« AnteriorContinuar »
WHITECROSS-STREET is entirely a debtors' prison. It has been built at different times, but always with the same purpose. It has never been a place of confinement for criminals, and consequently it presents a totally different aspect to the eye of the visitor
of the gaols, except the Queen's, which we have inspected. This is observable in the character of the building, as well as in the characters of its inmates. There is no work of any kind going forward. No attempt to offer or afford the unfortunates any sort of instruction is visible. Many of them, of course, do not need it; and others, who do, would not avail themselves of the privilege, if it were held out to them. But probably numbers would. There is, however, a religious service once a-day, and twice on a Sunday. A majority of the detenues-it would sound harshly were the term prisoner applied to a debtor-attend
these occasions ; but no one is forced to do so, and many exercise the Englishman's right of pleasing themselves in the matter. In point of fact, the governor and officers of this gaol have little or no power over their charges beyond what is absolutely necessary to their safe custody.
Whitecross-street prison is divided into six distinct divisions, or wards, respectively called,-1. the Middlesex ward ; 2. the Poultry and Giltspur-street ward ; 3. the Ludgate ward ; 4. the Dietary ward; 5. the Remand ward ; 6. the Female ward. These wards are quite separate, and no communication is permitted between the inmates of one and another. Before commencing our rounds, we gain from conversation with the intelligent governor an item or two of useful preliminary information. The establishment is capable of holding 500 persons. It is, however, very seldom that half that number is confined at one time within its walls. At this period last year it had 147 inmates ; the pressure of the times has since considerably increased the sum-total. There are now 205, of which number 8 are females. The population of this prison is, moreover, very migratory. Last
there were no less than 1,143 commitments. This shows an advance upon previous years,—the result of the operation of the Small Debts Act,-a part of the building having been set apart for persons committed under that act. Many debtors are now sent hither for a fixed term, mostly ten days, at the expiration of which they are discharged. This pụnishment is principally inflicted for contempt of court. A woman was recently locked up here for ten days, for contempt, because unable or unwilling—it was difficult to say which—to discharge a debt of sevenpence! In all such cases, il more penal discipline is enforced. The person incarcerated is not allowed to maintain him or herself, but is compelled to accept the county allowance. However, as the prison diet is good and plentiful, this is no
ery great hardship; and as their terms of confinement are always short, these are not the most unfortunate of the inmates of Whitecross-street.
Now let us enter the first or Middlesex ward. It is appropriated to the use of debtors from the county-whence its name—but not from the city ; and this being a very large constituency, it can boast a very considerable and diversified number of representatives. We come suddenly into a spacious yard, flagged, clean, and airy-considering the dense part of the city in which the prison stands. It is now visiting hour (10 to 1, or 2 to 4), and the yard is consequently crowded. We may as well state, for the information of such as have no knowledge of the police of a debtors' prison, that within the visiting hours any person can enter the gaol to see his friends and acquaintance without restriction. The scene, though not without great interest, and even some touches of the picturesque, is suggestive of the most melancholy thoughts. The area is filled with men and women-many of them honest, and all unfortunate. No one here but has a sad tale to tell. The world has gone wrong with all of them ; but hope has not yet left their perturbated hearts. Their wives and sisters, perhaps, come to see them daily, bringing with them always some few words of intelligence from the world without,-some tale of the proceedings of friend or foe; and so the poor creature, goes on in a daily dalliance with a hope of deliverance which does not fructify. Round the yard a number of benches are placed ; men and women are seated on them. Though clearly husbands and wives, there is a painful mark of distinction
them. The dear women have evidently dressed themselves in their best and brightest attire, that they may look more cheerful than they are ; to add no weight of sad reflection to that which already preys upon their lords in duresse. There are smiles, but painfully sad ones, on their faces; and a forced sprightliness of manner, which probably answers its considerate aim. The men look, for the most part, stricken and woe-begone : their dress is neglected ; their clothes disorderly and ill put on. Some of the detenues are smoking long pipes with the resigned and settled air of Orientals : they have apparently ceased to struggle with their fate. They seem to be alone—unvisited. Several of these persons have been locked up here five, six, or seven years ; and are no nearer their release now than on their first crossing the prison threshold. Some of them have now no other homes, and wish for none. Others of the motley group are lounging jauntily about with a reckless and devil-may-care manner. Many are engaged in low and earnest whispers with their visitors, doubtless resolving various plans for effecting the one great object-liberation. Whether most to pity those who seem most dejected by their position, one knows not. For how much a person must have suffered—how very dark must the world, the fairy world to the sons and daughters of competence, have grown to a man-before he can cease to struggle to get free, ere he can become reconciled to a living grave like this!
One had much better be transported than sent to this prison for seven or ten years. In Australia, by industry and good conduct, a convict may redeem himself, may recover a position, and amass wealth. All that is quite impossible here. The poor debtor can do nothing but waste his timewhich, to an active nature, is also a consumption of the brain as well. Looking on these pale and passionless faces, where the brusque energy, which can alone combat and conquer the obstacles which beset every man's path in life, seems fading away into utter supineness and idiocy ; one can comprehend the significance of that strong phrase of the relentless creditor—too often lightly spoken by those who know not its terrible meaning,—“Let him rot in
Round this yard are the lofty walls of the prison, and the general pile of the prison buildings, several stories high. On one side is a large board, containing a list of the benefactors of this portion of the prison. There are similar benefactions to each ward. Amongst others, one from Nell Gwynne, still periodically distributed in the shape of so many loaves of bread, attracts attention. These donations are now employed in hiring some of the poorer of the prisoners to make the beds, clean the floors, and do other menial offices for the rest. Passing through a