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LIFE IN AN ENGLISH PRISON., Issue 7922, 1 June 1889, Supplement
LIFE IN AN ENGLISH PRISON.
THE STORY OF A VICTIM
CHAPTER XXVII. —( Continued.) They had refused to lot mo have my German or French Bible, which was a consolation that enabled me to defy the ennui of separate confinement. Early familiarity with the Scriptures in the vernacular had dulled tho edge of words which in a foreign language came out clear in the mind. I had read over consecutively the Gospels—critically tho epistles—and had again and again turned to the sublimity of Job, when I felt my mind breaking down under the terrible weight of anxiety I was subjected to. At last tho years of my manhood seemed to fade away. Reason gave way before the recollection of faith. 1 staggered across my cell and sank down in the attitude of prayer. As I felt my knee on tho ground I sprung up to my feet as if I had been stung by an arrow. “What!” I exeluimed, “has it come to this, that 1 shall bend my knee to crave forgiveness for my want of faith ? No; as I have lived, so will I die.” Then reason seemed to reel on her throne. The shades of night prematurely closed the light from my high iron-barred windows. Again, as I had experienced before, the chapel pulpits of my youth were filled hy preachers whose very names are forgotten by Wesleyans. One figure struck me in the midst of the darkness which environed me. It was the pleading voice of the Rev. Francis A. West as he preached from a text that thirty years had not obliterated from my memory : “ He will not quench the burning flax.” The tones of tho minister seemed to plead with me in the prison cell. More persuasive words never fell from the lips of man than those which memory and delirium called up from the abyss of time. It seemed to say “ Come to Jesus—just as you are—though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow,” The fervid silvery tones pleaded for a reconciliation with a listener who had followed a lost creed. The heart was won, but the brain was unconvinced. As the strength between faith and unbelief hovered in the balance, pride, like Brennus, threw Ins sword in the scale of destiny, and I rejected the overtures which the dead past had resuscitated in order to soften my will. For far stretching years I had felt in an active life the unseen presence of some mysterious power which stood hy my side and checked my derelictions from every evil thought. That good genius which Socrates spoke of seemed to follow me. It was an embodiment of early inspirations which guided my intellect through the pitfalls of danger. A materialist by conviction, I sometimes fancied, like Hamlet, that there were more things than were dreamt of in our philosophy. That night decided a lifelong struggle as to reason and incipient faith in the unseen, and when daylight burst on my vision Reason had conquered Faith at a cost of utter physical exhaustion. Previous to that idealistic struggle I had possessed a remarkably acute perception of mental impressions. Opposed on principle to spiritual beliefs, I yet could read, hy a species of inspirations, the thoughts and acts of those who were at a distance en rapport with me. For years I had possessed so nervous an organisation that after a letter had been written to me and within a few hours of receiving it I intuitively knew the nature of its contents. Vainly had I tried to decipher the enigma which surrounded me how such a belief was possible, but the daily fact of its experience remained, although it contradicted all my logic, and I felt as if some concurrent unseen power stood at my side, if not to shape my destiny at least to counsel and warn me of the pitfalls of life. What that ghostly phantom was I do not know, but it seemed as if it could conjure up and give renewed life to the dead past. Whilst I was under the influence of this overpowering feeling, I tried to resist the current of thought and action which was rendering me the mere puppet of an idealised form, which dominated my quivering frame the stronger because illness had prostrated my physical energies. Again and again the white face of that dead Wesleyan preacher seemed to beam with sympathetic fervor as if it would strike a petrified heart into submission—but the visions of tho past were unable to penetrate into tho gloom of the present, and I tried, as I had done years before at Pentonville, to pierce the unknown and give a rational explanation of what seemed to be a ghostly mystery. At last I thought I had found it in the metaphysical theory of the Association of Ideas. I recollected that the prison apothecary had attracted my attention the previous day by his coarse, brutal, almost obscene jokes. He had been boasting that ho had entered all the questionable houses in London, from Mr Spurgeon’s Tabernacle downwards. 1 had been shocked at his licentious talk, and was more shocked when 1 accidentally learnt that he was a relative of tho great Yorkshire preacher, “ Billy Dawson.” Tho thought of this man, whom I had heard so highly spoken of in my early days, and whom I had so frequently heard when a mere child, had revived the remembrance of my Wesleyan training. Another incident had emphasised the record. The previous week I had been working with a wretched old scoundrel of the name of Jones, who originally lived in tho neighborhood of Hull. He had spent over twenty years in prison for petty thefts, whose entire pecuniary value was only 40s, and he had been sentenced by Mr Warren, Q. 0., on three separate occasions—by this recorder, the son of a Wesleyan preacher —to terms of five, six, and seven years penal servitude. One day he had been discussing the various chaplains whom he had known in prison, and Jones gave the palm to a white, curly-headed clergyman whom he had listened to at Gibraltar when he was confined there.
“Yes,” said old Jones, “that person was a of a fair preacher. I would have rather listened to him than have had an ounce of tobacco any day. He preached unlike any other journeyman soul-saver, as if, he believed what he said, and many a
time we cried like a lot of women over at the Gib.” From inquiries I made I found this divine to have been an old Wesleyan preacher whose last sermon I had myself listened to with some satisfaction in Queen street Chapel, Huddersfield, a generation ago. It was a Ur Alder, who had been for many years the secretary of the Wesleyan Missionary Society, and who had visited this chapel to preach some missionary sermons, and having dined, not wisely but too well, he was not able to conduct the evening service. The story of his drunkenness got wind, and then was revived the story of which he seemed proud, that he was an illegitimate son of the “ first gentleman in Europe, George IV.” He sent his resignation in to the Conference, was ordained by the Bishop of Gibraltar, and expatriated himself there, where ho preached so well as to cause an impression even upon the most degraded convicts who were then confined at the Hulks. It was the association of the names of “ Billy Dawson ” and Dr Alder which brought about the feeling of Wesleyan apparitions in that miserable punishment cell. The next morning I was ill, delirious. A kind of stagnation took place in my system which required skilful surgical aid, which I got from as kind a medical officer as ever brightened the infirmary of a prison. I felt my life in danger, and for the first time I shrank from death with almost a fear; but the fear was lest I should die without my friends knowing that I was morally as well as legally innocent of the crime for which I was sentenced. It was not the craven fear of eternity, which is the coward’s penalty for existence. I have found the same feeling in many others who were not so fortunate as myself, and who went over to the majority hoping to receive that remission in heaven which was denied on earth.
In my case hope was even deferred. At last came the hour looked for so long in anticipation, when I received permission to grow my hair three months before discharge. Then came the quiet regret of leaving a comfortable, if not a dignified, leisure. _ If it had not been for the burning desire of seeing and protecting my two girls, I should have preferred to have spent my days inside the prison cloisters rather than in tho hurried, fretful world.
My name had been entered for many library books which X had not read, the anticipation of which pressed heavily upon my mind, with the thought that life would bo too short and full of incidents to play the part of a bibliophile again. In place of the bulky tome I should have the ephemeral newspaper. Instead of reading the stately pages of Gibbon, the glorious sentences of Macaulay, the deep philosophy of Ranke, or the legal erudition of Hallam, I should bo condemned by irresistible fate to only glance through authors on the impulse of the hour. There were so many books I wished to read once more before I emerged to liberty. There was a library of new books still unread. I had two extra volumes of the last edition of ‘ Chambers’s Encyclopedia ’ to go through. There were several new French and German classics in the library—a world in itself of new books which I had barely entered. It seemed as if the hates were remorselessly using their scissors qf destiny before the web of life had been woven. I felt like Alexander, when he shed tears because ho had no more worlds to conquer. Had it not been for my children I would infinitely have preferred to have stayed in Portland rather than hare received my conye to liberty. Doubtless this has been the feeling of many a monk when his superiors have bidden him lay down his breviary and go on a mission to the living world. To a man who loved to pore through libraries there was a perennial joy in reading as long as it was healthy to read, and every spare moment when I had not a book before me I accounted a lost opportunity. Unlike the bookworm who lives in his library, I was compelled to work in the open air, nominally eight, but really upon an average six hours per day—just the amount of time to keep a man in perfect health. Occasionally I indulged in the hope, when restored to liberty, that I should surreptitiously enjoy the luxury of spending some furtive moments in front of one of the many old book stalls with their unexhumed treasures which meet us in the back streets of London. But there was the bitter thought that my own library was no more—a library political, social, and theological that was unique. Out of 3,000 volumes, none of which were found in an ordinary collection, each one picked up a bargain at an old book stall in some part of the United Kingdom, and for long years worshipped as a miser worships his gold. Every rare book upon a special subject was there, from Hobbc’s ‘ Leviathan,’ Gildon’s ‘ Oracles of Reason,’ Poland’s works, Mandeville’s and Bolingbroko’s Philosophy, together with the whole range of seventeenth century thought, was packed in my bookcases along with the choicest gems of political pamphlets collected from Parliamentary and religious struggles which no one save myself cared to collect and preserve. With this library there were many treatises and MSS. of my own —tho literary treasures of a life which none values so much as a selftaught scholar. All those I left in charge of my wife, who, I thought, would take care of what I loved so well. They would have sold for at least L2OO, but to me they were priceless ; but they were scattered to the winds. Not a single copy was preserved, and no effort made to preserve them. It was the one thing I craved, that my books and papers would bo kept sacred. When I learned they had been dispersed it cast a gloom over my entrance to liberty. I could have seen tho replica of each had I chosen to search the British Museum ; but who cares to accumulate a second library 1 If it had been furniture it could be replaced; but who can replace an old library where we can trace the separate pleasure which every old treasure has caused as we boro it in triumph from the old book stall 1 The time, however, came when the conditional discharge Was received
at the prison a month before it was due, and I exchanged greetings with my good friends the chaplains, to whom I owed so many literary luxuries. I felt sorry to part from them—-one as broad in his views as Dean Stanley, the other as narrow as Pusey, but both thoroughly good men, and the only human beings amongst all the officials whom an educated man could respect. I left them with a feeling that they had acted a generous and a kindly part to me; and I felt that, although I was an utter stranger to their creed, yet they had no more profound sympathiser than the prisoner, who was only technically and by courtesy a Christian. I had to go to London to bo discharged, and was summoned before the governor, who put the usual question : “ Did I wish to join the society 1” Of course I did. I meant to see all for myself, and drain the last drop of hemlock to the very dregs. The eventful morning came. I was to bid farewell to those with whom I associated. It is the custom, the day previous to a prisoner’s release, or before being sent to London for discharge, to go into the “separates” at the dinner hour. It was known that I was to leave that day, and as my career had been one of Hannibal-like hostility to the former governor, I had many greetings on my last march to and from the works. Discussion was aroused as to whether I should be allowed to take away my hundred letters, which I had always Insisted upon keeping in my own custody. The officials demanded inspection, but when they beheld a roll of papers which would have taken a day to examine, they passed them without notice. The afternoon of the last day came, and was occupied in trying on clothing, bathing, weighing, and doctor’s examination. It was towards four o’clock when I reached my cell in the “separates,” 1 found my hooks had been taken away, and I had nothing left to I’ead for the four hours of daylight and the remaining hours from daybreak in the next morning before departure. I was compelled to occupy myself with reading tho scratches upon the whitewashed wall, which stated that “ Tiger from the Mint had got 3 and 25,” and that “ -— — swine of a Oomby ” had got some other gentleman a punishment of two months’ penal, with the reminder of his intentions when he got back to his “party,” and many other similar remarks of interest to tho visitors to such barely-furnished temporary habitations. Then there would bo a signal at the door, and tho orderly would give a dozen messages to deliver when I got to the “smoke.” Shortly before the bell rung for the night I got several notes delivered under the door in various languages, which I was requested to consider, I did not fail to do what 1 was asked. I slept well the last night, and in the morning I was roused to take my final excursion under escort. As we left the yard in an old omnibus under charge of two officers, we took a leisurely survey of tho great Verne fortress. When we reached the station we were ushered into a second-class carriage. Tho journey to London was pleasant. In due course I again entered Pcntonville after seven years’ absence. Throe days of miserable waiting succeeded before we were due for release. At last tho hour came. I, with two others, went to tho Royal Society and found a kind (?) official welcome. I discovered they treated the men according to their antecedents. I had no reason to complain. I felt slightly uneasy at walking the street for tho first time a free man. I had to make my report to tho Criminal Investigation Department, where every consideration was shown to me. My position was different to that of tho great majority of men, and I was advised to send in a statement of my case to ask for favors in reference to reporting myself. I did so, and upon being invited to see the Chief Commissioner I received an assurance that I need not personally appear, and that it would be satisfactory were I to send a written monthly notice of my address, and no police officer should know anything of my career. I felt deeply grateful for the privilege, and I hero express my opinion that in London nothing can be more considerate than tho way this department is worked under Chief-Inspector Neamo, They do their duty, and do it in such a manner as can injure no one, except they are habitual criminals. I was not long before I commenced my action against the Governor and others. Those actions are now pending, so I will not further refer to them than simply to say that tho highest legal authorities under the Government appear against me upon abstract points of constitutional law, and that I am conducting my own pleadings. I had the good fortune to meet friends who assisted mo with the protection of great names. A judge wrote a letter which was a passport to the confidence of others, while those who knew my case treated mo as an honorable man. I found that the policy I had pursued had kept up the respect of those who had known me, and since my release, even to those who knew the entire facts, I was treated as an honorable man—a certain proof that no man is degraded until he passes sentence of degradation on himself. In the darkest hour of my misfortune I never forgot that I was a gentleman, and tho consistent course of conduct I pursued extorted from those with whom I came in contact a respect which was granted to misfortune. I have little more to add, I found one of my friends had faithfully preserved ray legal documents during all the years of my absence, during which no intercourse had taken place between us, and yet when I called upon Mr Fred Jones he pointed with pride to the documents which he had treasured in my absence. There are some men who forget kindnesses and ignore obligations, but I felt that my friend, who had, despite all difficulties, kept those documents for me, had acted as staunch a part as ever existed in the most fabled friendships of old. He was satisfied, and felt amply repaid for his labors when he knew that the boxes of papers contained evidence which was material to my welfare.
My first act was to try and establish a society which Could be of service to
men who, like myself, had been wrongly convicted. I discovered that there had been no progress made in the establishment of a Court of Criminal Appeal, so I prepared the foundation of a society to legally assist persons who were charged with a criminal offence, and who can show prlma fade evidence that they arc wrongly accused. That society was registered by special powers under the Friendly Society Acts, and I trust that it will soon get into working order. I have met many of my comrades whom I knew at Portland who are now in good positions in life, respected by men in the highest rank, and engaged as merchants, engineers, tradesmen, with a sprinkling in the professions of medicine and law, who have regained for themselves positions of trust and influence.
Life now is busy with mo, for when the meridian is reached we are all avaricious of time and begrudge hours where we formerly wasted years. I have endeavored, in writing this work, to place before mo a great public aim, and have given only such details as will be instructive to tho public, reserving in silence all the mass of brutality which appertains to the dark side of human nature. I have stated nothing but what has passed under my own personal experience, and it will bo scon how even “In a Convict Prison” a man struck down by misfortune may so conduct himself as to make life worth living, and the records of the most degraded may show such gleams of light as will justify tho philanthropist in stretching out his hand to help tho weak and erring. For myself, I am anxious to say that in tho years I spent with the most abandoned wretches who ever polluted the world, I never met a single man from whom I received an insult, or who was not amenable to justice and kindness ; and were I the custodian of a convict prison I should not despair of the worst criminal under a reyime of patient forgiveness and invariable kindness. There has never yet existed a human being altogether destitute of the feelings of our common nature, and those who know how to treat a man with humanity and justice need never despair of reforming the worst of men.
LIFE IN AN ENGLISH PRISON., Issue 7922, 1 June 1889, Supplement
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