Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Prisoner for Blasphemy



THE subterranean passage through which Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Kemp, Mr. Cattell, and I were conducted from the Old Bailey dock to Newgate prison, was long and tortuous, and two or three massive doors were unlocked and relocked for our transit before we emerged into the courtyard. In the darkness the lofty walls looked grimly frowning, and I imagined what feelings must possess the ordinary criminal who passes under their black shadow to his first night's taste of imprisonment. Another massive door was opened in the wall of Newgate, and we were ushered into what at first sight appeared a large hall. It was really the interior of the prison. Glancing up, I saw dimly-lighted corridors, running round tier on tier of cell-doors, and connected by light, graceful staircases; a clear view of every door being commanded from the office at the west end of the ground-floor.

We were invited one by one into a side office, where we inscribed our names in a big book. A dapper little officer, who treated me with a queer mixture of authority and respectfulness, wrote out my description as though he were filling in a passport. I was very much amused, and finding he was not too precise in his observations, I corrected and supplemented them in a good-humored manner.

After completing this task he requested me to deliver up the contents of my pockets. Having passed nearly all my money to Mr. Wheeler, I had little to deposit. Some prisoners, however, are less careful. The officer told me that he occasionally received as much as ten or twelve pounds from one visitor, although the majority were almost penniless. My small change was carefully counted by us both, and when it was stowed in my purse, I put my signature under the amount in the register.

Then followed my other belongings. I had stupidly brought a bunch of keys, which the officer eyed very suspiciously. Keys in a prison! The official mind might well be alarmed. Next came some letters and telegrams I had received while in Court, and a lead pencil, which I took from my breast-pocket.

"Anything more in that pocket?" said the officer, catching hold of the coat-lappet, and attempting to insert his hand.

"I beg pardon," I replied, disengaging his hand and stepping back; "I can do that myself. See !" I said, turning my pocket inside out.

He was satisfied, but slightly annoyed. The man was simply doing his duty, and I daresay he showed me far more courtesy than other prisoners were treated with. Yet the process of searching is unspeakably revolting, and I shrank from it instinctively; taking care, however, by my rapid gestures to render it unnecessary.

Prisoners are regularly searched in Holloway Gaol, as well as in other penal establishments; and being under the ordinary prison regulations, like other "convicted criminals," I was of course subjected to the indignity. I must in candor admit that the officers made it as little offensive as possible in my case; yet the touch of a man's hand about one's person is so repulsive, that I always had great difficulty in suppressing my indignation. If an officer owes a prisoner a grudge, he is able (especially if the man is a little more refined than the general run of his associates) to render the searching an almost intolerable infliction. Sometimes the prisoners are stripped to their drawers or shirts, without any particular reason; and the process can even be carried farther, until they are in a state of complete nudity. On one occasion this experiment was attempted on me, but I declined to submit to it, and the brace of officers (they always search in pairs, to prevent collusion) shrank from employing force.

All the requisite formalities being transacted, I was supplied with a pair of sheets and a duster; and carrying these on my arm, I was conducted upstairs to my apartment. Before leaving, however, I shook hands with my companions, although it was in direct defiance of the "rules and regulations."

My cell was Number One. It was considered the place of honor. I was informed that it was once tenanted by the elder of two famous brother forgers, who spent three weeks there preparing his defence and writing an extraordinary number of letters. This information was communicated to me with an air of solemnity as though so eminent a criminal had left behind him the flavor of his greatness, and had in some measure consecrated the spot.

The gas was lit, and the officer withdrew, banging the door as he went. He seemed to love the sound, and I subsequently discovered that this was a characteristic of his tribe. Only two men in Holloway Gaol ever shut my door gently. They were the gallant Governor and a clerical locum tenens who officiated during the chaplain's frequent absence in search of recreation or health. Colonel Milman closed the door like a gentleman. Mr. Stubbs closed it like an undertaker. He was the most nervous man I ever met. But I must not anticipate. More of him anon.

Prison cells, I had always known, are rather narrow apartments, but the realisation was nevertheless a rough one. My domicile, which included kitchen, bedroom, sitting-room and water-closet, was about ten feet long, six feet wide, and nine feet high. At the end opposite the door there was a window, containing perhaps three square feet of thick opaque glass. Attached to the wall on the left side was a flap-table, about two feet by one, and under it a low stool. In the right corner, behind the door, were a couple of narrow semi-circular shelves, containing a wooden salt-cellar full of ancient salt, protected from the air and dust by a brown paper lid, through which a piece of knotted string was passed to serve as a knob. The walls were whitewashed, and hanging against them were a pair of printed cards, which on examination I found to be the dietary scale and the rules and regulations. The floor was black and shiny. It was probably concreted, and I discovered the next day that it was blackleaded and polished. Finally I detected an iron ring in each wall, facing each other, about two feet from the ground. "What are these for?" I thought. "They would be convenient for hanging if they were three feet higher. Perhaps they are placed there to tantalise desperate unfortunates who might be disposed to terminate their misery and wish the world an eternal 'Good Night!'"

As I paced up and down my cell, full of the thought, "I am in prison, then," my curiosity was excited by a large urn-looking object in the right corner under the window, just below a water-tap and copper basin. I had noticed it before, but I fancied it was some antique relic of Old Newgate. Examining it closely, I found it had a hinged lid, and on lifting this my nose was assailed by a powerful smell, which struck me as about the most ancient I had ever encountered. This earthenware fixture was in reality a water-closet, and I imagined it must have communicated direct with the main drainage. A more unwholesome and disgusting companion in one's room is difficult to conceive. I believe these filthy monstrosities still exist in Newgate, although they are abolished in other prisons. Yet it puzzles one to understand why prisoners awaiting trial should be poisoned by such a diabolical invention any more than prisoners who have been convicted and sentenced.

Just as I finished inspecting this monument of official ingenuity, I heard a heavy footstep along the corridor, and presently a key was inserted in my lock. It "grated harsh thunder" as it turned. The door was flung open abruptly, without any consideration whether I might be standing near it, and an official entered, who turned out to be the chief warder. He was a polite, handsome man of five-and-forty, with a fine pair of dark eyes and a handsome black beard. During my brief residence in Newgate he treated me with marked civility, and sometimes engaged in a few minutes' conversation. In one of these brief interviews he told me that be had officiated at fourteen executions, and devoutly hoped he might never witness another, his feelings on every occasion having been of the most horrible character. I also found that he was fond of a book, although he had little leisure for reading or any other recreation. He looked longingly at my well-printed copy of Byron; but what impressed him most was my little collection of law books, especially Folkard's fat "Law of Libel," which he regarded with the awe and veneration of a bibliolater, suddenly confronting a gigantic mystery of erudition.

This worthy officer came to tell me that my "friend with the big head" had just called to see what he could do for us. "Big-head" was Mr. Bradlaugh. The description was facetious but by no means uncomplimentary. Our meals had been ordered in from "over the way," and I might expect some refreshment shortly. While he was speaking it was brought up. He then left me, and I devoured the coffee and toast with great avidity. My appetite was far from appeased, but I had to content myself with what was given me, for prison warders look as surprised as Bumble himself at a request for "more."

When the slender meal was dispatched, the chief warder paid me another visit to instruct me how to roost. Under his tuition I received my first lesson in prison bed-making. A strip of thick canvas was stretched across the cell and fastened at each end by leather straps running through those mysterious rings. A coarse sheet was spread on this, then a rough blanket, and finally a sieve-like counterpane; the whole forming a very fair imitation of a ship's hammock. It had by no means an uncomfortable appearance, and being extremely fagged, I thought I would retire to rest. But directly I essayed to do so my troubles began. When I tried to get on the bed it canted over and deposited me on the floor. Slightly shaken, but nothing daunted, I made another attempt with a similar result. The third time was lucky. I circumvented the obstinate enemy by mounting the stool and slowly insinuating myself between the sheets, until at length I was fairly ensconced, lying straight on my back like a prone statue or a corpse. For a few moments I remained perfectly still enjoying my triumph. Presently, however, I felt rather cold at the feet, and on glancing down I saw that my lower extremities were sticking out. I raised myself slightly in order to cover them, but the movement was fatal; the bed canted and I was again at large. This time I had serious thoughts of sleeping on the floor, but as it was hard and cold I abandoned the idea. I laboriously regained my lost position, taking due precautions for my feet. After a while I grew accustomed to the oscillation, but I had to face another evil. The clothes kept slipping off, and more than once I followed in trying to recover them. At last, I found a firm position, where I lay still, clutching the refractory sheets and blankets. But I soon experienced a fresh evil. The canvas strip was very narrow, and as my shoulders were not, they abutted on each side, courting the cold. Even this difficulty I finally conquered by gymnastic subtleties. Warmth and comfort produced their natural effect. My brain was busy for a few minutes. Thoughts of my wife and the few I loved best made me womanish, but a recollection of the malignant judge hardened me and I clenched my teeth. Then Nature asserted her sway. Weary eyelids drooped over weary eyes, and through a phantasmagoria of the trial I gradually sank into a feverish sleep.

I was aroused in the morning by the six o'clock bell. It was pitch dark in my cell except for the faint glimmer of a distant lamp through the thick window-panes. A few minutes later a little square flap in the centre of my door was let down with a startling bang; a small hand-lamp was thrust through the aperture, and a gruff voice cried "Now, then, get up and light your gas: look sharp." I cannot say that I made any indecent haste. My gas was lit very leisurely, and as I returned the lamp I saw a scowling visage outside. The man was evidently exasperated by my "passive resistance."

My ablutions were performed in a copper basin not much larger than a porridge bowl; indeed, it was impossible to insert both hands at once. There was, of course, no looking-glass, and as the three-inch comb was densely clogged with old deposits, my toilet was completed under considerable difficulties. I never combed my hair with my fingers before, but on that occasion I was obliged to resort to those primitive rakes.

When I was finally ready, the chief warder summoned me downstairs to be weighed and measured. My height was five feet ten in my shoes, and my weight twelve stone nine and a half in my clothes.

At eight o'clock breakfast came. It consisted of coffee, eggs and toast. At half-past eight we were taken out to exercise. What a delight it was to see each other's faces again! And how refreshing to breathe even the atmosphere of a City courtyard after being locked up for so many hours in a stifling cell.

The other prisoners were already outside, and we had to pass through the court in which they were exercising to reach the one considerately allotted for our special use. They presented a cheerless spectacle. Silently and sadly, with drooping heads, they skirted the walls in Indian file; a couple of officers standing in the centre to see that no communication went on between them. Many eyes were lifted to gaze at us as we passed. Some winked, and a few looked insolent contempt, but the majority expressed nothing but curiosity.

Our courtyard was about thirty feet by twenty. It was stone-paved, with a door leading to the Old Bailey at one end, and a row of high iron bars at the other. The air was brisk, and the sky tolerably clear for the place and season. Our pent-up energies required a vent, and we rushed round like caged animals suddenly loosened. "Gently," cried our good-natured custodian; but we paid little heed to his admonition; our blood was up, and we raced each other until we were wearied of the pastime.

Presently I heard my name called, and on advancing to the spot whence the voice issued, I saw Mr. Bradlaugh's face through the iron bars. After a few minutes' conversation he made way for Mrs. Besant. She was quite unprepared for such an interview. Her idea was that she would be able to shake hands; I, however, knew better, and for that reason I had forbidden my wife to visit me, preferring her letters to her company in such wretched circumstances. Mrs. Besant was particularly cordial. "We are all proud," she said, "of the brave fight you made yesterday." How the time slipped by! When she retired it seemed as though our conversation had but just opened.

I was only entitled to receive two visitors, but by a generous arithmetic Mr. Bradlaugh and Mrs. Besant were counted as one. Mr. Wheeler was therefore able to see me on business. We had much to arrange, and the result was that I enjoyed scarcely more than half an hour's exercise. Surely it is a grievous wrong that a prisoner awaiting trial should be allowed such brief interviews with his friends, especially when he is defending himself, and may require to consult them. And is it not a still more grievous wrong that these interviews should take place during the exercise hour? There is no reason why they should not be kept separate; indeed there is no reason why the inmates of Newgate should not be allowed to exercise twice a day. No work is done in the prison, and marshalling the prisoners is not so laborious a task that it cannot be performed more than once in twenty-four hours.

At the expiration of our miserable sixty minutes we were marched back to our cells; but we were scarcely under lock and key again before we were summoned to the Old Bailey, the officer telling us that he thought they were going to grant us bail. We were conducted through the subterranean passage to the Old Bailey dock-stairs. Standing out of sight, but not out of hearing, we listened to Mr. Avory's application for bail on behalf of Mr. Kemp. Judge North refused in cold, vindictive tones; he had evidently let the sun go down on his wrath, and rise on it again. Mr. Avory thereupon asked whether he made no difference between convicted and unconvicted prisoners. "None in this case," was his lordship's brutal and supercilious answer; and then we were hurried back to our cells.

My apartment was execrably dark. It was situated in an angle of the building; there was a wall on the right and another in front, so that only a little light fell on the right wall of my cell near the window. After severely trying my eyes for two or three hours, I was obliged to make an application for gas, which, after some hesitation, was granted. But I found the remedy almost worse than the evil. Sitting all day at the little lap-table, with my head about ten inches from the gas-light, made me feel sick and dizzy. Mr. Ramsey, as I afterwards discovered, was made quite ill by a similar nuisance, and the chief warder was obliged to release him for a brief walk in the open air. I applied the next morning for a fresh cell, and was duly accommodated. My new apartment was very much lighter, but the change was in other respects a disadvantage. The closet was fouler, and as the lid was a remarkably bad fit, it emitted a more obtrusive smell. The copper basin also was filled with dirty water, which would not flow away, as the waste-pipe was stopped up. To remedy these defects they brought the engineer, who strenuously exercised his intellect on the subject for three days; but as he exercised nothing on the waste-pipe, I insisted on having the copper basin baled out, and secured a bucket for my ablutions.

During my first day in Newgate, the officers occasionally dropped in for a minute's chat with such an unusual prisoner. I found them for the most part "good fellows," and singularly free from the bigotry of their "betters." The morning papers also helped to wile away the time. I was pleased to see that the Daily News rebuked the scandalous severity of the judge, and that the reports of our trial were reasonably fair, although very inadequate. The Daily Chronicle was under an embargo, and could not be obtained for love or money; the reason being, I believe, that many years ago it commented severely on some prison scandal, and provoked the high and mighty Commissioners into laying their august proscription upon it. All the weekly papers, or at least the Radical ones I inquired for, were under a similar embargo, for what reason I could never discover. Perhaps the Commissioners, who enjoy a reputation for piety, exclude Radical and heterodox journals lest they should impair the Christianity and Toryism of the gaol-birds.

Many letters reached me and were answered, so that my time was well occupied until twelve, when dinner was brought in from "over the way." Being well-nigh ravenous, I dispatched it with great celerity, washing it down with a little mild ale. Prisoners awaiting trial are allowed (if they can pay for it) a pint of that beverage, or half a pint of wine.

After dinner I felt drowsy, and as there was no sofa or chair, and no back to the little three-legged stool, I was obliged to dispense with a nap. I walked up and down my splendid hall instead, longing desperately for a mouthful of fresh air by way of dessert, or a few minutes' chat with my friends, who I dare say were in exactly the same predicament.

Tea, which came at five, brightened me up, and as Mr. Wheeler had by this time sent in all my books and papers, I settled down to three hours' hard work. The worthy Governor, a tall sedate man, did not like the titles of some of my books, and inquired whether I really wanted them for my defence. I replied that I did. "Then," said he to the chief warder, "they may all be brought up, but you must take care they don't get about." At half-past eight, according to the rules, I retired to my precarious and uncomfortable couch; a few minutes later my gas was turned off, and I was left in almost total darkness to seek the sleep which I soon found. Thus ended my first day in Newgate.

My second day in Newgate passed like the first. Prison life affords few variations; the days roll by with drear monotony like wave after wave over a spent swimmer's head. We enjoyed Judge North's "opportunity" to prepare our fresh defence in the way I have already described. We were locked up in our brick vaults twenty-three hours out of the twenty-four; we walked for an hour after breakfast in the courtyard; and the fifteen minutes allowed for the "interview with two visitors" was, as before, religiously deducted from the sixty minutes allowed for "exercise." Mr. Wheeler sent in more books and papers, and I devoted my whole time, except that occupied in answering letters, to preparing another speech for Monday.

Sunday was a miserably dull day. No visits are allowed in that sacred interval, a regulation which presses with great severity on the poorer prisoners, whose relatives and friends are freer to visit them on Sunday than during the week.

The confinement was beginning to tell on me. My life had been exceptionally active, physically and mentally, and this prison life was as stagnant as the air of my cell. Thus "cabin'd cribbed, confined," I felt all my vital functions half arrested. Dejection I did not experience; my spirits were light and fresh; but the body revolted against its ill-treatment, and recorded its protest on the conscious brain.

How grateful was the brief hour's exercise on the Sunday morning! The muffled roar of the great city was hushed, and the silence served to emphasise every visual phenomenon. Even the air of that city courtyard, hemmed in by lofty walls, seemed a breath of Paradise. I threw back my shoulders, expanding the chest through mouth and nostrils, and lifted my face to the sky. A pale gleam of sunshine pierced through the canopy of London smoke. It might have looked ghastly to a resident in the country, unused to the light London calls day, but to one immured in a prison cell it was an irradiation of glory. The mind expanded under the lustre; imagination preened its wings, and sped beyond the haze into the everlasting blue.

Gallant Lovelace, in durance vile, boasted his unfettered mind, and sang --

"Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage."

True, but the model prison was not invented then, nor was the silent system in vogue. Lovelace's apartment was, perhaps, not so scrupulously clean as mine, but it commanded a finer prospect. He knew nothing of the horror of opaque windows, and his iron bars did not exclude the air and light.

At eleven o'clock my cell door was opened, and an officer asked me if I would like to go to chapel. "Yes," I replied, for I was curious to see what a religious service in Newgate was like, and any interruption of the day's monotony was welcome.

Standing outside my cell door, I perceived Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Kemp, and Mr. Cattell already outside theirs. The few other prisoners still remaining in Newgate (they are transferred to other prisons as soon as possible after sentence) were ranged in a similar manner. A file was then formed, and we marched, accompanied by officers, through a passage on the ground floor to the chapel, passing on our way the glass boxes in which prisoners hold communication with their solicitors. An officer stands outside during the interview: he can hear nothing, but he is able to see every motion of the occupants; the object of this mechanism being to guard against the passage of any interdicted articles.

The chapel was small, lighted by a large window on the left side from the door, and warmed by a mountainous stove in the centre. A few backless forms were provided on the floor for unconvicted prisoners. We were accommodated with the front bench, and requested to sit two or three feet apart from each other, the few other prisoners occupying seats behind us being separated in the same way. The convicted prisoners sit in a railed-off part of the chapel, and I believe there is a gallery for the women. On our right, facing the window, was a pulpit, below which was the clerk's desk, flanked on the right by the Governor's box and on the left by a seat for the officers.

After waiting some time, we heard footsteps at the door. In strode the tall Governor and the Chaplain, the one entering his box, and the other going to the clerk's desk, where he read the service, which was rushed through at the rate of sixty miles an hour. Mr. Duffeld started the hymns, but his voice is not melodious, and he has little sense of tune. The singing, indeed, would have broken down if it had not been for the Francatelli of the establishment, who had exchanged his kitchen costume for the official uniform, and sang with the fervor and emphasis of a Methodist leader or a captain in the Salvation Army.

Mr. Duffeld mounted the pulpit to read his sermon. His text was Matthew vii., 21: "Not everyone that saith unto me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my father which is in heaven." This text caused me a pleasant surprise. I had heard of Mr. Duffeld as a member of, or a sympathiser with, the Guild of St. Matthew; and I fancied that he meant to condemn our prosecution, not directly, so as to offend his employers, but indirectly, so as to justify himself and satisfy us. I was, however, greviously mistaken. Mr. Duffeld's sermon was directed against the large order of "professing Christians," who manage a pretty easy compromise between God and Mammon, between Jesus Christ and the world and the flesh, if not the Devil. It had no reference to us, and it was entirely inappropriate to the rest of the congregation, who, I must say, from the casual glimpses I caught of them, were glancing about aimless as monkeys, or staring listless like melancholy monomaniacs.

When the benediction was pronounced, Mr. Duffeld marched swiftly away; the tall Governor strode after him, and the prisoners filed in silence through the doorway back to their cells. What a commentary it was on "Our Father!" It was a ghastly mockery, a blasphemous farce, a satire on Christianity infinitely more sardonic and mordant than anything I ever wrote or published. Soon after returning to my cell I was glad of the substantial dinner and drowsy ale to deaden the bitter edge of my scorn.

After tea I settled down to the final preparations for my defence. My gas was left on for an extra hour to afford me the time I required. It was half-past nine when I retired to my hammock. Everything was then finished except the interview I had requested with my co-defendants. This the Governor was powerless to grant. He had applied to the visiting magistrates, who protested the same inability. A "petition" had then been forwarded to the Home Secretary, but no answer had been received. While I was pondering this difficulty, my cell door was suddenly opened, and the Governor entered. Apologising for disturbing me unceremoniously at that unseasonable hour, he informed me that a messenger from the Home Office had brought the necessary permission for our interview. It took place the next morning. We had just thirty minutes to arrange our plan for the approaching battle, the consultation being held in the courtyard before breakfast. The time was of course absurdly inadequate. We had a just claim to better treatment, Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Kemp and I; we were charged with the same offence; we pleaded to a common indictment; we stood together in the same dock; we were involved in the same fate; and witnesses would be called against us all three indifferently. Surely, then, as the jury had disagreed once, and we had to defend ourselves afresh, we were entitled to proper conference with our papers before us. This al fresco chat was the last of Judge North's "opportunities." At ten o'clock we were once more in the Old Bailey dock, fronting the judge and jury, surrounded by an eager crowd, and beginning a second fight for liberty and perhaps for life.

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