Part 3 out of 4
But by one of those fantastic tricks the imps of dreaming play us,
the last patch of consciousness changed into my wife's face. It was
too dim and distant to stir grief or regret; like the vague vision
of a beloved face hovering over eyes that are waning in death.
In the morning I was awakened as usual by the officer bringing the
light for my gas. At eight o'clock the little square flap in my
door was let down with the customary bang, and, on looking through
the aperture, I perceived a big pan containing a curious clotted
mixture, which resembled bill-stickers' paste. Behind the utensil
I saw part of an officer's uniform. This worthy stirred the mixture
with a ladle, while he jocosely inquired, "D'ye want any of this?"
I did not. "Come," he continued, "put out your tin and I'll give
you some." I told him my appetite was not robust enough for his
hospitality, and he passed on, probably feeling sure I should not
eat the prison fare, and thinking the stuff too good to be wasted.
I took the little brown loaf he offered me and examined it closely.
It was very hard, and apparently very dry. Depositing it on the shelf,
I breakfasted on cold water and the slice of bread-and-butter left
After this sumptuous repast I was let out for exercise. This time
the three "condemned" blasphemers were not taken to a separate court.
We paraded the common yard with the other prisoners. They were few
in number, but they showed many varieties of disposition. One hung
his head, and doggedly tramped round the wretched enclosure; another
walked erect and stiff, with an air of defiance; another shuffled
along with a vacant stare, as though dazed by his fate; another
looked as indifferent as though he were walking along the street;
and another leered at his companions in misfortune, as though the
whole thing were an elaborate joke. For a few minutes I trotted
behind Mr. Ramsey, with whom I exchanged a few cheerful words, but
the vigilant officers soon separated us. "How long have ye got?"
was the constant question of the man at my rear, until the officers
detected, and removed him. I was surprised and annoyed at this easy
familiarity, but I grew accustomed to it afterwards. The rules of
civilised society naturally lapse in prison. Talking is strictly
prohibited, "pals" are rigorously kept apart, nobody knows who will
be next him in the exercise ring, and any man who wants to wag his
tongue must strike up a conversation with his immediate neighbor.
"How long are ye doing?" is almost invariably the introduction.
This muttered question brings a muttered answer. Confidences are
exchanged, and the conversation grows animated, until at last the
speakers forget prudence, and betray themselves to the eyes or
ears of an officer, who immediately parts them, or makes them
both fall out, and reports them to the Governor for violating
the rules. The old stagers acquire a knack of talking without
moving their lips, so that the words just reach the man in front
or behind. If an officer suspects one of these worthies, he calls
out, "Now then, seventeen, I see ye!" "See me what?" says the
indignant innocent. "Talking," replies the officer. "Why, I never
opened my lips," says the prisoner, and his defence is perfectly true.
On returning from the exercise yard to our cells, we were furnished
with a sheet of paper and an envelope to write the last letter which
"condemned criminals" are permitted to send from prison after their
sentence. The privilege is almost a mockery, for no answer is allowed,
and there is little consolation in flinging a final word into the vast
silence, which seems deaf because unresponsive. A last interview,
however brief, would be far more merciful.
We were summoned from our cells at eleven o'clock for conveyance
to Holloway Gaol. All our effects were handed over to us, and we
formally signed a receipt for them in the big book. While this
process was going on the officers allowed us to chat, and endeavoured
to console us by insisting that we should "soon be out." One of them,
with a practical turn of mind, recollecting that I had complained of
my apartment, informed me that there were some beautiful cells at
Having pocketed our belongings, we were conducted through the
subterranean passage I have several times mentioned to the great
courtyard. The head-warder conversed with us very genially, but
when we emerged into daylight and faced the prison van drawn up to
receive us, his manner changed. Holding a formidable document,
he called out our names and descriptions, officially satisfying
himself that we were the persons under sentence. I told him, with
mock solemnity, that I had no doubt I was the George William Foote
described on the blue paper, and my fellow prisoners gave him a
It was a critical moment. Will they, I thought, try to handcuff us?
I hoped not, for I had resolved not to submit tamely to any gratuitous
indignities, and I should have felt it necessary to offer what
resistance I could to such a flagrant insult. Happily the handcuffs
were kept out of sight. One by one we ascended the steps, entered
the narrow passage in the van, and huddled ourselves into the narrower
boxes. They were so small that no ordinary-sized man could sit upon
the little bench at the back. I was obliged to crouch on one ham
diagonally, my shoulders stretching from corner to corner. Half a
dozen holes were bored through the floor, and there was a space
between the side of the box and the roof of the van, which sloped
away like an eave. Probably the ventilation was ample, yet I felt
stifled, and so powerful is imagination that I breathed heavily
and irregularly. But reason soon came to my assistance and allayed
my apprehensions, although a remnant of fancy still speculated on
what would happen if the vehicle upset.
Presently the door was banged, and "Black Maria" started with her
living freight. We had the conveyance, or rather its interior,
all to ourselves. Surely the boxes we were pent in never held
such company before. Three "blasphemers," who had never injured
man, woman or child, were travelling to gaol under a collective
sentence of two years' imprisonment, for no other crime than honestly
criticising a dishonest creed. We were going to spend weary days
and months among the refuse of society. We were doomed to associate
with the criminality which still curses civilisation, after eighteen
centuries of the gospel of redemption. Posterity would condemn our
sentence as a crime, but meanwhile we were fated to suffer.
Rattle, rattle, rattle! How the wretched machine _did_ rattle!
Even the roar of the streets we traversed was inaudible, quenched
in the frightful din. All I could do was to inspect the memorials
of my predecessors in that box. The sides were scrawled over with
their names (or nicknames) and sentences. Their brief observations
had a jovial tone. I suppose the miserable passengers in that black
ferry-boat to Hades are too full of care to indulge in such trifling,
and only wanton larrikins and old stagers employ their pencils in
illustrating the planks.
After a long drive we entered an archway and stopped. A heavy door
was closed behind us, and another opened in front. The van moved
forward a few yards and turned round. Then the door was opened,
and looking out I saw the front of Holloway Gaol.
Several minutes elapsed before we descended from the prison van.
During this interval I chatted freely with my fellow-prisoners,
although we could not see each other. But I have always found,
as one of George Meredith's characters says, that observation is
perhaps the most abiding pleasure in life, and I watched with great
amusement the antics of a sprucely-dressed young fellow who sat
on the step behind, and held a facetious conversation with the
pleasant officer who "delivered" us at Holloway. This natty blade
was, I presumed, our driver. His talk was of horses and drinking,
and I wondered how he obtained the money to purchase all the
liquors which he boasted of having imbibed that morning. He seemed
to possess a sort of right divine to enjoyment on this earth, and
I felt strongly tempted to offer him the few shillings I had in my
pocket. The money was useless to me in prison, but it would serve
as buoyant air to the wings of this human butterfly. What a contrast
between our lots! His head was untroubled with thought, he knew
nothing of convictions (except legal ones), and sacrifices for
principle had probably never entered within the range of his imagination.
He chattered away like a garrulous daw, perched upon the step; while
we three in the van were just leaving the sunlight of life for the
darkness of imprisonment. Our devotion to principle seemed almost
folly, and our passion for reforming the world a species of madness.
So it must have appeared eighteen centuries ago, when the Prophet
of Nazareth stood in the hall of a palace in Jerusalem. The men
and damsels who warmed themselves at the fire must have marvelled
at the infatuation of Jesus as he courted the shadow of death.
When "Black Maria" disgorged her breakfast, we were ushered into
the great hall of Holloway prison. The Deputy-Governor at once
accosted us, and told us to wait, standing against the wall, until
he could "see about us." Forgetting the rules and regulations, we
resumed our conversation, until we attracted the attention of an
underling, who marched up with a lordly air and sternly ordered us
to stop talking. Presently two figures leisurely descended the
flight of stone steps leading to the offices and the interior of
the prison. I recognised one of these as the Governor of Newgate.
He had evidently come to introduce us. His companion was Colonel
Milman, the Governor of Holloway. After a few minutes' conversation,
of which I inferred from their looks that we were the object, they
parted, and Colonel Milman then advanced towards us with a genial
smile. He busied himself about us in the most hospitable manner,
as though we were ornaments to the establishment. Interrogating us
as to our occupations, he found that only Mr. Ramsey was acquainted
with any mechanical work. In his younger days he had practised the
noble art of St. Crispin, but he found that no shoes were made in
the place, and he had little taste for cobbling. Relying on some
information he had received in Newgate, he inquired, with an air
of childlike sincerity, whether there was not some work to do in
the Governor's garden. Colonel Milman smiled expressively as he
answered that he was "afraid not."
The gallant Governor then went into an office, and as I wanted to
speak to him before we were marched off, I walked in after him.
"Hi!" exclaimed the officious underling, "you mustn't go in there."
But I went in, nevertheless, followed by the fussy officer, who
was quietly told by the Governor that he "needn't trouble."
I explained to Colonel Milman that my position was peculiar.
"Yes," he said, "I know; I saw you at the Old Bailey yesterday,"
and his look expressed the rest. I then stated that, as there was
no Court of Criminal Appeal, I wished to make representations to
the Home Office as to the character our trial and the almost
unprecedented nature of our sentence; in particular, I wished the
Home Secretary to say whether he would sanction our being classed
with common thieves for a press offence. I was told that I could
have an official form for this purpose; and, thanking the Governor,
I withdrew to join my companions.
Let me here thank Colonel Milman for his unvarying kindness. During
the whole of my imprisonment he never once addressed me in any other
way than he would have addressed me outside; and although he had to
carry out a harsh sentence, it was obvious that he shrank from the
duty. But this eulogium is too personal. I hasten, therefore, to
say that I never heard Colonel Milman speak harshly to a prisoner,
or saw a forbidding look on his fine face. One of nature's gentlemen,
he could hardly be uncivil to the lowest of the low.
Colonel Milman always dressed well, and the little color he always
affected was in harmony with his exuberant figure. It was refreshing
to see him occasionally in one's weariness of the dingy prison.
He usually stood at the wing-gate as the men filed in from exercise,
and answered their salutes, with a word for this one and a smile for
that. One day I heard a handsome eulogy on him by a prisoner. He
was standing in the open air outside the gate. It was a pleasant
summer morning, and he was radiantly happy. A man behind me was
evidently struck by the Governor's appearance, for I heard him mutter
to his neighbor, "Good old boy, ain't he?" "Yes," said the other,
"you're right." "Fat, ain't he?" rejoined number one. "Yes," said
number two, "like a top. It do yer good to see _somebody_ as ain't
From the great hall of Holloway prison we were conducted through a
passage under the staircase to the basement of the reception wing.
Our pockets were emptied, but not searched, and every article stowed
away in a little bag. One by one we went into an office, where a
clerkly official wrote our descriptions in a book. "What religion?"
he inquired, when he came to the theological department. "None,"
I replied. "What!" he rejoined, "surely you're Catholic or Protestant
or something." Then, with a flourish of the pen, and an air of finality,
he put the question again more decisively, "What religion?" "None,"
I said. He stared, gave me up as a bad job, and wrote down "Religion
none." That extremely succinct description figured for twelve months
on the card outside my cell door, and I have heard prisoners speculating
as to what sort of religion "none" was. It was the name of a sect
they had never heard of.
The prisoners' cards, affixed to their cell doors, and containing
their name, age, crime, sentence, class and creed, were of two colors--
white (the emblem of purity) for the Protestants, and red (the symbol
of sin) for the Catholics. These criminal members of the two great
divisions of Christendom, like their better or more fortunate
co-religionists out of doors, do not mix in their devotions.
They worship God at different times, although, alas! the same
building has to serve for both. No special color has been found
requisite for Freethinkers, who seldom trouble the prison officials,
although this fact is only another proof of their uncommon obstinacy;
for it is clear that, according to their principles, they ought to
fill our gaols, yet they perversely refrain from those crimes which
every principle of consistency obliges them to commit.
After this ceremony we were conducted upstairs to our cells in the
reception wing, to await an opportunity of washing and changing our
clothes. We passed several prisoners at work in the corridors.
All were silent and stolid, and I could hardly resist the impression
that I was in a lunatic asylum. We were handed over to a red-haired
and red-bearded warder, who locked us up in separate cells. Before
closing my door, he asked whether I was a German, and had any
connection with Herr Most. I explained that the _Freiheit_ and the
_Freethinker_ were very different papers. "What's your sentence?"
he said. "Twelve months." "Whew! but it's a long time." Yes, my
red-headed friend, you were quite right. It was indeed _a long time!_
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
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
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!
When I found myself alone in my permanent cell, I sat down on the
little three-legged stool and examined the furniture. There was a
flap-table, two feet by one, fixed on the right wall. In the left
corner behind the door were three minute quarter-circle shelves,
containing a roll of bedding, a wooden salt-cellar, a wooden spoon,
and a comb and brush, each about four inches long. In the opposite
corner under the window stood the plank bed, and on the floor were
three tin utensils--a dust-pan, a water-can, and a nondescript lidded
article for baser uses. Fortunately, the urn-shaped abomination
I found in the Newgate cells, and have already described, was absent
in Holloway. When a prisoner wished to visit the water-closet, he
rang his bell, and sooner or later (often later) he was let out.
Each wing had two closets in a deep recess, the door shielding the
occupant's person from mid-leg to breast. During the night the
nondescript lidded article was brought into requisition. When the
cell doors were opened at six o'clock in the morning every prisoner
put out his "slops," which were emptied by the cleaners. This
scavenger's work must be very distasteful, but so anxious are the
prisoners to get out of their cells that there are always plenty of
candidates for the office. The tins are kept clean by means of
brick and whitening, which are passed into the cells every evening in
little cotton bags. My dust-pan, at least, was always well polished,
for I used it as a mirror to see how I was looking, being naturally
anxious to ascertain what _visible_ effect the prison life had upon me.
One of the warders put me up to a very useful "wrinkle." By well
cleaning the dust-pan with whitening, rubbing it up well with the
clean rag until it had a nice surface, and then lightly passing a
rag saturated with dubbin over it, you could produce a beautiful
polish by a few slight touches of the "finisher." After this artistic
process the dust-pan shone like an oriental mirror, and might have
served a belle at her toilette.
Every article of furniture has now been described, excepting the stool.
It was a miniature tripod, fifteen inches high, with a round top about
eight inches in diameter. A more uncomfortable seat could hardly be
devised. There was no support for the back, and the legs had to be
stretched out at full length. If you bent them you threw your body
forward, and ran the risk of contracting round shoulders. Whenever
I wanted a little ease, especially after dinner, when a V-shaped
body is not conducive to digestion, I used to rest against the
upright plank bed, extend my legs luxuriously, and dream of the
cigar which was just the one thing required to complete a picture
Such was the furniture of my apartment in Her Majesty's Holloway Hotel.
Scantier appointments were impossible. Yet, to my surprise, an officer
came in one day with an inventory, to see if anything was missing.
Rather a superfluous check, when the iron cell door was constantly
locked and there was no opening to the window! A prisoner could
hardly bury his furniture in a concrete floor, and the most ferocious
appetite would surely quail before deal planks and tin pans.
The cell itself was similar to the one I have already described.
The ventilation was provided by an iron grating over the door,
communicating with a shaft that carried off the foul air; and
another iron grating under the window, which admitted the fresh air
from outside. This grating, however, did not communicate _directly_
with the atmosphere, for the prison is built with double walls.
Eighteen inches or so below it was another grating in the outer wall.
This arrangement prevented the prisoners from getting a glimpse of
the grounds, as well as the air from rushing in too rawly. My cell
was one of the old ones. In the new cells there is a slightly different
method of ventilation. Two of the small panes of glass are removed
from the window, and a little frame is placed inside, consisting of
wood at the sides and fluted glass in the front. Flush with the
window-sill at the bottom, it inclines inward at an angle of twenty
degrees, so that there is room at the top for a six-inch flap, which
works on hinges, and is elevated or lowered by a chain. This is an
improvement on the old system, because the fresh air comes in straight,
and you can regulate the inflow. But in both cases the fresh air
has to _ascend_, and unless there is a wind blowing you get very
little of it on a hot summer day. The ventilation depending entirely
on temperature, without being assisted by a draught, if the outside
temperature, as is often the case in the summer, happens to be higher
than that of your cell, your atmosphere is stagnant, and you live
in a tank of foul air. This defect might be partially remedied by
leaving the cell doors open when the prisoners are out at exercise
or chapel, and, as it were, refilling the tank. But keys are a
fetish in prison, and the officials think it quite as necessary to
lock up an empty cell as an occupied one.
The cell floor, I have said, was blackleaded and polished. A small
fibre brush was supplied for sweeping up the dust, and a tight roll
of black cloth for polishing. I used both these at first, but I
soon dispensed with the latter. Having a slight cold, I found my
expectoration black, a circumstance that slightly alarmed me until
I reflected that my lungs were in excellent order, and that the
discoloration must be due to some extrinsic cause. This I discovered
to be the blacklead from the floor. It wears off under your tread,
and as there is no draught to carry the dust away, it floats in the
air and is inhaled. The only remedy was to avoid the blacklead
altogether. When, therefore, the bucket containing a quantity in
solution was next brought round, I declined to have any. "But you
must," said the officer. "Well, I object," I answered, "and I
certainly shall not put it on. If you like to do it yourself of
course I cannot prevent you." He did not like to do it himself and
disappeared, saying he would come again directly, which he forgot
to do. Several days afterwards the Deputy-Governor came on a tour of
inspection. Noticing that my floor was neither black nor polished,
he attempted a mild reproof. I repeated my objection. "Well, you
know," he replied, "you must keep your cell clean." "Yes," I rejoined,
"and I _do_ keep it clean for my own sake; but your blacklead is _dirt_."
That ended the conversation, and the blacklead question was never
agitated again, although once or twice, during my absence from the
cell, the obnoxious stuff was put on the floor and polished up by
one of the cleaners. Let me add that in the new cells the floors
are all boarded, and the blacklead nuisance is there unknown.
While I was meditating on my luxurious surroundings, the warder entered
again with a prisoner, who carried a bag. "Well, Mr. Foote," said
the genial officer, "how are you getting on? I've brought you some
work. It isn't hard, and you needn't task yourself; you'll find
it help to pass away the time." Some of the contents of the bag
were then emptied on the floor. They consisted of fibre-rope clipped
into short lengths. These had to be picked abroad. The work was
light, but very monotonous. It did help to kill time, and it was
less troublesome than picking oakum. Mr. Truelove tells me that
they made him pick oakum in prison till his fingers were raw, and
laughed at him for complaining. He was then seventy years old!
Think of it, reader, and reflect on the tender mercies of the
religion of charity.
During my imprisonment I never worked at anything but fibre-picking.
Gladly would I have wheeled a barrow in the open air, but that is
a privilege reserved for felons; misdemeanants are locked up in
their cells night and day. Once there was an attempt made to
instruct me in the art of brush-making, but it egregiously failed.
An officer from the D wing, where the mats and brushes are made,
opened my cell door one afternoon, and shouted, "Come along!"
"Where?" I asked, not liking his manner. "Where!" he ejaculated,
"Come along." "Thank you," I said, "but you must please tell me
where." He was very much annoyed by my freezing civility, which
I always found the best represser of impertinence; but recognising
his mistake, he changed his tone, and vouchsafed an explanation.
"The Governor," he said, "wants you to come and see how brushes are made."
"Oh, of course," I said, and marched after him.
Arriving at the D wing, I was silently introduced to a prisoner
sitting on a stool, who had been brought out of his cell to give
me lessons in brush-making. He worked and I watched. Presently
the officer had to attend to some other business a few yards off.
Directly his back was turned the prisoner eagerly whispered,
"How long are ye doin'?" I told him. "I'm doin' fifteen months,"
he confidingly said. Then he added, with look half positive and
half interrogative, "Time's damned long, ain't it?" I agreed.
Forgetting his work, he spliced a bit of rope badly. "See," I said,
"that splice is wrong." "Ah," he replied, his face brightening,
"you're a salt un too, are ye? Hanged if I didn't think you was
a barnacle." He informed me that he had been in the English and
American navies, and all round the world. Where had I been? I was
obliged to explain that I was a journalist. Quill-driving, as he
called it, was evidently, in his opinion, an ignominious employment.
However did I learn splicing! When I explained that I was bred at
the seaside, and passionately loved boating, his sailor's heart
warmed towards me again. "This work ain't hard," he said; "you
can make two brushes in an hour and a half, and I makes a dozen
a week." I smiled. It was a fine illustration of what is called
prison labor. Resuming, he said: "I'm the only one as makes 'em now,
and I s'pose they wants more. The chap as made 'em afore me used
to do three dozen a week. Wasn't he a darned fool? Now, don't you
go makin' more than two a day, or you'll put my nose out of joint."
"No," I promised, "I won't make _more_ than two a day." "Ah," he said,
looking at me with a comical twinkle of the eyes, "I see you ain't
a goin' to make brushes."
At this point the warder stepped up, and invited me to try my hand.
"Thank you," I replied; "the Governor told you to let me see how
brushes are made, and I have seen how brushes are made." Then bowing
slightly, I walked straight back to my cell, leaving the officer
almost petrified with astonishment. I heard no more of brush-making.
My objection to the work was simple. It was more interesting than
picking fibre, but it necessitated stooping, the brush being held,
like a shoe, between the knees. As a lecturer, I knew too well the
value of a sound chest to engage in such employment.
I come now to the diet. Third-class fare, to which I was entitled
by the doctor's order, was almost entirely farinaceous, and miserably
monotonous. Breakfast and tea (or supper), served at eight and six
respectively, consisted of six ounces of brown bread and three quarters
of a pint of gruel, or "skilly." The latter was frequently so fluid
that spooning was unnecessary. The dinners, served punctually at
twelve o'clock, were more varied. Brown bread and browner potatoes
were the staple of each mid-day meal. The bread was always excellent.
The potatoes were abominable. I have said that they were browner
than the bread, and I may add that the color was not caused by cooking,
but purely original. As the old potatoes were leaving the market,
and the new ones were too expensive for prisoners, the most robust
appetite must have turned with disgust from the supply which fell
to our share. I should imagine that every swine's trough around
the metropolis must have been plundered to provision Holloway Gaol.
The variable part of the dinner was as follows. Pea-soup, to which,
as I have already said, I had a physical antipathy, was served up
three days out of every seven--on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
And such pea-soup! The mixture used to rise as I swallowed it, and
I have often grasped my throat to keep it down, knowing that if I did
not eat, however nauseous the food, my health would necessarily suffer.
It was not pea-soup before the joint, but pea-soup without it, and
in that case the quality of the compound is an important matter.
When I read the Book of Job afresh in my cell, I found in the sixth
chapter, and seventh verse, a text which admirably suited my situation:
"The things that my soul refused to touch are as my sorrowful meat."
Three days a week I could have preached a better, or at least a more
feeling, sermon on that text than any parson in the kingdom.
On Sundays and Wednesdays, instead of the pea-soup, I was served
with six ounces of suet pudding baked in a separate tin. I never
saw such pudding, and I never smelt such suet. Brown meal was used
for the dough, and the suet lay on the top in yellow greasy streaks.
I can liken the compound to nothing but a linseed poultice. The
resemblance was so obvious that it struck many other prisoners.
I have heard the term poultice applied to the suet pudding more than
once in casual conversations in the exercise ground. Twice a week
I was entitled to meat. On Friday, instead of the pea-soup or suet
pudding, there was three ounces of Australian beef; and on Mondays
_three-quarters of an ounce_ of fat bacon with some white beans.
The subtle humorist who drew up the diet scale had appended a note
that "all meats were to be weighed without bone."
A good tale hangs by that bacon and beans. While I was awaiting
the second trial in Newgate, and providing my own food, I studied
the diet scale which hangs up in each cell, and was fascinated by
this extravagant quantity of pork, which seemed to evidence an
unimagined display of prison hospitality. One of the officers to
whom I mentioned the matter said, "Ah, Mr. Foote, I wish you would
show that diet up when you get out. Untried prisoners have the
same fare as condemned criminals, only they get less of it. There
are lusty chaps come in here, some of them quite innocent, who could
eat twice as much, and look round for the man that cooked it.
I'll tell you a story about that three-quarters of an ounce.
A fellow rang his bell one day after the dinner was served.
'Well,' I said, 'what's the matter?' 'I want's my bacon,' said he.
'Well, you've got it,' said I. 'No I aint,' said he. 'It's in your tin,'
said I. 'Taint in my tin,' said he. Then I fetched up the cook.
We all three searched, and at last we found the bacon in one of
the shucks of the beans."
The worthy fellow laughed, and so did I, as he ended his story.
There might have been some exaggeration in it, but you would not
find it so hard to believe if you had ever sat down to dine on
three-quarters of an ounce of fat bacon.
I was confined in my cell twenty-three hours out of every twenty-four,
and during the first week my one hour's exercise was mostly taken in the
corridor instead of in the open air. The prison authorities are
careless about a man's health being subtly undermined, but they do not
like him to catch cold, which may produce visible and audible
consequences. Whenever it is snowing or raining, or whenever the ground
is wet, the prisoners exercise in the corridors, where the air is
scarcely purer than in their cells. During the first week, the weather
being bad, I only went out once. On Saturday, which was cleaning day, I
had no exercise at all, and on Sunday I was entitled to none--prisoners
not being allowed that privilege on the blessed Sabbath until a month of
their sentence has expired. I was therefore confined to my cell without
exercise or fresh air from Friday morning until Monday morning, or three
clear days. The exercise out of doors is a delightful relief from
solitary confinement in a brick vault. The prisoners walk in Indian
file in circles: a regular thieves' procession, the Rogue's March
without the music. The new comers, who violate the rule of silence, are
soon detected by the vigilant officers, but the old hands, as I have
said, acquire a habit of speaking without moving the lips, and in a tone
which just reaches their next neighbor. Ten days or so after I entered
Holloway I overheard the following conversation behind me:--
"Who's that bloke in front o' you?" "Dunno," was the reply.
"Queer lookin' bloke, aint he?"--"How long's he doin'?"--"A stretch,"
which in prison language means twelve months, and having served that
term, I know that it _is_ a stretch. "What's he in for?"--"Dunno,
but I hear he put somethin' in a paper they didn't like."--"What,
a stretch for that!"--And I venture to assert that, although the
prisoner who uttered this ejaculation was on the wrong side of a
gaol, his unsophisticated common sense on this point was infinitely
superior to the bigotry of Giffard, Harcourt, and North, and of the
jury who assisted in sending us to gaol for "putting something in
a paper they didn't like."
During my first week's residence in Holloway Gaol, owing to the bad
weather, I exercised in the corridor with the other inmates of the
A wing. There is little more room between the cell doors and the
railing overlooking the well than suffices for the passage of a
single person. The prisoners therefore walked in Indian file, and
as they were practically beyond supervision except when they came
abreast of one of the three or four officers in charge, a great
deal of conversation went on, and I wondered why the chief warder
below did not hear the loud hum of so many voices. I afterwards
discovered the reason. When you stand under the procession you can
hear nothing but the trampling of dozens of feet, which reverberates
through the wing, and drowns every other sound.
At first I marched as stiff as a poker, drawing myself together, as it
were, into the smallest compass, to avoid the contamination of the
company, most of whom were poor, repulsive specimens of humanity,
survivals in our civilised age of the lower types of barbarous or savage
times. Most of them were young and had a reckless bearing, but a few
were middle-aged, and some were obviously old hands who "knew the
ropes," were reconciled to their fate, and resolved on making the best
of the situation. Tramp, tramp, tramp! My very life seemed reduced to
this monotonous shuffle. I half fancied myself in a new kind of hell,
ranked in an everlasting procession of aimless feet, mechanically
following a convict's coat in front of me, and as mechanically followed
by the wearer of a similar coat behind. But as I passed the great
window at the end of the wing the blessed light of the silvery winter
sun sometimes streamed through the dense glass upon my face, rays of the
eternal splendor coming so many millions of miles from the great fire-
fount, how indifferent, as Perdita saw, to the artificial distinctions
of men! I felt refreshed, but the feeling wore off as I returned to the
gloomy corridor, skirting cells on the right, and on the left a low rail
that offered the suicide a tempting leap into the arms of Death. All
this time I was living an intense inward life, but I suppose there was a
far-away look in my eyes, for now and then a prisoner would say "Cheer
up, sir." I smiled at this consolatory effort, for although I was
disgusted, I was not despondent. Occasionally an attempt was made to
drag me into conversation, but I parried all advances with as little
offence as possible. One dirty short man, grievously afflicted with
scurvy, or something worse, several times manoeuvred to get behind me,
and at last he succeeded. "How long ye doin', mate?" No answer. "I
say, mate, how long ye doin'?" No answer. "A damned long time, _I_
know, or they wouldn' give ye a ---- new suit like that, ye stuck-up
What oaths I heard in that wretched gaol! No abomination of human
speech is unknown to me. One particularly vile expletive was
fashionable during my imprisonment; it seasoned every phrase, and
preceded every adjective. Its constant iteration was sickening,
until long experience made me callous. How thankful I should be to
Judge North for trying to purify me in that mud-bath of rascality.
I can never forget the debt of gratitude--and I never will!
Among the prisoners I noticed one of robust physique and martial bearing.
Seldom had I seen so fine a figure. Within six months I saw that man
reduced almost to a skeleton by solitary confinement, wearily trailing
one limb after the other, and looking out despairingly from cavernous,
moribund eyes. Well did Lord Fitzgerald (I think) in a recent speech
in the House of Lords describe this torture as the worst ever devised
by the brain of man. His lordship added that the Governor of a great
prison told him that he never knew a man undergo twelve months of
such punishment without severe suffering, or two years of it without
being terribly shaken, or three years without being physically and
mentally wrecked. In the penal servitude establishments the discipline
has to be relaxed, or the prisoners would die or go mad before their
terms expired. They work out of their cells in the daytime, and on
certain occasions (Sundays, I believe) they are allowed to walk in
couples and exercise their faculty of speech.
The poor fellow I refer to, fearing that he would die, and having
learnt that I was a public man, managed to tell me something of his case.
He had been a warder in Coldbath Fields Prison, where he officiated
as master-tailor. In an evil moment he "cabbaged" some cloth, was
detected, tried, condemned, and sentenced to twenty months' imprisonment.
He had been in the army for over twenty years without a scratch of
the pen against his name, and his officers had given him excellent
characters; but the judge would hear of nothing in mitigation of
sentence, although he knew it deprived the man of a pension of
thirty-six pounds a year, which he had earned by long service in
India, where the enemy's blades had drunk deeply of his blood.
His wife and children had gone to a work-house in Leicestershire,
and as they had no money for travelling, he had never received a visit.
He pined away in his miserable cell until he became a pitiable
spectacle which excited the compassion of the whole prison. The
doctor ordered him out of his cell, but the authorities would not
allow it. He told me how much he had lost round the chest and calf,
but I have forgotten the precise figures. One fact, however, I
recollect distinctly; he had lost _eight inches round the thigh_,
and his flesh was like a child's. Eventually the doctor peremptorily
ordered him into the hospital, and the Prison Commissioners and
Visiting Magistrates were reluctantly obliged to let him save the
Dreary indeed was the life in my prison cell, sitting on the
three-legged stool picking fibre, or walking up and down the
twelve-foot floor. I used frequently to stand under the window
for long intervals, resting my hand on the sloping sill. It was
impossible to see through the heavy-fluted panes, but outside was
light, liberty and life. Sometimes, especially on Saturdays, when
I had been accustomed to run down to the North, the Midlands or
the West, to fulfil a lecturing engagement, the muffled shriek of
a distant railway whistle went through me like the clash of steel.
My library, during the first three months, consisted of a Bible,
a Prayer Book and a Hymn Book. Although I was really there for
knowing too much about the "blessed book" already, I read it right
through in the first month, and again in the second, besides reading
it discursively afterwards. And still, I am a sincerely impenitent
Freethinker! You may knock a man down with the Bible, and make an
impression on his skull; but when he picks himself up again, you
find you have made no impression on his mind, except that his opinion
of _you_ is altered. I remember the chaplain calling to see me one
day as I was just concluding my inspection of what Heine calls the
menagerie of the Apocalypse. He could not help seeing the Bible,
for when it lay open there was very little table visible.
"Ah," he said, "I see you have been reading the holy Scripture."
"Yes," I replied, "I've read it through this month, and I believe
I'm the only man in the place who has done it--including the chaplain."
By and by the schoolmaster hunted me out a French Bible, the only
one in the prison. It was an old one, and contained some scratches
by a Gallic prisoner, who had been twice immured for smuggling
(_pour contrabandier_), and who pathetically called on God to
help him. _Cette vie est vie amere_, he had written. Yes, my
poor French friend, it was bitter indeed! As for the hymn book, it
contained two or three good pieces, like Newman's "Lead, Kindly Light,"
but for the rest it was the scraggiest collection I ever met with--
evangelical and wooden, with an occasional dash of weak music and
The monotony of my existence was not even broken by visits to chapel.
After the first day's attendance at "divine worship" for some reason
I was not let out at the hour of devotion. After a few days, however,
one of the principal officers said to me "Wouldn't you like to go
to chapel, Mr. Foote. There's nothing irksome in it, and you'll
find it breaks the monotony." "With pleasure," I replied, "but I have
not till now received an invitation." "What!" he exclaimed. Then,
calling up a young Irish officer in my wing, he asked "How is this?
Why hasn't Mr. Foote been invited to chapel?" "Well, sir," answered
the culprit, scratching his head and looking sheepish, "I knew Mr. Foote
was a Freethinker, and I didn't want to insult his opinions."
Good! I thought. Why was not this worthy fellow on the jury, or
better still, on the bench? I told him I was very much obliged for
his intended kindness, but at the same time I preferred going to
chapel, as I wished to see all I could for my money. After that
I went to the house of prayer like any church-going belle (this is
what Cowper must have meant, for how could a _bell_ go to church?)
every Sunday, and every other day during the week. Had the chapel
been of larger dimensions I should have gone daily, but it was too
small to hold all the prisoners, who were therefore divided into
two congregations, each approaching the, holy altar on alternate days.
What I saw and heard in the sacred edifice will be related in a
At the end of my second month I was entitled to a school-book and
a slate and pencil. These articles were promptly brought to me by
the obliging school-master. Two copies of Colenso's Arithmetic
had been procured; one was given to me, and the other, as I afterwards
learned, to Mr. Ramsey. The fly-leaf was cut out, I noticed; the
object being to prevent us from obtaining a bit of paper to write on.
This, I may add, is the general rule in the prison library, every
book being thus mutilated. It is a silly precaution, for if a
prisoner can succeed in carrying on a correspondence with his friends
outside, he is obviously not dependent on the library for materials,
and he would be the veriest fool to excite suspicion by amputating
the leaves of a book.
Knowing that I should have no better school-book during my long
imprisonment, I determined to make Colenso last as long as possible.
I steadily went through it from beginning to end. Working the
addition and subtraction sums was certainly tedious, but I wanted
to keep the interesting problems, as you reserve the daintier
portions of a repast, till the end. Curiously enough, it was
the sober and serious Colenso who gave me my one restless night
in Holloway Gaol. I puzzled over one pretty problem, and the
bed-bell rang before I could solve it. Directly my gas was turned
out the method of solution flashed on my mind, and I was so vexed
at being unable to work it out immediately that it was hours before
I could fall asleep. During that time my brain made desperate but
futile efforts to reach the answer by mental arithmetic, and when
I woke in the morning I felt thoroughly fagged.
Having had no writing materials for two months the slate and pencil
looked very inviting. I composed a few pieces of verse, including
a sonnet on Giordano Bruno and some epigrams on Parson Plaford,
Judge North, Sir Hardinge Giffard, and other distasteful personages.
But as every piece written on the slate had to be rubbed out to make
room for the next, I soon sickened of composition. It was murdering
one bantling to make place for another.
Sometimes the dulness of my incarceration was relieved by overhearing
whispered conversations outside my cell door. Until we became well
known, there was considerable speculation among the prisoners as
to who we were, and what we were there for. One day a couple of
fellows, engaged in cleaning the corridor, worked themselves near
together, one standing on either side of my door. "Who's the bloke
in yer?" I heard queried. "Dunno," said the other, "I b'lieve he's
a Fenian." Another time I heard the answer, "Oh, he's one of Bradlaugh's
pals; and Bradlaugh's coming up next week"--a next week which happily
Mr. Ramsey tells me that similar speculations went on outside his door.
Like mine, his card specified "misdr." (misdemeanor) as the offence, the
officials perhaps not liking to write blasphemy. Like me also, he
was put down as a Fenian. "Why there," said a prisoner, who had just
enounced this opinion, "look at his card; see--murder!" The "misdr."
was not written too plainly, and "murder" was his interpretation of
Let me here interpolate another good story in connexion with Mr. Ramsey.
He was confidently asked by an old hand what he was in for. "Blasphemy,"
said Mr. Ramsey. "Blasphemy! What the hell's that?" said the fellow.
Here was a confirmed criminal who had never heard of this crime before;
it was not in the catalogue known to his fraternity; and on learning
that all which could be got from it was nine months' imprisonment if
you were found out, and nothing if you were not, he concluded that he
would never patronize that line of business.
From the description already given of my cell, the reader has seen
that my domestic accommodations were exceedingly limited. All my
ablutions were performed with the aid of a tin bowl, holding about
a quart. This sufficed for hands and face, but how was I to get
a wash all over? I broached this question one day to warder Smith,
who informed me that the bathing appliances of the establishment
were scanty, and that the prisoners were only "tubbed" once a fortnight.
I explained to him that I was not used to such uncleanliness; but
of course he could not help me. Then I laid the matter before the
Deputy-Governor, who told an officer to take me to the bath-room
at the base of the debtor's wing, where I enjoyed a good scrub.
On returning to the criminal part of the prison I had my hair cut,
a prisoner officiating as barber. Despite the rule of silence,
I gave him verbal instructions how to proceed, otherwise he would
have given me the regular prison crop. During the rest of my term
I always had my hair trimmed in my own fashion. The prison crop,
I may observe, is rather a custom than a rule; the regulations
require only such hair-cutting and shaving as is necessary for
health and cleanliness, but the criminal population affect short
hair, and the difficulty is not to bring them under, but to keep
them out of, the barber's hands.
Prison barbers are generally amateurs. Of course the officers are
above such work, and unless a member of the tonsorial profession
happens to be in residence, the scissors are wielded by the first
man who fancies himself a natural adept at the business. The last
barber I saw in Holloway Gaol was a coachman, whose only qualification
for the work was that he had clipped horses' legs. He wore a blue
apron round a corpulent waist, and looked remarkably like a pork-butcher.
He walked round the victim like an artist engaged on a bust, and his
habit was to work steadily away at one spot until the skin showed
like a piece of white plaster, after which he labored at another
spot, and so on, until the task was finished. Seeing on my head
an uncommon mass of hair, he made many desperate solicitations to
be allowed an opportunity of displaying his skill, but I steadily
resisted the appeal, although it evidently cut him to the quick.
The bathing-house for the criminal prisoners has eight compartments.
In the ordinary course, I should have formed one of a detachment
of that number, but an exception was made in my case, and I was
always taken to bathe alone. Behind the bath-room were the dark
cells. I was allowed to inspect these miserable, black holes.
They were damp and fetid, and when the door was closed you were
in Egyptian darkness. I cannot conceive that such horrid punishment
is necessary or justifiable. The prison authorities have every
inmate absolutely in their power, and if they are obliged to resort
to the black-hole, it must be from want of foresight or the general
imbecility of the system.
The flogging was always done outside the black-hole, in the bath-room
at the foot of the D wing. I have often heard screaming wretches
dragged along the corridor, and their cries of agony as their backs
were lacerated by the cat. Singularly, the dinner hour was always
selected for this performance, which must have been a great stimulus
to the appetites of new comers. One man who was lashed told me it
was weeks before his flesh healed. I do not believe that the cat
and the dark hole are necessary to prison discipline. They brutalise
and degrade both prisoners and officials.
The doctor was astonished one morning by my application for a tooth-brush.
Such a thing was never seen or heard of in a prison. I was obliged
therefore to use my middle finger, which I found a very inefficient
substitute. Another difficulty arose on the shirt question. The
prisoners are allowed a clean outer shirt every week, and a clean
inner shirt every fortnight. I explained that I would prefer the
order reversed, but was told that I could not be accommodated.
But I persisted. I wearied the upper officials with applications,
and finally obtained a clean kit weekly. Even then I found it
necessary to badger them still further. The fortnightly intervals
between the baths were too long, and at last I got the Governor to
let me have a tub of cold water in my cell every night. This luxury
of cleanliness was the best feature in the programme, although my
fellow-prisoners appeared to regard it as an unaccountable fad.
One or two brief conversations with the Governor were also an agreeable
variation. I found him to be a disciple and friend of the late
F. D. Maurice, one of whose books he offered to lend me. He was
astonished to find that I had read it, as well as other works by
the same author, which he had _not_ read. Colonel Milman expressed
a good deal of admiration for Mr. George Jacob Holyoake, and he was
still more astonished when I told him that this gentleman had occupied
a blasphemer's cell in the old stirring days, when he fiercely attacked
Christianity instead of flattering it. "Nothing would give me greater
pleasure," said the gallant Governor, "than to hear from you some day
as a believer." "Sir," I replied, "I would not have you entertain
any such hope, for it will never be realised. My Freethought is
not a hobby, but a conviction. You must remember that I have been
a Christian, that I know all that can be said in defence of your creed,
and that I am well acquainted with all your best writers. I am a
Freethinker in spite of this; I might say _because_ of it. And can
you suppose that my imprisonment will induce me to regard Christianity
with a more friendly eye? On the contrary, it confirms my belief
that your creed, to which you are personally so superior, is a curse,
and carries the spirit of persecution in its heart of hearts."
Colonel Milman smiled sadly. He began to see that the sceptical
disease in me was beyond the reach of physic.
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
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.
THE THIRD TRIAL.
Prison life is monotonous. Day follows day in weary succession.
Except for the card on your door you might lose count of the weeks
and forget the date. I went on eating my miserable food with such
appetite as I had; I crawled between heaven and earth for one hour
in every twenty-four; I picked my fibre to kill the time; and I waded
through my only book, the Bible, with the patience of a mule. Weeks
rolled by with only one remarkable feature, and that was Good Friday.
The "sacred day" was observed as a Sabbath. There was no work and
no play. Christians outside were celebrating the Passion of their
Redeemer with plenteous eating and copious drinking, and dance and
song; while I and my two fellow-prisoners, who had no special cause
for sadness on that day, were compelled to spend it like hermits.
Chapel hours brought the only relief. Parson Plaford thought it
an auspicious occasion for preaching one of his silliest sermons,
and when I returned to my cell I was greatly refreshed. Opening
my Bible, I read the four accounts of the Crucifixion, and marvelled
how so many millions of people could regard them as consistent
histories, until I reflected that they never took the trouble to
read them one after another at a single sitting.
Once or twice I caught a glimpse of Mr. Ramsey in chapel, and I
occasionally saw Mr. Kemp in the exercise-ground. But I knew
nothing of what was going on outside. One day, however, the outer
silence was broken. The Governor entered my cell in the morning,
and told me he had received a letter from Mr. Bradlaugh, stating
that our original Indictment (in which he was included) would be
tried in a few days, and that he had an order from the Home Office
to see Mr. Ramsey and me separately. It was some day early in
April; I forget exactly when. But I recollect that Mr. Bradlaugh
came up the same afternoon. He saw me in the Governor's office.
We shook hands heartily, and plunged into conversation, while the
Governor sat turning over papers at his desk.
Mr. Bradlaugh told me how our Indictment stood. It would be tried
very soon. He was going to insist on being tried separately, and
had no doubt he should be. In that event, his case would precede ours.
What did I intend to do? His advice was that I should plead inability
to defend myself while in prison, and ask for a postponement until
after my release. If that were done he believed I should never hear
of the Indictment again.
My view was different. I doubted whether another conviction would
add to my sentence, and I was anxious to secure the moral advantage
of a careful and spirited defence in the Court of Queen's Bench
before the Lord Chief Justice of England. The Governor had already
supplied me with writing materials, and I had begun to draw up a list
of books I might require, which I intended to send to Mr. Wheeler.
"Oh," said Mr. Bradlaugh, brusquely, "you need not send anything to
Mr. Wheeler; he's gone insane."
"What!" I gasped. The room darkened to my vision as though the sun
had been blotted out. The blow went to my heart like a dagger.
"Come," said Mr. Bradlaugh in a kinder tone, "if you take the news
in that way I shall tell you no more."
"It is over," I answered. "Pray go on."
I crushed down my feelings, but it was not over. Mr. Bradlaugh did
not know the nature of my friendship with Mr. Wheeler; how old and
deep it was, how inwrought with the roots of my being. When I
returned to my cell I went through my agony and bloody sweat.
I know not how long it lasted. For awhile I stood like a stone
image; anon I paced up and down like a caged tiger. One word burned
like a lurid sun through a bloody mist. Mad! The school-master
called on business. "Don't speak," I said. He cast a frightened
look at my face and retired. At length relief came. The thunder-cloud
of grief poured itself in a torrent of tears, the only ones my
persecutors ever wrung from me. Over the flood of sorrow rose the
rainbow of hope. He is only broken down, I thought; his delicate
organisation has succumbed to a trial too great for its strength;
rest and generous attention will restore him. Courage! All will
And all is well. My friend is by my side again. He had relapses
after his first recovery, for it was an awful blow; but I was in
time to shield him from the worst of these. Scientific treatment,
and a long stay at the seaside, renovated his frame. He has worked
with me daily since at our old task, and I trust we shall labor
together till there comes "The poppied sleep, the end of all."
I spent the next few days in preparing a new defence for my third
trial for Blasphemy. During that time I was allowed an interview
with two friends every afternoon. Mrs. Besant was one of my earliest
visitors. I learned that the _Freethinker_ was still appearing
under the editorship of Dr. E. B. Aveling, who conducted it until
my release; and that the business affairs of Mr. Ramsey and myself
were being ably and vigilantly superintended by a committee consisting
of Mrs. Besant, and Messrs. R. O. Smith, A. Hilditch, J. Grout,
G. Standring and C. Herbert. There was, in addition, a Prisoners'
Aid Fund opened and liberally subscribed to, out of which our wives
and families were provided for.
On the morning of April 10, soon after breakfast, and while the
prisoners were marshalling for chapel, I was conducted to a cell
in front of the gaol, and permitted to array myself once more in
a civilized costume. My clothes, like myself, were none the better
for their imprisonment; but I felt a new man as I donned them, and
trolled operatic airs, while warder Smith cried, "Hush!"
Mr. Ramsey went through a similar process. We met in the great hall,
and in defiance of all rules and regulations, I shook him heartily
by the hand. He looked thin, pale, and careworn; and the new growth
of hair on his chin did not add to his good looks. After our third
trial he got stout again, and it was I who scaled less and less.
Perhaps his shoemaking gave him a better appetite; and perhaps I
studied too much for the quantity and quality of prison blood.
Each of was accommodated with a four-wheeler, and a warder armed
with a cutlass to guard us from all danger. It was a beautiful
spring morning, and the sunlight looked glorious as we rattled
down the Caledonian Road. I felt new-born. The early flowers
in the street barrows were miracles of loveliness, and the very
vegetables had a supernal charm. Tradesmen's names over their
shops were wonderfully vivid. Every letter seemed fresh-painted,
and after the dinginess of prison, the crude decorations struck
me as worthy of the old masters.
Arriving at the rear of the Law Courts, we found many friends
awaiting us. Colonel Milman was obliged to protect us from their
demonstrations of welcome. Everyone of them seemed desirous to
wring off an arm as a souvenir of the occasion. Inside I met
Mr. Bradlaugh, Mrs. Besant, Dr. Aveling, and a host of other friends.
My wife looked pale and haggard. She had evidently suffered much.
But seeing me again was a great relief, and she bore the remainder
of her long trial with more cheerfulness.
Mr. Bradlaugh's trial lasted three days, and we were brought up
on each occasion. It was what the Americans call a fine time.
A grateful country found us in cabs and attendants, and our friends
found us in dinner. When the first day's adjournment came at one
o'clock, my counsel, Mr. Cluer, asked what he should order for us.
"What a question!" we cried. "Something soon, and plenty of it."
It was boiled mutton, turnips, and potatoes. We proved ourselves
excellent trenchermen, for it was our first square meal for weeks;
and a group, including some of the jury, watched us feed.
Lord Coleridge's summing up in Mr. Bradlaugh's case was a wonderful
piece of art. The even beauty of his voice, the dignity of his manner,
the pathetic gravity with which he appealed to the jury to cast aside
all prejudice against the defendant, combined to render his charge one
of the great memories of my life.
The jury retired for half an hour, and returned with a verdict of
Not Guilty! Mr. Bradlaugh was deeply affected. I shook his hand
without a word, for I was speechless. I was inexpressibly glad that
the enemy had not crippled him in his parliamentary struggle, and
that his recent victory in the House of Lords, after years of
litigation, was crowned by a happy escape from their worst design.
Our trial took place the next week, and lasted only two days, as
we had no technical points to argue. Mr. Wheeler came up from
Worcestershire to see me. He was still very weak, and obviously
suffering from intense excitement. Still it was a pleasure to see
his face and clasp his hand.
Sir Hardinge Giffard gloomed on us with his wintry face, but he left
the conduct of the case almost entirely to Mr. Maloney. The evidence
against us was overpowering, and we did not seriously contest it.
Mr. Ramsey read a brief speech after lunch, and precisely at two
o'clock I rose to make my defence, which lasted two hours and forty
The table before me was crowded with books and papers, and I held a
sheet of references that looked like a brief. My first step was to
pay Judge North an instalment of the debt I owed him.
"My lord, and gentlemen of the jury,--I am very happy, not to
stand in this position, but to learn what I had not learned
before--how a criminal trial should be conducted, notwithstanding
that two months ago I was tried in another court, and before
another judge. Fortunately, the learned counsel, who are conducting
this prosecution have not now a judge who will allow them to
walk out of court while he argues their brief for them in
Lord Coleridge interrupted me. "You must learn one more lesson,
Mr. Foote, and that is, that one judge cannot hear another judge
censured, or even commended."
I was checkmated, but taking it with a good grace, I said:
"My lord, thank you for the correction. And I will simply
confine the observations I might have made on that subject to
the emphatic statement that I have learnt to-day, for the first
time--although this is the second time I have had to answer a
criminal charge--how a criminal trial should be conducted."
His lordship did not interrupt me again. During the whole of my long
defence he leaned his head upon his hand, and looked steadily at me,
without once shifting his gaze.
To put the jury in a good frame of mind I told them that two months
before I fell among thieves, and congratulated myself on being able
to talk to twelve honest men. In order, also, that they might be
disabused of the idea that we were being treated as first-class
misdemeanants, I informed them of the discipline we were really
subjected to; and I saw that this aroused their sympathy.
Those who wish to read my defence _in extenso_ will find it in the
"Three Trials for Blasphemy." I shall content myself here with a
few points. I quoted heretical, and, as I contended, blasphemous
passages from the writings of Professor Huxley, Dr. Maudsley,
Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, Lord Amberly, the
Duke of Somerset, Shelley, Byron, James Thomson, Algernon Swinburne,
and others; and I urged that the only difference between these
passages and the incriminated parts of my paper consisted in the
price t which they were published. Why, I asked, should the
high-class blasphemer be petted by society, and the low-class
blasphemer be made to bear their sins, and driven forth into
the wilderness of Holloway Gaol?
Lord Coleridge, in his summing up, supported my view, and his
admission is so important that I venture to give it in full.
"With regard to some of the others from whom Mr. Foote
quoted passages, I heard many of them for the first time.
I do not at all question that Mr. Foote read them correctly.
They are passages which, hearing them only from him for the
first time, I confess I have a difficulty in distinguishing
from the incriminated publication. They do appear to me to
be open to exactly the same charge and the same grounds of
observation that Mr. Foote's publications are. He says--and
I don't call upon him to prove it, I am quite willing to take
his word--he says many of these things are written in expensive
books, published by publishers of known eminence, and that
they circulate in the drawing-rooms, studies, and libraries
of persons of position. It may be so. All I can say here is--
and so far I can answer for myself--I would make no distinction
between Mr. Foote and anybody else; and if there are persons,
however eminent they may be, who used language, not fairly
distinguishable from that used by Mr. Foote, and if they are
ever brought before me--which I hope they never may be, for
a more troublesome or disagreeable business can never be
inflicted upon me--if they come before me, so far as my poor
powers go they shall have neither more nor less than the
justice I am trying to do to Mr. Foote; and if they offend
the Blasphemy Laws they shall find that so long as these laws
exist--whatever I may think about their wisdom--they will have
but one rule of law laid down in this court."
Another point I raised, which I neglected in my previous defences,
was this. What is it that men have a right to at law?
"Every man has a right to three things--protection for person,
property and character, and all that can be legitimately
derived from these. The ordinary law of libel gives a man
protection for his character, but it is surely monstrous that
he should claim protection for his opinions and tastes. All
that he can claim is that his taste shall not be violently
outraged against his will. I hope, gentlemen, you will take
that rational view of the question. We have libelled no man's
character, we have invaded no man's person or property. This
crime is a constructed crime, originally manufactured by priests
in the interest of their own order to put down dissent and heresy.
It now lingers amongst us as a legacy utterly alien to the spirit
of our age, which unfortunately we have not resolution enough to
cast among those absurdities which Time holds in his wallet of
My peroration is the only other part of the defence which I shall extract.
"Gentlemen, I have more than a personal interest in the result
of this trial. I am anxious for the rights and liberties of
thousands of my countrymen. Young as I am, I have for many
years fought for my principles, taken soldier's wages when
there were any, and gone cheerfully without when there were
none, and fought on all the same, as I mean to do to the end;
and I am doomed to the torture of twelve months' imprisonment
by the verdict and judgment of thirteen men, whose sacrifices
for conviction may not equal mine. The bitterness of my fate
can scarcely be enhanced by your verdict. Yet this does not
diminish my solicitude as to its character. If, after the recent
scandalous proceedings in another court, you, as a special jury
in this High Court of Justice, bring in a verdict of Guilty
against me and my co-defendant, you will decisively inaugurate
a new era of persecution, in which no advantage can accrue to
truth or morality, but in which fierce passions will be kindled,
oppression and resistance matched against each other, and the
land perhaps disgraced with violence and stained with blood.
But if, as I hope, you return a verdict of Not Guilty, you
will check that spirit of bigotry and fanaticism which is
fully aroused and eagerly awaiting the signal to begin its
evil work; you will close a melancholy and discreditable
chapter of history; you will proclaim that henceforth the
press shall be absolutely free, unless it libel men's characters
or contain incitements to crime, and that all offences against
belief and taste shall be left to the great jury of public
opinion; you will earn the gratitude of all who value liberty
as the jewel of their souls, and independence as the crown
of their manhood; you will save your country from becoming
ridiculous in the eyes of nations that we are accustomed to
consider as less enlightened and free; and you will earn for
yourselves a proud place in the annals of its freedom, its
progress, and its glory."
I delivered this appeal to the jury as impressively as I could.
There was a solemn silence in court. A storm cloud gathered while
I spoke, and heavy drops of rain fell on the roof as I concluded.
Lord Coleridge lifted his elbow from his desk, and addressed the jury:
"Gentlemen, I should have been glad to have summed up this
evening, but the truth is, I am not very strong, and I propose
to address you in the morning, and that will give you a full
opportunity of reflecting calmly on the very striking and able
speech you have just heard."
My defence was a great effort, and it exhausted me. Until I had
to exert myself I did not know how the confinement and the prison
fare had weakened me. The reader will understand the position better
if I remind him that the only material preparation I had in the morning
for the task of defending myself against Sir Hardinge Giffard and
Mr. Maloney was six ounces of dry bread and a little thin cocoa,
which the doctor had ordered instead of the "skilly" to stop my
diarrhoea. The Governor kindly allowed one of my friends to fetch
me a little brandy. Then we drove back to prison, where I had
some more dry bread and thin cocoa. The next morning, after an
exactly similar meal, we drove down again to the court.
Lord Coleridge's summing-up lasted nearly two hours, and, like my
defence, it was listened to by a crowded court, which included a
large number of gentlemen of the wig and gown. His lordship's address
is reported at length in the "Three Trials for Blasphemy," and a
revised copy was published by himself. His view of the law has been
dealt with already in my Preface. What I wish to say here is, that
Lord Coleridge's demeanor was in marked contrast with Judge North's.
I cannot do better than quote a few passages from an open letter
I addressed to his lordship soon after my release:
"How were my feelings modified by your lordship's lofty
bearing! I found myself in the presence of a judge who was
a gentleman. You treated me with impartiality, and a generous
consideration for my misfortunes. No one could doubt your
sincerity when, in the midst of a legal illustration which might
be construed as a reflection on my character, you suddenly
checked yourself, and said, 'I mean no offence to Mr. Foote.
I should be unworthy of my position if I insulted anyone in his.'
You were scrupulously, almost painfully, careful to say nothing
that could assist the prosecution or wound my susceptibilities.
You appeared to tremble lest your own convictions should
prejudice you, and the jury through you, against me and my
fellow prisoner. You listened with the deepest attention to
my long address to the jury. You discussed all my arguments
that you considered essential in your summing-up; and you
strengthened some of them, while deprecating others, with a
logical force and beauty of expression which were at once my
admiration and my despair. You paid me such handsome compliments
on my defence in the most trying circumstances as dispelled at
once the orthodox theory that I was a mere vulgar criminal.
In brief, my lord, you displayed such a lofty spirit of justice,
such a tenderness of humanity, and such a dignity of bearing,
that you commanded my admiration, my reverence and my love;
and if the jury had convicted me, and your lordship had felt
obliged by the 'unpleasant law' to inflict upon me some measure of
punishment, I could still have kissed the hand that dealt the blow.
"I know how repulsive flattery must be to a nature like yours,
but your lordship will pardon one who is no sycophant, who
seeks neither to avert your frown nor to gain your favor, who
has no sinister object in view, but simply speaks from the
fulness of a grateful heart. And you will pardon me if I say
that my sentiments are shared by thousands, who hate your creed
but respect your character. They watched you throughout my
trial with the keenest interest, and they rejoiced when they
saw in you those noble human qualities which transcend all
dogmas and creeds, and dwarf all differences of opinion into
Lord Coleridge also deserves my thanks for the handsome manner in
which he seconded my efforts to repudiate the odious charge of
"indecency," which had been manufactured by the bigots after my
imprisonment. These are his lordship's words:
"Mr. Foote is anxious to have it impressed on your minds that
he is not a licentious writer, and that this word does not fairly
apply to his publications. You will have the documents before
you, and you must judge for yourselves. I should say that he
is right. He may be blasphemous, but he certainly is not licentious,
in the ordinary sense of the word; and you do not find him
pandering to the bad passions of mankind."
I ask my readers to notice these clear and emphatic sentences, for
we shall recur to them in the next chapter.
The jury retired at twenty minutes past twelve. At three minutes past
five they were discharged, being unable to agree. It was a glorious
victory. Acquittal was hopeless, but no verdict amounted practically
to the same thing. Two juries out of three had already disagreed,
and as the verdict of Guilty by the third had been won through the
scandalous partiality and mean artifices of a bigoted judge, the results
of our prosecution afforded little encouragement to fresh attacks on
the liberty of the press.
I have since had the pleasure of conversing with one of the jury.
Himself and two others held out against a verdict of Guilty, and he
told me that the discussion was extremely animated. My informant
acted on principle. He confessed he did not like my caricatures,
and he considered my attacks on the Bible too severe; but he held
that I had a perfect right to ridicule Christianity if I thought fit,
and he refused to treat any method of attacking opinions as a crime.
Of the other two jurors, one was convinced by my address, and the
other declared that he was not going to assist in imprisoning like
a thief "a man who could make a speech like that."
The next day I asked Lord Coleridge not to try the case again for
a few days, as I was physically unable to conduct my defence. His
"I have just been informed, and I hardly knew it before, what
such imprisonment as yours means, and what, in the form it has
been inflicted on you, it must mean; but now that I do know of
it, I will take care that the proper authorities know of it also,
and I will see that you have proper support."
His lordship added that he would see I had proper food, and he would
take the defence whenever I pleased. We fixed the following Tuesday.
During the interim our meals were provided from the public-house
opposite the prison gates. My diarrhoea ceased at once, and I so
far recovered my old form that I felt ready to fight twenty Giffards.
But we did not encounter each other again. Feeling assured that if
Lord Coleridge continued to try the case, as he obviously meant to
until it was disposed of, they would never obtain a verdict, the
prosecution secured a _nolle prosequi_ from the Attorney-General.
It was procured by means of an affidavit, containing what his lordship
branded as an absolute falsehood. So the prosecution, which began
in bigotry and malice, ended appropriately in a lie.
LOSS AND GAIN.