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Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Victorian Prison: Interview With an Ex-Convict

As a follow up to the previous post describing the efforts of the Governors in Prisons to prevent convicts from re-offending when they were released, here is an excellent piece of investigative journalism from my favourite Victorian writer, James Greenwood, from his publication:
 “Low - Life Deeps: An Account of the Strange Fish to be Found There”

I recommend getting hold of anything by Greenwood, its all worth reading and its fairly light hearted.

This is an interview with a newly-released convict, and although he doesn’t say which prison he has been in, the hints suggest that it could be Pentonville, due to its relatively close proximation to Shoreditch and being located on the outskirts of the Metropolis.

Enjoy the wonderful wit and wisdom of Mr Greenwood:

“IT is now nearly six months since I first made the acquaintance of Master Jonathan Maxsey, and then under circumstances that were peculiarly unfavourable to that young person. It was inside one of the great prisons to be found at the outskirts of the metropolis, in which, for the crime of assaulting and robbing an errand-boy, Maxsey had been condemned to compulsory residence for the term of half a year. In company with the worthy Governor, I had been inspecting the gaol and its inmates, and it was not until our interesting tour had been brought, as I imagined, to a termination, that my friend remarked,
  "By-the-bye, there is one case you have not yet seen. Quite a boy he is, but a terrible fellow. I think it was never my misfortune to meet with such an instance of hopeless depravity. He has been here eight or nine times, and I don't know how often elsewhere. He is at present in the dark cell for insolence and throwing a plug of wet oakum in the face of a warder. You shall see him."

So saying, he led the way into a dismal corridor, at the extremity of which was a low-arched portal and a door. This the warder unlocked, and vanished from sight, and was presently heard to unfasten an inner door.
  "Now, 99, turn out here; you're wanted;" and in a few seconds Jonathan Maxsey came shuffling out of the blackness behind him, and stood before us, blinking his eyes rapidly, as though, despite his over-hanging brows, the sudden light painfully affected them. He was not a prepossessing youth - squat-built and square-shouldered, with scarcely any neck, and an almost flat top to his otherwise bullet-shaped head, on which, although it was cropped as short as the gaol scissors could be made to bite it, the reddish brown hair lay as sleek as it does on the hide of dogs of a certain breed. He was said to be fifteen, but looked younger, and, in his tight-fitting suit of prison grey, his hands and feet appeared too large for his body. His legs were slightly bowed, as though in his tender years he had been used to horse-riding - an idea that was favoured by the stablish way in which he carried between his lips a bit of what at first sight looked like straw, but which turned out to be a splinter of wood torn from the hare unplaned "bunk" which in a dark cell is the sole article of furniture.

  "This, I regret to say, sir," said the Governor, laying his hand with the keys in it on the sleek fiat head, "is really the most troublesome boy in the whole prison. I don't believe that he is fifteen years old yet, and to my knowledge he has been in this gaol eight times, and I shouldn't wonder if he is as well acquainted with other prisons. How many times have you been in trouble, 99?"
99 gave the splinter a reflective turn in his mouth, nibbled off a little bit, and spat it out ere he made answer.
  "Oh, I d'n know; what's the good of keepin' count? - wo odds how many?"
  "Twenty times at least, I'll be bound?"
99 drew the splinter into his mouth and chewed and swallowed it with a snort of sulky defiance.
  "So you might be bound if you made it thirty times - five-and-thirty;" said he.
  "I ain't peritickler - wot's the odds?"
  "Well, as I often tell you, 99, the way you seem bent on going can have but one ending. You'll think of what I tell you, and of the good advice you are now so wickedly deaf to, when it is too late."
At this 99 uttered a short laugh.
  "All right, guv'nor; don't you bother. I'm good for the end, whatever it is. You won't funk me by talking about ends, so it's no use your tryin'."
  "Get back to your cell, sir," said the Governor, sternly.
  "Good evenin', gentlemen," remarked Jonathan Maxsey, with a grin and an easy nod; and next instant the double doors shut on him, and he was again buried alive in that vault of pitchy darkness.

I saw the chaplain before I came away, and asked him to let me know how his unpromising patient, 99, progressed; but I heard nothing from him until a few days since, when I received a note, apprising me that no perceptible change had taken place in the young fellow in question, adding, however, that if I still felt any interest in him, he would be discharged from the gaol next morning at ten o'clock, and might be met at the gate.
Nothing could be more plain and simple than such directions, but a greater amount of moral courage was necessary in calmly following them than innocent folk may be aware of. The gaol in which Master Maxsey was confined is a mile or so out of town, and every "delivery day" the meetings at the "gate," or in its immediate vicinity, between discharged prisoners and their friends, are much more numerous than select. It is a queer sight. The rule appears to be not to let out the poor gaol-birds entitled to release all at one flight. The wicket gate swings ajar at intervals of three or four minutes, and they come scurrying forth in ones and twos. There is a broad space to be traversed between the prison portal and the main thoroughfare, and it is both curious and instructive to observe their demeanour on first stepping out again into the free world. In one respect only are they all alike, especially as regards the males. However old their clothes may be, they have in them that constrained and uneasy gait which commonly distinguishes wearers of bran-new suits, and they glance suspiciously at their coat-sleeves, and give their waistcoats a straightening pull, and look down on their trousers and boots as though not more than half satisfied that their moulting from prison plumage is perfect, and that a few of the old tell-tale feathers may not be still adhering here and there.
Perhaps, as a rule, they are amazed that the dilapidated old things should turn out so fresh and smart-looking after their long rest in the gaol wardrobe; perhaps, on the other hand, having yearned for several months for this happy day, when they should, for the last time, strip from their bodies the hateful linsey-woolsey, and encase themselves in their own unconspicuous clothes of honest cut, they are a little disappointed at finding them so wofully seedy and unsuitable for a start in that amended and respectable life they have for so long been resolving to adopt.

One thing is certain, that if, as is asserted, cleanliness as a virtue ranks next to godliness, no body of men could appear as applicants for the renewed confidence of their fellow creatures with a fairer chance of success than these released prisoners. It must, I think, be some peculiar kind of soap with which the gaol-bird performs his final ablution before his emancipation. No common sort with which I am acquainted is capable of imparting such a peculiar chilblainish polish to the ears, or of making the entire countenance appear as though the outer skin had been delicately removed, leaving a surface so pink and tender-looking that the mere act of winking might cause it to crack like an over-ripe plum.
It must be a trying time that getting over the open space between the prison gates and the common street pathway, where, if a man have a mind to, he may speedily be lost in the crowd. In its way, the sensation must be something like that of "walking the plank" aboard ship - just a few steps, and then you go souse into that teeming sea from which you were stranded and left so dismally in the lurch six months ago. It is easy enough to separate the black sheep - the jet black animals, who no more than a blackamoor may be scrubbed white - and the misguided sheep who has strayed from the honest flock, perhaps only this once in all his life, and would give his ears to get back again. Their way of crossing the before-mentioned open space is entirely different.
The sheep whose dye is ingrain and to the roots of its wool leaves the prison with pretty much the same air as a visitor from the country quits the train, and with easy confidence casts about him on the platform for those kind friends who he knows will be there to greet him and convey him straight to the refreshment room. He carries himself with a make-believe easy swagger, and generally with his hands in the pockets of his trousers, excepting when he releases one of them to wave a friendly salute to a faithful ally waiting in the distance. Just the opposite is it with the not utterly lost sheep. As soon as the grate opens to him he would like to take to his heels and run with all his might. He would do so if it were night time, but he don't know who may be looking, and so the next best thing is to endeavour to pass as some workman of honest occupation employed to do a little job within the spiked walls; and it is easy to understand with what delight this sort of man at that moment would exchange the painful cleanness of his face and hands for a whitewash-splashed visage, or a sprinkling of sawdust and a ladder to carry.
It must not be imagined, however, that while with the rest of the porters at the gate, or loitering about the lamp-post at the corner, or peeping over the inner shutter of the beer shop on the opposite side of the way, I am noting these interesting objects in forgetfulness of Master Jonathan Maxsey.

Here he comes at last.

As he quits the prison gate he raises his greasy old cloth cap and bows politely, but with a grin, to the warder on duty - who grins too, and says something which causes Master Maxsey to laugh outright - and then softly whistling, with a brisk step he crosses the open, and reaching the street pavement halts there and looks to the left and to the right, and across the road. There was no fear of my mistaking him, though he was so differently attired when last we had met. He was not conspicuously shabby or ragged. He wore a sort of cutaway black coat, with ample side pockets, and a gay coloured waistcoat, and a bright silk neckerchief of such bulky dimensions that the lobes of his great clean ears rested on it at the sides. His trousers were tight in the legs, and he wore light shoes. There, however, were the same quick, deep-set eyes, the same never-ceasing nibbling at his under and upper lip; and there, though very little was visible of, it outside the close-fitting cap, was the sleek foxy-brown hair close clipped to the skin. I was glad to perceive that he looked up and down the street in vain, though, judging from the scowl that gradually grew on his- bright face, it was evident that he had expected someone who was not there.

The business I had been deputed to negotiate with Master Maxsey was of a nature that might be best attempted without the presence of a third person - especially if that person happened to be one of Master Maxsey's own sort, anxious to welcome that young gentleman back to the lawless life from which, for six months, he had been estranged. After lingering yet a little longer, he turned his face in an easterly direction, and walked away so rapidly that we were nearly a quarter of a mile distant from the prison before I overtook him. He changed colour somewhat, and came to a dead halt as I pronounced his name. One swift glance, however, convinced him that his sudden terror was groundless, and he remarked savagely,
  "What do you want a follerin' me for? What's your game?"
  "To do you a good turn, if you have no objection. I suppose that you are not overwhelmed just now with friends who will take the trouble to run after you for that purpose?"
  "Have you been a running after me?" inquired Master Maxsey, in tones of disgust.
  "I came after you as you left the prison," said I; "we have met before; do you recollect me?"
I could tell by the twinkle in his quick eyes that he did so as I spoke, but, folding his arms, he affected to scrutinize my features reflectively for at least half a minute, at the expiration of which, and with startling suddenness, he seized my hand and shook it warmly.
  "To be sure I recollect you," he exclaimed, with all the heartiness of an old friend. "You come to see me that evenin' when I was in the coal-scuttle; you come along of Old Crabshells. 'Ow are yer?"
I was hardly prepared for this affectionate recognition, but though I strongly suspected its genuineness, I accepted it with the best grace at my command. At the same time, however, I informed him that he was mistaken as to the person who had accompanied me on the painful occasion alluded to - that it was the Governor himself.
  "It's all the same; it's the same party," responded Master Maxsey, cheerfully; "we calls him Old Crabshells, because of the uncommon large size of his shoes. But about that there good turn you was speakin' about just now."
  "First of all," said I, as we crossed to the quiet side of the road and walked along together, "let me ask you if you recollect the few remarks the Governor addressed to you - you know when - and the answers you made?"
  "Let me see," murmured Master Maxsey, communing with himself; "what was it I'd been up to?" and then the pleasant recollection suddenly flashing to his memory, he broke into a fit of laughter loud and long. "Oh, I know now!" he exclaimed; "it was for shying a lump of wet oakum at the redraw" (back slang for warder) "Jolly lark it was! 'You're a quarter of a pound short,' he ses, when he come to weigh my day's dose what I'd been picking in my cell. 'Where is it, yer wagabone?' ses he. 'Find it hinstantly.' 'Oh, please, sir,' I ses, 'it was only a hard bit wot I put in my slop-bowl to soak; and here it is, sir. P'r'aps yer might tell me if it do well enough now, sir?' and turning round sharp, I slapped the whole lot in his blessed eye!"

Master Maxsey wriggled in mirthful convulsions, and laughed until tears ran down his cheeks. This was far from encouraging; but I was under a promise to a philanthropic friend, and I resolved to execute my mission.
  "Now let us talk soberly and quietly for a few minutes. You are at liberty once more, Maxsey. What are you going to do?"
  "How do you mean?" he asked, warily.
  "Have you come to the sensible resolution of keeping at liberty should a fair chance offer itself to you?"
He appeared to consider the question for several seconds, and then replied,
  "Oh yes; that's right enough. I mean to look arter all the fair chances that comes in my way, and I mean to keep my liberty as long as my luck lasts. No fear, I ain't so fond of the steel (prison) as all that."
  "I should say not. You need not set your foot inside a prison again if you will take hold of and stick to the chance I bring you. You appear to be a strong lad, and you are not afraid of work, I suppose?"
  "Course I can work when I'm put to it," returned Master Maxsey, hesitatingly "what kind of work was you thinkin' of guvner?"
  "Well, to come to the point," said I, "there is a friend of mine who, knowing all about you, would be willing to take you, and feed you, and lodge you, and teach you a trade, and if you could but find courage to be industrious, and behave yourself, by the time you are one-and-twenty he would make a bright man of you. The trade you would have to learn is that of a tanner."
  "Ah! how much a week did you say?" Master Maxsey remarked, after a pause.
  "Well, at first some trifle of pocket-money, I dare say; but not very much."
  "Ho. And how many hours a day?"
  "I can't say exactly; ten perhaps."
  "And that's what you call doin' a cove a good turn, is it?" and he turned up the tip of his plastic nose scornfully.
  "As good a turn as any one in the world could do for you," said I.
  "Then wot I got to say is this," returned Master Maxsey, signifying by the abrupt manner in which he came to a standstill that he wished the conference to be terminated then and there - "wot I got to say is this: You and that there tanner wots your friend can keep your jolly good turn, as you calls it, and tie yerselves together with it, and jump over London Bridge. I don't want it; not while I can prig enough in any a hour, p'r'aps, to keep me for a week. Ten hours a day at 'tannerin for a bit of grub, and a fourpenny lodgin'! Not if I knows it. Why, it 'ud be wus to me than a summery conwiction!"
And, too indignant even to bid me good day, the awful young thief turned abruptly into Church-street, Shoreditch, and was quickly lost to view.”

So did the Victorian prison system, work? Obviously not every time. Open the Daily Mail on most days and you’ll read about someone like Jonathan Maxsey, preferring a life of crime to honest work. The other demonised minority is the benefits claimants being targeted by the new government.

This article was written in the 1870’s, have we moved on that much since then?


  1. My greatgrandfather was a butcher by trade who had left Wales to live in Utah in 1876. In 1880 he returned to Great Britain as a Mormon missionary. His journal of 10 Dec. 1881 mentions Smithfield market. "...Left the tower at 5 o'clock and went through the subway under the Thames, a passageway about 6 ft high and 4 ft. wide. Seems to be pretty well used. On arriving on the opposite side we came back over London Bridge passing by the London Monument through Cheapside onto the Smithfield Meat Market, a way down place. A terrible place for meat."

  2. An interesting account of a walk similar to one mentioned in another article on this blog with regards to the Thames.

    I don't know if you've ever visited London, but your great grandfather's steps could be easily re-traced, although the subway has long since closed - put out of business by the toll-free tower bridge.

    See my Thames - then and now blog for some of the things he may have seen on this walk!