Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Prisoner for Blasphemy



A few minutes afterwards the red-haired warder returned with what he called "some dinner." It consisted of a little brown loaf, two or three coarse potatoes, and a dirty-looking tin of pea-soup. I was hungry, but I could not tackle this food. From my earliest childhood I have always had a physical antipathy to pea-soup. The very sight of it raises my gorge. Nor have I any special relish for potatoes, unless they are of good quality and well cooked. I therefore munched the brown bread, and washed it down with cold water. It was a Spartan meal, but a very indigestible one, as I can certify from painful experience. Why a prisoner's stomach should be so grossly abused by a sudden change of diet passes my comprehension. Surely it would not be difficult to introduce the prison fare gradually. There is real danger in a shock to the basic organ of life when all the other organs are painfully accommodating themselves to a radical change of environment. Weak men are sometimes shattered by it. Those who talk about the healthiness of prisons (a subject on which I shall have something to say by-and-bye) would be astonished at the quantity of physic dispensed by the doctor. My constitution is a strong one, and a dyspeptic old friend used to envy my "treble-distilled gastric juice." Before I went to Holloway Gaol I scarcely knew, except inferentially, that I had a stomach; and while I was there I scarcely knew I had anything else.

After dining I walked up and down my cell -- tramp, tramp, tramp. How the time crawled, weary hour on hour, like a slow serpent over desert sands. There was nothing to read, nothing to do, nothing to hear, and nothing to see. I was steeped in nothing. And as the senses were unexercised, thought worked on memory till the brain seemed gnawing itself, as a shipwrecked man might assuage his thirst at his own veins. Then imagination, the magician, lovely in weal but terrible in woe, began to weave his spell, and visions arose of dear loved ones agonising beyond the prison walls, to whom my heart yearned through the dividing space with an intense passion that seemed as though its potency might almost annihilate our barriers. Alas! hearts yearn in vain. Nothing avails but strength, and what we cannot achieve the Fates never bestow. My cell walls stood cold and impassable around me, like sentinels of destiny, too vigilant for evasion and too strong for resistance. Brute force overmatches even genius and divinity in the ultimate appeal. Prometheus lies chained to his Caucasian rock, in eternal pain though in eternal defiance; and Napoleon frets away his mighty life at St. Helena watched by the callous eyes of Sir Hudson Lowe.

About three o'clock my cell door was again unlocked and I was invited to take a bath. In the corridor I met my two fellow prisoners, and we were all three marched back to the reception room. Three good baths of warm water were awaiting us. What a glorious luxury after the six days' confinement, without any means of washing one's skin! Some of the prisoners, I understand, regard the first bath as the worst part of the punishment. They are brought up in dirt, and love it; like the Italian who deserted the English girl he was engaged to, and justified himself by saying: "Oh, if I marry her, she wash me, and then I die." We, however, splashed about in our baths, uttering ejaculations of pleasure, and congratulating each other on at least one pleasant bit of prison experience.

The doors of our bath-rooms were about five feet high, with an open space of nine or ten inches between the bottom and the floor. Over the top of these an officer passed us each a couple of shirts (under and over), a pair of drawers, a pair of trousers, and worsted stockings. The drawers and the under-shirt were woollen, and the outer-shirt coarse striped cotton. The trousers seemed a mixture of cotton and wool. They are brown when new, but they wash white, and look then very much like canvas. My pair was a terrible misfit, and had to be exchanged for another nearly twice the size. We were also provided with a net bag to put our own clothes in. My good black suit, dirty linen, hat and boots, were all crushed in together. After this performance the bags are hung up, and either the next day, or at their leisure, the officials make an inventory of the contents, and stow them away until the day before the prisoner leaves, when they are taken out in readiness for donning on the blessed morning of release.

Clad in shirt, trousers and stockings, we walked from our baths to the reception room, where we found several officers and the Governor and Deputy-Governor, who had apparently come to superintend our toilet. Each of us was fitted with a new pair of shoes, a waistcoat and a coat. These arrangements were the subject of a good deal of pleasantry. Our garments were not of a Bond Street pattern; indeed, it takes a very handsome man to cut an elegant figure in a prison suit. I maliciously remarked to Mr. Ramsey that he looked like a gentleman out yachting; but somehow he was unable to see himself in that light. My own clothes were sadly defective. The biggest shirt-collar they had would not button round my throat, and the longest stock was so inadequate that a special one had to be made for me. Nor would the biggest coat fasten across my chest. A broad expanse of waistcoat yawned between the button and the button-hole. Fancying that my complaint was merely fractious, the Deputy-Governor -- a tall, powerful man -- tried to pull them together, and miserably failed. "Well," he said, "it's the largest in stock, and we can't give you what we haven't got." "Yes," I exclaimed, "that's all very well; but if I go about with an open throat like this I shall get an attack of bronchitis. Pray let me have a stock as soon as possible. And do you really mean that you can't possibly find me a bigger coat?" The Deputy-Governor eyed me smilingly as he said, "Come, Mr. Foote, don't be so particular; the clothes don't quite fit you now, but they will." And the worst of it was they did. My coat, however, was always tight across the chest. I changed my trousers and waistcoat as I grew slimmer, but the solid structure of my back and chest (built up by athletics in youth and sustained by lecturing in manhood) always taxed the resources of the establishment in the matter of coats.

One by one we went into the booking-clerk's office again, where we were scaled and our weights entered in a book. Then we had an interview with the doctor, whose duty it was to examine us to see whether we were suffering from any complaint. I was pronounced quite sound. Dr. Gordon spoke pleasantly then, as he always did afterwards. "I suppose you've lived pretty well?" he said. "Not epicureanly," I answered, "but still well." "I'm afraid you won't like our hospitality," he rejoined. "I suppose not," I replied grimly. "However," he continued, "I shall put you on third-class diet at once, and order you a mattress." What the third-class diet was the reader shall learn presently. The second-class diet, which I should otherwise have had for the first month, consists of nothing but bread and sloppy meal-and-water, three times a day. Mr. Kemp had to put up with this wretched fare for a while, and he tells me he was ravenously hungry morning and night, so that it was a luxury to pick up a chance piece of bread from a dinner-tin in the corridor or from a friendly prisoner "off his feed."

Bathing, clothing, and doctoring over, we were marched back to our cells, each loaded with a new mattress and a pair of clean sheets. A few minutes later I was summoned to the schoolroom with Mr. Ramsey, where we were furnished with pen and ink and a sheet of foolscap to write our "petition" to the Home Secretary. The schoolmaster officiated on this occasion. He was a tall, pleasant-looking man, something over forty, with a tendency to baldness. I believe he instructs prisoners who cannot read or write in those useful arts. But his general duty is to play factotum to the chaplain. He takes the singing class, leads the music in chapel, plays the harmonium (the chaplain always calls it the organ), acts as parson's clerk, and reads the lessons when his superior's throat is hoarse with raving. He has a clear and powerful voice, which often serves him in good stead. The congregation has a knack of getting out of time and tune when the melody is unfamiliar; this, in turn, distracts the choir, who flounder hopelessly, until the schoolmaster drags them back by putting full steam on the harmonium and singing at the top of his voice. Every Sunday afternoon, at least, he was obliged to display his vocal prowess in this manner. After every one of the commandments read out by the parson the prisoners chanted the response, "Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law." Nine times they chanted thus, gathering momentum as they went along, so that they took the tenth in brave style. But, alas! the tenth was different. "Lord have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee," were the words, and the tune was correspondingly altered. Fortunately, just at the point of change, there was a strong crescendo, which gave the schoolmaster a fine opportunity of asserting himself. Dragging them back was impossible, so he drowned them, and concluded with the solemn diminuendo amid the breathless admiration of the audience, who went wrong and wondered at his going right every Sunday with the most astonishing regularity.

Looking after the library was the part of the schoolmaster's duty which brought him in frequent contact with me. I always found him very civil and obliging; and from all I could ascertain he was not only generally liked in the prison, but considered a better gentleman than the chaplain.

My "petition" to the Home Secretary was a lengthy document. I assigned many reasons for considering our sentence atrocious. I will not recite them, because they will easily suggest themselves to the readers who have followed my narrative. In conclusion I asked, if our release was impossible, that we might be treated as first-class misdemeanants, according to the general European custom in the case of press offenders, or at least supplied with books and writing materials. Sir William Harcourt sent no answer for a month. At the end of that interval the Governor called me into his office and read out the brutal reply: "The Home Secretary requests Colonel Milman to inform Foote and Ramsey that he sees no reason for acceding to their request."

That was the only instruction Colonel Milman ever received from the Home Office concerning us. Two months later, when public opinion was more fully aroused in our favor, Sir William Harcourt allowed paragraphs to circulate in the papers, stating that orders were given for our being granted every indulgence consistent with our safe custody. It was a brazen lie, which we were prevented from contradicting by the prison rules. So carefully is every regulation contrived for shielding officials that a prisoner is not allowed, in his quarterly letter, to give any particulars of his treatment. Sir William Harcourt also permitted the newspapers to announce that our health would not be allowed to suffer. Another lie! When, after six weeks' incessant diarrhoea, I complained that my stomach would not accommodate itself to the prison food, and asked to be shifted to the civil side, where I could provide my own, Sir William Harcourt did not even condescend to reply, although he was duly informed that if Mr. Ramsey and I had been found Guilty at the Court of Queen's Bench, on our third trial, Lord Coleridge would not only have made his sentence concurrent with that of Judge North, but also have removed us from the criminal-wards to the debtors' wing. Nay, more. When Mr. Kemp had to be taken to the hospital, where he was confined to his bed, and so weakened that he had to be assisted to the carriage on the morning of his release, Sir William Harcourt would not remit a day of his sentence, or take any notice of his representations. It is well that the public should know this, and contrast Sir William Harcourt's treatment of us with his treatment of Mr. Edmund Yates. From the first I had no expectation of release. I told Colonel Milman that Sir William Harcourt was merely a politician, who cared for nothing but keeping in office; and that unless our friends could threaten some Liberal seats, or seriously affect a division in the House of Commons, he would keep us in to please the bigots and the Tories.

Our "petition" to the Home Secretary being finished, we returned to our cells, where tea was served at six o'clock. It consisted of gruel, or, in prison parlance, "skilly," and another little brown loaf. The liquid portion of this repast was too suggestive of bill-stickers' paste to be tempting, so I made a second meal of bread and water.

The red-haired warder gave me a lesson in bed-making before he locked me up for the night. Hammocks had been dispensed with in Holloway ever since Sir Richard Cross groaned in the travail of invention, and produced his masterpiece and monument -- the plank bed. Yet so slow is the official mind, that the rings still lingered in some of the cells. The plank bed is constructed of three eight-inch deals, held together laterally by transverse wooden bars, which serve to lift it two or three inches from the floor. At the head there is a raised portion of flat wood, slightly sloping, to serve as a bolster. For the first month (such is Sir Richard Cross's brilliant idea) every prisoner, no matter what his age or his offence, must sleep on this plank bed without a mattress, unless the doctor sees a special reason for ordering him one. During the second month he sleeps on the plank bed three nights a week, and during the third month one night. Sleeps! The very word is a mockery. Scores of prisoners do not sleep, but pass night after night in broken and restless slumber. Fancy a man delicately brought up, as some prisoners are, suddenly pitched on one of these vile inventions. He tosses about hour after hour, and rises in the morning sore and weary. He has no appetite for breakfast, and is low all day. The next night comes with renewed torture, and on the following day he is still worse. He then applies to see the doctor, who gives him a bottle of physic, which forces an appetite for a while. But it is soon powerless against the effects of nervous exhaustion, and before the poor devil can obtain relief, he is sometimes reduced to the most pitiable condition. I have seen robust men in Holloway, by means of this plank bed and other superfluous tortures of our prison system, brought to the very verge of the grave; and I can scarcely control my indignation when I remember that Mr. Truelove, at the age of seventy, was subjected to this atrocious discipline.

The mattresses are stuffed with fibre. They are tolerable at first, but in a few weeks the stuffing runs into lumps, and your mattress gets nearly as hard as the plank. Shaking is no good; I tried it, and found it only shifted the lumps out of the places my body had forced them in, and left me to repose on a series of hillocks. I got my mattress changed once or twice, but ordinary prisoners are seldom so fortunate.

I retired to rest early that first evening in Holloway. The day had been eventful, and I slept heavily. Breakfast the next morning was a second edition of the tea -- bread and skilly; and again I refreshed myself with the little loaf and cold water.

Soon after breakfast I was invited to attend chapel. It was a welcome summons, for the cell is so drearily monotonous that any change is agreeable. The corner of the chapel we entered was partitioned off from the rest of the building, and capable of seating twenty or thirty prisoners. Besides ourselves, there were present ten or twelve boys, three or four old men, and two or three persons who looked slightly imbecile. The service was read by the chaplain, whose voice was loud, authoritative, and repellant. Some people would call it gruff. It was certainly the most unpersuasive voice I ever heard. As I listened to its domineering tones I could hardly refrain from laughing, for they elicited an old story from the depths of memory. An aged pauper lay dying, and in the parson's absence the master officiated at the sinner's exit from this world. "Well, Tom," he began, "you've been a dreadful fellow, and I fear you are going to hell." "Oh, sir," said the poor old fellow, "you don't say so." "Yes, Tom," the master rejoined, "I do say so; and you ought to be thankful there's a hell to go to."

After chapel we spent an hour or so in our cells, and were then conducted to the basement of the reception wing, where we met the Governor, who conducted us through several dark passages that led to the foot of a spiral iron staircase. We ascended this, and found ourselves on the ground floor of the criminal side of the prison. Four wings radiated from a common centre, distinguished by the first four letters of the alphabet. I was taken to the first cell in the first wing, Mr. Ramsey to the second cell in the second wing, and Mr. Kemp to the second cell in the third wing; our numbers being A 2, 1 -- B 2, 2 -- and C 2, 2. Colonel Milman personally placed me in charge of a warder who has since left the prison, and I believe the service. He was a good, kind-hearted fellow, who never spoke harshly to anybody. Following me into my cell, he took pains to "put me through the ropes." Before leaving he said, "I'm very sorry to see you here, Mr. Foote. I've been reading your case in the papers. It's a great shame. But I'll do my best to make you comfortable while you're with me." And I must say he did.

There were several prisoners standing mute in the corridor outside, and I remarked that they were a pale looking crew. "Yes," said the warder sadly, "confinement tells on a man." Then he gently closed and locked the door, leaving me alone to begin my long ordeal, with the words humming in my ears like the whisper of a fiend -- Confinement tells on a man!

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