THE THIRD PRISON SENTENCE
In God have I put my trust, I will not be afraid what man can do unto me.
Psalm LVI, 11.
On May 19th 1917, Simons, Brownutt, Ward, and I were escorted to Wandsworth Prison, three of us having been away for just a fortnight and Stephen Ward starting his first sentence at that establishment. The one incident I can recollect associated with our reception was of a humorous nature. Stephen Ward had acquired the ability to imitate the muffled mew of a cat and while we were locked in the separate cubicles awaiting the Chaplain, he amused himself by uttering this sound. The two officers on duty commenced to question themselves on the possibility of a cat being present. One said it sounded as if the animal were shut in somewhere and the two began to search for it, a search which of course was fruitless, much to their mystification and our own vast amusement. I had difficulty in repressing a guffaw of laughter and I could hear the others quietly chuckling to themselves. To this day, those two officers have not solved the riddle of that cat.
When the Chaplain interviewed us, I replied that I wished to see a Quaker chaplain. I wondered if he recognised me as that Wesleyan to whom he had previously made his sneering remark and if so, what he thought of this chameleon like action on my part. At any rate, if he did make such a recognition, he little suspected that he was the initial cause of the change and I noticed that he made no comment to Stephen Ward’s reply of Wesleyan.
As previously, we were not taken to our permanent quarters on that first night, but were located in the cells nearest to the entrance gates of the halls. I was confined to Hall E, Ward 2, Cell 48, this being the very end one.
The next day being Sunday, we went to the chapel, but as we had come from Hall E, we were isolated from the other COs and formed a little patch of dark grey amongst the drab of the other prisoners.
On Monday the finishing touches were put to our reception and we were then removed to Hall C, Ward 3. At first I was placed in cell 54, but I had been there scarcely a fortnight before I was transferred to cell 15 and after another month or so to my old quarters, cell 33.
While I was cleaning up cell 54 prior to settling down, the Taskmaster arrived. This man was a gloomy, misanthropic, pessimist, whom I never saw indulge in a real live smile, much less a hearty laugh. He was the sort of man whom I have heard described as never happy unless he is miserable. When he saw who was preparing the cell for occupancy he grunted, “You’re back, are you? You won’t obey army orders, but I suppose you had no objection to eating army food.” The spite of this excited my contempt and in reply I said, “If the army robs me of my livelihood, then I have no compunction about taking the substitute that the army supplies. My own living was a better one than the army provides, but I have no mandate for starving myself to death.” The logic of this reply effectively silenced him and he said no more.
By standing on the stool at the window of cell 33 (which by the way, was against the rules, but I did it quite a lot) I had a grandstand view of the exercise yard in the angle between Halls B and C, this being used by the soldiers who were in detention. The ordinary exercise ground was composed of three concentric rings of concrete slabs, the space between being used for growing vegetables, but in the case of this one, the intervening spaces had been levelled off and filled with clinker so that the whole area was suitable for military drill. During the latter part of my sentence, I spent hours and hours at my window, watching the soldiers at their drill. Frequently while thus engaged, I have felt my blood welling up to boiling point and my heart ready to burst with anger as I have watched those poor fellows tortured, the brutal and callous drill sergeant subjecting them to well nigh impossible orders. Sometimes I found myself actually seizing the iron window frame and trying to shake it loose, with feelings that must have been akin to those of a caged wild beast, which longs to burst out of its cage and fly at the object that has aroused its hatred and anger. With what intensity of desire was the urge to get at the throat of that abhorred sergeant and tear him limb from limb!
All drill was carried out with the heavy rifle, but not with side arms and at the double. No doubt the soldiers felt an ardent desire to have their bayonets and thus armed, I would not have given two minutes purchase for the life of that sergeant. As they were being trained to kill, probably many would have liked to make a start right away. The orders were given in such rapid succession that it required an extremely quick assimilation of ideas to grasp their sequence. It was obvious that many were mentally slow and in all probability the cause of their presence at all was the direct outcome of this shortcoming. The inevitable result of these rapid orders was that while some were acting on the command given, others were carrying out previous commands now succeeded, thus producing hopeless confusion all over the exercise ground. Men found themselves coming face to face with others proceeding in the opposite direction and the progress of both parties were thus arrested. Others collided with each other and heavy army boots and rifles took their toll of skin and blood. The spectacle might have been ludicrous in the extreme, if it had not been for the diabolical conduct of the sergeant, who seized the opportunities he himself had made, to jeer and insult his dazed and bewildered victims, whilst savagely dispensing punishments and penalties, thus prolonging the suffering in that hell upon earth.
As a mild example of the above, I will cite the following. One man in performing a wheel that was about three orders out of date, collided violently against another and in the rebound fell against a third man, in such a way that his head struck hard against the latter’s rifle butt. He then dropped to the ground, partially stunned and then staggered to his feet and endeavoured to carry on. But in a hopelessly dazed and confused state, with his hand to his injured head, he merely reeled and rolled against others. The sergeant observing this, commenced to laugh demonically at his expense, “Aha! Look at him! He don’t know where he are. Look at him gasping for breath, serve you right if you do die, nobody’ll worry if you do, I shan’t.”
One day as I was looking out of my window, I saw a man who had evidently been wounded in the foot and could only manage to limp along painfully by turning the injured foot outward and hobbling on the heel. The man had been sentenced to two hours pack-drill, with full pack and rifle and was limping backwards and forwards along a track reserved for himself. A sergeant kept him moving by sundry smacks on the face, sharp prods in the back and cuts across the legs with his stick. The days of inhuman savagery in inflicting torture are not yet past, even in twentieth-century England! One cannot imagine the man having any further enthusiasm for fighting for his country.
Reader if you have the Christian virtue of sympathy and you possess the capacity to suffer in concert, when you observe the sufferings of your fellow men, pray that yours may never be the lot to observe the workings of a detention barracks. It will well nigh break your heart, but you would gain a lucid insight into that description of the Messiah, ‘A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’.
But enough of this! To recall these harassing scenes is so disturbing, that I would rather pass on to a less distracting subject.
In the workshop, I was not restored to my previous job of stencilling mailbags, that office having been bestowed on another prisoner, while I was away on my summer holiday. I was therefore set sewing, but had not returned many days before a new venture appeared. Stephen Ward being a carpenter by trade had gone into the carpenters’ shop and a number of COs who were carpenters or in allied trades were also transferred, such that the shop was henceforth manned by COs. In this way Runham-Brown, his bother Morsman, the two brothers Mitchell, George Dimond and a number of others found themselves in this workshop. Fred Crowsley was also moved there and became one of the labourers. To him among other things, fell the strenuous task of turning the circular saw.
The great majority of the rest if us were sent into the wood yard. Here we had to saw up old railway sleepers and telegraph poles into six-inch lengths, suitable for splitting into firewood. This was done by hand with frame saws, to my mind an insensate waste of manpower. My old adversary, the old soldier officer was in charge of the wood yard and consequently I anticipated an unpleasant time in his company. I also found the work too heavy for me and more than my strength could sustain, so rather than risk a breakdown, I carried out the plan I had in mind before leaving the association workshop. Namely, I sought an interview with the Governor in which I asked to be transferred to the carpenters’ shop, explaining that I was experienced in woodworking and was well acquainted with all the principles involved. My request was granted and the carpenters’ shop was the scene of my labours for many months.
When about two months into my sentence, I found one morning my number on the list of prisoners to go before the Governor and hence wondered at length what misdemeanour had been charged against me. At the Governor’s office I found the old soldier officer in charge of the queue and I imagine he saw this as an opportunity to further settle his account with me. As I approached the line he came up and said, “Stand there, you’re all right for France this time.” I think he expected me to turn pale with fear and apprehension, but instead I made out as if his remark was for a pleasant surprise and replied with a bright smile, “But it won’t be the first time I’ve been.” When I went into the office, there was no charge of misconduct, but to my great delight, the Governor had two photographs of my wife to hand to me. As I was returning to my cell in proud possession of these two treasures, I encountered the Librarian who was changing the books in the cells and who seeing me carrying photographs asked if he might see them. As he returned them he asked, “Is that your sweetheart, or your wife?” “Both!” “Ah, that’s a very good answer.”
In the carpenters’ shop I made a small frame on which to weave pieces of tapestry. I constructed this frame so that it could be taken apart when not in requisition and the several pieces, secreted in various places in my cell. In spite of the fact that we were searched every time we left the shop, I experienced no difficulty in transferring it. I arranged matters so that I commenced a piece of tapestry immediately after one of the fortnightly searches and always managed to get it finished and the frame and reels of coloured threads stowed away before the next search. I kept these things for months and months, hiding them through numerous searches, until at length I was temporarily moved from that cell for a few weeks and when I returned, found my frame gone. But the reels of threads escaped detection.
When making tapestries, after we were locked in for the night, I placed my table in the centre of the cell and sat on the stool facing the window, with my back to the door. This way my work was hidden by my body from the night officer when he spied through the ‘Judas hole’. I had no canvas to use as a basal ground, but had to build up the groundwork from plain thread. Coloured thread was obtained by pulling to pieces small segments of coloured cloth. I made several tapestries to order for the other COs.
The relating of the foregoing anecdotes has recalled another. I mentioned in an earlier chapter that the prison garb did not include braces, the trousers were supported by tightening them around the waist, a method of suspension which most of us found far from comfortable. Therefore in the carpenters’ shop we made several small handlooms that were passed from man to man, each weaving himself a pair of braces from the thread used to sew mailbags. These braces had been in use for some considerable time and none had ever been found in the various searches. Then one morning following a search day, we were not sent out to the workshops as usual. We waited in perplexity for some time, until our cells were quietly visited one after another by two officers who were noting down all the contents of each cell, including all articles of clothing worn by each occupant. They were stocktaking and literally dozens of pairs of braces came to light and were confiscated. And this immediately after a search day! There were too many cases to make it a practical proposition to put them on report.
Another of the carpenters’ surreptitious activities was in connection with lead pencils. We were supplied with the carpenters’ oval type with a very broad lead, used to mark out our work in the shop. A chip of wood was flaked off at the bottom end and on the cut surface marked in red ink, was the bench number to which the pencil belonged. When we finished work, all the pencils were collected up and placed in a small numbered rack, which hence indicated if one was missing. Our ruse was to cut off the pointed end, re-sharpen and hence secure about an inch of pencil. Next we cut it longitudinally and glued the flat sides of the two halves, where the lead was exposed, to strips of wood projecting beyond the bottom ends. To this projecting portion was glued another piece of wood abutting the bottom end of the half pencil and when the glue had set, the whole was rounded. We had thus made two pencils that could be used right to the end of the lead, as the projecting wood still afforded a grip. In this way we soon had a number of pencils circulating amongst us. I myself had one of these and kept it right up to the day of my discharge.
The remembrance of these pencils calls to mind yet another exploit of a highly diverting character. In the carpenters’ shop was a CO, whose name I cannot recollect, but who in build and features was almost the double of Lloyd George. This man undertook the publishing of a newssheet that he titled ‘The Old Lags Hansard’. This periodical was written by hand in block characters on sheets of toilet paper and sewn together with thread. On account of the labour involved, only one copy of each issue was published. However it went the rounds, passing on from hand to hand and finally when it had fulfilled its intended purpose, it was contrived that it should fall into the hands of Mr. Walker, the Chief Warder. The vastly amusing part about the whole business was that the last page always contained the announcement, ‘Look out for the next number, to be published on (date)’. In spite of all the efforts of the authorities to trace its origin, we were not disappointed. Once indeed, it was a day late, as they made the declared date a search day, but the editor presented his apologies in his editorial to the effect that he was a day late in publishing ‘owing to an official raid on our offices’. How we laughed and laughed and laughed!
On the subject of pencils another incident might be related. At one time I wished to work out a constructional problem that was on my mind, by means of a diagram drawn to scale on my slate, but I needed some means of measurement. To overcome this difficulty, I copied the marking from my rule in the carpenters’ shop to the edge of a sheet of toilet paper. I took this into my cell and kept it between the pages of The Fellowship Hymnbook. Later during a cell search, an officer found this paper while flicking through the hymnbook and turned to me, “You’ve got a blacklead?” This could have been an awkward question, but my answer that it been done in the carpenters’ shop satisfied him.
During the summer of 1917, the majority of the COs were paraded one afternoon outside the Governor’s office, for an unknown reason. The few exceptions were those who held a professional qualification. They were admitted one at a time and confronted with a questionnaire concerning the placing of men in civil occupations by the government, on their discharge from the army. The impression was given that this was an initial step towards the freeing of COs, but such was the level of suspicion, that although there had been no opportunity to confer, every man refused to sign on the line where it said ‘Signature of soldier’. Even the prospect of discharge could not tempt us to admit, even indirectly, that we were soldiers. The failure of the government to deal in a straightforward manner with us by granting absolute exemption or nothing, induced many of us to treat government authority with distain. While not riotous, we ignored those regulations that seemed unreasonable to us.
When we came in from exercise, we entered by a door in the middle of the hall and those who had to proceed to the upper two wards turned away from the control centre. At the end, an iron staircase led up from Ward 2 to a bridge that crossed the front of the great end window, from the landings on either side of Ward 3. A return staircase led up to a similar bridge on Ward 4, this however being spaced from the window by the horizontal length of the staircase. One day as we came in, Spiller was near the head of the file. He turned to face the window and motioned the men as they came up the first staircase to collect on the bridge. He explained that he wanted them to sing, while he conducted. He called for Tennessee and having given them the key note, away they went with a hearty goodwill, other men joining in as they arrived on the bridge. One or two warders present endeavoured (albeit in a half-hearted manner) to stop them by ordering them to their cells, but with out effect. They went on to sing ‘Home Sweet Home’, the officers standing idly by and probably enjoying the choral effect. Presently the Chief Warder came bustling down the hall and bellowed out, “Get away to your cells!” But the COs paid no more head than they had to the ordinary warders and continued to the end of the song.
To realise the depth of pathos and beauty of the sentiments expressed in that song, one has to hear it sung with the yearning of men worn and weary from prison, facing the prospect of unending confinement. As the haunting strains of the old familiar song rose in the dingy, sombre building, there were many moist eyes amongst us. Even the officers seemed to be spell bound, with such intense interest that it bordered on reverent awe.
‘Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.
A charm from the sky seems to hallow us there,
Which, seek through the world, is ne’er met with elsewhere.
Home, home, sweet, sweet home,
There’s no place like home,
There’s no place like home.
An exile from home, splendour dazzles in vain,
O give me my lowly thatched cottage again,
The birds singing gaily that come at my call,
Give me these, with the peace of mind dearer than all.
How sweet, too, to sit ‘neath a fond father’s smile,
And the cares of a mother to soothe and beguile,
Let others delight ‘mid new pleasures to roam,
But give me, O give me the pleasures of home.
To thee I’ll return, overburdened with care,
The heart’s dearest face will smile on me there,
No more from that cottage again will I roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.
J. H. Payne.
The voices lingered lovingly on the first line of the refrain, then crashed into the repetition of the last line, as the singers challenged anyone to contradict the statement.
The song ceased abruptly and the singers turned away going silently to their cells. There was no sign of jubilation at having defied the rules, but all seemed absorbed in sober thought and serenely calm. What the effect was on the other prisoners, as this singing brightened the gloomy halls, I cannot say. But we had all received a lasting mental tonic and were able to face the future with renewed courage and fortitude.
There was no sequel in reports and punishments. In all probability the authorities were wise enough to perceive the event as a spontaneous expression of yearning souls. What’s more, I never heard the slightest subsequent reference to it from any of the COs, it seems they were embarrassed at the emotion, the thing that which perhaps the British dread above all else.
During the greater part of my third sentence, the cell next to mine (i.e. No. 32) was occupied by a young Scottish telegraphist, who taught me the Morse Code, so that we could converse or play draughts. The instruction was accomplished by him writing the code on his cell slate and then we exchanged slates. The reader may wonder how we could possibly manage to do this, the explanation is a little technical, but will be of interest.
The cell door locks at Wandsworth Prison were somewhat different to those at Wormwood Scrubs. Quite early on I noticed that when the officers unlocked them, they turned the key with the right hand and with the left, held the handle that was in the middle of door. The door being opened, they gave a sharp turning jerk to this handle. This left the lock bolt protruding, but unlike those at Wormwood Scrubs, they were bevelled. The doors could be slammed to and thus closed, the key being required to open them again. This series of operations set me thinking and experimenting. I discovered that the bolt could be pressed in with the thumb and that it remained in, so that the door could be slammed without fastening. I also discovered that the jerk on the handle was for releasing the lock bolt after the key had drawn it in during the unlocking process. This discovery gave me great possibilities, but first I had to brief my neighbour of my findings.
When the officers came round at meal times, the first officer unlocked the doors and handed in the small loaves of bread, while the officer following measured out the porridge into the cell cups, with which the prisoners were by then standing at their doorways. The prisoners were then required to slam the doors themselves. After the whole ward was served, the Ward Officer came round again, turning the keys in all the locks, which thrust the bolt a further stage into the doorpost.
Having agreed the project with my neighbour, as soon as the first officer had handed in the bread, we deftly pressed in the lock bolts and when the second officer had passed, we slammed our doors, which of course did not fasten. Then when we heard them pass to the landing on the other side and get a little distance down the ward, the slamming doors informing us of their whereabouts, we cautiously opened our doors and crept out on all fours, so that the guard railings would hide us and thus effected the exchange of slates. It only then required that we release the lock bolts by means of the handle and gently but firmly pressed the door to, so that it closed with a click, inaudible to the officers away down the ward. There were thirty-five cells on each side of the ward, so our position near the end, materially assisted this enterprise.
The winter of 1917-18 was marked by a number of enemy air raids. After dark, all lights had to be prevented from being visible outside the building, so as not to betray to enemy aircraft the situation of a town or other populous centre. We were supposed to hang up the bed coverlet at our windows, but as most of us preferred to have them available when we got to bed, rather than get them down in the dark after lights were out, we hung up partially made mailbags instead. In my own cell, I rigged up an ingenious arrangement of cords and pulleys so that by pulling a cord I could darken the window or draw open ‘the curtains’.
When aircraft were known to be approaching, notice was disseminated to the populous centres by telegraph and warning was given to the inhabitants by the sounding of a special siren. On hearing this all lights were to be extinguished. In the prison, a bell was rung and prisoners made a rush to get their beds down and made up before being plunged into darkness, while officers dashed round, putting out the gas-jets.
Several times during air raids, I stood on my stool at the window and watched with intense interest the play of the searchlights as they swept the sky in the endeavour to pick up raiding aircraft and also the bursting of the shells. The noise constituted a fearful din, there was the buzzing drone of the engines of what seemed to be numerous aircraft, the crash of bursting bombs, the thunderous roar of the anti-aircraft guns, the mournful whine of the shells in flight and finally the leaden patter of a hail of bullets on the prison roof.
There must have been an anti-aircraft gun of quite large calibre situated near the prison, for as it fired, it was possible actually to hear the shell leave the mouth of the gun and the air positively vibrated in heavy waves. One night as I stood at the window, I heard a shell whistle close by and thud on the ground just outside the prison wall. I listened expectantly for it to explode, but nothing happened and I concluded that it must have been a dud.
Sometimes the raids took place after we had got to bed and the first intimation we then had, was given by the guns opening fire far away on the east side of London. One by one, guns in nearer proximity joined in, until the one so closely placed to us added its mighty voice. Once of twice I got out of bed to see the sights, but occasionally decided to lay awake in bed listening and watching the searchlight beams as they criss-crossed over the window. But after adopting such a resolution, I discovered on the following morning that I had fallen asleep in the middle of the uproar. So much for an easy conscience and the effects of hard labour!
Early in 1918 the effects of the war on food supplies became evident. For several weeks, instead of meat on Thursdays (horse-flesh it appeared to be) we were each supplied with a herring, which looked as though it had itself suffered from famine, so little nourishment could we find on the bones. One man jocularly informed an officer that they must have been mummified by the Egyptians. The officer laughingly replied that they were fresh to us anyway. Eventually these gave way to dried fish, which had the effect of producing a longing for the fresh variety. In fact so unsatisfying was this repast that some men applied to be transferred to the vegetarian diet.
The diet underwent considerable modification as the autumn drew on and margarine and cheese were introduced. The latter was more like sponge rubber, being highly compressible and elastic. It was supplied to us at suppertime, but was intended that half should be reserved for breakfast. Mr Butler came to me one day highly amused, after having served breakfast to one man, he had asked him where his cheese was. The man replied that as there had been an air raid on the previous evening, he had eaten all his cheese while there was still the opportunity!
When I returned to my cell from the workshop one afternoon, I was shocked to discover the place in the utmost disorder and confusion. The bedding had been thrown in a dishevelled heap in the centre of the floor, the bed board was lying diagonally and upside down across this heap. Upon this was the table upside down. On this the stool was carelessly pitched and on top of the whole disorderly heap was placed the slate on which had been scrawled in large letters, ‘soap and water’. In addition the contents of the two shelves were piled in a confused heap in a corner of the floor.
I gazed in consternation at all this disorder and reflected that supper would be served in a few minutes. I nearly gave way to despair considering that a report was unavoidable, however I cast that feeling aside and set about tidying with resolute energy. I was at a loss as to what was the cause of this mess, or who could be the malicious mind behind it.
When supper arrived, my cell was a very model of neatness and order. The officer who came in was my enemy the old soldier and I immediately saw the answer in his countenance. Never have I seen a man look more surprised and disappointed. He shot me a glance of deadly enmity as he realised he could not win and departed about his business of dispensing porridge with an air of baffled spitefulness, much to my own entertainment.
The course of subsequent events seems to suggest that after this he gave up the contest as pointless, for this was the last occasion he made any attempt to annoy me, or to involve me in unpleasant business with the Governor.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector