THE CARPENTERS’ SHOP
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.
Ecclesiastes IX, 10.
When I started in the carpenters’ shop I was put to work on a bench with a man called Frank Hurley as my colleague. I immediately became aware of his decidedly quixotic notions, for he had strong leanings towards Spiritualism and was constantly talking about the spirits and conversing with them. Poor fellow. Soon afterwards he was transferred to an observation cell and then I later heard that he had been discharged as being mentally deranged. I had supposed that as a result of the damage the authorities had inflicted on his mind, he would be a burdensome charge on his family. But several years after my release, I was surprised to receive a letter from him, which was perfectly rational and contained not the shadow of a reference to spirits. So I concluded that he had made a perfect recovery and was happily settled in his family life.
Besides Fred Crowsley, there was another cleaner in the shop, a Scotsman named Macdonald. He was always known as Mac and I did not discover his proper name until some years later, when it came up in a conversation that I had with Fred Crowsley. Mac was taciturn individual, but on the rare occasions when he clandestinely spoke to me, his brogue was so pronounced that to me it amounted to a foreign language and invariably I failed to understand, unless he employed signs. He was however one of the most sincere and upright characters I have ever met and the Governor once remarked that he was of the stuff of which the old Covenanters were made. He left Wandsworth Prison soon after I started in the shop and his last act has impressed itself indelibly on my memory. He saved the bread from his breakfast on the morning of his last appearance in the shop, cut it into slices and toasted it at the furnace fire in the stokehold, of which he was in charge. Then he cut the slices in to one-inch squares and went round the shop distributing a square to every man. Hurley’s remark upon receiving his portion was, “Well, that’s what I call a real love feast,” and I think that expressed the reaction of us all, to this thoughtful expression of goodwill.
Immediately behind my bench, was one occupied by Percy Mitchell and Horace Herbert. Mitchell was a carpenter by trade, but Herbert unusually for a CO, was a ci-devant policeman and was constantly being chaffed about having to swallow a dose of his own medicine. He objection to military service was political in nature, although during his sojourn with us, we converted him to the religious view of the matter. His clash with the army arose at the time when Inspector Simes came into conflict with the authorities, over his attempts at founding a police trade union and Herbert refused to soldier as a protest against the inspector’s dismissal. He had the temperament and wit of a comedian and kept us bubbling with merriment for quite long spells.
The officer who watched over the carpenters’ shop was Mr. Shannon, an elderly white haired man, who I imagine would have been superannuated some time previously, if there had not been a war on. As it was, he would have not been suitable to place in surveillance over prisoners, except the harmless COs, as he was past having the necessary energy to deal with unruly characters. On hot summer days he actually dozed in his chair, in which he was allowed to sit, instead of standing, contrary to normal prison usages.
One morning early in the summer of 1917, Frank Hurley surprised us all by stating that the war would be over in two months time. I asked how he could know that and in reply he said that The Spirit told him so. Worried about the precarious nature of his mental balance, I was unsure of how to reply and while I hesitated, Percy Mitchell exclaimed, “Yes, them sort of spirits come out of a bottle.” The wit of this remark set us all in that corner of the shop rocking with laughter and to my relief Hurley joined in.
On another occasion, Percy Mitchell who was clean-shaven, told us of an experience with a foreman when applying for a job at a building site. The foreman enquired, “What wages do you want?” “Oh, union rate.” “A young chap like you wants union rate, why I would get a man with whiskers for that.” Mitchell picked up his bag and as he was about to leave, made the parting shot, “Sorry, I’ve made a mistake. I thought it was brains you wanted, not whiskers.” On finishing the anecdote, of course we four were in a state of hilarity, such that it was futile to hide it. Mr. Shannon simply could not ignore such a state of affairs, so came down off his perch and proceeded down the shop and sternly commanded, “Stop your laughing about down here.” Whereupon Herbert sidled up to him like a child to an elder and said, “Well, look here Dad, its like this …” and forthwith related the episode. Of course the humour was reinforced by Herbert’s inimically comical way, so Mr. Shannon was unable to resist laughing against his will. He therefore retreated to his observation post saying as he departed, “Well, don’t let the Chief see you, that’s all.”
One of the absurd and irrational things about prison procedure is that a man with a big frame like Herbert is supplied with the same amount of aliment as a small man like myself. One or another of us in the carpenters’ shop was continually handing over bread we had saved, to Herbert. He was always reluctant to take our gifts, although his eyes always lighted up with anticipation when he saw the food, but he never accepted it until he had asked, “You’re sure you can spare it?” And had received an affirmative reply.
From time to time, a party from the shop was ordered by the Carpenter Officer to accompany him to the wood stores to fetch timber and we always contrived that Herbert should be in the party. The route followed was round one side of the vegetable garden and Herbert was so famished that I have seen him snatch up earthworms and eat them. While the officer was engaged in unlocking the door, he had his back to Herbert, who was always last in the file. This gave Herbert the opportunity to make a dash into the gardens where he tore up a cabbage or carrot, or anything else that came to hand and stuffed it up his coat. Back at the shop he cooked his spoils in the water jacket of the glue pot.
At the back of the shop was a flight of steps leading down to the stokehold, where was situated the hot water boiler. For ordinary joining purposes there were three glue-pots in a common water tank, kept hot at all times. If a larger gluing job was being undertaken, a single glue pot with its own water jacket was used, this being heated over a gas ring in a corner, at the top of the above mentioned steps. Herbert on the bottom bench was nearest to this gas ring and therefore conveniently situated for him to cook his appropriated vegetables.
One day while cooking cabbage, Mr. Shannon came for a walk down the shop to stretch his legs and sniffing the air remarked, “There’s a funny smell down here, isn’t there?” Herbert immediately jumped into animated activity as though suddenly reminded of something he had forgotten, exclaiming, “Oh, it must be that glue burning.” He dashed to the top of the steps, turned the gas down and vigorously stirred the glue. The rest of us tried hard to suppress our laughter as Mr. Shannon turned on his heel and returned to his stand. The humour associated with these culinary efforts must have stuck in his mind, for when I last saw him he was doing duty as a commissionaire at the central offices of the Society of Friends in Euston Road and he said to me in an aside, “Have you cooked any cabbage in a glue pot recently?” and departed about his duties, his whole body shaking with laughter.
During the autumn of 1917, we received information from one of the Quaker chaplains that the Society of Friends had decided to relinquish their efforts to secure the release of COs from prison and concentrate their energies on working for peace. It must be admitted that this was a quite rational decision, as it became more and more evident that the authorities would not (indeed, in the face of vindictive hostile public opinion, could not) let us go until the war was over and therefore the winning of the cause for peace was essential to the winning of our liberty. But at that time, it seemed to many of us that our last hope had failed and that we were completely abandoned to our fate. When in a poor physical condition caused by many months of prison diet and confined in repressive conditions, to feel forsaken by all is a truly terrible experience. It presents a picture, better drawn in the pages of the Bible than I can do it. For instance Elijah praying to die, Jesus on the cross, or the agony of mind, depicted by David in his psalms.
When Tom Drayton told me this item of news in the carpenters’ shop, I told him that it brought to my mind the story of an American tourist who was visiting England. He was walking along a canal towpath one day, when he heard a shout from the water and observed a man desperately trying to keep afloat. Seeing that he had attracted the attention of the man on the towpath, he called out, “Help! I can’t swim.” The American drawled in reply, “Waal, I guess I can’t either, but I ain’t making the fuss about it, you are.” This story illustrates that the people who were not condemned to incarceration, were not so concerned about the unpleasantness of prison life, as those of us who were in it. A view that was unjust on my part, I now frankly admit.
Feeling despondent about this change of policy from the Quakers, I wrote on a piece of waste wood a parody of the hymn Forever with the Lord. Attracting the attention of Stephen Ward on the other side of the shop, having watched for my opportunity, I passed it over to him. Actually the officer saw me, but he probably thought the wood was for work and therefore was not suspicious. Ward laid it on his bench and after a few more minutes attending to his job, so as not to arouse attention, he then read the inscription.
Forever in the nick,
Amen, so let it be,
We’re in the nick and here we’ll stick,
For all eternity.
Ah, then! My spirit faints
To get outside these walls,
But Quakers say I’ll have to stay
Until old Lloyd George falls.
I looked his way expecting him to nod acquiescence in a dejected manner, but instead, to my surprise he gave me a sunny smile, indicative of amusement. Strangely enough that smile dispelled the black despondency and seeing the funny side of it, felt hopeful once more. A fine example of how a smile dispels a heavy heart.
As a means of communication with Ward, I was in the habit of tossing a piece of waste wood in his direction, always of course with one eye on the officer. But one day, the latter suddenly turned and spotted me in the act. He came down the shop and commanded, “Stop throwing wood about.” “It’s only waste.” “What difference does that make? Don’t throw it about, it’s against the rules.” “Ah, I’m not the only one who breaks the rules.” “I know you ain’t, you all do it.” “I wasn’t thinking of prisoners when I said that.” A startled look came over the officer’s face and I could see the question, “What do you know?” in his eyes. With an inward chuckle I knew my arrow had hit it’s mark and he dare not report me now. “Don’t know what you’re getting at,” he muttered, as he turned back to his observation post. And truth to tell, I did not know myself.
Runham-Brown worked with his brother on a bench at the top end of the shop. They spent months on the construction and ornamentation of a carved oak altarpiece and pix for the Catholic chapel in the prison. It was a beautiful piece of work, but whoever designed it, omitted to give the workman one vital detail with respect to its positioning in the chapel. When it was finished, a party of four, including the Runham-Browns were requisitioned to take it to the chapel. Here they found that it had to be placed directly over some hot water pipes. It came back to the shop after a short time with its carved panels shrunk to such an extent that there were gaps of half an inch or more beside the stiles. They eventually overcame this defect by cutting the panels down the middle and putting in an insert.
I had an accident in the carpenters’ shop that nearly cost me my right thumb. I was ripping down a board about six feet in length on the circular saw, when I noticed a split in the last few inches, in the line of my cut and hence watched the saws progress very closely. Rose, who had come up on the far side of the machine to help matters, suddenly seized the other end of the board and gave a vigorous pull. As a result the saw ran into the split, the board slid away before me and I was thrown forward, my thumb contacting the teeth of the spinning saw. The flesh was badly lacerated and the Carpenter Officer, Mr. Richards, dressed and bandaged it. I carry the scar to this day, nevertheless I give thanks to God that I still have a thumb.
As the officer was dressing my thumb, I pointed out that I might find it difficult, if not impossible to hold the needle to do the sewing of my cell task. The workshop rules required that all accidents be reported and this would have been unavoidable, if my cell work was affected. Of course Mr. Richards was keen to have a report sheet clear of accidents and he therefore asked me to try my utmost effort on my cell task. Although my sewing was slow at first, I gradually gathered dexterity and speed. However the pressure on one of the cuts from the sewing caused a corn to form, I got rid of this by poulticing it twice a day from the breakfast and supper porridge.
The man Rose, who was in all innocence, the immediate cause of the untoward affair, was a tall ungainly looking fellow, who seemed to throw himself along in a lazy sort of way. As a result of this he got nicknamed Weary Willie, but in reality he possessed considerable energy. One Saturday morning as we were clearing up the shop for the weekend, Herbert (the policeman) was chaffing Rose for his weary appearance and in the course of this said, “Wait ‘till tomorrow. The Chaplain will give out Hymn 254, Art thou weary, art thou languid.” Without hesitating Rose rejoined, “No, it will be Hymn 580, A charge to keep I have” and we all dissolved in laughter at Herbert’s expense.
At one time, the Carpenter Officer gave Ronald Muirhead the job of cutting two dozen wooden shuttles for holding the twine, used in the making of fishing nets. They were to be made of wood only one eighth of an inch thickness and had to be shaped using a fretsaw. Then the edges were to be rounded to produce a fairly sharp arris similar to a paper knife. Muirhead found the fretsaw too difficult and broke saw blades as fast as he could put them into the frame. So the job was passed to his bench partner Morsman, who was a carpenter by trade. He also could not manage it, so the job passed to Edward Mitchell on the next bench, also a carpenter, but he had no better fortune. Eventually Mr. Richards made a tour of the shop asking if anyone could use a fretsaw and I offered to take the job. As a result, the work of cutting shuttles found its way to my bench and I was able to successfully conclude it.
It was while I was engaged in the carpenters’ shop that the Bedfordshire Regiment issued a warrant for my arrest as a deserter. In pursuance of this, the police called on my parents to enquire of my whereabouts. My mother was so incensed with the authorities concerning my situation that she refused to assist and the police declared that they would have to search the house. However my father arrived and in order to diffuse the situation, he told them where I could be found, if they wanted to arrest me. No doubt the satire was wasted on them, but it gave me the opportunity to laugh at the law, when all this was told to me at the next visit. Afterwards I related the incident to one or two of the men in the shop and Edward Mitchell capped it by saying, “You ought to think yourself jolly lucky. You had a narrow escape from being sent to prison.”
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector