Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted.
Matthew XXIV, 9.
After the lapse of some years I again take my pen in hand to continue this narrative. I venture on the next part of the story with somewhat greater reluctance then when I commenced. From the time of which I now write, my memory is less efficient due to the deadening effect of the prison system, which exerted its sinister influence on my mind. The incidents I relate henceforward stand out in themselves, but from within a dim background of haze and hence I have no clear recollection of the relative duration of intervening periods. Nor can I vouch for the order of sequence in which they occurred.
On the morning after Promulgation of Sentence, we seven who had been condemned to incarceration were served with an early dinner and transferred to the prison under an armed escort. One private for each prisoner and a sergeant being in charge of the whole company. The train journey was very circuitous involving changes at Finchley, Finsbury Park, Dalston and Willesden. We alighted at Quentin Park and proceeded past a military hospital to Wormwood Scrubs. Outside the hospital a number of soldiers of the colonial forces were recovering from wounds and they vented abuse at us when they learned we were COs to military service.
Reaching the prison, the sergeant rang the bell at the gates and a small wicket opened allowing the sergeant to explain his errand to a prison officer. The wicket closed and immediately the great outer gates were thrown open, the company marched up the middle of the gateway, which was closed at the farther (inner) end by locked iron-grid gates. The outer gates were closed and never shall I forget the heart sinking moment as I reflected that before they opened again for me, there lay ahead the seemingly unending vista of six weary months of unknown dread. The force of this was further brought home as the prison officer issued a sharp order for the escort to stand to one side and the prisoners to the other. This seemed like the snapping of the last link that connected us with the outside world.
Our papers were examined and the sergeant having received a signed receipt for his prisoners, retired with his escort via the wicket gate. There seemed a lot of formalities to go through, for we were kept lined up against the wall in the entrance gateway with an officer guarding us for some time, but at length we were removed to the reception department. Our initiation into the institution seems in hindsight to have been conducted in a rather slipshod manner, which is strange for such a strict disciplinarian establishment as Wormwood Scrubs Prison, whose staff insist on such rigid adherence to rules and regulations.
It is usual for a newly arrived prisoner to remove his own clothing in a cubicle containing a bath and while washing, his clothing is taken away and prison uniform substituted. In our cases we were each ushered into a box-like cubicle, told to undress and throw the clothing outside. The officer then checked that we had complied to the last stitch and we were then supplied with habiliments decorated with the broad arrow pattern and promised a bath the next day, which never happened. No effort was made to supply us with anything which approximated to a fit. My clothing was much too large. The Glengarry cap projected from the back of my head in a manner which was reminiscent of a sculling boat upturned on the roof of a saloon car. The jacket felt as though it were slipping from my shoulders and the trousers were so long as to necessitate turning them up at the bottoms, a matter of six inches or so. Those doled out to Runham-Brown were much too short for him, so as to produce the effect humorously referred to as three-quarters. If it had been permitted, we should both have been a lot more comfortable if we could have effected an exchange. No braces were supplied, but the trousers were maintained by a half-belt which was drawn up at the back to grip the waist and in my case produced an effect similar to an object tied up in a sack. All efforts to produce a pair of shoes small enough for me to keep on my feet without conscious effort failed and after about six weeks of misery a brand new pair was brought to me. To my amusement as well as that of others, they were undoubtedly made for ladies’ wear. However they fitted beautifully and I experienced the delightful sense of having regained my fleetness of foot.
The effect upon the mind of all these misfits was to annihilate all feeling of self-respect, even to the extent of making one repulsive to oneself. Probably the whole business was merely a matter of careless neglect, but one cannot avoid the speculation as to whether or not it was a calculated attempt to destroy the soul at one fell stroke. As a consequence the sense of luxury and well being when donning a tailor-made suit is now always a sensation to relish.
When we were re-habilitated, we were seated on a form, in the order in which our names appeared on the roll call. While we awaited the advent of the Governor, we were instructed in a procedure required to expedite matters when the time came. The procedure amounted to a method of responding to a series of questions without the necessity for the questions to be asked. We ought also to have been interviewed by the prison Chaplain, but that also was waived. Incidentally I only recollect one occasion in Wormwood Scrubs when I came into personnel contact with the Chaplain and on that occasion he came into my cell in the evening and made some notes concerning the books with which I had been supplied. Scarcely six words passed between us.
Eventually the Governor arrived and we carried into effect the instruction given as fitted our own particular case. When my name was called, I immediately responded, “Twenty-seven (age), Wesleyan (religion), six months (sentence), disobedience (crime).”
When these formalities were completed, darkness had fallen and the paths in the prison grounds were in an inky blackness, so we stumbled and fell against one another as we were conducted to Hall A, where we were to be confined. Hence there were apologies and kindly offers of assistance between us, until we were sharply reminded of our circumstances, requiring silence and to remember we were in prison and therefore forbidden to talk or communicate with one another. We arrived in Hall A after passing through numerous gates and doors in dividing walls, which had to be unlocked and locked again behind us, the officer counting us on each occasion as we filed through. We were conducted to the desk at the centre of the ground floor where the Principal Warder entered particulars in more books. After this we were directed from ward to ward up three flights of iron stairs, the officer bringing up the rear. Having reached Ward 4, each of us was shown his cell and after being allowed to fill his water can at the one tap in the ward, the cell door was double-locked for the night. My cell was A4:3 (Hall A, Ward 4, Cell 3).
The following day was perhaps the most seemingly endless that I have ever known. With the exception of half an hour exercise, occupied in marching round an asphalt path between the high blocks of the prison buildings and separated from each other by six yards, the whole time was spent locked in a cell some twelve feet by eight, with nothing to do and nothing to read. The window, which I could reach by standing on the stool, was glazed with small panes of fluted glass and did not open, so it was impossible to see out. The day too, was very hot and judging the cell to face southwest, received the full force of the afternoon sun, becoming uncomfortably close and stifling.
Having nothing more attractive to occupy my attention, I fell to scrutinising the walls of the cell and at length discovered below the window, scratched by some sharp point: -
Dark is the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods there be
For my unconquerable soul.
I conjectured in wonder who could have inscribed those words, until a little lower I came across another inscription: -
We have upheld the Republic for twelve days.
A statement which immediately reminded me of the previous memorable Easter when in Dublin, the Sinn Feiners raised the standard of revolt against the tyranny of foreign rule. I could not evade the irony that the previous occupant had been imprisoned for fighting for his country, while the same people imprisoned me because I chose not to fight for my country. I found something extremely elating about the thought of the unconquerable soul, which cheered me and infused an interest into that bare and cheerless cell. I felt my soul going out in prayer to Christ, that in the struggle now commencing, it too might prove unconquerable. That my prayer was answered to the letter, the sequel will show.
The next morning we made our first attendance at the prison chapel. My sense of fitness of things as associated with divine worship received a rude shock as I entered. In spite of the fact that the organist was playing a voluntary, the sounds of keys jingling and iron gates clanging remained audible and jarred with unseemly insistence on the unwilling ear. Down the centre was a low wooden partition about five feet high and rising above this at regular intervals were fixed high backed seats with their backs towards the alter. These were for the warders and I found the thought that they kept watch over the worshippers during their devotions, distasteful and distracting. On both sides of this middle partition were plain benches without backs on which the prisoners sat. The presence of the warders towering high above the heads of the worshippers was more than sufficient to destroy any feelings of devotion. This travesty of worship made a mockery of religious sentiments and the result was a temptation to indulge in thoughts of hatred and resentment.
Of the pulpit discourses over the months, I recollect but three things. At a number of consecutive Wednesday morning services, in place of a sermon, the Chaplain gave a series of addresses on architecture, with particular reference to church architecture. The only thing that I remember from the whole series is the statement he made that the chapel in which we were gathered was Byzantine. Of the Sunday sermons I remember one that had for its theme ‘Samson the fool!’ and one other in which the Assistant Chaplain made a pitiable attempt at an apologia on evolution. I well recollect the feeling of contempt which his efforts inspired in me and I wonder as to whether he sincerely believed that his congregation would be spiritually uplifted and benefited by such imbecile twaddle.
Later in the morning after chapel, the Ward Officer unlocked my cell door admitting a ‘cleaner’ with a bucket of water, soap, scrubbing brush and swab. The cell had evidently been unoccupied for some time and the officer instructed me to scrub down the table and “get it nice and clean.” This table was merely a board built into the wall in that corner nearest the door and in view from outside when the door stood open. This arrangement enabled the officer, on opening the door, to deposit whatever he had brought without coming right in. Having been kept in enforced idleness for the past fortnight, I seized the task with alacrity and enthusiasm and scrubbed that table with a right good will. But it was inevitable that some of the soapy water would fall on the floor from the edges of the table and having very scrupulous principles on hygiene, concluded it was not proper to wipe the floor with the same cloth and therefore expected that another would be provided for that purpose. Had I known then what I do now of prison usages, I should not have hesitated, for such appurtenances are rendered decidedly filthy and unsanitary by much more doubtful applications than wiping a floor.
Presently the cleaner returned to collect the bucket etc. and afterwards the warder who was a big burly Yorkshireman came in to see that the operation had been carried out to his satisfaction. I had applied the apostle’s instruction when he wrote, ‘Do all things as unto the Lord’ and was considerably hurt when he wrathfully exclaimed with reference to the water on the floor, “Look at that mess! What would you say if you came home and your mother had left all that water on the floor after scrubbing the kitchen table?” I felt very crestfallen and replied in a dejected manner, “Perhaps it doesn’t occur to you that we weren’t all brought up in kitchens.” This remark was not meant in any spirit of snobbery, but I was at a loss what to say and I did not want him to think me overawed by his blustering and bellicose demeanour. It certainly had some effect, for he said much more gently, “I don’t know what you mean” as he departed, locking the door behind him.
The following day we seven who had arrived together, were paraded to fetch a mattress each. According to the prison regulations, a hard labour prisoner has to sleep on bare boards for the first seven nights, but a court-martial sentence commences from the date of the trial and our first week had by then expired. That same afternoon the Taskmaster made his first visit to my cell, to instruct me in the sewing of mailbags. I found the work interesting, but some aspects of it required considerable muscular exertion. The bags were square, made of very stout sailcloth and used principally I believe for overseas mails. At the corners where the bottoms were sown in, it was necessary to force the needle (one with a triangular bayonet point) through several thicknesses of the canvas. I could only accomplish this by stretching the material tightly across my knees and applying my weight to the needle by means of a palm thimble. In doing this I strained muscles that I was not accustomed in using to such an extent, with the inevitable result that my chest became very sore and breathing painful. However this passed after a few days.
A prisoner starts on stage one until a certain number of good conduct marks are earned, normally achieved in four weeks. In this initial stage he is subject to solitary confinement, only leaving the cell for thirty minutes daily exercise, except Sundays. He also attends chapel once on Wednesday and twice on Sunday. For the first week the diet consists entirely of bread, potatoes, and oatmeal porridge, the last without sugar or milk. From then onwards, breakfast and supper each day is composed of one pint of porridge (served as above) and eight ounces of bread. Dinner consists of 6 ozs bread, 8 ozs potatoes, plus: -
Sunday - 4 ozs cooked meat, preserved by heat.
Monday - 8 ozs haricot beans, 2 ozs fat bacon.
Tuesday - 1 pint soup.
Wednesday - 10 ozs suet pudding.
Thursday - 8 ozs cooked meat without bone.
Friday - 1 pint soup.
Saturday - 10 ozs suet pudding.
A copy of this menu hangs in each cell and the prisoner has the right to challenge the weight and see it weighed out before him. Repeated frivolous complaints however are liable to be dealt with summarily. I well remember the interested curiosity with which I awaited the advent of my first Sunday dinner. I cogitated much as to what cooked meat preserved by heat would turn out to be. When it did arrive, I was rather disappointed to find it was none other than corned beef, or army bully beef. The potatoes were boiled in their skins, often with an appreciable amount of native soil, which no doubt was included in the weight. The fat bacon was half-cooked and opaque white.
Besides the menu is another card in each cell displaying extracts from the prison rules, but there is no mention if any regulations that operate to the prisoners advantage, but only such as those that will bring down penalties. Another right not mentioned is that to have three photographs of relatives in his cell, nor that should he have any grievance, he may lodge an appeal for redress to the visiting magistrate.
Along with the Bible and Prayer Book, the first stage prisoner is provided with one book of an educational nature, which has to suffice for the four weeks. At the end of that period he passes to stage two, which is outwardly apparent by the wearing of one stripe on the right sleeve. On the left sleeve is worn his prison number and on his breast a round badge bearing his cell number. At stage two he is allowed to perform much of his labour ‘in association’, ironical term! That is to say, he works in a workshop with his fellow prisoners, but may not communicate with them in any way. After a fortnight in stage two, he is allowed to write to a relative or friend ‘of respectable character’ in which no reference may be made to such things as politics, or matters associated with prison discipline. He may receive a letter in reply, this being checked by the Governor or Chief Warder and censored if necessary. In addition to the educational book, he is supplied each fortnight with a novel, or other book of light reading.
Assuming no marks have been lost after four weeks, he moves to stage three, this being indicated by a second stripe. On entering this stage he may receive visits from three relatives or friends also ‘of respectable character’. He is also allowed one book of light reading each week.
After four weeks he then attains to stage four and adds a third stripe. In this final stage he is allowed a letter and reply and to receive a visit every four weeks. The sequence of letter and visit therefore, alternate every two weeks.
A few days before I reached stage four, I was taken for an interview with the Deputy Governor. That gentleman asked me if I had any preference for the type of work I was to do. Not knowing what types of work were available, I said that I did not mind what I did and in consequence when I next went into association, I was put to stuffing canvas bags with cork waste for the making of ship’s fenders. I soon learned to my dismay that these were for use by the navy, but having agreed to do any type of work, I carried this task through my sentence. However I bore it in mind that that in future, I would refuse work connected with the war.
Ward 4 at the top of the building was a long way from the workshops, so on attaining stage two we seven were transferred to Ward 1 on the ground floor. I was placed in Cell 24 where I was to stay for the remainder of my sentence. This cell being close to the high boundary wall was a miserably dull and dreary place. The dark foggy days of November would have driven me into the darkest fits of depression, but fortunately I possessed the faculty of becoming completely absorbed in my work and found much interest and pleasure in seeing things grow and take shape under my hands. The day’s task over, I lived in the scenes of which I read and completely forgot my surroundings, until recalled by the harsh and noisy clamour of the prison bell. However there were times when the misery accentuated to such a degree that only merciful Providence stepped in to distil comfort and consolation.
The days task done
From a sketch by G E Gascoyne
I vividly remember one Sunday and therefore not a workday, when a thick yellow fog with its penetrating damp and cold enveloped the prison. It was too dark to read and too cold to sit for long and when we were marshalled into the chapel, I was feeling miserable to a superlative degree, also I was missing the companionship of my wife. As I entered the chapel the organist commenced playing ‘O rest in the Lord’ from Mendelssohn’s Elijah. It thrilled me like an angelic message sent directly to my sinking soul and my spirit laid hold on it, like a drowning man clutching at a lifebelt. ‘Wait patiently for Him and He shall give thee thine’s heart desire’. That is was a circumstance over-ruled by a loving Father, I did not doubt and accepted it from His hand with grateful thanks. All seemed bright and hopeful again and I returned to that dreary cell singing and making melody in my heart.
I must also record a similar incident. This was on the occasion of a visit from the Wesleyan Chaplain. An officer had collected the Wesleyans from various cells and the workshops and escorted them to a corrugated iron structure lined with matched-boarding, which I believe did duty as a schoolroom for boy prisoners. We waited about twenty minutes in idleness and silence, so the officer in charge marched us back to Hall A, where he learned he had misunderstood his instructions and should have taken us to the Church of England chapel. Here we discovered the Wesleyan Chaplain sitting on one of the benches awaiting his flock. I recollect only one item concerned with that meeting, this was the singing of the hymn, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’. It was early in my sentence and it can readily be imagined what assurance came to me from the words of the third verse: -
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
How we let ourselves go and threw ourselves heart and soul into the singing of that hymn. Many years afterwards I came to realise how truly prophetic was that verse, for were not the locks and bars against which our spirits chafed so much, the most effective instruments for our protection? Did they not constitute a shield against the mob violence of an unreasoning populace, maddened with fear and horror of the atrocious things which were happening every day? Yes! Most surely!
During that first sentence, harsh and vindictive punishments for the most trivial and often unintentional offences, was a constant source of burning indignation. On numerous occasions I felt the hot blood rising within me and only by a gigantic effort of self-control did I refrain from vehement protest, which I knew would have availed nothing. To another whose soul was not fortified with a strong sense of moral rectitude, the experience of these ferocious punishments must have rendered him bitter to all human institutions and turned him into an Ishmael against society.
I remember one CO who was operating a sewing machine in the workshop, when the observation officer who stood on a sort of rostrum, accused him of talking. The prisoner looked up in surprise and quietly said, “Excuse me, but I think you must be mistaken.” Whereupon he was reported to the Governor as being insolent and received three days on Punishment Diet No. 1. This consists solely of bread (1lb per day) and water. But that is not the worst of the savagery, the prisoner does not leave his cell for any purpose whatsoever during those three days and in the daytime, everything is removed from the cell except the water can and chamber pot. Imagine the mental torture of nothing to look at, but four white washed walls and a brick floor, for three days.
Another example of the inhuman vindictiveness arose when the Quakers were being taken to a meeting with their Chaplain. I was on exercise at the time when the party of about forty Quakers arrived under escort in the yard. The exercise party was halted and the Quakers amongst us told to fall out and join their co-religionists. This being done, the Quakers were told to quick march, but one of them was perceived to not be keeping in step. The party was halted and the culprit angrily ordered to keep in step. The prisoner said nothing, but on moving off again, the offender was again seen to be walking with his own individual stride. Red with rage the officer halted the party again, called for the prisoner’s number and told him he would go before the Governor in the morning. To this our friend calmly replied, “But I am here because I refuse to be drilled into a soldier and if the authorities think I am going to take the punishment and at the same time be drilled, I’m afraid they will be disappointed.” The sequel was the usual three days bread and water.
A few general remarks on the character and effects of the prison environment will perhaps be a fitting conclusion to this chapter. The whole atmosphere seems to be supercharged with all pervading suspicion. Its pernicious influence affects the officers as well as the prisoners. An officer feels that every other officer is watching him, if he is reported for a misdemeanour, be it ever so slight, the officer who reports it will secure a mark in his favour when it comes to a question of promotion. This in itself destroys whatever kindliness they might have and renders the great majority of them suspicious, vindictive and often treacherous. It is a pleasure to record that there are some who rise above this and remain kindly and considerate men, but they remain on the lower ranks. I cannot recollect one principal or chief warder who was not a gloomy misanthrope.
The prisoner can never feel secure from prying eyes, even in the stillness of the evening when locked in his cell, he will hear the muffled stealthy tread of slippered feet pause outside his door and at the same time hear a faint click and see an eye applied to the round window in the door. Then a further click as the shutter is dropped and the officer passes on to spy into the next cell.
When out of his cell, the prisoner is never out of sight of one or more officers, even when attending to the call of nature, or in his bath. The effect of this is to inbreed slyness, deceit and trickery. I must confess that even I became adept at the art of concealing contraband and many a time have chuckled inwardly, with a feeling of almost fiendish delight that I had outstripped the human watch-dogs in a battle of wits, when my person or cell were being searched. This was carried out once a fortnight, but not always on the same day of the week.
The consciousness of this slyness must surely have prompted the writer of the parody ‘Comin’ thro’ the Rye’ which was surreptitiously circulated among us and which caused considerable amusement. I can remember only the first stanza and I am not sure my memory is reliable in even that: -
Gin a conchie, meet a conchie
Comin’ thro’ the clink,
Gin a conchie, greet a conchie
Should a conchie wink?
Ilka conchie kens it’s risky,
So the same dae I,
But a’ the conchie wink at me
When comin’ on the sly.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector