Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Prisoner for Blasphemy
WHEN I found myself alone in my permanent cell, I sat down on the little three-legged stool and examined the furniture. There was a flap-table, two feet by one, fixed on the right wall. In the left corner behind the door were three minute quarter-circle shelves, containing a roll of bedding, a wooden salt-cellar, a wooden spoon, and a comb and brush, each about four inches long. In the opposite corner under the window stood the plank bed, and on the floor were three tin utensils -- a dust-pan, a water-can, and a nondescript lidded article for baser uses. Fortunately, the urn-shaped abomination I found in the Newgate cells, and have already described, was absent in Holloway. When a prisoner wished to visit the water-closet, he rang his bell, and sooner or later (often later) he was let out. Each wing had two closets in a deep recess, the door shielding the occupant's person from mid-leg to breast. During the night the nondescript lidded article was brought into requisition. When the cell doors were opened at six o'clock in the morning every prisoner put out his "slops," which were emptied by the cleaners. This scavenger's work must be very distasteful, but so anxious are the prisoners to get out of their cells that there are always plenty of candidates for the office. The tins are kept clean by means of brick and whitening, which are passed into the cells every evening in little cotton bags. My dust-pan, at least, was always well polished, for I used it as a mirror to see how I was looking, being naturally anxious to ascertain what visible effect the prison life had upon me. One of the warders put me up to a very useful "wrinkle." By well cleaning the dust-pan with whitening, rubbing it up well with the clean rag until it had a nice surface, and then lightly passing a rag saturated with dubbin over it, you could produce a beautiful polish by a few slight touches of the "finisher." After this artistic process the dust-pan shone like an oriental mirror, and might have served a belle at her toilette.
Every article of furniture has now been described, excepting the stool. It was a miniature tripod, fifteen inches high, with a round top about eight inches in diameter. A more uncomfortable seat could hardly be devised. There was no support for the back, and the legs had to be stretched out at full length. If you bent them you threw your body forward, and ran the risk of contracting round shoulders. Whenever I wanted a little ease, especially after dinner, when a V-shaped body is not conducive to digestion, I used to rest against the upright plank bed, extend my legs luxuriously, and dream of the cigar which was just the one thing required to complete a picture of comfort.
Such was the furniture of my apartment in Her Majesty's Holloway Hotel. Scantier appointments were impossible. Yet, to my surprise, an officer came in one day with an inventory, to see if anything was missing. Rather a superfluous check, when the iron cell door was constantly locked and there was no opening to the window! A prisoner could hardly bury his furniture in a concrete floor, and the most ferocious appetite would surely quail before deal planks and tin pans.
The cell itself was similar to the one I have already described. The ventilation was provided by an iron grating over the door, communicating with a shaft that carried off the foul air; and another iron grating under the window, which admitted the fresh air from outside. This grating, however, did not communicate directly with the atmosphere, for the prison is built with double walls. Eighteen inches or so below it was another grating in the outer wall. This arrangement prevented the prisoners from getting a glimpse of the grounds, as well as the air from rushing in too rawly. My cell was one of the old ones. In the new cells there is a slightly different method of ventilation. Two of the small panes of glass are removed from the window, and a little frame is placed inside, consisting of wood at the sides and fluted glass in the front. Flush with the window-sill at the bottom, it inclines inward at an angle of twenty degrees, so that there is room at the top for a six-inch flap, which works on hinges, and is elevated or lowered by a chain. This is an improvement on the old system, because the fresh air comes in straight, and you can regulate the inflow. But in both cases the fresh air has to ascend, and unless there is a wind blowing you get very little of it on a hot summer day. The ventilation depending entirely on temperature, without being assisted by a draught, if the outside temperature, as is often the case in the summer, happens to be higher than that of your cell, your atmosphere is stagnant, and you live in a tank of foul air. This defect might be partially remedied by leaving the cell doors open when the prisoners are out at exercise or chapel, and, as it were, refilling the tank. But keys are a fetish in prison, and the officials think it quite as necessary to lock up an empty cell as an occupied one.
The cell floor, I have said, was blackleaded and polished. A small fibre brush was supplied for sweeping up the dust, and a tight roll of black cloth for polishing. I used both these at first, but I soon dispensed with the latter. Having a slight cold, I found my expectoration black, a circumstance that slightly alarmed me until I reflected that my lungs were in excellent order, and that the discoloration must be due to some extrinsic cause. This I discovered to be the blacklead from the floor. It wears off under your tread, and as there is no draught to carry the dust away, it floats in the air and is inhaled. The only remedy was to avoid the blacklead altogether. When, therefore, the bucket containing a quantity in solution was next brought round, I declined to have any. "But you must," said the officer. "Well, I object," I answered, "and I certainly shall not put it on. If you like to do it yourself of course I cannot prevent you." He did not like to do it himself and disappeared, saying he would come again directly, which he forgot to do. Several days afterwards the Deputy-Governor came on a tour of inspection. Noticing that my floor was neither black nor polished, he attempted a mild reproof. I repeated my objection. "Well, you know," he replied, "you must keep your cell clean." "Yes," I rejoined, "and I do keep it clean for my own sake; but your blacklead is dirt." That ended the conversation, and the blacklead question was never agitated again, although once or twice, during my absence from the cell, the obnoxious stuff was put on the floor and polished up by one of the cleaners. Let me add that in the new cells the floors are all boarded, and the blacklead nuisance is there unknown.
While I was meditating on my luxurious surroundings, the warder entered again with a prisoner, who carried a bag. "Well, Mr. Foote," said the genial officer, "how are you getting on? I've brought you some work. It isn't hard, and you needn't task yourself; you'll find it help to pass away the time." Some of the contents of the bag were then emptied on the floor. They consisted of fibre-rope clipped into short lengths. These had to be picked abroad. The work was light, but very monotonous. It did help to kill time, and it was less troublesome than picking oakum. Mr. Truelove tells me that they made him pick oakum in prison till his fingers were raw, and laughed at him for complaining. He was then seventy years old! Think of it, reader, and reflect on the tender mercies of the religion of charity.
During my imprisonment I never worked at anything but fibre-picking. Gladly would I have wheeled a barrow in the open air, but that is a privilege reserved for felons; misdemeanants are locked up in their cells night and day. Once there was an attempt made to instruct me in the art of brush-making, but it egregiously failed. An officer from the D wing, where the mats and brushes are made, opened my cell door one afternoon, and shouted, "Come along!" "Where?" I asked, not liking his manner. "Where!" he ejaculated, "Come along." "Thank you," I said, "but you must please tell me where." He was very much annoyed by my freezing civility, which I always found the best represser of impertinence; but recognising his mistake, he changed his tone, and vouchsafed an explanation. "The Governor," he said, "wants you to come and see how brushes are made." "Oh, of course," I said, and marched after him.
Arriving at the D wing, I was silently introduced to a prisoner sitting on a stool, who had been brought out of his cell to give me lessons in brush-making. He worked and I watched. Presently the officer had to attend to some other business a few yards off. Directly his back was turned the prisoner eagerly whispered, "How long are ye doin'?" I told him. "I'm doin' fifteen months," he confidingly said. Then he added, with look half positive and half interrogative, "Time's damned long, ain't it?" I agreed. Forgetting his work, he spliced a bit of rope badly. "See," I said, "that splice is wrong." "Ah," he replied, his face brightening, "you're a salt un too, are ye? Hanged if I didn't think you was a barnacle." He informed me that he had been in the English and American navies, and all round the world. Where had I been? I was obliged to explain that I was a journalist. Quill-driving, as he called it, was evidently, in his opinion, an ignominious employment. However did I learn splicing! When I explained that I was bred at the seaside, and passionately loved boating, his sailor's heart warmed towards me again. "This work ain't hard," he said; "you can make two brushes in an hour and a half, and I makes a dozen a week." I smiled. It was a fine illustration of what is called prison labor. Resuming, he said: "I'm the only one as makes 'em now, and I s'pose they wants more. The chap as made 'em afore me used to do three dozen a week. Wasn't he a darned fool? Now, don't you go makin' more than two a day, or you'll put my nose out of joint." "No," I promised, "I won't make more than two a day." "Ah," he said, looking at me with a comical twinkle of the eyes, "I see you ain't a goin' to make brushes."
At this point the warder stepped up, and invited me to try my hand. "Thank you," I replied; "the Governor told you to let me see how brushes are made, and I have seen how brushes are made." Then bowing slightly, I walked straight back to my cell, leaving the officer almost petrified with astonishment. I heard no more of brush-making.
My objection to the work was simple. It was more interesting than picking fibre, but it necessitated stooping, the brush being held, like a shoe, between the knees. As a lecturer, I knew too well the value of a sound chest to engage in such employment.
I come now to the diet. Third-class fare, to which I was entitled by the doctor's order, was almost entirely farinaceous, and miserably monotonous. Breakfast and tea (or supper), served at eight and six respectively, consisted of six ounces of brown bread and three quarters of a pint of gruel, or "skilly." The latter was frequently so fluid that spooning was unnecessary. The dinners, served punctually at twelve o'clock, were more varied. Brown bread and browner potatoes were the staple of each mid-day meal. The bread was always excellent. The potatoes were abominable. I have said that they were browner than the bread, and I may add that the color was not caused by cooking, but purely original. As the old potatoes were leaving the market, and the new ones were too expensive for prisoners, the most robust appetite must have turned with disgust from the supply which fell to our share. I should imagine that every swine's trough around the metropolis must have been plundered to provision Holloway Gaol.
The variable part of the dinner was as follows. Pea-soup, to which, as I have already said, I had a physical antipathy, was served up three days out of every seven -- on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. And such pea-soup! The mixture used to rise as I swallowed it, and I have often grasped my throat to keep it down, knowing that if I did not eat, however nauseous the food, my health would necessarily suffer. It was not pea-soup before the joint, but pea-soup without it, and in that case the quality of the compound is an important matter. When I read the Book of Job afresh in my cell, I found in the sixth chapter, and seventh verse, a text which admirably suited my situation: "The things that my soul refused to touch are as my sorrowful meat." Three days a week I could have preached a better, or at least a more feeling, sermon on that text than any parson in the kingdom.
On Sundays and Wednesdays, instead of the pea-soup, I was served with six ounces of suet pudding baked in a separate tin. I never saw such pudding, and I never smelt such suet. Brown meal was used for the dough, and the suet lay on the top in yellow greasy streaks. I can liken the compound to nothing but a linseed poultice. The resemblance was so obvious that it struck many other prisoners. I have heard the term poultice applied to the suet pudding more than once in casual conversations in the exercise ground. Twice a week I was entitled to meat. On Friday, instead of the pea-soup or suet pudding, there was three ounces of Australian beef; and on Mondays three-quarters of an ounce of fat bacon with some white beans. The subtle humorist who drew up the diet scale had appended a note that "all meats were to be weighed without bone."
A good tale hangs by that bacon and beans. While I was awaiting the second trial in Newgate, and providing my own food, I studied the diet scale which hangs up in each cell, and was fascinated by this extravagant quantity of pork, which seemed to evidence an unimagined display of prison hospitality. One of the officers to whom I mentioned the matter said, "Ah, Mr. Foote, I wish you would show that diet up when you get out. Untried prisoners have the same fare as condemned criminals, only they get less of it. There are lusty chaps come in here, some of them quite innocent, who could eat twice as much, and look round for the man that cooked it. I'll tell you a story about that three-quarters of an ounce. A fellow rang his bell one day after the dinner was served. 'Well,' I said, 'what's the matter?' 'I want's my bacon,' said he. 'Well, you've got it,' said I. 'No I aint,' said he. 'It's in your tin,' said I. 'Taint in my tin,' said he. Then I fetched up the cook. We all three searched, and at last we found the bacon in one of the shucks of the beans."
The worthy fellow laughed, and so did I, as he ended his story. There might have been some exaggeration in it, but you would not find it so hard to believe if you had ever sat down to dine on three-quarters of an ounce of fat bacon.
I was confined in my cell twenty-three hours out of every twenty-four, and during the first week my one hour's exercise was mostly taken in the corridor instead of in the open air. The prison authorities are careless about a man's health being subtly undermined, but they do not like him to catch cold, which may produce visible and audible consequences. Whenever it is snowing or raining, or whenever the ground is wet, the prisoners exercise in the corridors, where the air is scarcely purer than in their cells. During the first week, the weather being bad, I only went out once. On Saturday, which was cleaning day, I had no exercise at all, and on Sunday I was entitled to none -- prisoners not being allowed that privilege on the blessed Sabbath until a month of their sentence has expired. I was therefore confined to my cell without exercise or fresh air from Friday morning until Monday morning, or three clear days. The exercise out of doors is a delightful relief from solitary confinement in a brick vault. The prisoners walk in Indian file in circles: a regular thieves' procession, the Rogue's March without the music. The new comers, who violate the rule of silence, are soon detected by the vigilant officers, but the old hands, as I have said, acquire a habit of speaking without moving the lips, and in a tone which just reaches their next neighbor. Ten days or so after I entered Holloway I overheard the following conversation behind me: --
"Who's that bloke in front o' you?" "Dunno," was the reply. "Queer lookin' bloke, aint he?" -- "How long's he doin'?" -- "A stretch," which in prison language means twelve months, and having served that term, I know that it is a stretch. "What's he in for?" -- "Dunno, but I hear he put somethin' in a paper they didn't like." -- "What, a stretch for that!" -- And I venture to assert that, although the prisoner who uttered this ejaculation was on the wrong side of a gaol, his unsophisticated common sense on this point was infinitely superior to the bigotry of Giffard, Harcourt, and North, and of the jury who assisted in sending us to gaol for "putting something in a paper they didn't like."
During my first week's residence in Holloway Gaol, owing to the bad weather, I exercised in the corridor with the other inmates of the A wing. There is little more room between the cell doors and the railing overlooking the well than suffices for the passage of a single person. The prisoners therefore walked in Indian file, and as they were practically beyond supervision except when they came abreast of one of the three or four officers in charge, a great deal of conversation went on, and I wondered why the chief warder below did not hear the loud hum of so many voices. I afterwards discovered the reason. When you stand under the procession you can hear nothing but the trampling of dozens of feet, which reverberates through the wing, and drowns every other sound.
At first I marched as stiff as a poker, drawing myself together, as it were, into the smallest compass, to avoid the contamination of the company, most of whom were poor, repulsive specimens of humanity, survivals in our civilised age of the lower types of barbarous or savage times. Most of them were young and had a reckless bearing, but a few were middle-aged, and some were obviously old hands who "knew the ropes," were reconciled to their fate, and resolved on making the best of the situation. Tramp, tramp, tramp! My very life seemed reduced to this monotonous shuffle. I half fancied myself in a new kind of hell, ranked in an everlasting procession of aimless feet, mechanically following a convict's coat in front of me, and as mechanically followed by the wearer of a similar coat behind. But as I passed the great window at the end of the wing the blessed light of the silvery winter sun sometimes streamed through the dense glass upon my face, rays of the eternal splendor coming so many millions of miles from the great fire- fount, how indifferent, as Perdita saw, to the artificial distinctions of men! I felt refreshed, but the feeling wore off as I returned to the gloomy corridor, skirting cells on the right, and on the left a low rail that offered the suicide a tempting leap into the arms of Death. All this time I was living an intense inward life, but I suppose there was a far-away look in my eyes, for now and then a prisoner would say "Cheer up, sir." I smiled at this consolatory effort, for although I was disgusted, I was not despondent. Occasionally an attempt was made to drag me into conversation, but I parried all advances with as little offence as possible. One dirty short man, grievously afflicted with scurvy, or something worse, several times manoeuvred to get behind me, and at last he succeeded. "How long ye doin', mate?" No answer. "I say, mate, how long ye doin'?" No answer. "A damned long time, I know, or they wouldn' give ye a ---- new suit like that, ye stuck-up ----."
What oaths I heard in that wretched gaol! No abomination of human speech is unknown to me. One particularly vile expletive was fashionable during my imprisonment; it seasoned every phrase, and preceded every adjective. Its constant iteration was sickening, until long experience made me callous. How thankful I should be to Judge North for trying to purify me in that mud-bath of rascality. I can never forget the debt of gratitude -- and I never will!
Among the prisoners I noticed one of robust physique and martial bearing. Seldom had I seen so fine a figure. Within six months I saw that man reduced almost to a skeleton by solitary confinement, wearily trailing one limb after the other, and looking out despairingly from cavernous, moribund eyes. Well did Lord Fitzgerald (I think) in a recent speech in the House of Lords describe this torture as the worst ever devised by the brain of man. His lordship added that the Governor of a great prison told him that he never knew a man undergo twelve months of such punishment without severe suffering, or two years of it without being terribly shaken, or three years without being physically and mentally wrecked. In the penal servitude establishments the discipline has to be relaxed, or the prisoners would die or go mad before their terms expired. They work out of their cells in the daytime, and on certain occasions (Sundays, I believe) they are allowed to walk in couples and exercise their faculty of speech.
The poor fellow I refer to, fearing that he would die, and
having learnt that I was a public man, managed to tell me something
of his case. He had been a warder in Coldbath Fields Prison, where
he officiated as master-tailor. In an evil moment he "cabbaged"
some cloth, was detected, tried, condemned, and sentenced to twenty
months' imprisonment. He had been in the army for over twenty years
without a scratch of the pen against his name, and his officers had
given him excellent characters; but the judge would hear of nothing
in mitigation of sentence, although he knew it deprived the man of
a pension of thirty-six pounds a year, which he had earned by long
service in India, where the enemy's blades had drunk deeply of his
blood. His wife and children had gone to a work-house in
Leicestershire, and as they had no money for travelling, he had
never received a visit. He pined away in his miserable cell until
he became a pitiable spectacle which excited the compassion of the
whole prison. The doctor ordered him out of his cell, but the
authorities would not allow it. He told me how much he had lost
round the chest and calf, but I have forgotten the precise figures.
One fact, however, I recollect distinctly; he had lost eight
inches round the thigh, and his flesh was like a child's.
Eventually the doctor peremptorily ordered him into the hospital,
and the Prison Commissioners and Visiting Magistrates were
reluctantly obliged to let him save the man's life.
Dreary indeed was the life in my prison cell, sitting on the three-legged stool picking fibre, or walking up and down the twelve-foot floor. I used frequently to stand under the window for long intervals, resting my hand on the sloping sill. It was impossible to see through the heavy-fluted panes, but outside was light, liberty and life. Sometimes, especially on Saturdays, when I had been accustomed to run down to the North, the Midlands or the West, to fulfil a lecturing engagement, the muffled shriek of a distant railway whistle went through me like the clash of steel.
My library, during the first three months, consisted of a Bible, a Prayer Book and a Hymn Book. Although I was really there for knowing too much about the "blessed book" already, I read it right through in the first month, and again in the second, besides reading it discursively afterwards. And still, I am a sincerely impenitent Freethinker! You may knock a man down with the Bible, and make an impression on his skull; but when he picks himself up again, you find you have made no impression on his mind, except that his opinion of you is altered. I remember the chaplain calling to see me one day as I was just concluding my inspection of what Heine calls the menagerie of the Apocalypse. He could not help seeing the Bible, for when it lay open there was very little table visible. "Ah," he said, "I see you have been reading the holy Scripture." "Yes," I replied, "I've read it through this month, and I believe I'm the only man in the place who has done it -- including the chaplain."
By and by the schoolmaster hunted me out a French Bible, the only one in the prison. It was an old one, and contained some scratches by a Gallic prisoner, who had been twice immured for smuggling (pour contrabandier), and who pathetically called on God to help him. Cette vie est vie amere, he had written. Yes, my poor French friend, it was bitter indeed! As for the hymn book, it contained two or three good pieces, like Newman's "Lead, Kindly Light," but for the rest it was the scraggiest collection I ever met with -- evangelical and wooden, with an occasional dash of weak music and washy sentiment.
The monotony of my existence was not even broken by visits to chapel. After the first day's attendance at "divine worship" for some reason I was not let out at the hour of devotion. After a few days, however, one of the principal officers said to me "Wouldn't you like to go to chapel, Mr. Foote. There's nothing irksome in it, and you'll find it breaks the monotony." "With pleasure," I replied, "but I have not till now received an invitation." "What!" he exclaimed. Then, calling up a young Irish officer in my wing, he asked "How is this? Why hasn't Mr. Foote been invited to chapel?" "Well, sir," answered the culprit, scratching his head and looking sheepish, "I knew Mr. Foote was a Freethinker, and I didn't want to insult his opinions." Good! I thought. Why was not this worthy fellow on the jury, or better still, on the bench? I told him I was very much obliged for his intended kindness, but at the same time I preferred going to chapel, as I wished to see all I could for my money. After that I went to the house of prayer like any church-going belle (this is what Cowper must have meant, for how could a bell go to church?) every Sunday, and every other day during the week. Had the chapel been of larger dimensions I should have gone daily, but it was too small to hold all the prisoners, who were therefore divided into two congregations, each approaching the, holy altar on alternate days. What I saw and heard in the sacred edifice will be related in a separate chapter.
At the end of my second month I was entitled to a school-book and a slate and pencil. These articles were promptly brought to me by the obliging school-master. Two copies of Colenso's Arithmetic had been procured; one was given to me, and the other, as I afterwards learned, to Mr. Ramsey. The fly-leaf was cut out, I noticed; the object being to prevent us from obtaining a bit of paper to write on. This, I may add, is the general rule in the prison library, every book being thus mutilated. It is a silly precaution, for if a prisoner can succeed in carrying on a correspondence with his friends outside, he is obviously not dependent on the library for materials, and he would be the veriest fool to excite suspicion by amputating the leaves of a book.
Knowing that I should have no better school-book during my long imprisonment, I determined to make Colenso last as long as possible. I steadily went through it from beginning to end. Working the addition and subtraction sums was certainly tedious, but I wanted to keep the interesting problems, as you reserve the daintier portions of a repast, till the end. Curiously enough, it was the sober and serious Colenso who gave me my one restless night in Holloway Gaol. I puzzled over one pretty problem, and the bed-bell rang before I could solve it. Directly my gas was turned out the method of solution flashed on my mind, and I was so vexed at being unable to work it out immediately that it was hours before I could fall asleep. During that time my brain made desperate but futile efforts to reach the answer by mental arithmetic, and when I woke in the morning I felt thoroughly fagged.
Having had no writing materials for two months the slate and pencil looked very inviting. I composed a few pieces of verse, including a sonnet on Giordano Bruno and some epigrams on Parson Plaford, Judge North, Sir Hardinge Giffard, and other distasteful personages. But as every piece written on the slate had to be rubbed out to make room for the next, I soon sickened of composition. It was murdering one bantling to make place for another.
Sometimes the dulness of my incarceration was relieved by overhearing whispered conversations outside my cell door. Until we became well known, there was considerable speculation among the prisoners as to who we were, and what we were there for. One day a couple of fellows, engaged in cleaning the corridor, worked themselves near together, one standing on either side of my door. "Who's the bloke in yer?" I heard queried. "Dunno," said the other, "I b'lieve he's a Fenian." Another time I heard the answer, "Oh, he's one of Bradlaugh's pals; and Bradlaugh's coming up next week" -- a next week which happily never arrived.
Mr. Ramsey tells me that similar speculations went on outside his door. Like mine, his card specified "misdr." (misdemeanor) as the offence, the officials perhaps not liking to write blasphemy. Like me also, he was put down as a Fenian. "Why there," said a prisoner, who had just enounced this opinion, "look at his card; see -- murder!" The "misdr." was not written too plainly, and "murder" was his interpretation of the hieroglyph.
Let me here interpolate another good story in connexion with Mr. Ramsey. He was confidently asked by an old hand what he was in for. "Blasphemy," said Mr. Ramsey. "Blasphemy! What the hell's that?" said the fellow. Here was a confirmed criminal who had never heard of this crime before; it was not in the catalogue known to his fraternity; and on learning that all which could be got from it was nine months' imprisonment if you were found out, and nothing if you were not, he concluded that he would never patronize that line of business.
From the description already given of my cell, the reader has seen that my domestic accommodations were exceedingly limited. All my ablutions were performed with the aid of a tin bowl, holding about a quart. This sufficed for hands and face, but how was I to get a wash all over? I broached this question one day to warder Smith, who informed me that the bathing appliances of the establishment were scanty, and that the prisoners were only "tubbed" once a fortnight. I explained to him that I was not used to such uncleanliness; but of course he could not help me. Then I laid the matter before the Deputy-Governor, who told an officer to take me to the bath-room at the base of the debtor's wing, where I enjoyed a good scrub. On returning to the criminal part of the prison I had my hair cut, a prisoner officiating as barber. Despite the rule of silence, I gave him verbal instructions how to proceed, otherwise he would have given me the regular prison crop. During the rest of my term I always had my hair trimmed in my own fashion. The prison crop, I may observe, is rather a custom than a rule; the regulations require only such hair-cutting and shaving as is necessary for health and cleanliness, but the criminal population affect short hair, and the difficulty is not to bring them under, but to keep them out of, the barber's hands.
Prison barbers are generally amateurs. Of course the officers are above such work, and unless a member of the tonsorial profession happens to be in residence, the scissors are wielded by the first man who fancies himself a natural adept at the business. The last barber I saw in Holloway Gaol was a coachman, whose only qualification for the work was that he had clipped horses' legs. He wore a blue apron round a corpulent waist, and looked remarkably like a pork-butcher. He walked round the victim like an artist engaged on a bust, and his habit was to work steadily away at one spot until the skin showed like a piece of white plaster, after which he labored at another spot, and so on, until the task was finished. Seeing on my head an uncommon mass of hair, he made many desperate solicitations to be allowed an opportunity of displaying his skill, but I steadily resisted the appeal, although it evidently cut him to the quick.
The bathing-house for the criminal prisoners has eight compartments. In the ordinary course, I should have formed one of a detachment of that number, but an exception was made in my case, and I was always taken to bathe alone. Behind the bath-room were the dark cells. I was allowed to inspect these miserable, black holes. They were damp and fetid, and when the door was closed you were in Egyptian darkness. I cannot conceive that such horrid punishment is necessary or justifiable. The prison authorities have every inmate absolutely in their power, and if they are obliged to resort to the black-hole, it must be from want of foresight or the general imbecility of the system.
The flogging was always done outside the black-hole, in the bath-room at the foot of the D wing. I have often heard screaming wretches dragged along the corridor, and their cries of agony as their backs were lacerated by the cat. Singularly, the dinner hour was always selected for this performance, which must have been a great stimulus to the appetites of new comers. One man who was lashed told me it was weeks before his flesh healed. I do not believe that the cat and the dark hole are necessary to prison discipline. They brutalise and degrade both prisoners and officials.
The doctor was astonished one morning by my application for a tooth-brush. Such a thing was never seen or heard of in a prison. I was obliged therefore to use my middle finger, which I found a very inefficient substitute. Another difficulty arose on the shirt question. The prisoners are allowed a clean outer shirt every week, and a clean inner shirt every fortnight. I explained that I would prefer the order reversed, but was told that I could not be accommodated. But I persisted. I wearied the upper officials with applications, and finally obtained a clean kit weekly. Even then I found it necessary to badger them still further. The fortnightly intervals between the baths were too long, and at last I got the Governor to let me have a tub of cold water in my cell every night. This luxury of cleanliness was the best feature in the programme, although my fellow-prisoners appeared to regard it as an unaccountable fad.
One or two brief conversations with the Governor were also an agreeable variation. I found him to be a disciple and friend of the late F. D. Maurice, one of whose books he offered to lend me. He was astonished to find that I had read it, as well as other works by the same author, which he had not read. Colonel Milman expressed a good deal of admiration for Mr. George Jacob Holyoake, and he was still more astonished when I told him that this gentleman had occupied a blasphemer's cell in the old stirring days, when he fiercely attacked Christianity instead of flattering it. "Nothing would give me greater pleasure," said the gallant Governor, "than to hear from you some day as a believer." "Sir," I replied, "I would not have you entertain any such hope, for it will never be realised. My Freethought is not a hobby, but a conviction. You must remember that I have been a Christian, that I know all that can be said in defence of your creed, and that I am well acquainted with all your best writers. I am a Freethinker in spite of this; I might say because of it. And can you suppose that my imprisonment will induce me to regard Christianity with a more friendly eye? On the contrary, it confirms my belief that your creed, to which you are personally so superior, is a curse, and carries the spirit of persecution in its heart of hearts."
Colonel Milman smiled sadly. He began to see that the sceptical
disease in me was beyond the reach of physic.
|< Previous Chapter||Next Chapter >|