How contraband found its way into the Scrubs

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One of the big issues with the modern justice system is the easy availability of drugs in English prisons. According to reports drugs such as cannabis, crack cocaine and spice. In a 2018 report for Ministry of Justice it was found that 1 in 5 prisoners tested positive for some form of illegal substance.

Attempts to control what is allowed inside prisons have a long history, going back at least as far at the 1877 Prison Act. Under this legislation it became illegal to bring, or to attempt to bring, ‘any spirituous or fermented liquor or tobacco’ into English or Welsh gaols.

Even in the late 1800s it was difficult to control the flow of contraband into prisons. Prisons required contact with the outside world; food, medicine, laundry, and other goods all had to come and go, brought in my external partners, and there was always a steady stream of new inmates, police and prison staff, and visitors.

In October 1888 John Carr was brought before the Hammersmith Police court charged with bringing tobacco into Wormwood Scrubs. The Scrubs had opened in 1875 but it wasn’t fully finished then. The builders finally left in 1891, just five years before the man who had played a key role in its creation – Edmund Du Cane – retired. Du Cane oversaw the shift in control of prisons from local administration to a national service, formalized by the 1877 act, and it is fair to say that the late Victorian prison was very much his creation.

He believed that prisons had to be a deterrent to criminals and he moved away from the beleifs held earlier in the century that prisoners could be (or should be) reformed. His motto was ‘hard bed, hard fare, hard labour’ and the resulting ‘mark system made it very hard for prisoners to resist the strict enforcement of petty rules. He would have had no truck with those smuggling tobacco into his prisons.

By the 1880s the Scrubs was a local prison filled with petty offenders serving short sentences. John Carr was accused of bringing in money as well, another item prohibited under the standing orders of the gaol. The main witness appearing against Carr was a young lad working for Pickford’s the carriers (and today’s modern home removal firm). Thomas Embers, a van boy, testified that Carr had got him to carry the goods in. However, while it was pretty clear Carr was guilty of something the magistrate was less sure that the charge had been brought under the correct act.

In his view Carr should have been charged under section 39 of the 1877 act rather than section 38 (which is the clause that the governor’s representative had cited). Either way Carr was committed to face trial for his crime, although bail was allowed. The boy was cautioned and told that he would have to find  sureties for his good behavior in future.

[from The Standard, Thursday, October 04, 1888]

‘There’s no justice for a ticket-of-leave man’: Fenians, Police and the ‘Manchester Outrage’.

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In the 1850s transportation to Australia slowly declined before being abandoned in the 1860s. Transportation, which had been the most effective alternative to hanging for the Georgians, was now itself replaced by incarceration at home. In 1865 the Prisons Act consolidated control of prisons under a government agency (rather than being left to local control) and penal servitude replaced transportation as the most serious of non-capital punishments.

One of the innovations of the colonial transportation system had been the mark system. This allowed convicts to earn points for good behaviour; points that might lead to better conditions, food and, ultimately, early release. The principle was sound: convicts would be easier to control if they understood that it was in their interest to get their heads down, accept their punishment and strive to win their freedom. The ultimate goal was a ticket-of-leave, which allowed convicts to live as free men within the colony, so long as they did not offend again.

The ticket-of-leave system (which in modern terms is parole) was exported back to England and applied to criminals locked up in the country’s various gaols. Here too offenders could earn the points that would enable them to be released on license before the end of their sentences. There were conditions of course, and these were easily broken, at which point a convict might find himself up before a magistrate and, ultimately, back in prison.

In May 1867 John Jones had been released on a ticket-of-leave and came back to his friends and family in London. The license required that he report to the police with 48 hours of being released and that he carried his ticket-of-leave on him at all times. Moreover, every moth Jones was required to report in to his nearest police station and confirm his address. He was then expected always to sleep at this address, and no other. The police were supposed to able to find him if they needed to. If he moved home Jones had 48 hours to inform the local police or he would be in breech of the terms of his release.

This close relationship with the local police must have made it pretty difficult for a convicted criminal to return to normal life. The prison stamp would have been on Jones following his release: the deathly pallor, close cropped hair, poor constitution, and sunken eyes (all products of the ‘hard labour, hard bed, hard fare’ policies of the prison system under Edmund Du Cane) would have marked him out as an ex-con. With little opportunity to rejoin ‘straight’ society Jones would naturally have gravitated back to the ‘criminal class’ that Mayhew and Binney had described in their writings.

In late November 1867 PC Harry Shaw (77G) saw Jones in Golden Lane, Clerkenwell. Jones was with a group of men the officer knew to be convicted thieves and he understood that he had gone there to express his sympathy ‘with the relatives of three men who had been hanged at Manchester on the previous day’.

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This was a infamous case, that of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’. William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brian were Fenians, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and they had been part of crowd of over 30 who had attacked a police van carrying fellow Fenians to gaol. In the attempt to release their prisoners a policeman, Sergeant Charles Brett, was killed.

Five men were convicted of Brett’s murder but two had their sentences overturned. Allen, Larkein and O’Brian were not so fortunate and were ‘turned off’ in front of a huge crowd above Salford Gaol on 23 November 1867. This was one of the very last public hangings to take place in England. Karl Marx remarked that the hangings served the cause of Irish nationalism better than many an act of terrorism had because it gave them martyrs to act as inspiration for the next generation of freedom fighters.

Naturally anyone celebrating those that had killed a police officer was unlikely to earn much sympathy from a serving constable. John Jones had joined a procession of men and women who marched from Clerkenwell Green to Hyde Park and PC Shaw followed, watching them. As they ‘dodged’ in and out of the crowd the constable suspected they were trying to pick pockets but he had no definite proof, just suspicion.  In the end he collared Jones and cautioned him, demanding to see his ticket-of-leave. Since he didn’t have it on him, Jones was told he must appear at Clerkenwell Police court to explain himself.

In early December, looking ‘rough’ John Jones presented himself before the sitting justice. He said little, saying ‘it was no use for him to speak, as there was no justice for a ticket-of-leave man’. The police, added, ‘had entered into a conspiracy to injure him, and he could do nothing’. The magistrate asked to see his license but he didn’t have it on him so he was remanded in custody so that one of his friends could fetch it.

Within days Clerkenwell itself experienced the full force of Fenian terror as conspirators attempted to break their fellow nationalists out of prison by blowing open the gate.  On 13 December 12 people were killed and over a hundred were injured in what The Timesdescribed as ‘a crime of unexampled atrocity’. Eight men were charged but two gave Queen’s evidence against the others. Two more were acquitted by the Grand jury and , in the end, only Michael Barrett was held responsible for the bomb. On the 26 May 1868 Barrett earned the dubious honour of being the last man to be publicly hanged in England as William Calcraft ‘dropped’ him outside Newgate Gaol.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 11 December, 1867]

‘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]