My First Imprisonment

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My First Imprisonment

W. T. Stead (London: E. Marlborough & Co, 1886)


Sentence was pronounced, a buzz of eager conversation filled the crowded court. Friends were pressing round the dock, where we had spent so many exciting days, to say good-bye. All was movement—a feverish murmur of many voices. The long tension had given way, last words were being hurriedly exchanged—” Good-bye, good-bye, God bless you!” “I’d rather be in your place than in that of your judge”—it was Mr. Waugh who said that, although I did not know his voice at the time from other voices rising from below. “Once more, good-bye.” And waving my hand to the excited throng I descended the steps, with a confused vision of horse-hair wigs, eager faces, and a patch of scarlet still lingering on my retina. Down we went, Jacques and I—Rebecca and Mdme. Mourez had preceded us—and we were prisoners. We had been below for a few minutes every day of the trial, but now we went further afield. Newgate is a deserted gaol. The long corridors, like combs of empty cells, stand silent as the grave. As we were marched down passages and through one iron gate after another, I experienced my first feel of a gaol. Those who have not been in prison will understand it when they in their turn receive sentence of imprisonment. It is a feel of stone and iron, hard and cold, and, when, as in Newgate, the prison is empty, there is added the chill and silence of the grave.

The first thing that strikes you is the number of iron gates that are to be locked and unlocked, and the word turnkey first seems real to you. Overhead the tiers of cells, with their iron balustrades and iron stairs, rose story after story. It was as if you were walking at the bottom of the hold of some great petrified ship, looking up at the deserted decks. What a sepulchre of hopes it once was, and how many ghosts of the unhallowed dead must walk these aisles and corridors, where rings now but the echo of the clang of the iron gate, or the spring of the lock as the warder passes his prisoners along the via dolorosa that leads to the condemned cells. When we reached these grim chambers we turned to the left and entered the warder’s office. It was bright and cheerful, and the fire glowed from the grate like a live thing, after the deadly chilly mirk of the prison. There we sat and waited, and as the minutes passed, and we waited and waited, some faint sense of the change came over me. At last, after years of incessant stress and strain, and after six months in which every hour had to get through the work of two, I had come to a place where time was a drug in the market—where time was to hang heavy on my hands, where, after being long bankrupt in minutes, I was to be a millionaire of hours. It was a sudden transition from the busy, crowded stirring excitement of an existence exceptionally full of life and interest to the dull monotony of a gaol. Suddenly I was summoned out. The manager of the Pall Mall Gazette had got an order to see me, and I was marched back through the unending passages to a small room, where the interview was permitted. He told me that the sentence began from the first day of the trial, and that consequently I should be out on January 18th, and Jacques on November 18th. That was good news for Jacques. As for me, my first and only thought was one of satisfaction that after all my presentiment had been correct. From the day that Rebecca was in the witness-box I had declared positively that I was certain to go to gaol for two months. Nearly everybody laughed at me, but I was certain I was right. When I was sentenced to three months imprisonment I did not understand it. Now, however, it was clear. I was only to be in prison two months and a week. I would rather have had my presentiment verified and had an extra month than to have it falsified for a month’s earlier release.

My visitor left. I was re-conducted to the warder’s room. At last the prison van was ready. We were ushered out into the yard. “Look there,” said the warder to Jacques; “see that door—that is where you will be next time you come here.” “What is that?” said Jacques. “The condemned cell,” said the warder, with a grim laugh, and we marched off to the prison van. There we met poor Rebecca, who was in high spirits, and Mdme. Mourez, whose indignation on being removed after sentence was almost ungovernable. We climbed into the van—not for the first time. We had ridden out from Bow Street in it before, but then all the compartments were full of prisoners. Now we were alone locked in with the warders. A lamp at one end shed a dim light down the centre. At last we started. As we drove through the prison gates we heard the hoarse roar of the crowd which had waited to give us a parting yell of execration as we left the scene in which for so many days we had been the central figures. It was a poor howl, the crowd apparently being small; but like Don Silva in the “Spanish Gypsy,” when Father Isidor was hanged, we—

Knew the shout
For wonted exultation of the crowd
When malefactors die—or saints or heroes.

It was the last sound from the outside world which we heard—a curious contrast to the cheering crowd which little more than two months before had followed us from Hyde Park to Northumberland Street. After ten minutes’ drive we arrived at Coldbath-in-the-Fields. Jacques and I alighted, and the van drove on to Millbank—the woman’s prison, where Rebecca and Mdme Mourez are still awaiting the expiry of their sentences; Rebecca in good spirits, taking all things patiently, knowing, as she says, that she deserves the punishment for the many bad deeds she had done in her life, although it is rather odd it should be given her the only time she ever tried to do anything good. Mdme. Mourez, they say, is dangerously ill of erysipelas in the hospital at Millbank.

Jacques and I were made to stand in line, and then marched off through echoing corridors and the usual endless series of grated gates to the reception room, where some dozen or more fellow-prisoners were already assembled waiting till the dregs had drained into this human cesspool from all the contributory police-stations. We were seated on forms fronting an officer, who entered our names, emptied our pockets, labelled us, and sent us across the room to select caps and shoes. The night was raw and cold. There was a glorious fire close to the officer, but so far from us as to make us only colder for its sight. The officer was smart, somewhat rough, although not with me; but as we sat waiting an hour in the great empty room with our fellow-criminals, he became drowsy, and, contrary to regulations, the criminal crew began to exchange notes. A wild-looking larrikin whispered to me, “Do you know how much them wot was in the Armstrong case has got?” I had the pleasure of announcing my sentence, and explaining that we were “them wot was in it,” and noting the sensation that followed. “You’ve got off cheap,” said my left-hand neighbour. Then came in a broken-down old gentleman who had evidently seen better days. He had been drinking, and smelt it, although he was sober enough to walk with a stick. When his pockets were searched no fewer than nine pocket-knives were discovered hidden in about as many different pockets. The unearthing of each fresh pocket-knife produced a titter of merriment. “Now, old Dicky Nine Knives,” said the officer,” what is your name?” And the poor dilapidated, red-nosed creature said his name was Mr. ————, journalist! Poor fellow, his journalistic days had been over some time. “Costermongers,” a prisoner in Clerkenwell once remarked, “when times are bad, turn journalists”—a fact which explains many things. Most of the prisoners were drunk. Several might have avoided imprisonment by paying a few shillings’ fine; but when you have not got a sixpence, a few shillings’ fine is as hopeless as a king’s ransom. Prisoners are allowed to select their own hats and shoes out of a miscellaneous assortment of all sizes. Whether the ordinary criminal head is abnormally small, or whether the persons who had preceded us that day were abnormally big-headed men, I do not know; but I found nearly all the hats—dun-yellow glengarries without buttons or tails— too small for me. At last, after trying some twenty hats which had been going in succession round the score of my fellow-prisoners, I found one which was luckily split open a little, so that by wearing it with the back to the front I could get a tolerable fit. The shoes were another difficulty. They were fearfully and wonderfully patched. Some of them were monuments of careful industry. By careful selection I got two misfellowed ones which I thought would fit. When I came to lace them, however, I found them nip my feet so badly that, after trying them two days, I had to get them changed. My new pair were so large I had to fill them up with oakum when I went for exercise, and then stumbled along as best I could. When we had all been entered up, we marched in single file downstairs along passages until we came to the bath and dressing room. Here we were halted, and sent to bath in detachments. I squirmed a little at the thought of the bath from the description of the Amateur Casual, but I was agreeably surprised. The bath was filled fresh for each prisoner; the water was clean and although it might have been pleasanter if a little more of the chill had been taken off, for it was nearly nine at night in mid-November, there was nothing to complain of. Your own clothes are then taken away, and a prison suit given you. The suites are allotted in sizes. Jacques, being large and stout, was ill to fit, and his toilette took him a long time. As we had come in with drawers and flannels, we were allotted underclothing—fairly comfortable, although the drawers are short in the leg. Braces are superfluities of civilization. So are cuffs, collars, and neckties. The prisoners’ complete outfit is as follows:—Cap and shoes, selected in the reception room; a pair of worsted stockings, even more monumental specimens of industry and ingenuity than the boots—which was darn and which was original stocking no one could tell, and in the darning one of the heels had somehow managed to stray half down the foot towards the toe; flannel shirt and drawers; a blue-striped cotton shirt; trousers, waistcoat, coat, pocket handkerchief, and stock. The stock is a narrow strip of cloth, which buttons round the neck and over which the shirt collar folds. There is only one pocket in the suit, into which the large, coarse pocket handkerchief is thrust. The trousers are held in situ by the waistband. At Coldbath the band had only one buckle, and a hole pierced to receive it. If I might make a suggestion to benevolent governors, it is that wherever the single-pronged waistband is used they will pierce more than one hole in the thong of the buckle. The girth of prisoners differs so much that if there were three holes an inch apart it would conduce much both to comfort and seemliness. Where there is only one hole, and the prisoner is slim, he has continually to be hitching up his breeches. It is a small reform, and it could easily be carried out. At Holloway the waistband has the ordinary double sharp-pronged buckle, which makes its own holes, and this, of course, is the best. But somebody no doubt is wearing my old breeches to-day, and although they were of a most lovely hue—a fine shade of rich creamy-coloured yellow, plentifully bespattered with the broad arrow—he will be often tempted, if he be thin and of an impatient disposition, to swear at the absence of means for girthing himself up tight. When dressed complete a small pocket comb is given you and a pair of leather boot laces, an article I never possessed since I gave up wearing a leather bootlace as a watchguard. When the last loiterer had finished his toilette we tramped back to the reception room, where, after a time, we were taken off to our cells. Before we went, however, a tin looking like an old American beef tin with something like paste at the bottom of it and a small loaf of hard whole-meal brown bread were handed to each of us. I thought of the waiter at the London Club, where I had dined the night before, and valorously put the tin to my lips, following the example of my neighbours. The viscous fluid crawled slowly down the tin and touched my lips. And there it stopped. Gruel at the best is an abomination. But prison gruel without any salt is about as savoury a beverage as the contents of the editorial paste pot. There was salt in my cell, I was told, and carrying our skilly and our bread in our hands, we were marched off to the reception wing, where we were to sleep that night. The warder who conducted us was a decent fellow. “You had better say good-bye,” said he; “you will not see each other again.” In this, however, he was wrong. We went to the doctor’s together next morning and also to the governor.

It was when trudging to our cells that the warder told us that the distinction between hard labour and not hard labour prisoners was a distinction without a difference. “If I had to do a turn,” said he, “I should prefer hard labour, for you don’t do much more work, and you do get a bit more food.” As there are very few of the judges who know this, and as Lord Justice Lopes in particular seemed to imagine that by sentencing us to imprisonment without hard labour he was giving us a lighter sentence than he awarded to Mdme. Mourez, I will quote here an extract from Sir E. Du Cane’s book on convict prisons, the contents of which seem to be unknown to at least one judge on the bench:—

(Extract from Sir E. Du Cane’s Notes on Penal Servitude.)

The distinction made by the use of the term “imprisonment” to denote sentences of two years and under, and penal servitude to denote sentences of five years and upwards, no longer has any significance, now that they are both carried out in the United Kingdom; and it is misleading, for both classes of prisoners are undergoing “imprisonment” and are equally in a condition of penal servitude. The use of the term “hard labour” in imposing the sentence of imprisonment, which is not used in passing one of penal servitude, might also well be omitted, for any prisoner sentenced to imprisonment should be and is by law required to labour under specified conditions suitable to his health and his capacity; and, in fact, except the specific kind of labour called first-class hard labour, defined in the Prisons Act, 1865, as crank, treadwheel, and other like kind of labour, the term “hard” has no particular meaning, and its employment in the sentence makes no practical difference.

Judges ought to serve experimentally for a short term all the varieties of sentences which they inflict. At present they are often scandalously ignorant of the nature of the penalties which they deal out right and left, often in the most reckless fashion. Lord Justice Lopes, I have subsequently heard, expressed his surprise that a sentence of “simple imprisonment” carried with it all the penalties and indignities of hard labour, minus the nonexistent crank and the rarely used treadmill. He is not the only judge on the bench whose general information on the subject of the treatment of criminal convict prisoners stands sadly in need of a little personal investigation and experience.

Here was my cell. As I entered it my first sensation was one of pleasant satisfaction. There was the plank bed. I had heard so much about it from Irish members, and had so often alluded to it in my campaign in the north, that it seemed almost like an old acquaintance standing up there against the wall. The gaoler explained the whereabouts of the various articles, handed me the bedclothes and a mattress about an inch thick, and then left me to my meditations. The cell was better than I expected—that is to say, it was larger, loftier, and not a bad kind of a retreat, immeasurably superior to all the hermit’s cells I had seen or heard of. There was a jet of gas, turned off and on by a tap outside the cell, the clean scrubbed wooden table and stool, and there also was the wooden salt cellar. Prison salt cellars are of wood, and there is no stinting of quantity. I salted my skilly, and broke the bread into it to soften it, fished it out with my wooden spoon, and tried to eat a piece or two. I unrolled my bedclothes, laid my plank bed down, stretched the mattress, and felt thoroughly glad to be alone after all the turmoil. Here was quiet at least. After a little time I laid down and slept. I woke once or twice and beard the chimes of a clock in some distant spire, and dozed again, with a strange kind of consciousness of the presence of an immense multitude of friendly faces all around me. The enthusiastic audiences that I had addressed in the north were visible as you see things in a camera obscura, on this side and on that, and I heard the din and ghostly echoes of their cheers in the otherwise unbroken silence of the prison. At a quarter to six the bell rang, and every one was on the alert. A warder opened the door and gave me instructions. I was only in in a reception cell R2/7 that is to say, in the seventh cell on the second floor of the reception wing. I would have to be taken to my destined abiding place in the course of the day, I need not, therefore, clean out my cell, or attend chapel, until I got into my regular cell. A prisoner swept out my cell. Then one of the principal warders came round. He was a big, kindly man. “You may have made a mistake,” he said, “but you have done a good work.” An hour afterwards I heard another voice engaged in conversation with Jacques. Our cells were opposite, and you could hear a voice from across the corridor. I could not catch all that was said, but there was some sneering allusion to the Salvation Army, some words about criminal vice and Mdme. Mourez. Then it ceased, and in a few moments my door was unlocked, and a man with a high hat on, in appearance not unlike a “gent with a sporting turn,” looked in. “Well,” he said, as he scanned me from head to foot, “don’t you think you’ve got off very cheap?” “To whom have I the honour of speaking?” I replied. “I am the chaplain,” said he. “No,” said I, “it is the sentence I anticipated, for the three months, I am told, will be up in two months and eight days.” “I don’t know that,” said he. “You were out on bail. Your sentence will probably count from date of conviction, not from that of the opening of the court.” “That is hard for Jacques,” said I, “for his punishment will be thrice as long as he expected. To me it does not matter so much.” “Well,” he said, “I don’t suppose you will have much need of me. If you have you can send for me.” He turned on his heel and disappeared. I never saw him again save in the distance at chapel when he went through the services in a way unintelligible to me where I sat, but I was told he had a rather good voice. His name was Stocken. He had admonished Jacques for mixing himself up with the Salvation Army—poor Jacques was certainly guiltless of that crime. How a man of education could have anything to do with such people he, the chaplain, could not understand. Not that he was at any loss, he said, to understand why Jacques and I had gone in for this kind of investigation. “You fellows like to carry on to women and all that sort of thing, but as for criminal vice we know all about that here. There is plenty, but it is not committed by the rich, but by the poor.” I am particular in mentioning this incident, because this was the only creature whom I met among all those to whose care, spiritual and temporal, I was entrusted who ever said an unkind word. Governors, chief warders, principal warders, and ordinary turnkeys and gaolers, together with the other chaplains, assistant chaplains, scripture readers, &c., were all most courteous and humane, not merely to me, but, as far as I could see, to all my fellow-prisoners. No doubt there was no animus, or no intention to do anything but his duty, on the part of the Chaplain Stocken. Personally I make no complaint. I was, fortunately not dependent upon that official for the ministration of sympathy. But for my fellow-prisoners, to whom he is the sole official human representative of the Divine passion of love and pity, even for the chief of sinners, I am sorry if he speaks to them in the tone and spirit in which he addressed Jacques, and me.

After he departed, I was left alone for some hours. The breakfast of bread and skilly had been served out, my bedclothes had been rolled up, and I sat alone in the darkness. A dense fog lay heavy upon the outside world. In the cell nothing but darkness was visible. It was a strange and somewhat weird experience. Yesterday the crowded court, with letters, telegrams, enthusiastic friends; to-day, darkness as of Egypt, in a solitary cell. There was nothing to do. It was too dark to read. And as the hours stole on the cold made itself felt, and I shivered in the cell. Might I wrap myself in the blankets? Yes, if I liked, although it was contrary to regulations. After a while we were marched to the doctor; he weighed us. In prison costume I weighed 9 st. 11 Ib. I complained of the cold. “The cells,” said he, in the usual dry official way, “are heated to a temperature of 60 deg.;” and there was an end of that. No doubt they ought to be, but as a matter of fact the reception cells were not heated to 60 deg., or anything like 60 deg. When transferred to B wing, where the cells were heated properly, the change was as if November had given place to May. The warders admitted it readily, and excused it by assuring us that our permanent cells would be much warmer. The doctor, however, took no trouble about the matter; but I would like to know whether, as it is the law that cells must be heated to 60 deg., some one ought not to be punished when prisoners are allowed to shiver with cold at a temperature of 45 or 50 deg.?

Before we saw the doctor we were inspected by the governor. Captain Helby is a retired naval officer, pleasant and sympathetic. Just twelve months ago I was down at Portsmouth interviewing the Admirals and rejoicing with the authorities in her Majesty’s dockyard over the unexpected success of the “Truth about the Navy,” and now here I was in the custody of a retired captain in one of her Majesty’s prisons. Captain Helby addressed me very kindly. “Whatever sympathy I may have,” he said, “with you and your work (and in my private capacity I sympathise very much with you), I can only treat you as an ordinary criminal convict prisoner, who must be subject to the ordinary rules and regulations laid down for the treatment of criminal convict prisoners. I hope, therefore, that you will conform yourselves thereto, and that you will not subject me to the painful necessity of subjecting you to discipline.” “Sir,” I replied, “I think I understand the position in which I am placed, and to the best of my ability I will conform to the regulations laid down for my guidance.” I have often wondered since then what on earth he thought I was likely to do that might necessitate the infliction of discipline, which, being interpreted, I suppose meant crank, treadwheel, “cells,” bread and water, and I know not what else. Editors no doubt are somewhat rare birds in Coldbath-in-the-Fields, but even editors could hardly be expected to assault their warders, or refuse to pick oakum or to wash out their cells.

At twelve o’clock the door of the cell was opened, and a tin pot and the usual brown little loaf handed inside. At the bottom of the tin was a tough, gluey composition, which on reference to the dietary scale I found was called a suet pudding. I pecked a little hole in it, tasted it as a kind of sample, and then desisted. More hours passed, and then I was asked whether I would like to see a gentleman of the name of “Waugh.”? “Wouldn’t I just?” although I confess the kindness of it upset me not a little. It was so like him, and so unexpected. And as I shuffled along the echoing corridors, and was locked in and out of great barred gates, I felt sadder at the thought of his kindness than at all the rest. We sat at the opposite ends of a long table. We were not allowed to shake hands. He read me some kind telegrams and letters. Mr. Waugh wished to present me in gaol with a copy of his “Gaol Cradle,” an excellent book which he has allowed to go out of print; but that was forbidden. Nothing must pass from the outer world to a prisoner. He must read nothing but that which is provided in the gaol library, and only as much of that as is doled out to him by the chaplain. So Mr. Waugh had sorrowfully to carry his “Gaol Cradle” back again. Then came another surprise: Dr. Clifford, armed with a Home Office order, succeeded Mr. Waugh, and we had a pleasant little talk. After he went away I was tramped back to my cell, which, however, I had to vacate almost immediately. I was taken away to the B wing, and there placed in cell No. 8 in the second floor. I got a new label, B2/8, and had a brass number sewed upon the other side of my coat. Jacques was taken off to another wing, and I saw him to speak to no more. I was placed under the charge of a warder whose name I think was Smithera, a kindly, courteous official, whom I regretted not being able to thank when I was so unexpectedly carried off to Holloway.

What a welcome change it was to my new cell can only be appreciated by those who have shivered for hours in an unwarmed cell. For my new cell was really heated up to 60 deg., and the pleasure of the change was immense. All pleasures are comparative. If you feed a man on bread and water he will rejoice more over skilly than an epicure over a Lord Mayor’s banquet. The great secret of enjoyment is to do without for a time. I never thought I could have hungered and thirsted so keenly for a bit of chop as after my three days on low diet. As for a cup of tea, that seemed a beatific vision of unattainable bliss. My pleasure at the warmth was somewhat damped by the announcement that I was to have no mattress. Criminal convicts must sleep on bare boards. I winced a bit, but I remembered poor William’s receipt, and took courage. As some may not have seen that receipt, I will repeat it here. When you have to sleep on bare boards you will discover that the weight of your body rests almost entirely on your shoulders and your hip joints. Wrap your coat round your shoulders, your breeches round your loins, and, if you have no oakum, put your waistcoat in your hat for a pillow, and you will be able to sleep without waking at midnight with aching bones. If you are found out you will be reported; you are not allowed to sleep in your clothes. There is a peephole in the door of every cell through which the warder looks to see that you are all right according to regulations, but unless he has a spite against you he will not, as a rule, discover that your clothes are round your hips instead of being outside the bed.

I enjoyed my two days in B2/8 very much. The change from the cold of R2/7 was very great. The dense fog lifted, and I could see to read. There was in the cell a Bible, a Prayer Book, and a library book, Dean Vaughan’s “Consolation for the Sorrowful.” Then, again, I was allowed the luxury of having something to do. I scoured out my cell in the morning with hearty goodwill, and scrubbed my table and stool. Then I set to work to pick oakum. It was not the proper oakum, but coir fibre. I had to pick from ten ounces to one pound. It is an excellent meditative occupation. But it is hard at first on the finger-nails. Mine wanted trimming; for, if the nails are not short, the leverage on the nail in disentangling the fibre causes considerable suffering. “How do prisoners do when they want their nails cut?” I asked. “Bite ’em,” laconically replied the. warder. You don’t know how strange it feels to have neither knife nor scissors, nor pens, nor pencils, nor pockets, although of course it may be said that you don’t need pockets if you have nothing to put into them. Those who say this I forget that even prisoners use hands.

The Ventilator, which can be opened and closed at will, is under the window. The gas jet is over the table. The plank bed is raised from the floor just high enough to allow mice free space to frolic under the planks. The bed-clothes are rolled up tight every morning and the roll stood on end on the highest of these shelves in the corner. There is a little whitening for polishing the drinking can, the can itself, a piece of soap, and the salt cellar! In my salt cellar I found a pathetic little note from the previous occupant of my cell. I envied him his lead pencil; the paper was one of the ordinary brown sheets supplied to all prisoners. He had written it, apparently, the first day of his imprisonment and buried it in the salt cellar, where he had forgotten it. This message—half illegible now— I retain as one of the most pathetic mementoes of my incarceration. But in the hope that this letter from within the prison walls may yet perchance meet the eye of the poor mother whose son occupied my cell I reproduce it here. It runs thus:—

24 (illegible), 1885.

“My dear Mother,—This is my first day here after my unjust conviction. The solitude is really dreadful to bear, but must go through with it bravely. Comfort Fanny and the children, and do not let them want for anything. They had better move into the little cottage I was after, as then Arthur would live with them and do something towards the rent. Do look after Fanny, as if anything were to happen to her it would break my heart, and nothing would be worth living for.

How my heart went out to the unknown writer of these lines. Dear soul, how I wondered and still wonder where he is. Whether anything has happened to Fanny. And who was Fanny? His daughter, his sister, or some one whom he loved? Who knows? But there the dingy little paper lies, with its message of love and kindly forethought for dear mother and the children, but especially for Fanny—life would not be worth living if anything happens to her. It was a blessed message to me, cheering me in my cell as no chapel service or printed word cheered me in Coldbath. For I thought, mayhap if Fanny is under sixteen or even eighteen, there is less danger of anything happening to her now; and she is but one, and there are many Fannys. And yet even for that poor prisoner’s sake alone was it not worth while?

In No. 7 was an elderly man, not there for the first time, who was in for stealing a pail. He sang a good deal by himself. His voice was good, and he seemed to have many hymns by heart. On the other side was a young fellow who had eighteen months for passing counterfeit coin. He had been there six months, and had still twelve more to serve. Six months! What a contrast between his last half-year and mine! He was a kindly soul, and his sympathetic word to me as we trudged to chapel in single file, that my “three months would soon be done,” was very pleasant. On the whole I liked my fellow-prisoners, with one or two exceptions, very much, and I felt a strange new sense of brotherhood with convicts and criminals, which was in itself a boon worth coming to gaol to gain.

This was the order of our day at Coldbath. At a quarter to six the bell rang. You rise and dress in the dark. At six the warder opens the door, and you throw your bedclothes over the polished iron balustrade that runs round the corridor outside the cells. The door is locked again, and you scour out your cell. Then the door is unlocked, and you bring in your bedclothes and roll them up, strap them tightly, and set them away on the shelf. You are asked if you have any applications to make for the governor, doctor, or chaplain, and your application is duly noted and reported. Then you take your oakum, picked and unpicked, to the warder who weighs it, examines its quality, and gives you out a fresh quantum for the day. It is a strange sight, a great gaol all stone and iron, with innumerable gas jets twinkling down the corridors and the prisoners moving to and fro with their bundles of oakum. When people run all round the world in search of novel sights and strange sensations, what a mine of unexplored novelties they neglect in London gaols! At eight o’clock your skilly and bread are handed in, and then about half-past eight the summons comes for chapel. You turn out of your cell, put on your hat, and stand with your face to the door of your cell till the word is given to march. Then you face about and march in single file along the corridors, upstairs, and along many passages. The road to chapel is like the road to heaven—it is a narrow way, and it winds upward still. Both at Coldbath and Holloway the chapel is perched as near the sky as the building permits. Chapel at Coldbath was a mockery. We filed in, and took our seats about a couple of feet apart; very few prisoners brought their Prayer-books or their Bibles. A distant and more or less inarticulate sound as of reading is heard. Now and again we stump down on our knees, but do not bend our heads, or close our eyes, or take part in any responses. Oh! how I longed for a stave of song, or even for the melodious music of the inarticulate organ. But there was not a sound, save the voice of Chaplain Stocken a-droning away from the desk. When that ceased, we were marched back again to our cells, where we picked oakum. At eleven the governor or the chief warder came round. You have to stand with your back to the wall with your hat in your hand, and answer any questions that are put to you. The inspection is brief. If your cell is clean and neat and you have no complaint to make, it is almost momentary, and the door is locked. The door is locked and unlocked about twelve times in the day. After inspection, or sometimes after dinner, you go out for exercise. We marched in single file round and round the exercise ground. It was a pleasant sight for me to see the sky again, and the green grass, and to hear from over the high walls of the prison the welcome sounds of common life. The rumble and the roar of the traffic, the cries of the street sellers, and even the strains of a barrel organ sounded pleasanter to the prisoner and captive than they do to the free man outside. Dinner is served at twelve—once we had soup which tasted well but did not digest, and another day two whole potatoes boiled in their jackets, together with the unvarying 6 oz. of whole meal bread. Supper—bread and skilly —comes at five, and then your gas is lit, and yon can read till eight. You are not allowed to go to bed before the bell rings, why, I don’t exactly know. I have a somewhat weak spine, and my back ached so badly sometimes; but a stretch, even on a plank bed, is forbidden till a quarter past eight.

The monotony of my day was broken by a visit from an excellent, earnest, and sympathetic scripture reader, and an interesting assistant chaplain, with whom it was, I think, that I had quite a friendly polemic concerning the sacrifice of Isaac. Mr. Maxwell held Dr. Clifford’s views; but at that time I had not read “Daily Strength for Daily Living.” I forget how it came about; but in some odd way, the justification of the conduct of the Chief Director was made to hinge on the interpretation of the command given to Abraham, and it was debated accordingly. My brother came to see me to get some cheques signed, and to read me a very kind message of sympathy from Cardinal Manning, who throughout has ever been the kindest and most thoughtful of friends. My solicitor called about pending cases, and swore a good comfortable oath at the “degradation” of my costume. I did not feel degraded one whit. All the same I enjoyed the sympathy much more, I fear, than I condemned the morality of the oath. At last, after being three days in Cold-bath, I was summoned to receive another visitor, who brought me news that the Home Secretary had decided to transfer me to Holloway without waiting to communicate with the judge. An hour afterwards I had doffed my prison garb, and was driving in a hansom to Holloway Gaol.


“I did not know,” said Lord Beaconsfield, as Mr. Torrens drove him round the northern heights of the great city, “that you had a feudal castle in the north of London.” Mr. Torrens explained that the feudal castle was only a modern gaol. I was as ignorant as Lord Beaconsfield on the subject, for not until I was driven to the gate of the gaol did I know how noble a pile of masonry had been reared in Holloway for the accommodation of the criminals of London. The stately building with its castellated keep and its spacious wings I had seen many years ago from the top of the Monument, and wondered what it was, little dreaming that the next time I saw it I was about to enter its gates as a prisoner. Not that any feelings of regret passed even for a moment through my mind. The exhilaration of the change from the other gaol, the pleasure of being once more at home in my own clothes, and the keen interest excited by the sight of the imposing edifice in which I was to enjoy the hospitality of the Crown for a couple of months, left no room for anything but the liveliest feelings of curiosity and gratitude. And my stay in Holloway, excepting for one or two dark shadows from outside, which filled my room with the gloom of the grave, was a period of unbroken joy. Never had I a pleasanter holiday, a more charming season of repose. I had been trying in vain to get rest ever since the famous fiasco of Penj-deh left England and Russia at peace, and at last it had come. I had sought it in vain in Switzerland, but I found it in Holloway. Here, as in an enchanted castle, jealously guarded by liveried retainers, I was kept secure from the strife of tongues, and afforded the rare luxury of journalistic leisure. From the governor, Colonel Milman, to the poor fellow who scrubbed out my room, every one was as kind as kind could be. From all parts of the Empire, even from distant Fiji, rained down upon me every morning the benedictions of men and women who had felt in the midst of their lifelong labours for the outcast the unexpected lift of the great outburst of compassion and indignation which followed the publication of the “Maiden Tribute.” I had papers, books, letters, flowers, everything that heart could wish. Twice a week my wife brought the sunlight of her presence into the pretty room, all hung round with Christmas greetings from absent friends, and twice a week she brought with her one of the children. On the day after Christmas the whole family came, excepting the little two-year-old, and what high jinks we had in the old gaol with all the bairns! The room was rather small for blind man’s buff, but we managed it somehow, and never was there a merrier little party than that which met in cell No. 2 on the ground floor of the E wing of Holloway Gaol, which last Christmas was in the occupation of a certain “misdemeanant of the first division,” named Stead. Mr. Talbot, my minister at Wimbledon, whose-thoughtful kindness has never varied, came once a week, while I had visitors from my staff every other day. The magistrates placed a veto upon the visits of all persons who had taken part in the recent agitation. If any one wished to see me, I had to submit his name to the governor, who submitted it to the visiting magistrates, and when they gave it their sanction, the person named was allowed to visit me, not in my room, but in the ordinary visiting cell, for half an hour between two and five. I interviewed Mr. T. P. O’Connor in Holloway Gaol as to the part which he had played in the general election, but I did not see more than half a dozen M.P.’s and about half a dozen others altogether, excluding the regular weekly visitants. It is specially laid down in the rules for the guidance of misdemeanants of the first division that they may work at their trades, and I worked at mine all through my term. I got the newspapers every morning at a quarter past seven, and at ten o’clock the messenger got his copy. It was rather amusing to me to receive lamentations over the erratic course which the Pall Mall Gazette was taking “in the absence of my guiding hand,” while the erratic articles complained of were often from my own pen. There was no restriction placed upon me as to what I wrote with two exceptions. I was not to allude in any way to the discipline of the gaol or to any of the subjects connected with the New Crusade. I could publish what I pleased when I came out, but during my incarceration nothing was to appear from me in print that related directly or indirectly to my judge, my trial, to the Criminal Law Amendment Act, or to anything thereunto belonging. This gave me leisure to write a paper which I had long brooded over, on the gradual development of “Government by Journalism,” together with some speculations as to the modifications necessary to enable the editor to wield his sovereignty with greater knowledge and better credentials than he can boast of at present.

I do not think that I have ever been in better spirits in my life or enjoyed existence more intensely than in these two months. So far as I could, I let all my friends know how jolly I was, and how entirely the prayers of all my kind supporters had been answered so far as my inward peace and joy were concerned. But they did not seem to be able to believe it. I was constantly receiving letters exhorting me to keep up my heart under this tribulation, and all the while I was far happier and less tribulated than any of my correspondents. My wife declared that she saw more of me since I went to gaol than she had done for the previous six months. Of course I was cut off from many of my best friends, but they wrote constantly, and although I lost their company I gained time to do work that they all wanted to have done. Altogether, I can best sum up my estimate of the “punishment” inflicted on a first-class misdemeanant at Holloway by saying that if ever I am in a position to ask a guerdon from my country for my profession, I will humbly petition the powers that be to permit any editor of a daily newspaper to convert himself into a first-class misdemeanant at will, for terms of one, two, or three months. There is nothing like being in gaol for getting rid of bores and getting on with work, and I am not sure that if a small voluntary gaol were started by a limited liability company to be run on first-class misdemeanant principles, and managed as admirably as Holloway Gaol, it would not pay a handsome dividend. It would certainly be an incalculable boon to the over-driven, much-worried writers of London. I was warmer in Holloway Gaol than I have been since I came out of it. I was immeasurably quieter. The above is an inside view of my “little room,” as the good chaplain always euphemistically described our cells. It is a double cell, just like a college room. I had the same cell as Mr. Tates, of whom traditions still linger in the gaol. I was well supplied with flowers and fruit. I got some lovely boxes of flowers from the South of France, bunches of fragrant violets from Glasgow in the north and Devon in the south. Pots of lilies of the valley, forced into premature bloom, sweetened, and gay tulips and graceful cyclamen brightened the cell. At Christmas time the walls were bright with the holly berries, shining red amid the dark leaves. No Yule log was supplied on Christmas Eve, but with that exception nothing was wanting. On Christmas night the warder entered with a grave face, carrying a roaring lion in his arms. It was muzzled with one of Sir Edmund Henderson’s patent dog muzzles, but it roared like life. As it opened its mouth to roar and showed its glistening teeth it could no longer hold a card entrusted to its keeping. I read the inscription: “To our muzzled chief, from four of his staff.” The rascals, to pick such fun out of their imprisoned editor! That lion was for the rest of the time the object of universal admiration. It is true he could only be made to roar by pulling a patent bellows concealed in his chest, but even when he stood quite still, with his tail erect, he used to alarm those who saw him for the first time. “The man that made that lion,” said one of my warders, ” knows how to make a beast, I reckon,” and he was right. The animal is now at Wimbledon, where he has succeeded in nearly frightening little Jack into fits.

The lion was not the only quadruped in the cell, nor the noisiest. Until I was in gaol I never knew what a racket a single mouse can make. A little midget that would hardly fill a couple of thimbles can keep you awake all night, as it practises gymnastics among your empty boxes, and dances quadrilles upon your newspapers. Lively little fellows were the brown-coated companions of my solitude. At first I thought they must be rats, their footfall was so heavy, but I never found traces of anything but mice. The little wretches kept me awake many an hour, and if they had done it on purpose I could have slain them, but I could not find the heart to punish them for their sport. The capers they cut after the gas was down were most amusing. A mouse is as good as a kitten or a kid, if not better, for a solitary mousekin will romp all by itself all round the cell with as much liveliness as if it were a couple of kittens boiled down into one little whiskered rascal with a long tail. One of my small friends, presuming upon my forbearance, took to waltzing over my head as I lay asleep. So I thought it time to teach him a lesson. I smuggled a penny into the cell, and set the mug trap on my supper-table. A little piece of chewed bread is affixed to the inside of a penny, which is stood erect by the edge of the mug being balanced on its rim. The mouse comes, nibbles the bread, displaces the penny, and down comes the mug on the top of him, and he is yours. I set my trap, and waited. Nothing came, so I went to sleep. Waking as I usually did about two, I see the mug has fallen. Is there a mouse inside? I peep cautiously under the tilted rim, and see to my horror that the wretched mouse has gnawed a large hole through my clean new table-cloth. In my disgust I raise the mug a little too high and away scoots the little rascal, leaving me with a spoiled table-cloth and two little heaps of lint by the side of an ugly hole to bear witness to his presence. Moral: never set a mug trap on a table-cloth. Undeterred by this failure, I set another trap. I pasted a piece of paper over a small box, cut a cross in the centre, and sprinkled crumbs over the cross, arranged an inclined plane from the floor to the box, and waited. Presently a hurried scramble and a sudden plop told me mousie was in quod. I jumped up and shut down the lid There was enough food for a couple of mice inside, and I left him till morning. Once more the mouse got the better of me. Instead of resigning itself to its fate it began to try to gnaw its way out. Imagine a nutmeg-grater kept going all night, and you will understand the “success” of my attempt to silence my little friends. Next morning the warder insisted that “it must be extinct,” but I exercised the captive prerogative of mercy, confessed myself beaten, and let the little prisoner go. The mice of the cell were not my only pensioners. I had others in those mice of the air, the London sparrows, whom I used to feed every noon in the hospital grounds…I used to scatter crumbs daily, and sometimes as many as thirty sparrows would be seen feeding together. But it is an artistic exaggeration of the confidence of the birds to show them descending for the crumbs before my back was turned. I tried them many a time, but they never would leave the tree or the wall until I turned the corner. Then there was a general swoop, and they picked up the crumbs till I came round again, when a general stampede took place, and the wall would be lined with birds until once more I turned the corner, when they came back immediately. If the sparrow is the mouse of the air, the starling is the rat, and there were four of these bold, saucy feathered rats, which, used to come to gobble up the crumbs among the sparrows. Other birds I saw none, save once I believe I saw a hen chaffinch in the grounds; and another time there passed far overhead, flying due south, a string of wild ducks. What a view of London they must have had that clear day, and how I wonder what they thought of all these miles and miles of sooty roofs and smoking vent holes which we call London! A pigeon now and then flew over the gaol, and once a rook. But robin, blackbird, thrush, or wren I saw none.

I could take exercise when I pleased, as long as I pleased, in the daytime, but always in one appointed place—round and round the prison hospital, a neat and commodious structure, built by the present governor almost entirely with prison labour. The walk round the hospital is about one-eighth of a mile, and when there was any sun it was sunny on one side. I constructed an improvised sundial with sticks stuck in the walk, and by their aid and that of the shadow of the hospital knew almost to a minute when it was time to go in. But the sun did not often shine, and sometimes when it did it glared lurid red through smoky fog, beautifully Turneresque, but emitting too little light to cast a shadow. From my study windows on the first Sunday in the new year, the great blood-red sun as it rolled along suffered an odd eclipse from time to time by the tall chimneys that seemed darkling, through the fog. The view is not extensive, but how grateful it was after having had no view at all but the walls of a cell for three days, only those can know who have experienced the change.

At Holloway I paid 6s. a week for the rent of my room, 3s. 6d. a week for service, and 2s.6d. a week I believe for something else- possibly fires and gas. I had my own little kettle and made my own tea: fresh eggs were sent me by some unknown benefactor in Dunville in Ireland, and anything in the shape of food was ordered outside. The hours were the same as at Cold-bath. But instead of planks I had a comfortable bed. I was allowed my own hearthrug and easy chairs, as well as a writing desk and a cosy little tea table. At a quarter to six I rose and made my bed, and dressed, then shook and rolled up the hearthrugs and matting, and set to work. At half-past six the surety —a poor fellow who is in for six months because he cannot find two sureties of £25 to answer for his abstention from threats— “I was forsworn,” he said to me, “and my brother-in-law said I would be forsworn again”—came in, lit the fire, washed up the crockery, and generally put things to rights. At a quarter past seven came the papers, which I read at breakfast. At twenty minutes to nine the principal warder came to take me to chapel. I created a great scandal once by whistling on the stairs—a thing unheard of in the precincts. The face of the warder who heard it was a study. He was an old man-of-war’s man, who had served his twenty-one years and earned his pension. He had stood by his great gun as Admiral Hornby ploughed his way through the Dardanelles in that famous January night when the Russians were advancing on Constantinople. He had been invalided home from Cyprus with fever, and had served on the Australian, Bast Indian, and American stations; but the scandalous phenomenon of a prisoner dancing down the stairs and whistling for sheer lightness of heart was something so unprecedented as almost to upset his equanimity. “Hush,” said my guardian, ” I have not heard so much whistling in the gaol all the years I have been here!” I enjoyed chapel immensely at Holloway. “Best attended place of worship in Holloway,” said one of my warders, and no congregation takes more vigorous part in the services. I was up in the chief warder’s pew, on a line with the good chaplain Plaford, and used to peer down through the red curtains upon the well-filled chapel, and imagine how much worse I was than all the poor fellows below. Some mere boys were there, whose appearance touched me much. The prisoners in appearance are as respectable-looking as members of Parliament. Some of course are worse, but some are better. What struck me most was the absence of old men. There were not half a dozen grey heads in all the congregation. The way in which they joined in the responses was an example to the Abbey and the Cathedral, especially in the Litany, which we had twice a week. The exemplary fashion in which they recited the Creeds was most surprising. They went through it with the precision of machines. And didn’t they sing! Contrasted with the miserable mockery of the dead-alive drone at Coldbath, the service at Holloway was full of sweetness and light. All of us that could read brought our hymn-books and Prayer-books, and there was nothing that was more humanizing and more pleasant than the twenty minutes’ service in gaol. The chaplain, Mr. Plaford, a sincere, strenuous Evangelical, with a famous voice and a kind heart, I liked very much; but I wanted to throw a hymn-book at his head once. It was Christmas morning when he said no one there could be touched by any appeal to their love for wife or children: that must all have been trampled under foot long ago, or they would never have found themselves in gaol on Christmas Day. Apart from my own case, this seemed scandalously unjust. Many a man finds himself in gaol, not because he has trampled underfoot his domestic affections, but because they have tempted him into crime. The good chaplain would be all the better if he were Matthew and St. Mark, but also the Gospel according to Victor Hugo, in “Les Miserables” and “L’Homme qui Rit.” If I had been down below I could not have helped speaking up for my mates, and I could not help wondering what would have happened. Christmas Day on bread and water in a dark cell for brawling in church, mayhap. But it would have been worth while once in a way; and although it would have grieved the good chaplain, I think it would have done him good. He was librarian also of a well-assorted library of some two or three thousand books, and, although he lamented in the pulpit the taste of his readers for fiction, he did not deny them the enjoyment which he condemned. My surety-servant told me he was reading “poor Robin Crusoe, and the sympathetic tone in which he referred to Defoe’s hero was very impressive. What a gift a man leaves the world who writes a good book!

Letters arrived about half-past ten. At eleven I went out for exercise and fed my birds. At one came dinner from the Holloway Castle Tavern; from two to five, visitors; at five, tea. The bell rang for bedtime at twenty minutes past eight. At half-past the warder shuffled round in list slippers, and peered through the peephole in the door to see if we had gone to bed. The gas was turned down from the outside, according to regulations, but as I turned my gas down myself inside, before the warder’s round, the outside tap was not interfered with. Thus when, as often happened, I woke at two, three, or four in the morning and could not sleep, I could get up and write. As a rule, I slept well, but nine hours in bed was sometimes more than I could manage. When at last the time came to leave, I was quite melancholy at the prospect. I always cling to places and people so much that there is a great laceration of tendrils and fibres whenever I am transplanted. My book was not finished, and I should never have the same quiet again—not, at least, until my next imprisonment; and then, perchance, my sentence may have to be worked out on much less happy conditions. Happier they could not be. From the day I received notice that in consideration of certain circumstances not specified, but not very difficult to imagine, her Majesty had been pleased to grant me a pardon conditional on my conforming to the rules and regulations laid down for the guidance of a misdemeanant of the first division, my position was almost ideal. My only regret was that I could not share some of the gladness and peace which made hard work restful with those who were left in the hurly-burly outside. I have ever been the spoiled child of fortune, but never had I a happier lot than the two months I spent in happy Holloway.