Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Prisoner for Blasphemy



Feeling there was no prospect of release, and resigned to my fate, I settled down to endure it, with a resolution to avail myself of every possible mitigation. Colonel Milman included us among the special exercise men, and we enjoyed the luxury of two outings every day; our solitary confinement being thus reduced to twenty-two hours instead of twenty-three. By finessing I also managed to get an old feather pillow from the store-room, which proved a comfortable addition to the wooden bolster. The alteration in our food I have already mentioned.

Sir William Harcourt did absolutely nothing for us, but the Secretary of the Prison Commissioners gave instructions that we were to be treated as kindly as possible, so that "nothing might happen" to us. One of the upper officers, whom I have seen since, told me we were a source of great anxiety to the authorities, and they were very glad to see our backs.

Mr. Anderson called on me in my cell and asked what he could do for me.

"Open the front door," I answered.

With a pleasant smile he regretted his inability to do that.

"Well then," I continued, "let me have something to read."

"Yes," he said, "I can do that. There are many books in the prison library."

"But not one," I retorted, "fit for an educated man to read. They are all selected by the chaplain."

"Well," he answered, "I cannot give you what we haven't got."

"But why not let me have my own books to read?" I asked.

Mr. Anderson replied that such a thing was unheard of, but I persisted in my plea, which Colonel Milman generously supported.

"Well," said Mr. Anderson, "I suppose we must. Your own books may be sent in, and the Governor can let you have them two at a time. But, you know, you mustn't have such writings as you are here for."

"Oh," I replied, "you have the power to check that. They will all pass through the Governor's hands, and I will order in nothing but what Colonel Milman might read himself."

"Oh," said Mr. Anderson, with a humorous smile, which the Governor and the Inspector shared, "I can't say what Colonel Milman might like to read."

The interview ended and my books came. What a joy they were! I read Gibbon and Mosheim right through again, with Carlyle's "Frederick," "French Revolution" and "Cromwell," Forster's "Statesmen of the Commonwealth," and a mass of literature on the Rebellion and the Protectorate. I dug deep into the literature of Evolution. I read over again all Shakespeare, Shelley, Spenser, Swift and Byron, besides a number of more modern writers. French books were not debarred, so I read Diderot, Voltaire, Paul Louis Courier, and the whole of Flaubert, including "L'Education Sentimentale," which I never attacked before, but which I found, after conquering the apparent dullness of the first half of the first volume, to be one of the greatest of his triumphs. Mr. Gerald Massey, then on a visit to England, was churlishly refused a visiting order from the Home Office, but he sent me his two magnificent volumes on "Natural Genesis," and a note to the interim editor of the Freethinker, requesting him to tell me that I had his sympathy. "I fight the same battle as himself," said Mr. Massey, "although with a somewhat different weapon." I was also favored with a presentation copy of verses by the one writer I most admire, whose genius I reverenced long before the public and its critics discovered it. It would gratify my vanity rather than my prudence to reveal his name.

Agreeably to the proverb that if you give some men an inch they will take an ell, I induced the Governor to let me pursue my study of Italian. First he allowed me a Grammar, then a Conversation Book, then a Dictionary, then a Prose Reading Book, and then a Poetical Anthology. These volumes, being an addition to the two ordinary ones, gave my little domicile a civilised appearance. Cleaners sometimes, when my door was opened, looked in from the corridor with an expression of awe. "Why," I heard one say, "he's got a cell like a bookshop."

With my books, my Italian, and my Colenso, I managed to kill the time; and although the snake-like days were still long, they were less venomous. Yet the remainder of my sentence was a terrible ordeal. I never lost heart, but I lost strength. My brain was miraculously clear, but it grew weaker as the body languished; and before my release I could hardly read more than an hour or two a day.

The only break in the monotony of my life was when I received a visit. Mrs. Besant, Dr. Aveling, Mr. Wheeler and my wife, saw me occasionally; either in the ordinary way, at the end of every three months, or by special order from the Home Office. I saw my visitors in the prison cages, only our faces being visible to each other through a narrow slit. We stood about six feet apart, with a warder between us to stop "improper conversation." I could not shake a friend's hand or kiss my wife. The interviews lasted only half an hour. In the middle of a sentence "Time!" was shouted, the keys rattled, and the little oasis had to be left for another journey over the desert sand.

Every three months I wrote a letter on a prison sheet. Two sides were printed on, and the others ruled wide, with a notice that nothing was to be written between the lines. No doubt the authorities were anxious to save the prisoners the pain of too much mental exertion. I foiled them by writing small, and abbreviating nearly every word. My letters were of course read before they were sent out, and the answers read before they reached me. No respect being shown for the privacies of affection, I addressed my letters to Dr. Aveling for publication in the Freethinker.

One of these documents lies before me as I write. It was the extra letter I sent to my wife before leaving, and contains directions as to clothes and other domestic matters. I venture to reproduce the advertisement, which occupies the whole front page:

"A prisoner is permitted to write and receive a Letter after three months of his sentence have expired, provided his conduct and industry have been satisfactory during that time, and the same privilege will be continued afterwards on the same conditions and at the same intervals.

"All Letters of an improper or idle tendency, either to or from Prisoners, or containing slang or other objectionable expressions, will be suppressed. The permission to write and receive letters is given to the Prisoners for the purpose of enabling them to keep up a connexion with their respectable friends, and not that they may hear the news of the day.

"All Letters are read by the Authorities of the Prison, and must be legibly written, and not crossed.

"Neither clothes, money, nor any other articles, are allowed to be received by any Officers of the Prison for the use of Prisoners; all parcels containing such articles intended for Prisoners on discharge must bear outside the name of the Prisoner, and be sent to the Governor, or they will not be received. Persons attempting otherwise to introduce any article to or for a prisoner, are liable to a fine or imprisonment, and the Prisoner concerned may be severely punished."

The authorities are not so careful about the letter being legible by its recipient. They do not insert it in an envelope, but just fold it up and fasten it with a little gum, so that the letter is nearly sure to be torn in the opening. The address is written on the back by the prisoner himself, before the sheet is folded. Lines are provided for the purpose, and it is pretty easy to see what the letter is. Surely a little more consideration might be shown for a prisoner's friends. They are not criminals, and as the prison authorities incur the expense of postage, they might throw in a cheap envelope without ruining the nation.

Mr. Kemp was released on May 25 in a state of exhaustion. It is doubtful if he could have survived another three months' torture. What illness in the frightful solitude of a prison cell is I know. I once caught a bad cold, and for the first time in my life had the toothache. It came on about two o'clock in the afternoon, and as applications for the doctor are only received before breakfast, I had to wait until the next day before I could obtain relief. It arrived of itself about one o'clock. The doctor had considerately left my case till last, in order to give me proper attention.

Mr. Ramsey was released on November 24. He was welcomed at the prison gates by a crowd of sympathisers, and entertained at a breakfast in the Hall of Science, where he made an interesting speech. By a whimsical calculation, I reckoned that I had still to swallow twenty-one gallons of prison tea and twelve prison sermons.

Christmas Day was the only variation in the remainder of my "term." Being regarded as a Sabbath, it was a day of idleness. The fibre was removed from my cell, my apartment was clean and tidy, a bit of dubbin gave an air of newness to my old shoes, and after a good wash and an energetic use of my three-inch comb, I was ready for the festivities of the season. After a sumptuous breakfast on dry bread, and sweet water misnamed tea, I took a walk in the yard; and on returning to my cell I sat down and wondered how my poor wife was spending the auspicious day. What a "merry Christmas" for a woman whose husband was eating his heart out in gaol! The chapel-bell roused me from phantasy. While the other half of the prison was engaged in "devotion," I did an hour's grinding at Italian, and read a chapter of Gibbon; after which I heard the "miserable sinners" return from the chapel to their cells.

My Christmas dinner consisted of the usual diet, and after eating it I went for another brief tramp in the yard. The officers seemed to relax their usual rigor, and many of the prisoners exchanged greetings. "How did yer like the figgy duff?" "Did the beef stick in yer ribs?" Such were the flowers of conversation. From the talk I overheard, I gathered that under the old management, while Holloway Gaol was the City Prison, all the inmates had a "blow-out" on Christmas Day, in the shape of beef, vegetables, plum-pudding, and a pint of beer. Some of the old hands, who remembered those happy days, bitterly bewailed the decay of prison hospitality. Their lamentations were worthy of a Conservative orator at a rural meeting. The present was a poor thing compared with the past, and they sighed for "the tender grace of a day that is dead."

After exercise I went to chapel. Parson Plaford preached a seasonable sermon, which would have been more heartily relished on a full stomach. He told us what a blessed time Christmas was, and that people did well to be joyful on the anniversary of their Savior's birth. Before dismissing us with his blessing to our "little rooms," which was his habitual euphemism for our cells, he remarked that he could not wish us a happy Christmas in our unhappy condition, but he would wish us a peaceful Christmas; and he ventured to promise us that boon if, after leaving chapel, we fell on our knees and besought pardon for our sins. Most of the prisoners received this advice with a grin, for their cell floors were black-leaded, and genuflexions in their "little rooms" gave them too much knee-cap to their trousers.

At six o'clock I had my third instalment of Christmas fare, the last mouthfuls being consumed to the accompaniment of church bells. The neighboring Bethels were announcing their evening performance, and the sound penetrated into my cell. True believers were wending their way to church, while the heretic, who had dared to deride their creed and denounce their hypocrisy, was regaling himself on dry bread in one of their dungeons. The bells rang out against each other with a wild glee as I paced my narrow floor. They seemed mad with intoxication of victory; they mocked me with a bacchanalian frenzy of triumph. Yet I smiled grimly, for their clamor was no more than the ancient fool's shout, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians." Great Christ has had his day since, but he in turn is dead; dead in man's intellect, dead in man's heart, dead in man's life; a mere phantom, flitting about the aisles of churches, where priestly mummers go through the rites of a phantom creed.

I took my prison Bible and read the story of Christ's birth in Matthew and Luke, Mark and John having never heard of it or forgotten it. What an incongruous jumble of absurdities! A poor fairy tale of the world's childhood, utterly insignificant beside the stupendous revelations of science. From the fanciful story of the Magi following a star to Shelley's "World on worlds are rolling ever," what an advance! As I retired to sleep on my plank-bed my mind was full of these reflections, and when the gas was turned out, and I was left in darkness and silence, I felt serene and almost happy.

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