them one soon, as if I could make them quicker."
We told the clerk) as we walked along with her towards one of the wings, that we had that morning had evidence as to the anxiety the prisoners felt about receiving letters from their friends. "Ah, that they do," she returned; "and if the letter doesn't come just when the time is due for getting it, they'll sit and mope over it day after day, and work themselves up at last into such a violent fury, that they'll break and tear up everything about them."
this time we had reached the cell in the west wing, to which the first letter
was addt eased. The women were locked up in their cells during tea-time, and the
clerk, placing her mouth close against the door, called the name of the prisoner
"Yes, mum," was the answer that came from the cell.
"Here's a letter for you," added the clerk, as she stooped down and threw the document under the door. In a moment after there was a positive scream of delight within, followed by a cry of "Oh! how glad I am." Then we could hear the poor creature tear open the sheet, and begin mumbling the contents to herself in half hysteric tones.
The clerk had hurried on her rounds, while we stood listening by the door, and she remained waiting for us outside the cell of the next prisoner on her list. "Sheridan," she whispered. "Yes, mum," was the rapid reply, as if the inmate of the cell recognized the welcome voice, and anticipated what was coming. Then the letter was slid under the doorway, as before, and this was followed by a simple exclamation of "Oh! thank you, mum"
"The last prisoner," said the clerk, as she now hastened off towards the laundry, "has more friends in the world than the other, and that is why she received her letter so differently. In the laundry, the prisoner to whom the letter was given smiled gratefully in the clerk's face, as she thrust it into her bosom. "Can you read it?" inquired the letter-carrier, who seemed almost as delighted as the prisoner herself. "Oh, yes, mum, thank you," replied the woman; and she hurried to the other end of the wash-house, to enjoy its contents quietly by herself.
Then three more letters were delivered, one to a prisoner in the kitchen, and the others [-194-] to women in the east wing. After that, we followed the clerk across the yard to the infirmary, where the last letter was given to the head-nurse.
"I never deliver the letters myself here," added the thoughtful and tender-hearted clerk, "because I don't know the state of health the prisoners may be in, and I'm afraid of exciting them too much."
As a further example of the store set by the female prisoners upon the letters they receive from their relatives and friends, we may mention that there is hardly a cell that is not furnished with some fancy letter-bag, worked by the prisoner, in the form of a large watch-pocket; and we were assured that the documents treasured in such bags are prized as highly as if they were so much bank-paper, and that in the moments of sadness which overcome prisoners, they were invariably withdrawn and read-perhaps for the hundredth time - as the only consolation left them in their friendlessness and affliction.
Female Convict Labour at Brixton.- The work done by the women prisoners is, of course, of a different character to that performed either at Pentonville or the hulks. The tailoring at the former establishment gives place to the more appropriate shirt-making, hemming flannels, and stitching stays, &e.; while the hard labour of the prisoners working in the arsenal and dockyard is here replaced by the more feminine occupation of the laundry.*
is at Brixton that all the clothes are washed for the 350 and odd prisoners
confined at Pentonville, and the 820 in Millbank, as well as the linen of the 688
convicts in Brixton prison itself; so that altogether the women in the laundry
have to supply clean clothing every week for some 1800 persons. Hence, we arc
barely surprised, when we read in the return of the work done, that there were
more than half a million pieces washed at Brixton in the course of the year
1854. Besides this, we find the prisoners made up during the same time more than
20,000 shirts, and nearly 10,000 flannel drawers and waistcoats, 1,200 shifts,
3,500 petticoats, 5,700 sheets, 2,000 caps, 3,700 pocket-handkerchiefs, 2,800
aprons, 2,300 neckerchiefs, 1,200 jackets, and just upon 3,400 towels; so that
the gross value of their united labour was estimated at very nearly £1,800. The
scale of gratuities paid to convicts at Brixton is nearly the same as that of
other prisons - those in the second class receiving from 6d. to 8d. per
week, and those in the first from 8d. to 1s. per week, according to their
The expenses of the prison, on the other hand, were upwards of £15,700 - the cost of the officers, clerks, and servants being very nearly £3,900; that of victualling the prisoners amounting to £3,000 and odd, while their clothing and bedding came to very nearly £3,000, and the fuel and light for the prison to upwards of £1,200.
The laundry at the Brixton prison is no mean establishment.
Here the majority of the women whom we have before met in our rounds, habited in
their light-blue checked over-dresses, are found, standing on wooden gratings,
washing away at the wooden troughs ranged round the spacious wash-house which
forms the lower part of the building. Here some, with their bare red arms, are
working the soddened flannels against a wooden grooved board that is used to
save the rubbing of the clothes, while the tops of the troughs are white and
iridescent with the clouds of suds within them. Two women in the centre are
turning the handles of the wringing machine that, as the box in which the wet
clothes are placed spins round and round, drains the newly-washed linen of its
moisture by the mere action of the centrifugal force. In one part is a large
wooden boiler heated by steam, and scattered about the place are tubs full of
brown wet sheets, large baskets of blankets, and piles of tripey-looking
flannels; whilst a dense white mist of steam pervades the entire atmosphere, and
the floors are as wet and sloppy as the streets of a Dutch town on a Friday.
From the wash-house we ascended to the drying-rooms over-head, and here one of the doors of what seemed to be a huge press was thrown open, and an immense clothes'-horse drawn out, with rows of unbleached towels and blankets across its rails, while the blast of hot air that rushed forth was even more unpleasant than the dampness of the atmosphere below. Hence we passed into the ironing-room, and as we approached the place, we knew
[- 195-] by the smell of burnt flannel the nature of the occupation
carried on within. Here were gas-stoves for heating the irons, the ordinary
grates being found too hot for the summer, and there was a large blanketed
dresser, at which a crowd of clean-looking women were at work, in very white
aprons, while the place resounded with the continued click of the irons returned
every now and then to their metal stands. On the floor stood baskets of
newly-ironed clothes, and plaited, and looking positively like so much moulded
snow; whilst, over-head, might be heard the rumbling of the mangles at work on
the upper floor.
From eleven till twelve, the women located in the wings pursue their needlework in silence, and seated at their doors; and then it is a most peculiar sight to see the two hundred female convicts ranged along the sides of the arcade, and in each of the three long balconies that rim one above the other round the entire building, so that, look which way you will, on this side or on that, you behold nothing but long lines of convict women, each dressed alike, in their clean white caps, and dark, claret-brown gowns, and all with their work upon their knees, stitching away in the most startling silence, as if they were so many automata - the only noise, indeed, that is heard at such a time being the occasional tapping of one of the matrons' hammers upon the metal stove, as she cries, "Silence there! Keep silence, women!" to some prisoners she detects whispering at the other end of the ward. (See engraving.)
As we passed down the different wards, examining the work as we went, each woman rose from her little stool, and curtseyed, while those on the other side stared, with no little wonder at the object of our visit. Some were making flannels, and some shirts. "We make all the shirts for Portland, Pentonville, and Millbank," said the matron, who still accompanied us; "but those blue-checked shirts are for Moses and Son; we have had many scores of pounds from them!" (No wonder, thought we, that honest women cannot live by the labour of shirt-making, when such as these, who have neither rent, nor food, nor clothing to find, are their competitors.) One of the convicts was engaged upon some open embroidery- work. "She's in for life," whispered the matron, as we passed on - another was busy at a beautiful crotchet collar, that was pronounced to be a rare specimen of such handiwork, the flowers being raised, so that the pattern had more the appearance of being carved in ivory than wrought in cotton. At the upper end of the long arcade stood one (who had evidently belonged to a better class than her fellow-prisoners), cutting out a dress for one of the matrons. We mounted the steps leading to the paddle-box-like bridges that connect the opposite galleries, and, as we walked along, the matron still drew our attention to the various articles made by the women. "That one is engaged in knitting the prison hose; the other is making up the caps for the female convicts. This woman is considered to work very beautifully," added our guide, as she drew our attention to a sleeve in crotchet work, that looked rich and light as point lace. "It's taken me nearly three weeks to do," said the prisoner, in answer to the matron, "but then I have a room to clean, and to go to chapel twice a day, besides." One was ill, and seated inside her cell-door reading the "Leisure Hour," and on looking at the article that engaged her attention we found it to be headed, "An incident in the life of a French prisoner!"
From seven till eight in the evening the same silence and work go on; but at this period the women sit within their cells on their stools. The chaplain accompanied us round the building at this hour, and, as we passed along, the prisoners in the lower cells rose one by one and curtseyed to the minister, while those in the galleries above stretched their heads from out their cell-doors to see who were pacing the corridor below. After this we passed into the passages of the old prison, and gently turning the "inspection plate" of some of the cells of the women in separate confinement, peeped in unobserved upon the inmates, and found some working, and others reading, but none, strange to say, idling. Then we looked down into the "convalescent ward," and saw the women seated round the fire-places on either side; and after a time we returned to the west wing, as quietly as [-196-] possible, so as to avoid being heard by the prisoners; for the matron was anxious we should witness the passage from silence to conversation that occurs precisely at eight here.
The corridor seemed to be entirely deserted, no form being visible but those of the matrons on the cross-bridges above; while the place was so still that, as our attendant said, "No one would believe there were a hundred and ninety-nine women at work within it."
As we waited the arrival of the hour, we saw heads continually stretched out to look at the clock at the end of the corridor; and when the first stroke of the time-piece was heard, the prisoners, one and all, poured out of their cells with their stools in their hands, and seated themselves in couples between their doors, while they placed their lamps on the pavement at their feet, and commenced talking rapidly one to the other. This movement was so simultaneous that it seemed more like a pantomime-trick than a piece of prison discipline; while the change from utter silence to the babbling of some two hundred tongues was so immediate as to tell us, by the noise that pervaded every part of the building, how severe a restraint had been imposed upon the prisoners.
Shortly after this the collection of the scissors began, amidst the continual tapping of the official hammer against the stove, and the cry of the matrons, "You are talking too loud, women! Make less noise, there!" The scissors, when collected, are strung one by one upon a large circular wire, like herrings upon a rush, and then carried to the store-cell, and locked up by the warder for the night.
In the west wing there is no further silence previously to retiring to rest. In the east wing, however, prisoners are ordered to abstain from talking for a quarter of an hour before the bell rings for bed.
We re-entered the latter wing precisely at half-past eight-just as the bell was ringing; the arcade was filled with the noise of shifting the stools, for during this term of silence the women no longer sit in couples between their cells; so they retired with their little wooden seats, and placed themselves just within their doom, where they began reading.
The silence now was even more perfect than ever, and remained so till the bell commenced ringing at the prison-gate, announcing the time to retire to rest. Then instantaneously the prisoners, one and all, rose from their seats, and, seizing the stools, withdrew to their cells; and then putting out their brooms, they closed the doors after them, till the whole corridor rang from end to end with the concussions.
This, again, was but the work of an instant, the act being performed with military precision, and in a minute or two afterwards the principal matron was seen travelling along from cell to cell, and double locking every door herself.
In the other wing the same operations had gone on at the same time, and though it was but five minutes after the quarter when we returned to it, we found all still and close for the night.
It would not be right to close our account of the internal economy of this prison without commending, more directly than we have yet done, the excellent manner in which the government and discipline of the institution is carried out by all the lady-officers connected with it-from the thoughtful and kind-hearted superintendent, down even to the considerate little postwoman. Indeed, we left the establishment with a high sense of the kindness and care that the female authorities exhibited towards the poor creatures under their charge, and it is our duty to add, that we noted that all at Brixton was done more gently and feelingly, and yet not less effectually, than at other prisons-the feminine qualities shining as eminently in the character of warders as in that of nurses.