‘The horrors of that place had for me nobody knows’: one man’s fatal experience of Pentonville

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Here is something slightly different today, not a case from the Police courts but the consequence of the savage penal system that existed in the late 1800s. Indeed this story comes from June 1888, the year that the Whitechapel murderer terrorized the women of the East End and about whom so much has been written. That killer was never caught and if he had been then he would surely have ended his days at the hands of an executioner.

By 1888 only murderers, and not all of them, were hanged for their crimes. Since the opening of Broadmoor in 1863 the state had a place to send those dangerously violent men and women who were deemed insane and it quickly filled up with mothers and wives who had killed (or were convicted of killing) their children or husbands. For everyone else – the burglars, robbers, fraudsters, forgers, and the violent – there was just one option after convict transportation ended in the mid 1860s and that was prison.

Arthur James Simmonds had been sent to Pentonville Prison in late 1887 or early 1888. Simmonds was a letter sorter employed by the Post Service and he succumbed to the temptation to steal from work. Unfortunately for him his employers were on the look out for letter thieves and had placed a ‘test’ letter in the system to catch just such a fish.

Simmonds was prosecuted and was given 18 months inside for the offence, with the addition of hard labour. He was 20 years of age but far from being a healthy young man.  The ‘hard labour’ at Pentonville meant he would be subjected to the pointless tyranny of the treadmill.

On Whit Sunday 1888 Simmonds was taken ill and received a visit from a friend of his, George Nealing. When he saw George the prisoner started to cry and when he was asked how he felt he said he: ‘felt as well as could be expected in the circumstances’, but added that ‘I ought never to have been put on the mill’.

‘The horrors of that place had for me nobody knows. When after three days on the mill I got off at night I found my feet were four or five times their ordinary weight, and by the end of the first week they were twenty times their normal weight. I could scarcely walk up to my cell after leaving the mill’.

He told his friend that along with the physical pain of the treadmill he was unable to eat the food he was given and so his health further deteriorated. He died some time afterwards, never recovering from collapsing as a result of his exertions.

The inquest into his death heard from his friend but also from prison staff and doctors. They stated that he had never complained about the severity of the treadmill and had he done he would have been taken off it. This may well be true but complaining about the treatment one received in prison wasn’t likely to go down well in a system that was described by one inmate as ‘a vast machine’ that crushed anyone that refused to follow the rules.

The Victorian prison system had, under Edmund Du Cane’s stewardship operated the principle of ‘hard board, hard fare, hard labour’. Sleep deprivation, minimal diet and crippling physical activity was designed deliberately to break the spirit of convicts and make them easier to control. If a few died, or went mad, it was unfortunate but it was a consequence the authorities were prepared to live with.

Arthur Simmonds did die and the inquest was told that a ‘brain disease’ was the cause. The jury followed the medical advice and returned a verdict of accidental death. While the letter thief may have had a long term undiagnosed medical condition I think it is reasonable to suggest that the forced labour of the treadmill at least exacerbated his condition, if it did not create it entirely. His death then, lies in the hands of the prison authorities and government department that sanctioned the system that governed convicted felons in England in the 1800s.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 10, 1888]

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