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THE BRISTOL GAOL

April 6, 2010

On Saturday, 17th October 1828, I had retired to bed, together with my wife and child. That evening between the hours of 11 and 12, the bedroom door was forced with great and sudden violence, without previous demand being made or any warning being given, and I was taken from my bed by two of the Corporation officers, on the bail warrant dated nearly two months previously and put into the custody of the Sheriff’s officer named Morgan.

I had been a day and two nights in the house of this officer, when, I was taken before Mr. Gabriel Golding, the new Mayor of Bristol. That gentleman was pleased most pointedly to disown being one of my prosecutors, and to express his regret that he should be called upon to sign the instrument of my committal to prison” The right worshipful gentleman did himself honour in such avowal and declaration; but it was a matter of course that he should sign the warrant, and he did so. Morgan then escorted me to the Gaol.

On arrival at the Bristol Gaol and after a short wait for the appearance of its governor, the Sheriff’s officer took his departure. He took with him my sincere acknowledgement in that I was a breakfast and a plate of hashed beef in his debt – unless indeed some one had made, or had promised to make that account square with the gentleman? Be that as it may, a very few shillings will settle the business, and rub this weighty obligation.

I found governor Humphries a very obliging gentleman, albeit somewhat blunt in his manner. But rough or smooth, a diamond is a diamond, and it is said, ‘time and a little rubbing will bring out its brilliancy.’ He directed a portly page, one James Vowles; (man enough, I think to eat me at a meal), to introduce me to the society of suspected debtors of the first class, and in a little time I found myself quite as much at home as a man could be who knew he was all abroad, and that his wife and child were at home without him. What was worse still, and proved a severe trial for my philosophy, without that, which, as the world goes, is more indispensable than husband or father; the bread and cheese or the means of getting it for my family. But a friend, Henry Phillips gave help in the most practical of ways and so none of us died of starvation, although we all were continually frightened to death by the fear of not living!

My new lodgings are well worth describing, for it is not every reader that has been in a Gaol, nor every Gaol-bird that publishes his life and correspondence.

The day-room or kitchen is about 25 feet by 16 and is common to all the prisoners of the ward, of whom there were nine when I entered. In this room those who pleased, cooked, ate and smoked; many canvassed sections of the Insolvent Act, cursed their hard- hearted creditors, and complained of their many and more deceitful friends, who had deserted them in their hour of need. Besides the ward-room, each prisoner has an upstairs cell to himself; these are of two sizes, the smaller is about 9 feet by 7, the larger 13 feet by 9.

There is one feature I must add about this place, and which says much for the governor, his lady and their factotum Mr. James Vowles. Every room is as perfectly clean as soap and white-wash can make it. I verily believe that were a premium of fifty pounds to have been offered for a flea or a bug, not one could have been produced for love or money, in our ward at least, and I have no doubt all the wards are alike in that important qualification, cleanliness.

It was not long before I acquired a knowledge of the magisterial regulations on which I shall hereafter have occasion to remark, and which I shall here insert.

The prisoners are locked in their cells at ten o’clock at night, their door being unlocked at about seven in the morning; they have then access to their cell, the day-room and the ward-yard until dusk, when they are locked in the house, and at ten o’clock are warned from the day room to their respective chambers.

As I do not intend to offer any observations on the internal arrangements of the prison in this chapter, I shall proceed briefly to state the rules applicable to visitors.

I. No male visitors are admitted either into the building or yard, not even a father, son, or brother.

II. Wives, mothers, or daughters, are admitted to the building on Monday’s, Wednesdays, and Friday’s, from 10 to 1, leaving it between 3 and 4 in the afternoon.

III. On the other four days of the week the rules apply to all. visitors equally, whether male or female, stranger or relation.

IV. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, visitors are admitted from 10 to 1 and remain until 3, but their communication with the prisoners is restricted to such as can be carried on through the iron-grating running across the narrow end of the ward-yard, or that across the passage leading to the day-room. It may be as well to observe in this place, that the yard is an imperfect square, its length being about 120 feet on one side, and 90 feet on the other, and its breadth 60 feet at the lower, and 12 feet at the upper extremity.

V. On Sundays no visitors are admitted.

If the anxieties of a prison existence can be disposed of, a man, that is, a single man, may live comfortably enough on an income of a pound a week; and this only so long he is a sociable sort of being, and philosophical enough to make every man his companion, who is forced into this society, if he can, when locked in his cell, forget that he can’t leave it, and if he can go to sleep as soon as he stretches himself out at night. And, after all, a Gaol is of infinitely lighter restraint on the body, than the diseased, and weak, and the fragile body, on the aspiring and immortal spirit, which it enchains and encumbers!

The subjoined anecdote, will render these otherwise indistinct allusions somewhat mere intelligible.

Shortly after my commitment, a friend took an advertisement to Mr. Gutch (the proprietor of “Felix Farley’s Journal,” published in Bristol, and part proprietor of the “Morning Journal” (ci devant “New Times”) daily London Newspaper). The object of the advertisement was to raise the pecuniary means for obtaining a Habeas that I might move for a new trial in the Court of King’s Bench. The terms of the advertisement had reference to my brutal and illegal caption. Mr. Gutch, therefore, refused to insert it (and very properly) until he had ascertained that the charge against those officers of the corporation was correctly advanced. Messrs. Brice and Burges, the solicitors for the prosecution, were therefore applied to on the subject, when they admitted, as then could not deny, the facts set forth in the advertisement. “But” said they, ” did not Mr. Acland say anything of the liberal treatment he received from Mr. Morgan at the lock-up house? Did not he tell you of the tea and toast he had for breakfast. Did he say nothing of the plate of hashed beef sent up to him from Mr. Morgan’s own table? In consequence of this conversation, Mr. Gutch refused (very improperly) the insertion of the advertisement unless a paragraph acknowledging the liberality of Mr. Morgan, was introduced. The friend, in question, gave way to the sine quo non of the independent editor of Felix Farley, paid his demand and the advertisement was inserted.

In order to prepare a room for the reception of a successor, it is well scrubbed and thoroughly white-washed on the departure of the occupant, Only the most decent of the convicts are allowed to attend the ward for the purpose of keeping it clean. They act as a servant in every respect, receiving a shilling a week and all their victuals from the members of the ward. Need it be said that this office is considered a most enviable one, for two reasons; it takes the poor fellows from the tread-wheel, and gives them better grub than they could have otherwise obtained.

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