Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Prisoner for Blasphemy



THE Gospel of Holloway Gaol, with which Judge North essayed my conversion, produced the opposite effect. Parson Plaford, the prison chaplain, was admirably adapted by nature to preach it. I have already referred to his gruff voice. He generally taxed it in his sermon, and I frequently heard his thunderous accents in the depths of my cell, when he was preaching to the other half of the establishment. His personal appearance harmonised with his voice. His countenance was austere, and his manner overbearing. The latter trait may have been intensified by his low stature. It is a fact of general observation that there is no pomposity like the pomposity of littleness. Parson Plaford may be five feet four, but I would lay anything he is not five feet five. I will, however, do him the justice of saying that he read the lessons with clearness and good emphasis, and that he strove to prevent his criminal congregation from enjoying the luxury of a stealthy nap. He occasionally furnished them with some amusement by attempting to lead the singing. The melody of his voice, which suggested the croak of an asthmatical raven, threw them into transports of sinister appreciation; and the remarkable manner in which he sometimes displayed the graces of Christian courtesy to the schoolmaster afforded them an opportunity of contrasting the chaplain with the Governor.

Parson Plaford's deity was an almighty gaoler. The reverend gentlemen took a prison view of everything. He had a habit, as I learned, of asking new comers what was their sentence, and informing them that it ought to have been twice as long. In his opinion, God had providentially sent them there to be converted from sin by the power of his ministry. I cannot say, however, that the divine experiment was attended with much success. The chaplain frequently told us from the pulpit that he had some very promising cases in the prison, but we never heard that any of them ripened to maturity. When he informed us of these hopeful apprentices to conversion, I noticed that the prisoners near me eyed him as I fancy the Spanish gypsies eyed George Borrow when they heard him read the Bible. Their silence was respectful, but there was an eloquent criticism in their squint.

After one of his frequent absences in search of health, Parson Plaford related with great gusto a real case of conversion. On one particular morning a prisoner was released, who expressed sincere repentance for his sins, and the chaplain's locum tenens had written in the discharge book that he believed it was "a real case of conversion to God." That very morning, I found by comparing notes, also witnessed the release of Mr. Kemp. All the parson-power of Holloway Gaol had failed to shake his Freethought. His conversion would have been a feather in the chaplain's hat, but it could not be accomplished. The utmost that could be achieved was the conversion of a Christian to Christianity.

On another occasion, Parson Plaford ingenuously illustrated the character of prison conversions. An old hand, a well-known criminal who had visited the establishment with wearisome frequency, was near his discharge. He had an interview with the chaplain and begged assistance. "Sir," he said, "I've told you I was converted before, and you helped me. It wasn't true, I know; but I am really converted this time. God knows it sir." But the chaplain would not be imposed upon again. He declined to furnish the man with the assistance he solicited. "And then," said the preacher, with tears in his voice, "he cursed and swore; he called me the vilest names, which I should blush to repeat, and I had to order him out of the room." "Oh," he continued, "it is an ungrateful world. But holy scripture says that in the latter days unthankfulness shall abound, and these things are signs that the end is approaching. Blessed be God, some of us are ready to meet him." These lachrymose utterances were the precursors of a long disquisition on his favorite topic -- the end of the world, the grand wind-up of the Lord's business. We were duly initiated into the mysteries of prophecy, a subject which, as South said, either finds a man cracked or leaves him so. The latter days and the last days were accurately distinguished, and it was obscurely hinted that we were within measurable distance of the flaming catastrophe.

Over forty sermons fell from Parson Plaford's lips into my critical ears, and I never detected a grain of sense in any of them. Nor could I gather that he had read any other book than the Bible. Even that he appeared to have read villainously, for he seemed ignorant of much of its contents, and he told us many things that are not in it. He placed a pen in the fingers of the man's hand which disturbed Belshazzar's feast, and gave us many similar additions to holy writ. Yet he was singularly devoid of imagination. He took everything in the Bible literally, even the story of the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the apostles in the shape of cloven tongues of fire. "They were like this," he said, making an angle with the knuckles of his forefinger on the top of his bald head, and looking at us with a pathetic air of sincerity. It was the most ludicrous spectacle I ever witnessed.

During the few visits he paid me, Parson Plaford was fairly civil. Mr. Ramsey seems to have been the subject of his impertinence. My fellow-prisoner was informed that we deserved transportation for life. Yet at that time the chaplain had not even seen the publication for which we were imprisoned! However, his son had, and he was "a trustworthy young man." Towards the end of his term Mr. Ramsey found the charitable heart of the man of God relent so far as to allow that transportation for life was rather too heavy a punishment for our offence, which only deserved perpetual detention in a lunatic asylum.

For the last ten months of my term Parson Plaford neither honoured nor dishonored my cell with his presence. Soon after I was domiciled in the A wing he called to see me. I rose from my stool and made him a satirical bow. This greeting, however, was too freezing for his effusiveness. Notwithstanding the opinion of us he had expressed to Mr. Ramsey, and with which I was of course unacquainted, he extended his hand as though he had known me for years.

"Ah," he said, "this is a sorry sight. Your trouble is mental I know. I wish I could help you, but I cannot. You are here for breaking the law, you know." "Yes," I replied, "such as it is. But the law is broken every week. Millions of people abstain from attending church on Sunday, yet there is an unrepealed law which commands them to."

"Yes, and I'd make them," was the fiery answer from the little man, as the bigot flamed in his eyes.

"Come now," I said, "you couldn't if you tried."

"Well," he said, "you've got to suffer. But even if you are a martyr, you don't suffer what our martyrs did."

"Perhaps not," I retorted, "but I suffer all your creed is able to inflict. Doesn't it occur to you as strange and monstrous that Christianity, which boasts so of its own martyrs, should in turn persecute all who differ from it? Suppose Freethought had the upper hand, and served you as you serve us: wouldn't you think it shameful?"

"Of course," he blurted. Then, correcting himself, he added: "But you never will get the upper hand."

"How do you know?" I asked. "Freethought has the upper hand in France."

"Yes," he replied, "but that is an infidel country. It will never be so here."

"But suppose," I continued, "it were so here, and we imprisoned you for deriding our opinions as you imprison us for deriding yours. Would you not say you were persecuted?"

"Oh," he said, "that's a different thing."

Mr. Bradlaugh was then mentioned.

"By the way, you're remarkably like him," said the chaplain.

I thought it a brilliant discovery, and still more so when I learned, a few minutes later, that he had not seen Mr. Bradlaugh for thirty years.

Darwin was referred to next.

"I suppose you know he's been disproved," said the chaplain, complacently.

"No, I don't," I answered; "nor do I quite understand what you mean. What has been disproved?"

"Why," he said, "I mean that man isn't a monkey."

"Indeed!" I rejoined; "I am not aware that Darwin ever said that man is a monkey. Nor do I think so myself -- except in some extreme cases."

Whether this was construed as a personality or not I am unable to decide, but our interview soon terminated. Parson Plaford called on me two or three times during the next few weeks, promised me some good books to read as soon as the regulations permitted, and fulfilled his promise by never visiting me again.

Mr. Ramsey was nursed a little longer. I suppose the chaplain had hopes of him. But he finally relinquished them when Mr. Ramsey said one Monday morning, on being asked what he thought of yesterday's sermon, "I wonder how you could talk such nonsense. Why, I could preach a better sermon myself."

"Could you?" bristled the little man. And from that moment he gave Mr. Ramsey up for lost.

One day the chaplain ran full butt against Mr. Kemp in the corridor. "Ah," he said, "how are you getting on?" Mr. Kemp made a curt reply. The fact was, he was chewing a small piece of tobacco, an article which does somehow creep into the prison in minute quantities, and is swapped for large pieces of bread. Mr. Kemp was enjoying the luxury, although it would have been nauseous in other circumstances; for the prison fare is so insipid that even a dose of medicine is an agreeable change. Now Parson Plaford and Mr. Kemp are about the same height, and lest the chaplain should see or smell the tobacco, the little blasphemer was obliged to turn his head aside, hoping the conversation would soon end. But the little parson happened to be in a loquacious mood, and the interview was painfully prolonged. Next Sunday there was a withering sermon on "infidels," who were described as miserable persons that "dare not look you in the face."

Parson Plaford seemed to be on very intimate terms with his maker. If his little finger ached, the Lord meant something by it. Yet, although he was always ready to be called home, he was still more ready to accept the doctor's advice to take a holiday when he felt unwell. The last sermon I heard him preach was delivered through a sore throat, a chronic malady which he exasperated by bawling. He told us that the work and worry were too much for him, and the doctor had ordered him rest, if he wished to live. He was going away for a week or two to see what the Lord meant to do with him; and I afterwards heard some of the prisoners wonder what the Lord was doing with him. "I speak to you as a dying man," said the chaplain, as he had said several times before when he felt unwell; and as it might be the last time he would ever preach there, he besought somebody, as a special act of gratitude, to get saved that very day.

One of the prisoners offered a different reason for the chaplain's temporary retirement. "He ain't ill, sir. I knows what 'tis. I was down at the front when your friend Mr. Ramsey went out. There was a lot of coaches and people, and the parson looked as white as a ghost. He thinks ther'll be more coaches and people when you goes out, and he's gone off sooner than see 'em."

During the chaplain's absences his locum tenens was usually a gentleman of very opposite characteristics. He was tall, thin, modest, and even diffident. He slipped into your cell, as I said before, with the deferential air of an undertaker. His speech was extremely soft and rapid, although he stuttered a little now and then from nervousness. "I suppose you know," I asked on his first visit, "what I am here for?" "Y-e-s," he stammered, with something like a blush. I said no more, for it was evident he wished to avoid the subject, and I really think he was sorry to see me persecuted in the name of Christ. He had called, he said, to see whether he could do anything for me. Could he lend me any books? I thanked him for the proffered kindness, but I had my own books to read by that time. Mr. Stubbs's sermons were much superior to Mr. Plaford's. They were almost too good for the congregation. He dwelt with fondness on the tender side of Christ's character, and seemed to look forward to a heaven which would ultimately contain everybody.

On one occasion we had a phenomenal old gentleman in the pulpit. He was white-haired but florid. His appearance was remarkably youthful, and his voice sonorous. I heard that he was assistant chaplain at one of the other London prisons. With the most exemplary fidelity he went through the morning service, omitting nothing; unlike Parson Plaford, who shortened it to leave time for his sermon. I wondered whether he would get through it by dinner-time, or whether he would continue it in the afternoon. But he just managed to secure ten minutes for his sermon, which began with these extraordinary words, that were sung out at the top of his voice: "When the philosopher observes zoophyte formations on the tops of mountains, he," etc. How singularly appropriate it was to the congregation. The sermon was not exactly "Greek" to them, but it was all "zoophyte." I heard some of them wonder when that funny old boy was coming again.

The prisoners sit in chapel on backless benches, tier above tier, from the rails in front of the clerk's desk almost to the roof behind. Two corners are boarded off within the rails, one for the F wing and the other for the debtors' wing. Above them is a long gallery, with private boxes for the governor, the doctor and the chief warder, and a pulpit for the chaplain. Parson Plaford used to make a great noise in closing the heavy door behind the pulpit, leading to the front of the prison; and he rattled the keys as though he loved the sound. He placed them on the desk beside the "sacred volume," and I used to think that the Bible and the keys went well together. In offering his first private prayer, as well as in his last after the benediction, he always covered his face with the sleeve of his robe, lest, I suppose, the glory of his countenance, while communicating with his maker, should afflict us as the insufferable splendor of the face of Moses afflicted the Jews at Mount Sinai. His audible prayers were made kneeling with clasped hands and upturned face. His eyes were closed tightly, his features were painfully contracted, and his voice was a falsetto squeak. I fancy the Governor must have sighed at the performance. The doctor never troubled to attend it.

The prisoners were supposed to cross their hands in front while in chapel. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to induce me to conform to the regulation. I declined to strike prescribed attitudes. Another rule, pretty rigorously enforced, was that the prisoners should look straight before them. If a head was turned aside, an officer bawled out "Look to your front." I once heard the injunction ludicrously interpolated in the service. "Dearly beloved brethren," said the chaplain. "Look to your front," growled the officer. It was text and comment.

Only once did I see a prisoner impressed. The man sat next to me; his face was red, and he stared at the chaplain with a pair of goggle eyes. Surely, I thought, the parson is producing an effect. As we were marching back to our cells I heard a sigh. Turning round, I saw my harvest-moon-faced friend in an ecstacy. It was Sunday morning, and near dinner time. Raising his hands, while his goggle eyes gleamed like wet pebbles, the fellow ejaculated -- "Pudden next."

I have already referred to the chapel music, in which the schoolmaster played such a distinguished part. A few more notes on this subject may not be out of place. There was a choir of a dozen or so prisoners, most of whom were long-term men in some position of trust. Short-timers are not, I believe, eligible for membership; indeed, the whole public opinion of the establishment is against these unfortunates, who have committed no crime worth speaking of; and I still remember with what a look of disgust the worthy schoolmaster once described them to me as "Mere parasites, here to-day and gone to-morrow." Having a bit of a voice, I was invited to join the sweet psalmists of Holloway; but I explained that I was only a spectator of the chapel performances, and could not possibly become an assistant. The privileges enjoyed by the choristers are not, however, to be despised. They drop their work two or three times a week for practice, and they have an advantage in matters which are trifling enough outside, but very important in prison. In chapel they sit together on the front benches, and if they smile and whisper they are not so sharply reprimanded as the common herd behind them.

Another privileged class were the cooks, who occupied the last bench, and rested their backs against the wall. They were easily distinguished by their hair being greased, no other prisoners having fat enough to waste on such a luxury.

Saturday morning's chapel hour was devoted to general practice, which was known as the cat's chorus. Imagine three or four hundred prisoners all learning a new tune! Some of the loudest voices were the most unmusical, and the warblers at the rear were generally behind in time as well as in space. How they floundered, gasped, broke down, got up again, and shuffled along as before till the next collapse! Sometimes they gave it up as hopeless, a few first, and then others, until some silly fellow was left shrilling alone, when he too would suddenly stop, as though frightened at the sound of his own voice.

I noticed, however, that whenever an evangelical hymn was sung to an old familiar tune, they all joined in, and rattled through it with great satisfaction. This confirmed the notion I had acquired from previous reading, that nine out of every ten prisoners in our English gaols have been Sunday-school children, or attendants at church or chapel. Scepticism has not led them to gaol, and religion has not kept them out of it.

Parson Plaford, as I have said, never visited me after the second month. He heard my defence on the third trial before Lord Coleridge, and sadly confessed to Mr. Ramsey that he was afraid I was a hardened sinner. He appears to have had some hopes of my fellow prisoner, whom he continued to visit for another month. Mr. Ramsey encouraged him in doing so, for a conversation with anyone and on anything is a welcome break in the monotony of silence. But when he got books to read there was less need of these interviews, and they soon ceased. Mr. Ramsey informs me, however, that the chaplain called on him just before he left, and asked whether he could offer any suggestions as to the "system." The old gentleman admitted that he had been operating on prisoners for over twenty years without the least success.

The chaplain often confided to us in his sermons that prisoners came to him pretending they had derived great good from his ministrations, only in order to gain some little privilege. I learned, also, from casual conversations in the exercise-ground, that the old gentleman had his favorites, who were not always held in the same esteem and affection by their companions. They were generally regarded as spies and tell-tales, and the men were very cautious of what they said and did in the presence of these elect. Piety was looked upon as a species of humbug, although (so persistent is human nature) a really good, generous man would have been liked and respected. "I could be pious for a pound a day," said one prisoner in my hearing, with reference to the chaplain's salary. "Yes," said the man he spoke to, "so could I, or 'arf of it."

One Sunday the lesson was the story of Peter's miraculous rescue from prison. "Ah," said an old fellow to his pal, "that was a good yarn we heard this morning. I'd like to see th' angel git 'im out o' Holloway."

Parson Plaford was evangelical, but a thorough Churchman, and he had a strong preference for those of his own sect. There was in the prison a young fellow, the son of a wealthy member of Parliament, whose name I need not disclose. He was doing eighteen months for getting into difficulties on the turf, and mistaking his father's name for his own. Having plenty of money, he was able to establish communication with his friends outside; and this being detected, the Governor kept him constantly on the move from wing to wing, and corridor to corridor, so that he might have no time to grow familiar with the officers and corrupt their integrity. The plan was a good one, but it did not succeed. Young officers, who work ninety or a hundred hours a week, with only two off Sundays in three months, for twenty-three shillings, cannot always be expected to resist a bribe.

The young scapegrace I refer to was very anxious to get out of his cell, and he applied to the chaplain for the post of schoolmaster's assistant. The duties of this office are to help bind the books and keep the library catalogue, and to carry the basket of literature when the schoolmaster goes the round. Parson Plaford would not entertain the application. "No," he said, "I begin to think your religious notions are very unsound. I must have a good Churchman for the post." Well, the chaplain got his good Churchman; it was an old hand, sentenced twice before to long terms for felony, and then doing another five or seven years for burglary and assault.

< Previous Chapter


Next Chapter >