Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Prisoner for Blasphemy



WHEN we entered Newgate as "condemned criminals," we were theoretically under severe discipline, but the officers considerately allowed us a few minutes' conversation in the great hall before we marched to our cells. We shook hands with Mr. Cattell, whom I rather contemptuously congratulated on his good fortune. He went into the office to receive back his effects, and that was the last we saw of him. Vanishing from sight, he vanished from mind. During my imprisonment I scarcely ever thought of him in connexion with our case, and in writing this history I have had to tax my memory to record his insignificant role.

According to the "rules and regulations," all our privileges ended on our sentence. We were therefore entitled to nothing but prison fare after leaving the Old Bailey. But the hour was late, the cook was probably off duty, and our tea and toast had been waiting for us since five o'clock; so the head warder decided that we might postpone our trial of the prison menu until the morning. When it was brought to me, my toast (to use an Hibernicism) proved to be bread-and-butter. There were three slices. I ate two, but could not consume the third, my appetite being spoiled by excitement and the tepid tea.

The officer who acted as waiter informed me that the Old Bailey Street had been thronged all the afternoon, and was still crowded. "We all thought," he said, "that you would get off after that speech -- and you would have with another judge. But you won't be in long. They're sure to get you out soon." I shook my head. "Take my word for it," he answered. Thanking him for his kindness, I told him I had no hope, and was reconciled to my fate. Twelve months was a long time, but I was young and strong, and should pull through it. "Yes," he said, with an appreciative look from head to feet, "there isn't much the matter with you now. But you'll be out soon, sir, mark my word."

I have learnt since that the crowd waited to give Judge North a warm reception. But they were disappointed. His lordship went home, I understand, via Newgate Street, and thus baffled their enthusiasm. Mr. Cattell was, I believe, less fortunate. He was hooted and jeered by the multitude, and obliged to take ignominious shelter in a cab.

Strange as it may seem, my last night in Newgate was one of profound repose. I was wearied, exhausted; and spent nature claimed an interval of rest. For a few minutes I lay in my hammock, listening to the faint sound of distant voices and footsteps. Memory and fancy were inert; only the senses were faintly alive. Consciousness gradually contracted to a dim vision of the narrow cell, then to a haze, in which the gaslight shone like a star, and finally died out. But by one of those fantastic tricks the imps of dreaming play us, the last patch of consciousness changed into my wife's face. It was too dim and distant to stir grief or regret; like the vague vision of a beloved face hovering over eyes that are waning in death.

In the morning I was awakened as usual by the officer bringing the light for my gas. At eight o'clock the little square flap in my door was let down with the customary bang, and, on looking through the aperture, I perceived a big pan containing a curious clotted mixture, which resembled bill-stickers' paste. Behind the utensil I saw part of an officer's uniform. This worthy stirred the mixture with a ladle, while he jocosely inquired, "D'ye want any of this?" I did not. "Come," he continued, "put out your tin and I'll give you some." I told him my appetite was not robust enough for his hospitality, and he passed on, probably feeling sure I should not eat the prison fare, and thinking the stuff too good to be wasted. I took the little brown loaf he offered me and examined it closely. It was very hard, and apparently very dry. Depositing it on the shelf, I breakfasted on cold water and the slice of bread-and-butter left over night.

After this sumptuous repast I was let out for exercise. This time the three "condemned" blasphemers were not taken to a separate court. We paraded the common yard with the other prisoners. They were few in number, but they showed many varieties of disposition. One hung his head, and doggedly tramped round the wretched enclosure; another walked erect and stiff, with an air of defiance; another shuffled along with a vacant stare, as though dazed by his fate; another looked as indifferent as though he were walking along the street; and another leered at his companions in misfortune, as though the whole thing were an elaborate joke. For a few minutes I trotted behind Mr. Ramsey, with whom I exchanged a few cheerful words, but the vigilant officers soon separated us. "How long have ye got?" was the constant question of the man at my rear, until the officers detected, and removed him. I was surprised and annoyed at this easy familiarity, but I grew accustomed to it afterwards. The rules of civilised society naturally lapse in prison. Talking is strictly prohibited, "pals" are rigorously kept apart, nobody knows who will be next him in the exercise ring, and any man who wants to wag his tongue must strike up a conversation with his immediate neighbor. "How long are ye doing?" is almost invariably the introduction. This muttered question brings a muttered answer. Confidences are exchanged, and the conversation grows animated, until at last the speakers forget prudence, and betray themselves to the eyes or ears of an officer, who immediately parts them, or makes them both fall out, and reports them to the Governor for violating the rules. The old stagers acquire a knack of talking without moving their lips, so that the words just reach the man in front or behind. If an officer suspects one of these worthies, he calls out, "Now then, seventeen, I see ye!" "See me what?" says the indignant innocent. "Talking," replies the officer. "Why, I never opened my lips," says the prisoner, and his defence is perfectly true.

On returning from the exercise yard to our cells, we were furnished with a sheet of paper and an envelope to write the last letter which "condemned criminals" are permitted to send from prison after their sentence. The privilege is almost a mockery, for no answer is allowed, and there is little consolation in flinging a final word into the vast silence, which seems deaf because unresponsive. A last interview, however brief, would be far more merciful.

We were summoned from our cells at eleven o'clock for conveyance to Holloway Gaol. All our effects were handed over to us, and we formally signed a receipt for them in the big book. While this process was going on the officers allowed us to chat, and endeavoured to console us by insisting that we should "soon be out." One of them, with a practical turn of mind, recollecting that I had complained of my apartment, informed me that there were some beautiful cells at Holloway.

Having pocketed our belongings, we were conducted through the subterranean passage I have several times mentioned to the great courtyard. The head-warder conversed with us very genially, but when we emerged into daylight and faced the prison van drawn up to receive us, his manner changed. Holding a formidable document, he called out our names and descriptions, officially satisfying himself that we were the persons under sentence. I told him, with mock solemnity, that I had no doubt I was the George William Foote described on the blue paper, and my fellow prisoners gave him a similar assurance.

It was a critical moment. Will they, I thought, try to handcuff us? I hoped not, for I had resolved not to submit tamely to any gratuitous indignities, and I should have felt it necessary to offer what resistance I could to such a flagrant insult. Happily the handcuffs were kept out of sight. One by one we ascended the steps, entered the narrow passage in the van, and huddled ourselves into the narrower boxes. They were so small that no ordinary-sized man could sit upon the little bench at the back. I was obliged to crouch on one ham diagonally, my shoulders stretching from corner to corner. Half a dozen holes were bored through the floor, and there was a space between the side of the box and the roof of the van, which sloped away like an eave. Probably the ventilation was ample, yet I felt stifled, and so powerful is imagination that I breathed heavily and irregularly. But reason soon came to my assistance and allayed my apprehensions, although a remnant of fancy still speculated on what would happen if the vehicle upset.

Presently the door was banged, and "Black Maria" started with her living freight. We had the conveyance, or rather its interior, all to ourselves. Surely the boxes we were pent in never held such company before. Three "blasphemers," who had never injured man, woman or child, were travelling to gaol under a collective sentence of two years' imprisonment, for no other crime than honestly criticising a dishonest creed. We were going to spend weary days and months among the refuse of society. We were doomed to associate with the criminality which still curses civilisation, after eighteen centuries of the gospel of redemption. Posterity would condemn our sentence as a crime, but meanwhile we were fated to suffer.

Rattle, rattle, rattle! How the wretched machine did rattle! Even the roar of the streets we traversed was inaudible, quenched in the frightful din. All I could do was to inspect the memorials of my predecessors in that box. The sides were scrawled over with their names (or nicknames) and sentences. Their brief observations had a jovial tone. I suppose the miserable passengers in that black ferry-boat to Hades are too full of care to indulge in such trifling, and only wanton larrikins and old stagers employ their pencils in illustrating the planks.

After a long drive we entered an archway and stopped. A heavy door was closed behind us, and another opened in front. The van moved forward a few yards and turned round. Then the door was opened, and looking out I saw the front of Holloway Gaol.

Several minutes elapsed before we descended from the prison van. During this interval I chatted freely with my fellow-prisoners, although we could not see each other. But I have always found, as one of George Meredith's characters says, that observation is perhaps the most abiding pleasure in life, and I watched with great amusement the antics of a sprucely-dressed young fellow who sat on the step behind, and held a facetious conversation with the pleasant officer who "delivered" us at Holloway. This natty blade was, I presumed, our driver. His talk was of horses and drinking, and I wondered how he obtained the money to purchase all the liquors which he boasted of having imbibed that morning. He seemed to possess a sort of right divine to enjoyment on this earth, and I felt strongly tempted to offer him the few shillings I had in my pocket. The money was useless to me in prison, but it would serve as buoyant air to the wings of this human butterfly. What a contrast between our lots! His head was untroubled with thought, he knew nothing of convictions (except legal ones), and sacrifices for principle had probably never entered within the range of his imagination. He chattered away like a garrulous daw, perched upon the step; while we three in the van were just leaving the sunlight of life for the darkness of imprisonment. Our devotion to principle seemed almost folly, and our passion for reforming the world a species of madness. So it must have appeared eighteen centuries ago, when the Prophet of Nazareth stood in the hall of a palace in Jerusalem. The men and damsels who warmed themselves at the fire must have marvelled at the infatuation of Jesus as he courted the shadow of death.

When "Black Maria" disgorged her breakfast, we were ushered into the great hall of Holloway prison. The Deputy-Governor at once accosted us, and told us to wait, standing against the wall, until he could "see about us." Forgetting the rules and regulations, we resumed our conversation, until we attracted the attention of an underling, who marched up with a lordly air and sternly ordered us to stop talking. Presently two figures leisurely descended the flight of stone steps leading to the offices and the interior of the prison. I recognised one of these as the Governor of Newgate. He had evidently come to introduce us. His companion was Colonel Milman, the Governor of Holloway. After a few minutes' conversation, of which I inferred from their looks that we were the object, they parted, and Colonel Milman then advanced towards us with a genial smile. He busied himself about us in the most hospitable manner, as though we were ornaments to the establishment. Interrogating us as to our occupations, he found that only Mr. Ramsey was acquainted with any mechanical work. In his younger days he had practised the noble art of St. Crispin, but he found that no shoes were made in the place, and he had little taste for cobbling. Relying on some information he had received in Newgate, he inquired, with an air of childlike sincerity, whether there was not some work to do in the Governor's garden. Colonel Milman smiled expressively as he answered that he was "afraid not."

The gallant Governor then went into an office, and as I wanted to speak to him before we were marched off, I walked in after him. "Hi!" exclaimed the officious underling, "you mustn't go in there." But I went in, nevertheless, followed by the fussy officer, who was quietly told by the Governor that he "needn't trouble." I explained to Colonel Milman that my position was peculiar. "Yes," he said, "I know; I saw you at the Old Bailey yesterday," and his look expressed the rest. I then stated that, as there was no Court of Criminal Appeal, I wished to make representations to the Home Office as to the character our trial and the almost unprecedented nature of our sentence; in particular, I wished the Home Secretary to say whether he would sanction our being classed with common thieves for a press offence. I was told that I could have an official form for this purpose; and, thanking the Governor, I withdrew to join my companions.

Let me here thank Colonel Milman for his unvarying kindness. During the whole of my imprisonment he never once addressed me in any other way than he would have addressed me outside; and although he had to carry out a harsh sentence, it was obvious that he shrank from the duty. But this eulogium is too personal. I hasten, therefore, to say that I never heard Colonel Milman speak harshly to a prisoner, or saw a forbidding look on his fine face. One of nature's gentlemen, he could hardly be uncivil to the lowest of the low.

Colonel Milman always dressed well, and the little color he always affected was in harmony with his exuberant figure. It was refreshing to see him occasionally in one's weariness of the dingy prison. He usually stood at the wing-gate as the men filed in from exercise, and answered their salutes, with a word for this one and a smile for that. One day I heard a handsome eulogy on him by a prisoner. He was standing in the open air outside the gate. It was a pleasant summer morning, and he was radiantly happy. A man behind me was evidently struck by the Governor's appearance, for I heard him mutter to his neighbor, "Good old boy, ain't he?" "Yes," said the other, "you're right." "Fat, ain't he?" rejoined number one. "Yes," said number two, "like a top. It do yer good to see somebody as ain't thin."

From the great hall of Holloway prison we were conducted through a passage under the staircase to the basement of the reception wing. Our pockets were emptied, but not searched, and every article stowed away in a little bag. One by one we went into an office, where a clerkly official wrote our descriptions in a book. "What religion?" he inquired, when he came to the theological department. "None," I replied. "What!" he rejoined, "surely you're Catholic or Protestant or something." Then, with a flourish of the pen, and an air of finality, he put the question again more decisively, "What religion?" "None," I said. He stared, gave me up as a bad job, and wrote down "Religion none." That extremely succinct description figured for twelve months on the card outside my cell door, and I have heard prisoners speculating as to what sort of religion "none" was. It was the name of a sect they had never heard of.

The prisoners' cards, affixed to their cell doors, and containing their name, age, crime, sentence, class and creed, were of two colors -- white (the emblem of purity) for the Protestants, and red (the symbol of sin) for the Catholics. These criminal members of the two great divisions of Christendom, like their better or more fortunate co-religionists out of doors, do not mix in their devotions. They worship God at different times, although, alas! the same building has to serve for both. No special color has been found requisite for Freethinkers, who seldom trouble the prison officials, although this fact is only another proof of their uncommon obstinacy; for it is clear that, according to their principles, they ought to fill our gaols, yet they perversely refrain from those crimes which every principle of consistency obliges them to commit.

After this ceremony we were conducted upstairs to our cells in the reception wing, to await an opportunity of washing and changing our clothes. We passed several prisoners at work in the corridors. All were silent and stolid, and I could hardly resist the impression that I was in a lunatic asylum. We were handed over to a red-haired and red-bearded warder, who locked us up in separate cells. Before closing my door, he asked whether I was a German, and had any connection with Herr Most. I explained that the Freiheit and the Freethinker were very different papers. "What's your sentence?" he said. "Twelve months." "Whew! but it's a long time." Yes, my red-headed friend, you were quite right. It was indeed a long time!

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