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thing was no novelty, appeared perfectly indifferent to our
presence, and remained standing close to the seats from
which they had just risen; but the general feeling among
the females seemed to be one of uneasiness during the period
of our stay among them : which was very brief. Not a word
was uttered during the time of our remaining, unless, indeed,
by the wardswoman in reply to some question which we put
to the turnkey who accompanied us. In every ward on the
female side, a wardswoman is appointed to preserve order,
and a similar regulation is adopted among the males. The


wardsmen and wards women arc all prisoners, selected for good
conduct. They alone are allowed the privilege of sleeping
on bedsteads ; a small stump bedstead being placed in every
ward for that purpose. On both sides of the gaol, is a small
receiving-room, to which prisoners are conducted on their first
reception, and whence they cannot be removed until they
have been examined by the surgeon of the prison.*

Retracing our steps to the dismal passage in which we
found ourselves at first (and which, by-the-bye, contains three
or four dark cells for the accommodation of refractory
prisoners), we were led through a narrow yard to the " school "
a portion of the prison set apart for boys under fourteen
years of age. In a tolerable-sized room, in which were
writing-materials and some copy-books, was the schoolmaster,
with a couple of his pupils ; the remainder having been
fetched from an adjoining apartment, the whole were drawn
up in line for our inspection. There were fourteen of them
in all, some with shoes, some without; some in pinafores
without jackets, others in jackets without pinafores, and one
in scarce anything at all. The whole number, without an
exception we believe, had been committed for trial on charges
of pocket-picking; and fourteen such terrible little faces we
never beheld. There was not one redeeming feature among
them not a glance of honesty not a wink expressive of
anything but the gallows and the hulks, in the whole collection.
As to anything like shame or contrition, that was entirely
out of the question. They were evidently quite gratified at
being thought worth the trouble of looking at; their idea
appeared to be, that we had come to see Newgate as a grand
affair, and that they were an indispensable part of the show ;
and every boy as he " fell in " to the line, actually seemed as
pleased and important as if he had done something excessively

* The regulations of the prison relative to the confinement of prisoners
during the day, their sleeping at night, their taking their meals, and other
matters of gaol economy, have been all altered greatly for the better since
this sketch was first published. Even the construction of the prison itself
has been changed.


meritorious in getting there at all. We never looked upon
a more disagreeable sight, because we never saw fourteen such
hopeless creatures of neglect, before.

On either side of the school-yard is a yard for men, in one
of which that towards Newgate-street prisoners of the
more respectable- class are confined. Of the other, we have
little description to offer, as the different wards necessarily
partake of the same character. They are provided, like the
wards on the women's side, with mats and rugs, which are
disposed of in the same manner during the day ; the only
very striking difference between their appearance and that of
the wards inhabited by the females, is the utter absence of
any employment. Huddled together on two opposite forms,
by the fireside, sit twenty men perhaps ; here, a boy in livery ;
there, a man in a rough great-coat and top-boots ; farther
on, a desperate-looking fellow in his shirt-sleeves, with an old
Scotch cap upon his shaggy head ; near him again, a tall
ruffian, in a smock-frock ; next to him, a miserable being of
distressed appearance, with his head resting on his hand;
all alike in one respect, all idle and listless. When they do
leave the fire, sauntering moodily about, lounging in the
window, or leaning against the wall, vacantly swinging their
bodies to and fro. With the exception of a man reading an
old newspaper, in two or three instances, this was the case in
every ward we entered.

The only communication these men have with their friends,
is through two close iron gratings, with an intermediate space
of about a yard in width between the two, so that nothing
can be handed across, nor can the prisoner have any com-
munication by touch with the person who visits him. The
married men have a separate grating, at which to see their
wives, but its construction is the same.

The prison chapel is situated at the back of the governor's
house : the latter having no windows looking into the interior
of the prison. Whether the associations connected with the
place the knowledge that here a portion of the burial service


is, on some dreadful occasions, performed over the quick and
not upon the dead cast over it a still more gloomy and
sombre air than art has imparted to it, we know not, but its
appearance is very striking. There is something in a silent
and deserted place of worship, solemn and impressive at any
time; and the very dissimilarity of this one from any we
have been accustomed to, only enhances the impression. The
meanness of its appointments the bare and scanty pulpit,
with the paltry painted pillars on either side the women's
gallery with its great heavy curtain the men's with its
unpainted benches and dingy front the tottering little table
at the altar, with the commandments on the wall above it,
scarcely legible through lack of paint, and dust and damp
so unlike the velvet and gilding, the marble and wood, of a
modern church are strange and striking. There is one object,
too, which rivets the attention and fascinates the gaze, and
from which we may turn horror-stricken in vain, for the
recollection of it will haunt us, waking and sleeping, for a
long time afterwards. Immediately below the reading-desk,
on the floor of the chapel, and forming the most conspicuous
object in its little area, is the condemned pew ; a huge black
pen, in which the wretched people, who are singled out for
death, are placed on the Sunday preceding their execution,
in sight of all their fellow-prisoners, from many of whom they
may have been separated but a week before, to hear prayers
for their own souls, to join in the responses of their own
burial service, and to listen to an address, warning their recent
companions to take example by their fate, and urging them-
selves, while there is yet time nearly four-and-twenty hours
to "turn, and flee from the wrath to come! 11 Imagine
what have been the feelings of the men whom that fearful
pew has enclosed, and of whom, between the gallows and the
knife, no mortal remnant may now remain ! Think of the
hopeless clinging to life to the last, and the wild despair, far
exceeding in anguish the felon's death itself, by which they
have heard the certainty of their speedy transmission to


another world, with all their crimes upon their heads, rung
into their ears by the officiating clergyman !

At one time and at no distant period either the coffins
of the men about to be executed, were placed in that pew,
upon the seat by their side, during the whole service. It
may seem incredible, but it is true. Let us hope that the
increased spirit of civilisation and humanity which abolished
this frightful and degrading custom, may extend itself to
other usages equally barbarous ; usages which have not even
the plea of utility in their defence, as every year's experience
has shown them to be more and more inefficacious..

Leaving the chapel, descending to the passage so frequently
alluded to, and crossing the yard before noticed as being-
allotted to prisoners of a more respectable description than
the generality of men confined here, the visitor arrives at a
thick iron gate of great size and strength. Having been
admitted through it by the turnkey on duty, he turns sharp
round to the left, and pauses before another gate ; and,
having passed this last barrier, he stands in the most terrible
part of this gloomy building the condemned ward.

The press-yard, well known by name to newspaper readers,
from its frequent mention in accounts of executions, is at the
corner of the building, and next to the ordinary's house, in
Newgate-street: running from Newgate -street, towards the
centre of the prison, parallel with Newgate-market. It is a
long, narrow court, of which a portion of the wall in New-
gate-street forms one end, and the gate the other. At the
upper end, on the left hand that is, adjoining the wall in
Newgate-street is a cistern of water, and at the bottom a
double grating (of which the gate itself forms a part) similar
to that before described. Through these grates the prisoners
are allowed to see their friends ; a turnkey always remaining
in the vacant space between, during the whole interview.
Immediately on the right as you enter, is a building contain-
ing the press-room, day-room, and cells ; the yard is on every
side surrounded by lofty walls guarded by chevaux defrise ;


and the whole is under the constant inspection of vigilant
and experienced turnkeys.

In the first apartment into which we were conducted
which was at the top of a staircase, and immediately over the
press-room were five-and- twenty or thirty prisoners, all
under sentence of death, awaiting the result of the recorder's
report men of all ages and appearances, from a hardened
old offender with swarthy face and grizzly beard of three days'"
growth, to a handsome boy, not fourteen years old, and of
singularly youthful appearance even for that age, who had
been condemned for burglary. There was nothing remarkable
in the appearance of these prisoners. One or two decently-
dressed men were brooding with a dejected air over the fire;
several little groups of two or three had been engaged in
conversation at the upper end of the room, or in the windows ;
and the remainder were crowded round a young man seated
at a table, who appeared to be engaged in teaching the
younger ones to write. The room was large, airy, and clean.
There was very little anxiety or mental suffering depicted
in the countenance of any of the men ; they had all been
sentenced to death, it is true, and the recorder's report had
not yet been made ; but, we question whether there was a
man among them, notwithstanding, who did not know that
although he had undergone the ceremony, it never was
intended that his life should be sacrificed. On the table lay
a Testament, but there were no tokens of its having been in
recent use.

In the press-room below, were three men, the nature of
whose offence rendered it necessary to separate them, even
from their companions in guilt. It is a long, sombre room,
with two windows sunk into the stone wall, and here the
wretched men are pinioned on the morning of their execution,
before moving towards the scaffold. The fate of one of these
prisoners was uncertain ; some mitigatory circumstances having
come to light since his trial, which had been humanely
represented in the proper quarter. The other two had


nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown ; their doom
was sealed ; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their
crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope
in this world. " The two short ones,'"' the turnkey whispered,
" were dead men.""

The man to whom we have alluded as entertaining some
hopes of escape, was lounging, at the greatest distance he
could place between himself and his companions, in the
window nearest to the door. He was probably aware of our
approach, and had assumed an air of courageous indifference ;
his face was purposely averted towards the window, and he
stirred not an inch while we were present. The other two
men were at the upper end of the room. One of them, who
was imperfectly seen in the dim light, had his back towards
us, and was stooping over the fire, with his right arm on the
mantel-piece, and his head sunk upon it. The other, was
leaning on the sill of the farthest window. The light fell
full upon him, and communicated to his pale, haggard face,
and disordered hair, an appearance which, at that distance,
Avas ghastly. His cheek rested upon his hand; and, with his
face a little raised, and his eyes wildly staring before him, he
seemed to be unconsciously intent on counting the chinks
in the opposite wall. We passed this room again afterwards.
The first man was pacing up and down the court with a firm
military step he had been a soldier in the foot-guards and
a cloth cap jauntily thrown on one side of his head. He
bowed respectfully to our conductor, and the salute was
returned. The other two still remained in the positions we
have described, and were as motionless as statues.*

A few paces up the yard, and forming a continuation of the
building, in which are the two rooms we have just quitted,
lie the condemned cells. The entrance is by a narrow and
obscure staircase leading to a dark passage, in which a char-
coal stove casts a lurid tint over the objects in its immediate

* These two men -were executed shortly afterwards. The other -was
respited during his Majesty's pleasure.


vicinity, and diffuses something like warmth around. From
the left-hand side of this passage, the massive door of every
cell on the story opens ; and from it alone can they be
approached. There are three of these passages, and three of
these ranges of cells, one above the other ; but in size, furniture
and appearance, they are all precisely alike. Prior to the
recorder's report being made, all the prisoners under sentence
of death are removed from the day-room at five o'clock in
the afternoon, and locked up in these cells, where they are
allowed a candle until ten o'clock ; and here they remain until
seven next morning. When the warrant for a prisoner's
execution arrives, he is removed to the cells and confined in
one of them until he leaves it for the scaffold. He is at
liberty to walk in the yard; but, both in his walks and in
his cell, he is constantly attended by a turnkey who never
leaves him on any pretence.

We entered the first cell. It was a stone dungeon, eight
feet long by six wide, with a bench at the upper end, under
which were a common rug, a bible, and prayer-book. An
iron candlestick was fixed into the wall at the side ; and a
small high window in the back admitted as much air and
light as could struggle in between a double row of heavy,
crossed iron bars. It contained no other furniture of any

Conceive the situation of a man, spending his last night on
earth in this cell. Buoyed up with some vague and undefined
hope of reprieve, he knew not why indulging in some wild
and visionary idea of escaping, he knew not how hour after
hour of the three preceding days allowed him for prepara-
tion, has fled with a speed which no man living would deem
possible, for none but this dying man can know. He has
wearied his friends with entreaties, exhausted the attendants
with importunities, neglected in his feverish restlessness
the timely warnings of his spiritual consoler; and, now that
the illusion is at last dispelled, now that eternity is before
him and guilt behind, now that his fears of death amount


almost to madness, and an overwhelming sense of his help-
less, hopeless state rushes upon him, he is lost and stupefied,
and has neither thoughts to turn to, nor power to call
upon, the Almighty Being, from whom alone he can seek
mercy and forgiveness, and before whom his repentance can
alone avail.

Hours have glided by, and still he sits upon the same
stone bench with folded arms, heedless alike of the fast
decreasing time before him, and the urgent entreaties of the
good man at his side. The feeble light is wasting gradually,
and the deathlike stillness of the street without, broken
only by the rumbling of some passing vehicle which echoes
mournfully through the empty yards, warns him that the
night is waning fast away. The deep bell of St. Paul's
strikes one ! He heard it ; it has roused him. Seven
hours left ! He paces the narrow limits of his cell with
rapid strides, cold drops of terror starting on his fore-
head, and every muscle of his frame quivering with
agony. Seven hours ! He suffers himself to be led to his
seat, mechanically takes the bible which is placed in his hand,
and tries to read and listen. No : his thoughts will wander.
The book is torn and soiled by use and like the book he read
his lessons in, at school, just forty years ago ! He has never
bestowed a thought upon it, perhaps, since he left it as a
child : and yet the place, the time, the room nay, the very
boys he played with, crowd as vividly before him as if they
were scenes of yesterday ; and some forgotten phrase, some
childish word, rings in his ears like the echo of one uttered
but a minute since. The voice of the clergyman recalls him
to himself. He is reading from the sacred book its solemn
promises of pardon for repentance, and its awful denunciation
of obdurate men. He falls upon his knees and clasps his
hands to pray. Hush! what sound was that? He starts
upon his feet. It cannot be two yet. Hark ! Two quarters
have struck ; the third the fourth. It is ! Six hours
left. Tell him not of repentance ! Six hours' 1 repentance for


eight times six years of guilt and sin ! He buries his face in
his hands, and throws himself on the bench.

Worn with watching and excitement, he sleeps, and the
same unsettled state of mind pursues him in his dreams. An
insupportable load is taken from his breast ; he is walking with
his wife in a pleasant field, with the bright sky above them,
and a fresh and boundless prospect on every side how
different from the stone walls of Newgate! She is looking
not as she did when he saw her for the last time in that
dreadful place, but as she used when he loved her long, long
ago, before misery and ill-treatment had altered her looks,
and vice had changed his nature, and she is leaning upon his
arm, and looking up into his face with tenderness and affection
and he does not strike her now, nor rudely shake her from
him. And oh ! how glad he is to tell her all he had forgotten
in that last hurried interview, and to fall on his knees before
her and fervently beseech her pardon for all the unkindness
and cruelty that wasted her form and broke her heart ! The
scene suddenly changes. He is on his trial again: there
are the judge and jury, and prosecutors, and witnesses, just
as they were before. How full the court is what a sea
of heads with a gallows, too, and a scaffold and how all
those people stare at him ! Verdict, '* Guilty."" No matter ;
he will escape.

The night is dark and cold, the gates have been left open,
and in an instant he is in the street, flying from the scene
of his imprisonment like the wind. The streets are cleared,
the open fields are gained and the broad wide country lies
before him. Onward he dashes in the midst of darkness,
over hedge and ditch, through mud and pool, bounding
from spot to spot with a speed and lightness, astonishing even
to himself. At length he pauses ; he must be safe from
pursuit now ; he will stretch himself on that bank and sleep
till sunrise.

A period of unconsciousness succeeds. He wakes, cold and
wretched. The dull gray light of morning is stealing into


the cell, and falls upon the form of the attendant turnkey.
Confused by his dreams, he starts from his uneasy bed in
momentary uncertainty. It is but momentary. Every object
in the narrow cell is too frightfully real to admit of doubt
or mistake. He is the condemned felon again, guilty and
despairing; and in two hours more will be dead.




IT is strange with how little notice, good, bad, or indifferent,
a man may live and die in London. He awakens no sympathy
in the breast of any single person ; his existence is a matter
of interest to no one save himself; he cannot be said to be
forgotten when he dies, for no one remembered him when he
was alive. There is a numerous class of people in this great
metropolis who seem not to possess a single friend, and whom
nobody appears to care for. Urged by imperative necessity
in the first instance, they have resorted to London in search
of employment, and the means of subsistence. It is hard, we
know, to break the ties which bind us to our homes and
friends, and harder still to efface the thousand recollections
of happy days and old times, which have been slumbering in
our bosoms for yeai's, and only rush upon the mind, to bring
before it associations connected with the friends we have left,
the scenes we have beheld too probably for the last time, and
the hopes we once cherished, but may entertain no more.
These men, however, happily for themselves, have long for-
gotten such thoughts. Old country friends have died or
emigrated ; former correspondents have become lost, like
themselves, in the crowd and turmoil of some busy city ; and


they have gradually settled down into mere passive creatures
of habit and endurance.

We were seated in the enclosure of St. James's Park the
other day, when our attention was attracted by a man whom
we immediately put down in our own mind as one of this
class. He was a tall, thin, pale person, in a black coat,
scanty gray trousers, little pinched-up gaiters, and brown
beaver gloves. He had an umbrella in his hand not for use,
for the day was fine but, evidently, because he always carried
one to the office in the morning. He walked up and down
before the little patch of grass on which the chairs are placed
for hire, not as if he were doing it for pleasure or recreation,
but as if it were a matter of compulsion, just as he would
walk to the office every morning from the back settlements
of Islington. It was Monday ; he had escaped for four-and-
twenty hours from the thraldom of the desk ; and was
walking here for exercise and amusement perhaps for the
first time in his life. We were inclined to think he had
never had a holiday before, and that he did not know what
to do with himself. Children were playing on the grass ;
groups of people were loitering about, chatting and laughing ;
but the man walked steadily up and down, unheeding and
unheeded, his spare pale face looking as if it were incapable
of bearing the expression of curiosity or interest.

There was something in the man's manner and appearance
which told us, we fancied, his whole life, or rather his whole
day, for a man of this sort has no variety of days. We thought
we almost saw the dingy little back office into which he walks
every morning, hanging his hat on the same peg, and placing
his legs beneath the same desk : first, taking off that black
coat which lasts the year through, and putting on the one
which did duty last year, and which he keeps in his desk to
save the other. There he sits till five o'clock, working on, all
day, as regularly as the dial over the mantel-piece, whose
loud ticking is as monotonous as his whole existence : only
raising his head when some one enters the counting-house, or


when, in the midst of some difficult calculation, he looks up
to the ceiling as if there were inspiration in the dusty
skylight with a green knot in the centre of every pane of
glass. About five, or half-past, he slowly dismounts from
his accustomed stool, and again changing his coat, proceeds
to his usual dining-place, somewhere near Bucklersbury.
The waiter recites the bill of fare in a rather confidential
manner for he is a regular customer and after inquiring
"What's in the best cut?" and "What was up last?" he
orders a small plate of roast beef, with greens, and half-a-
pint of porter. He has a small plate to-day, because greens
are a penny more than potatoes, and he had " two breads "
yesterday, with the additional enormity of "a cheese 1 ' the
day before. This important point settled, he hangs up his
hat he took it off the moment he sat down and bespeaks
the paper after the next gentleman. If he can get it while
he is at dinner, he eats with much greater zest ; balancing it
against the water-bottle, and eating a bit of beef, and reading
a line or two, alternately. Exactly at five minutes before
the hour is up, he produces a shilling, pays the reckoning,

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 26) → online text (page 20 of 31)