Charles Dickens.

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degraded creature in existence cannot escape.

There has been another spectator, in the person of a
woman in the common shop ; the lowest of the low ; dirty,
unbonneted, Haunting, and slovenly. Her curiosity was at first
attracted by the little she could see of the group ; then her
attention. The half-intoxicated leer changed to an expression
of something like interest, and a feeling similar to that we
have described, appeared for a moment, and only a moment,
to extend itself even to her bosom.

Who shall say how soon these women may change places?
The last has but two more stages the hospital and the
grave. How many females situated as her two companions
are, and as she may have been once, have terminated the same
wretched course, in the same wretched manner ! One is
already tracing her footsteps with frightful rapidity. How
soon may the other follow her example ! How many have
done the same !



WE shall never forget the mingled feelings of awe and respect
with which we used to gaze on the exterior of Newgate in
our schoolboy days. How dreadful its rough heavy Avails,
and low massive doors, appeared to us the latter looking as
if they were made for the express purpose of letting people
in, and never letting them out again. Then the fetters over
the debtors 1 door, which we used to think were a bond Jide
set of irons, just hung up there, for convenience'' sake, ready
to be taken down at a moment's notice, and riveted on the
limbs of some refractory felon ! We were never tired of
wondering how the hackney-coachmen on the opposite stand
could cut jokes in the presence of such horrors, and drink
pots of half-and-half so near the last drop.

Often have we strayed here, in sessions time, to catch a
glimpse of the whipping-place, and that dark building on
one side of the yard, in which is kept the gibbet with all its
dreadful apparatus, and on the door of which we half ex-
pected to see a brass plate, with the inscription " Mr. Ketch ; "
for we never imagined that the distinguished functionary
could by possibility live anywhere else ! The days of these
childish dreams have passed away, and with them many other
boyish ideas of a gayer nature. But we still retain so much
of our original feeling, that to this hour we never pass the
building without something like a shudder.


What London pedestrian is there who has not, at some
time or other, cast a hurried glance through the wicket at
which prisoners are admitted into this gloomy mansion, and
surveyed the few objects he could discern, with an indescrib-
able feeling of curiosity ? The thick door, plated with iron
and mounted with spikes, just low enough to enable you to
see, leaning over them, an ill-looking fellow, in a broad-
brimmed hat, Belcher handkerchief and top-boots : with a
brown coat, something between a great-coat and a "sporting 11
jacket, on his back, and an immense key in his left hand.
Perhaps you are lucky enough to pass, just as the gate is
being opened; then, you see on the other side of the lodge,
another gate, the image of its predecessor, and two or three
more turnkeys, who look like multiplications of the first one,
seated round a fire which just lights up the whitewashed
apartment sufficiently to enable you to catch a hasty glimpse
of these different objects. We have a great respect for Mrs.
Fry, but she certainly ought to have written more romances
than Mrs. Radcliffe.

We were walking leisurely down the Old Bailey, some time
ago, when, as we passed this identical gate, it was opened
by the officiating turnkey. We turned quickly round, as a
matter of course, and saw two persons descending the steps.
We could not help stopping and observing them.

They were an elderly woman, of decent appearance, though
evidently poor, and a boy of about fourteen or fifteen. The
woman was crying bitterly ; she carried a small bundle in her
hand, and the boy followed at a short distance behind her.
Their little history was obvious. The boy was her son, to
whose early comfort she had perhaps sacrificed her own for
whose sake she had borne misery without repining, and
poverty without a murmur looking steadily forward to the
time, when he who had so long witnessed her struggles for him-
self, might be enabled to make some exertions for their joint
support. He had formed dissolute connexions ; idleness had
led to crime; and he had been committed to take his trial


for some petty theft. He had been long in prison, and, after
receiving some trifling additional punishment, had been
ordered to be discharged that morning. It was his first
offence, and his poor old mother, still hoping to reclaim him,
had been waiting at the gate to implore him to return home.

We cannot forget the boy; he descended the steps with
a dogged look, shaking his head with an air of bravado
and obstinate determination. They walked a few paces, and
paused. The woman put her hand upon his shoulder in an
agony of entreaty, and the boy sullenly raised his head as if
in refusal. It was a brilliant morning, and every object
looked fresh and happy in the broad, gay sunlight ; he gazed
round him for a few moments, bewildered with the bright-
ness of the scene, for it was long since he had beheld any-
thing save the gloomy walls of a prison. Perhaps the
wretchedness 'of his mother made some impression on the
boy^s heart ; perhaps some undefined recollection of the time
Avhen he was a happy child, and she his only friend, and
best companion, crowded on him he burst into tears; and
covering his face with one hand, and hurriedly placing the
other in his mother's, walked away with her.

Curiosity has occasionally led us into both Courts at the Old
Bailey. Nothing is so likely to strike the person Avho enters
them for the first time, as the calm indifference with Avhich
the proceedings are conducted; every trial seems a mere
matter of business. There is a great deal of form, but no
compassion ; considerable interest, but no sympathy. Take
the Old Court for example. There sit the Judges, with
whose great dignity everybody is acquainted, and of whom
therefore we need say no more. Then, there is the Lord
Mayor in the centre, looking as cool as a Lord Mayor can
look, with an immense bouquet before him, and habited in all
the splendour of his office. Then, there are the Sheriffs, who
are almost as dignified as the Lord Mayor himself; and the
Barristers, who are quite dignified enough in their own
opinion; and the spectators, who having paid for their


admission, look upon the whole scene as if it were got up
especially for their amusement. Look upon the whole group
in the body of the Court some wholly engrossed in the
morning papers, others carelessly conversing in low whispers,
and others, again, quietly dozing away an hour and you
can scarcely believe that the result of the trial is a matter of
life or death to one wretched being present. But turn your
eyes to the dock ; watch the prisoner attentively for a few
moments ; and the fact is before you, in all its painful reality.
Mark how restlessly he has been engaged for the last ten
minutes, in forming all sorts of fantastic figures with the
herbs which are strewed upon the ledge before him ; observe
the ashy paleness of his face when a particular witness
appears, and how he changes his position and wipes his
clammy forehead, and feverish hands, when the case for the
prosecution is closed, as if it were a relief to him to feel that
the jury knew the worst.

The defence is concluded; the judge proceeds to sum up
the evidence ; and the prisoner watches the countenances of
the jury, as a dying man, clinging to life to the very last,
vainly looks in the face of his physician for a slight ray of
hope. They turn round to consult ; you can almost hear the
man's heart beat, as he bites the stalk of rosemary, with a
desperate effort to appear composed. They resume their
places a dead silence prevails as the foreman delivers in the
verdict "Guilty! 11 A shriek bursts from a female in the
gallery ; the prisoner casts one look at the quarter from
whence the noise proceeded ; and is immediately hurried from
the dock by the gaoler. The clerk directs one of the officers
of the Court to "take the woman out, 11 and fresh business is
proceeded with, as if nothing had occurred.

No imaginary contrast to a case like this, could be as
complete as that which is constantly presented in the New
Court, the gravity of which is frequently disturbed in no
small degree, by the cunning and pertinacity of juvenile
offenders. A boy of thirteen is tried, say for picking the


pocket of some subject of her Majesty, and the offence is
about as clearly proved as an offence can be. He is called
upon for his defence, and contents himself with a little
declamation about the jurymen and his country asserts that
all the witnesses have committed perjury, and hints that the
police force generally have entered into a conspiracy " again "
him. However probable this .statement may be, it fails to
convince the Court, and some such scene as the following
then takes place :

Court: Have you any witnesses to speak to your cha-
racter, boy ?

Boy: Yes, my Lord; fifteen genlm'n is a vaten outside,
and vos a vaten all day yesterday, vich they told me the
night afore my trial vos a comin' on.

Court: Inquire for these witnesses.

Here, a stout beadle runs out, and vociferates for the
witnesses at the very top of his voice ; for you hear his cry
grow fainter and fainter as he descends the steps into the
court-yard below. After an absence of five minutes, he
returns, very warm and hoarse, and informs the Court of
what it knew perfectly well before namely, that there are
no such witnesses in attendance. Hereupon, the boy sets up
a most awful howling ; screws the lower part of the palms of
his hands into the corners of his eyes ; and endeavours to
look the picture of injured innocence. The jury at once find
him "guilty,"" and his endeavours to squeeze out a tear or
two are redoubled. The governor of the gaol then states,
in reply to an inquiry from the bench, that the prisoner has
been under his care twice before. This the urchin resolutely
denies in some such terms as " S'elp me, genlm'n, I never
vos in trouble afore indeed, my Lord, I never vos. It's all
a howen to my having a twin brother, vich has wrongfully
got into trouble, and vich is so exactly like me, that no vun
ever knows the difference atween us. 1 '

This representation, like the defence, fails in producing the
desired effect, and the boy is sentenced, perhaps, to seven


years' transportation. Finding it impossible to excite com-
passion, he gives vent to his feelings in an imprecation
bearing reference to the eyes of " old big vig ! " and as he
declines to take the trouble of walking from the dock, is
forthwith carried out, congratulating himself on having suc-
ceeded in giving everybody as much trouble as possible.



" THE force of habit " is a trite phrase in everybody's mouth ;
and it is not a little remarkable that those who use it most
as applied to others, unconsciously afford in their own persons
singular examples of the power which habit and custom
exercise over the minds of men, and of the little reflection
they are apt to bestow on subjects with which every day's
experience has rendered them familiar. If Bedlam could be
suddenly removed like another Aladdin's palace, and set down
on the space now occupied by Newgate, scarcely one man out
of a hundred, whose road to business every morning lies
through Newgate-street, or the Old Bailey, would pass the
building without bestowing a hasty glance on its small, grated
windows, and a transient thought upon the condition of the
unhappy beings immured in its dismal cells ; and yet these
same men, day by day, and hour by hour, pass and repass
this gloomy depository of the guilt and misery of London, in
one perpetual stream of life and bustle, utterly unmindful of
the throng of wretched creatures pent up within it nay, not
even knowing, or if they do, not heeding, the fact, that as
they pass one particular angle of the massive wall Avith a
light laugh or a merry whistle, they stand within one yard
of a fellow-creature, bound and helpless, whose hours are
numbered, from whom the last feeble ray of hope has fled
for ever, and whose miserable career will shortly terminate


in a violent and shameful death. Contact with death even
in its least terrible shape, is solemn and appalling. How
much more awful is it to reflect on this near vicinity to
the dying to men in full health and vigour, in the flower
of youth or the prime of life, with all their faculties and
perceptions as acute and perfect as your own ; but dying,
nevertheless dying as surely with the hand of death
imprinted upon them as indelibly as if mortal disease had
wasted their frames to shadows, and corruption had already
begun !

It was with some such thoughts as these that we deter-
mined, not many weeks since, to visit the interior of Newgate
in an amateur capacity, of course ; and, having carried our
intention into effect, we proceed to lay its results before our
readers, in the hope founded more upon the nature of the
subject, than on any presumptuous confidence in our own
descriptive powers that this paper may not be found wholly
devoid of interest. We have only to premise, that we do not
intend to fatigue the reader with any statistical accounts of
the prison ; they will be found at length in numerous reports
of numerous committees, and a variety of authorities of equal
weight. We took no notes, made no memoranda, measured
none of the yards, ascertained the exact number of inches
in no particular room: are unable even to report of how,
many apartments the gaol is composed.

We saw the prison, and saw the prisoners; and what we
did see, and what we thought, we will tell at once in our
own way.

Having delivered our credentials to the servant who
answered our knock at the door of the governor's house, we
were ushered into the " office ; " a little room, on the right-
hand side as you enter, with two windows looking into the
Old Bailey : fitted up like an ordinary attorney's office, or
merchant's counting-house, with the usual fixtures a wain-
scoted partition, a shelf or two, a desk, a couple of stools, a
pair of clerks, an almanack, a clock, and a few maps. After


a little delay, occasioned by sending into the interior of the
prison for the officer whose duty it was to conduct us, that
functionary arrived ; a respectable-looking man of about two
or three and fifty, in a broad-brimmed hat, and full suit of
black, who, but for his keys, would have looked quite as
much like a clergyman as a turnkey. We were disappointed ;
he had not even top-boots on. Following our conductor by
a door opposite to that at which we had entered, we arrived
at a small room, without any other furniture than a little
desk, with a book for visitors 1 autographs, and a shelf, on
which were a few boxes for papers, and casts of the heads and
faces of the two notorious murderers, Bishop and Williams ;
the former, in particular, exhibiting a style of head and set
of features, which might have afforded sufficient moral grounds
for his instant execution at any time, even had there been no
other evidence against him. Leaving this room also, by an
opposite door, we found ourself in the lodge which opens on
the Old Bailey; one side of which is plentifully garnished
with a choice collection of heavy sets of irons, including those
worn by the redoubtable Jack Sheppard genuine ; and those
said to have been graced by the sturdy limbs of the no less
celebrated Dick Turpin doubtful. From this lodge, a heavy
oaken gate, bound with iron, studded with nails of the same
material, and guarded by another turnkey, opens on a few
steps, if we remember right, which terminate in a narrow and
dismal stone passage, running parallel with the Old Bailey,
and leading to the different yards, through a number of
tortuous and intricate windings, guarded in their turn by
huge gates and gratings, whose appearance is sufficient to
dispel at once the slightest hope of escape that any new-
comer may have entertained; and the very recollection of
which, on eventually traversing the place again, involves one
in a maze of confusion.

It is necessary to explain here, that the buildings in the
prison, or in other words the different wards form a square,
of which the four sides abut respectively on the Old Bailey,


the old College of Physicians (now forming a part of New-
gate-market), the Sessions-house, and Newgate-street. The
intermediate space is divided into several paved yards, in
which the prisoners take such air and exercise as can be had
in such a place. These yards, with the exception of that in
which prisoners under sentence of death are confined (of which
we shall presently give a more detailed description), run
parallel with Newgate-street, and consequently from the Old
Bailey, as it were, to Newgate-market The women's side is
in the right wing of the prison nearest the Sessions-house.
As we were introduced into this part of the building first,
we will adopt the same order, and introduce our readers to
it also.

Turning to the right, then, down the passage to which we
just now adverted, omitting any mention of intervening gates
for if we noticed every gate that was unlocked for us to
pass through, and locked again as soon as we had passed, we
should require a gate at every comma we came to a door
composed of thick bars of wood, through which were dis-
cernible, passing to and fro in a narrow yard, some twenty
women : the majority of whom, however, as soon as they were
aware of the presence of strangers, retreated to their wards.
One side of this yard is railed off at a considerable distance,
and formed into a kind of iron cage, about five feet ten
inches in height, roofed at the top, and defended in front
by iron bars, from which the friends of the female prisoners
communicate with them. In one corner of this singular-
looking den, was a yellow, haggard, decrepit old woman, in
a tattered gown that had once been black, and the remains
of an old straw bonnet, with faded ribbon of the same hue,
in earnest conversation with a young girl a prisoner, of
course of about two-and-twenty. It is impossible to imagine
a more poverty-stricken object, or a creature so borne down
in soul and body, by excess of misery and destitution, as the
old woman. The girl was a good-looking robust female, with
a profusion of hair streaming about in the wind for she had


no bonnet on and a man's silk pocket-handkerchief loosely
thrown over a most ample pair of shoulders. The old woman
was talking in that low, stifled tone of voice which tells so
forcibly of mental anguish ; and every now and then burst
into an irrepressible sharp, abrupt cry of grief, the most
distressing sound that ears can hear. The girl was perfectly
unmoved. Hardened beyond all hope of redemption, she
listened doggedly to her mother's entreaties, whatever they
were : and, beyond inquiring after " Jem," and eagerly catching
at the few halfpence her miserable parent had brought her,
took no more apparent interest in the conversation than the
most unconcerned spectators. Heaven knows there were enough
of them, in the persons of the other prisoners in the yard,
who were no more concerned by what was passing before their
eyes, and within their hearing, than if they were blind and
deaf. Why should they be? Inside the prison, and out,
such scenes were too familiar to them, to excite even a
passing thought, unless of ridicule or contempt for feelings
which they had long since forgotten.

A little farther on, a squalid-looking woman in a slovenly,
thick-bordered cap, with her arms muffled in a large red
shawl, the fringed ends of which straggled nearly to the
bottom of a dirty white apron, was communicating some
instructions to her visitor her daughter evidently. The girl
was thinly clad, and shaking with the cold. Some ordinary
word of recognition passed between her and her mother when
she appeared at the grating, but neither hope, condolence,
regret, nor affection was expressed on either side. The mother
whispered her instructions, and the girl received them with
her pinched-up half-starved features twisted into an expression
of careful cunning. It was some scheme for the woman's
defence that she was disclosing, perhaps; and a sullen smile
came over the girl's face for an instant, as if she were pleased :
not so much at the probability of her mother's liberation, as
at the chance of her " getting off" in spite of her prosecutors.
The dialogue was soon concluded ; and with the same careless


indifference with which they had approached each other, the
mother turned towards the inner end of the yard, and the
girl to the gate at which she had entered.

The girl belonged to a class unhappily but too extensive
the very existence of which, should make men's hearts
bleed. Barely past her childhood, it required but a glance
to discover that she was one of those children, born and bred
in neglect and vice, who have never known what childhood
is : who have never been taught to love and court a parent's
smile, or to dread a parent's frown. The thousand nameless
endearments of childhood, its gaiety and its innocence, are
alike unknown to them. They have entered at once upon
the stern realities and miseries of life, and to their better
nature it is almost hopeless to appeal in after-times, by any of
the references which will awaken, if it be only for a moment,
some good feeling in ordinary bosoms, however corrupt they
may have become. Talk to them of parental solicitude, the
happy days of childhood, and the merry games of infancy !
Tell them of hunger and the streets, beggary and stripes, the
gin-shop, the station-house, and the pawnbroker's, and they
will understand you.

Two or three women were standing at different parts of the
grating, conversing with their friends, but a very large pro-
portion of the prisoners appeared to have no friends at all,
beyond such of their old companions as might happen to be
within the walls. So, passing hastily down the yard, and
pausing only for an instant to notice the little incidents we
have just recorded, we were conducted up a clean and well-
lighted flight of stone stairs to one of the wards. There
are several in this part of the building, but a description of
one is a description of the whole.

It was a spacious, bare, whitewashed apartment, lighted, of
course, by windows looking into the interior of the prison,
but far more light and airy than one could reasonably expect
to find in such a situation. There was a large fire with a
deal table before it, round which ten or a dozen women were


seated on wooden forms at dinner. Along both sides of the
room ran a shelf; below it, at regular intervals, a row of
large hooks were fixed in the wall, on each of which was hung
the sleeping mat of a prisoner : her rug and blanket being
folded up, and placed on the shelf above. At night, these
mats are placed on the floor, each beneath the hook on which
it hangs during the day; and the ward is thus made to
answer the purposes both of a day-room and sleeping apart-
ment. Over the fireplace, was a large sheet of pasteboard,
on which were displayed a variety of texts from Scripture,
which were also scattered about the room in scraps about the
size and shape of the copy-slips which are used in schools.
On the table w r as a sufficient provision of a kind of stewed
beef and brown bread, in pewter dishes, which are kept
perfectly bright, and displayed on shelves in great order and
regularity when they are not in use.

The women rose hastily, on our entrance, and retired in a
hurried manner to either side of the fireplace. They were
all cleanly many of them decently attired, and there was
nothing peculiar, either in their appearance or demeanour.
One or two resumed the needlework which they had probably
laid aside at the commencement of their meal ; others gazed
at the visitors with listless curiosity ; and a few retired behind
their companions to the very end of the room, as if desirous
to avoid even the casual observation of the strangers. Some
old Irish women, both in this and other wards, to whom the

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 26) → online text (page 19 of 31)