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Death of a Convict (The sad case of James Blake)

April 7, 2010

ABOUT a month after I had been in Bristol Gaol, a poor convict boy died. This event took place on a Sunday morning, whilst the prisoners where at chapel. One of the other convicts was left in the cell with his dying companion, and the door was fastened on the outside; so that, when the moment of dissolution arrived, and the attendant would have sought assistance, it was out of his power; he could neither leave his cell, nor make himself heard. It is unnecessary for me to detail circumstances which I embodied in the correspondence, and which I subjoin. I will therefore only promise, that I acted on the impulse of the moment, from the heart, and as I think any man of feeling and nerve ought to have done, and would have done in a like situation.

Bristol Gaol, Debtors Side.
Ward 1
16th November, 1828
As one of the coroners of the city and county of Bristol, you will probably receive official intimation of the death of a boy, who died somewhat unexpectedly this morning, in one of the convict wards of this Gaol. Without presuming to dictate to you, Sir, and without wishing to impute or insinuate censure to or against any particular individual, I yet feel justified in my present interference, by these considerations:

1st. – The deceased (who- was, I understand, about 15 years of age, and had been in this Gaol nine or ten months) was absolutely friendless, no person having visited or inquired about him since his commitment.

2ndly. – The prison regulations are a disgrace to a civilised country, as they are repugnant to Christianity, and have been, as it appears to me, the more or less proximate cause of the friendless child’s untimely death.

Permit me to suggest, that you have now a duty to perform, embracing an enquiry of vital importance to the poor and unfortunate, and although, in the course of the necessary investigation, you may be impelled by your duty into unpleasant collision with the authorities of this City, I will not for a moment doubt your sacrifice of all personal feelings, rather than of your independence as a man, your humanity as a Christian, and your responsibility as a Coroner.

I take leave to inform you, that I have addressed a letter on this subject to the visiting Magistrates of this Gaol, of which I have entered somewhat more into detail. I have expressed my desire to be present at the inquisition, in order to adduce such evidence as I may be able to offer to the consideration of the Jury and yourself, touching the death of the poor lad, and affecting the health of other convicts in this Gaol.

I trust, Sir, you will not be disposed to refuse such my request, especially as the deceased has no friend in Bristol. Requesting, therefore, an early acknowledgement of this communication, I subscribe myself,

Yours, with respect,

To: MR. J. B. GRINDON, Coroner.
Bristol Gaol, Debtors Side.
Ward l
16th November, l828

I take the liberty of addressing you as one of the visiting Magistrates of this Gaol, relative to the death (this morning) of a poor and friendless boy, in one of the Convict Wards – and to express a hope that under the proceedings of the Inquest to be held by the Coroner on the body, a strict and necessary investigation will be made, whether or not the death of the lad was caused or accelerated by the (as they appear to me) anti-Christian regulations of those who control the management of this, His Majesty’s Gaol.

I am prepared, Sir, to encounter the sneers of the weak and the censure of the heartless, in thus stepping forward to prefer a charge of gross neglect as the cause of this boy’s death. To whom such neglect may be attributable the result of the enquiry will show. It is not my object to charge any man, or body of men with so serious a dereliction of duty, but it is imperative on me thus openly and fearlessly to avow my conviction that the poor boy has not been treated, with even common humanity: light such charge where it may.

Sir, I am aware that no investigation can resuscitate the inanimate corpse, but it may promote the health and preserve the lives of other unfortunate beings in the like situation with the deceased, by reforming abuses, if they exist, and by removing the opprobrium of humanity from the party to whom such suspicion may now attach.

Lest, however, you should suppose I prefer this serious charge without sufficient data, or that I lack courtesy in my manner of advancing such charge, I have no objection to enter on a statement of some of the particulars from which my conviction of gross neglect somewhere has resulted.

1. The deceased, having no friends from whom he could obtain occasional supplies of food, lived entirely on the Gaol allowance, viz. a pound and a half of bread daily, and three quarts of barley broth per week. I think it must be admitted that this allowance is, generally speaking, insufficient, and in particular instances of constitution or habit of body, altogether short of the quantum of nutriment it affords. On these facts I submit, Sir, that it should be ascertained whether an insufficiency of nutritive food did not predispose disease in the deceased?

2. The deceased complained frequently of a pain in his side, as produced by exertion on the tread mill; a description of labour which is certain death under particular circumstances. On this fact I would respectfully suggest the enquiry, whether the death of this poor boy was not accelerated by an excessive exaction of labour on the mill.

3. The cells of the convicts have stone floors; and are without a fireplace; the windows are unglazed; the shutters in so disgraceful a state as to be pervious to the wind and rain; no fuel is allowed for firing, and the quantity of bed-clothes is but one sheet and two blankets. Sir, is it is not possible, that these hardships may have affected the health of a child, perhaps of a delicate constitution.

4. The deceased has been ill for about three weeks, yet, instead of being removed to the Gaol infirmary was inhumanely suffered to lie exposed to the pitiless blasts of the two or three severe nights immediately preceding the morning of his death. I ask, Sir, was not this a most culpable neglect in some quarter? and in which?

I humbly trust that I have now stated sufficient to induce your worship to accede to my request, that as one of the visiting Magistrates of this Gaol you will render your effective assistance towards promoting a rigidly impartial enquiry into the cause of this poor boy’s death; and to which end I feel it due to justice, that I offer and beg you will accept such assistance in the furtherance of the investigation as I may be able to afford. I take leave further to suggest to your worship, that an examination of the body, by other medical gentlemen than the Gaol Surgeon appears to me desirable, and with which view I tender the evidence of practitioners of known character for experience and probity.

I subscribe myself, Worshipful Sir,
Your obedient Servant,

Mr. Alderman BARROW.
Mr. Alderman G. HILLHOUSE. [a copy sent to each]

I received the following reply from the Coroner :

Nov. 17th, 1828.

SIR – Your note of the 16th. reached me this morning. I am obliged by your suggestions as to the enquiries proper to be made, but, perhaps you were not aware, that the first and most important reason for holding legal inquisitions in all cases of death in prisons, is to ascertain that the death was not occasioned by undue severity, or as it is technically expressed, per dure garde.

If the rules of the prison permit your attendance at the inquisition, it will certainly not be objected to by me; but, (though I blush to make anything like a reflection on a person in distress, yet your request demands it,) you must be aware, that after the inconvenience occasioned by your conduct on some former occasions, no public officer is likely to covet your presence at his inquiries. If you can give any evidence relative to the death of James Blake, your presence will be necessary at the inquest.

I am Sir,
Your obedient humble servant,

The inquest was accordingly held, and the Coroner expressed every disposition to receive my evidence; but on stating that my confinement in Ward 1 prevented me from personally witnessing the transactions in another, and that being so, I was therefore unable to give what might strictly be considered evidence. I was desirous of submitting to him such points for enquiry, as appeared to me necessary for the attainment of justice, he intimated that such course was irregular, and informed me that he was ready to examine any witness I wished to have called. Now this was not what I wished, because I was desirous to avoid subjecting any individual to the more rigid surveillance of those in authority; but, on a moments re-consideration, I stated that, believing the Governor to be a humane and just man, I had no reason to fear he would manifest any ill-will against those who only desire to act right, I would request that Joseph Llewellin the convict servant to the debtors ward should be examined. He was accordingly sworn, but his evidence was worth but little, for the Coroner was tied by rules, and those rules would not admit the course of investigation which appeared to me necessary. So, on the evidence of the Surgeon, who did not remove his patient to the Infirmary, (and who deposed, that he died of an inflammation of the lungs, and that it was unnecessary to remove him to the Infirmary,) the Jury found that the poor boy died a natural death.

That the governor of the Gaol, and Mrs. Humphries his wife, and the attendants did all they could for an invalid, whom it was not considered necessary to remove from a cold cell to the Infirmary, I am quite satisfied; but whether the death of the deceased did not result from an illness predisposed by the regulations of the Magistrates and not understood by the Surgeon of the Gaol, I was not quite convinced; for I thought the Coroner should have called for other medical opinion than that of the Gaol Surgeon, and that the nutriment of the Gaol allowance might have weakened, as the exertion of the treadmill might have injured, the constitution of a lad of the age of the unfortunate James Blake.

The visiting Magistrates, (Alderman G. Hillhouse and Barrow) called on me the day following that on which the Inquest was held, and we accordingly, entered into a conversation, arising out of the communications I had made with them. It is due to those gentlemen, that I state, they manifested no feeling of displeasure at my interference, professed an anxiety that, whatever abuses existed, they should be remedied – admitted that the corporation, was rich enough to mend the windows of the convict’s cells, (when the Governor assured me that the shutter of the deceased cell, as all other shutters were sound) and declared that, although there was no magisterial regulation, to that effect, yet the Governor knew, that if he afforded nutriment, to a person for whom the Gaol food was not considered sufficiently nutritious, he would not be permitted to be a loser by his humanity.

Having with pleasure heard these sentiments, from the worthy Magistrates I asked if they were prepared to enter, on a serious investigation of the complaints detailed in my letter; to which, it was replied, that they were not, and that the universally admitted kindness, and humanity, of Mr. Humphries, placed him and his officers above suspicion. With this expression of feeling, I most warmly, and sincerely, concluded, but, I stated that I regretted I could not entertain a similar feeling, as it regarded the conduct of the Surgeon, or as it affected, the regulations of the Magistrates. So ended that interview, which was marked by an urbanity, which becomes the Magistrate, not less than it becomes the gentleman.

After the departure of these gentlemen, I sat down in my cell, and on mature reflection, resolved that on completion of my duty on this occasion, it would be necessary, that I should address the general body of Magistrates, on the rules which no divisional part of that body could be expected to alter, and the Surgeon of the Gaol, on the duties connected with his official situation.

That evening I opened a hamper from a kind supporter of my plight, a Mr. Day. It contained some wine and walnuts. During a moments rest from the preparation for the next issue of The Bristolian, it occurred to me that, as my enforced friends relished with Mr. Day’s very acceptable gift, that there are other hard nuts to crack, of the magisterial kind !

In furtherance of the claims of the Convicts on the consideration of those in authority over them, I therefore, with haste, forwarded the following letter:-

Bristol Gaol,
Debtors’ Side. Ward 1
November 21, 1828.

SIR, – If I offer no apology for thus addressing you, it is because I think such act imperative on me under the circumstances which brought me before the Coroner on Monday last. On that occasion, you gave your evidence as to the death of James Blake, and stated that he died from an inflammation of the lungs, that you did not think it necessary to remove him to the Gaol Infirmary, and that you thought his cell as warm and comfortable as was desirable for a person in his situation.

Permit me to ask, Sir, whether you are quite certain as to the nature of his decease? Was the immediate cause of his death an inflammation of the lungs? Do you merely think so, or have you such knowledge on physical demonstration? You will, of course excuse my bluntness; it is my way, and I am not answerable for such infirmity, if it be one; besides, I am desirous you should clearly understand me, especially, as I am impressed with an idea that either you were in this case professionally ignorant, or professionally negligent. Nor can you shirk my question, for you are a servant of the public, and derive a sufficient salary from the pocket of the public, whether you do much or little. And is it not of moment, aye! and of the first moment, that a professional gentleman in your capacity, should stand above suspicion of either ignorance or negligence? Sir, I thus afford you the opportunity of doing so and assure you I entertain no malignity towards one whose name I never knew until this week, although my candour prompt the confession that I had before heard, of your rudeness of manner, and ill temper towards some poor woman in the adjoining ward, who was unfortunately under your care. I know, Sir, that it is the fashion of some members of the profession to effect the manners of Abernethie, under the shallow supposition, that the world may thence conclude they have his talent, but the prickly stem of the thistle does not convey the fragrance of the moss-rose to its flower, neither is the blunt manner of a Surgeon, evidence, of an Abernethian mastery of his sublime science.

But to the principal subject of my letter:- either James Blake died from an inflammation on the lungs, or you are not qualified for the situation you hold; for you certainly had ample opportunity of ascertaining that fact.

I am therefore justified by your oath, in assuming such disease to have been the cause of this poor boy’s death, and on such assumption, I proceed to show by argument, that you have been grossly negligent of your duty, or rather perhaps I should say, why I conceive you to have been so.

Sir, it was given in evidence before the Coroner, that the symptoms of the disease, in this case, were a cough and a pain in the side, and it was on account of these complaints by the poor boy, that he was removed from the tread-wheel. On the propriety of working a boy, of 14 or 15 years of age at the mill, I shall address others, as I conceive that, under the regulations of this Gaol, your duty commences only on a manifestation of indisposition, or, in other words, that your efforts are to be directed to the prevention of death, and not to the prevention of disease.

But, Sir, if James Blake died from inflammation of the lungs, do you not think that when first he was placed under your care, you ought to have directed that he should have been taken to the Infirmary? You knew the nature and construction of his cell; that its floor and walls were of stone; that its window was unglazed, and that the shutters, however well they may have been constructed, and however sound they may be at this moment, cannot effectually exclude the night air. You knew too, that there was no fire-place in the cell, and I am bound to suppose, you knew the deceased to have been afflicted with a cough, and a pain in the side, when on the mill.

On your acquaintance of these facts, and on your professional knowledge (for I put personal feelings out of the question) I ask you as a Surgeon, duly licensed, and taking upon you the surgical duties of one of his Majesty’s gaols, and I ask you before your professional brethren, do you think yourself justified in permitting a poor patient to die in such a cell, when by a word, you might have had him removed to a place, where he would have received the attention of a nurse, where the atmosphere might have been regulated to any required temperature, and where he would not have suffered to leave his bed without your concurrence, as he appears to have done by your evidence before the Coroner.

I know, Sir, that on this question I have staked your professional character, but when the interest of the public is affected, I am justified in having done so. Nor can I forget, nor should you forget, that your Gaol patients claim even more attention and care on your part, than those who select their professional attendant, and if they have, or imagine they have, ground of complaint, can discard him and elect another.

Sir, your appointment to this public situation, implies, on the part of those who appointed you, a confidence in your talent and integrating the latter quality, in other cases than those of gratuitous patients, is insured by your immediate interest, but here you receive no personal fee, here your patient cannot relieve himself from your visits – here you receive an annual salary for much or little service, as it may happen, and for attention or neglect, as it may be. Here, therefore, your integrity is necessarily assumed; you are appointed to your responsible office, in the confidence of its existence; and if you possess not that integrity, it only costs a few convict patients the termination of their lives, and dead men and prison walls tell no tales.

Sir, if you have the feelings of which I will not believe you destitute, you must admit, that the case is a strong one, of claim, first on your attention and vigilance, and secondly, on your jealousy. Lest you should be thought deficient either in professional talent, or professional integrity.

Perhaps you have the virtue of ambition, for there are many incentives to its beneficial indulgence in this City; and if, Sir, you aspire to any of the many lucrative appointments, in order to which you must primarily attain the favourable opinion of your fellow citizens, seek that available testimonial to your professional integrity, the faithful discharge of your duties to those upon whom your attendance is compulsory , and whose best interests are entrusted in your hands, by those who appoint you to the office you fill.

I am, Sir,
Your obedient Servant,

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