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Chapter 9. Cold Bath Fields prison. - John Ashton 1888

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A little farther on, it washed the walls of Cold Bath Fields Prison, the _House of Correction_, and we get a view of it in Hone's "Table Book,"[41] p. 75. Here he says, "In 1825, this was the first open view, nearest London, of the ancient River Fleet: it was taken during the building of the high arched walls connected with the House of Correction, Cold Bath Fields, close to which prison the river ran, as here seen. At that time, the newly erected walls communicated a peculiarly picturesque effect to the stream flowing within their confines."

This "House of Correction" was indebted for its birth to the famous John Howard, who had made an European tour, not to mention a home one, inquisitorially inspecting prisons. We all know the result of his labours; how he exposed abuses fearlessly, and made men's hearts soften somewhat towards those incarcerated.



Howard, writing in 1789, held that capital punishment should be abolished except for _murder_, _setting houses on fire_, and for _house breaking, attended with acts of cruelty_. And speaking of his Penitentiaries, he says:

"To these houses, however, I would have none but old, hardened offenders, and those who have, as the laws now stand, forfeited their lives by robbery, house breaking, and similar Crimes, should be committed; or, in short, those Criminals who are to be confined for a long term or for life....

"The _Penitentiary houses_, I would have _built_, in a great measure, _by the convicts_. I will suppose that a power is obtained from Parliament to employ such of them as are now at work on the Thames, or some of those who are in the county gaols, under sentence of transportation, as may be thought most expedient. In the first place, let the surrounding wall, intended for full security against escapes, be completed, and proper lodges for the gate keepers. Let temporary buildings, of the nature of barracks, be erected in some part of this enclosure which would be wanted the least, till the whole is finished."

This was a portion of his scheme, and he suggested that it should be located, where it was afterwards built, in Cold Bath Fields--because the situation was healthy, that good water could be obtained from the White Conduit, as the Charter House no longer required that source of supply, it being well served by the New River Company--that labour was cheap--and so was food, especially the coarse meat from the shambles at Islington.

The prisoners were to have separate cells, so as to prevent the promiscuous herding of all, which had previously produced such mischievous results, and these cells were to be light and airy. The convicts of both sexes were to _work_, and their food was to be apportioned to the work they had to do. Also--a very great step in the right direction--they were all to wear a prison uniform. Howard, philanthropist as he was, was very far from lenient to the rogue. He was fully aware of the value of _work_, and specially provided that his rogues, in their reformation, should pass through the purifying process of hard labour. In later times, the way of transgressors was hard in that place, and it became a terror to evildoers, being known by the name of the _English Bastile_--which, however, amongst its patrons, was diminished, until it finally was abbreviated into "the Steel" by which name it was known until its abolition.[42]

This cognomen was so well known, that, in 1799, a book was written by "A Middlesex Magistrate" entitled "The Secrets of the English Bastile disclosed"--which was a favourable story of the management of the prison in Cold Bath Fields. Still, it was the subject of a Parliamentary inquiry, as we find in the _Gentleman's Magazine_ for 1798-9, under date of Dec. 31, 1798, p. 398, that, in the House of Commons, Sir Francis Burdett gave notice of his intention of moving, at some future day, for a report relative to the system practised in the prison, called the House of Correction, Cold Bath Fields, with regard to the persons therein confined.

In the "Parliamentary History of England," vol. xxxiv. p. 566, we learn that on Mar. 6, 1799, Mr. W. Dundas moved that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the state of his Majesty's prison in Cold Bath Fields, Clerkenwell, and report the same, as it shall appear to them, together with their opinion thereupon, to the House; and a Committee was appointed accordingly. Unfortunately, the pages of what, afterwards, become _Hansard's_, do not record the result.

But in the _Annual Register_ for the same year on Dec. 21st there was a long report respecting it during a debate on the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. Mr. Courtenay said, that, "having visited the prisons, he found the prisoners without fire, and without candles, denied every kind of society, exposed to the cold and the rain, allowed to breathe the air out of their cells only for an hour, denied every comfort, every innocent amusement, excluded from all intercourse with each other, and, each night locked up from all the rest of the world. He supposed it was scarcely necessary to inform the House, that the prison of which he had been speaking, was that in Cold Bath Fields, known by the name of the Bastille." There was a lot more nonsense of the same type talked by other M.P.'s and, it is needless to say, that the exaggerated statements were anent a political prisoner--who afterwards suffered death for treason. And in the remainder of the debate even the very foundation for the libel was destroyed. It is a curious fact, that people have an idea that political prisoners, who have done as much harm to the commonweal as they have the possibility of doing, are to be treated daintily, and with every consideration for their extremely sensitive feelings. We, perhaps, in these latter days, may read a profitable lesson in the suppression of treason, from the proper carrying out of the sentences legally imposed upon those who resist the law out of pure malice (legal).

In the _Gentleman's Magazine_ for 1796, is the following letter to--

_Dec. 10, 1795._

Mr. URBAN.--Your respect for the memory of Mr. Howard, will induce you to insert the inclosed view of the House of Correction for the County of Middlesex, formed principally on his judicious suggestions. It is situated on the North side of London, between Cold Bath Fields, and Gray's Inn Lane. The spot on which it is erected having been naturally swampy, and long used for a public lay-stall, it was found prudent to lay the foundation so deep, and pile it so securely, that it is supposed there are as many bricks laid underground as appear to sight. What is more to the purpose, the internal regulations of this place of security are believed to be perfectly well adapted to the salutary purposes to which the building is appropriated.

"Yours, &c., "EUGENIO."

Still Cold Bath Fields Prison had an evil name--in all probability, because prisoners there, were treated as if they had sinned against the social canons, and were not persons to be coaxed and _petted_ into behaviour such as would enable them to rank among their more honest fellows, and in this way wrote Coleridge and Southey in "The Devil's Walk," which was suggested by the _pseudo Christos_ BROTHERS who as these gentlemen wrote:--[43]

"He walked into London leisurely, The streets were dirty and dim: But there he saw Brothers, the Prophet, And Brothers the Prophet saw him."

Well, in the Devil's rambles he came across Cold Bath Fields Prison--which, as I have said, was not beloved of the criminal class, and, simply, as I think, for the sake of saying something smart, and not that they ever had experienced incarceration, or is there any evidence that they had even seen the prison, they write:

"As he passed through Cold Bath Fields he look'd At a solitary Cell; And he was well-pleased, for it gave him a hint For improving the prisons of Hell.

He saw a turnkey tie a thief's hands With a cordial try and a jerk; Nimbly, quoth he, a man's fingers move When his heart is in his work.

He saw the same turnkey unfettering a man With little expedition; And he chuckled to think of his dear slave trade, And the long debates, and delays that were made Concerning its abolition."

There is very little doubt, however, that, in the closing year of last, and the commencing one of this, century, the conduct of the Governor--a man named Aris--was open to very grave censure. People outside imagined that all sorts of evils were being perpetrated within its walls, and, either through laxity, or too great severity, of discipline, something nigh akin to mutiny occurred in the prison in July, 1800--which was promptly stopped by the presence of a company of the Clerkenwell Volunteers. In August of the same year, there was another outbreak in the prison, the occupants shouting "Murder," and that they were being starved, in tones loud enough to be heard outside, and, once more the Volunteers were the active agents in enforcing law and order. This latter "seething of the pot" lasted a few days, and it culminated in the discharge of the obnoxious Governor Aris.

There is nothing noteworthy to chronicle of this prison from that date,[44] all prison details being, necessarily, unsavoury--and this particular one was not watered with rose water. It was a place of hard work, and not likely to impress the unproductive class, with a wish to be permanent inhabitants thereof. Yet, as this present year witnessed its demolition, something more must be said respecting it. In the _Globe_ newspaper of January 1, 1887, is this short paragraph: "Notices were yesterday posted on the walls of Coldbath Fields Prison, intimating that it is for sale. Tenders are invited for the site, and all buildings, &c., contained within the boundary walls. The prison covers an area of eight acres and three quarters."

There ought to be some record of its dying days, for the demolition of a prison in a large community of people, like ours in London, must mean one of two things, either a diminution of crime, or, that the prison is not suitable to the requirements of the age.

The Ninth Report of the Commissioners of Prisons, for the Year ended March 31, 1886, speaking of Pentonville Prison, says:

"In November, 1885, the majority of the prisoners confined in Coldbath Fields Prison were transferred to this Prison; and since that date, the remainder have also been removed here, that prison being now vacated, and in charge of a warder acting as caretaker.

"The tread-wheel[45] has been taken down at Coldbath Fields Prison, and is in process of re-erection here.

"The behaviour of the officers has been good, with the exception of four, discharged by order of the Prison Commissioners.

"The conduct of the prisoners has been generally good.

"The materials and provisions supplied by the Contractors have been good, and have given satisfaction.

"To meet the requirements of the local prison service, a room is being completed for the convenience of the members of the Visiting Committee who attend here, also a room for the daily collection of prisoners to see the medical officer, and other purposes, as well as various minor alterations found necessary since the transfer.

"A bakehouse has been completed, and is in working order, supplying bread to all metropolitan prisons.

"The routine and discipline have been carried out in the same general manner as heretofore.

"The industrial labour continues to be attended with satisfactory results; the greater portion is still devoted to supplying the wants of other prisons or Government establishments instead of the market.

"Uniform clothing for officers is cut out here for all local prisons, and made up for a considerable number of the smaller prisons, also prisoners' clothing and bedding, hospital slippers for the Admiralty, as well as a large number of Cases and other articles for the General Post Office have been supplied.

"The duties of the Chaplain's department have been performed uninterruptedly during the year, morning prayers have been said daily, and Divine Service has been performed on Sundays, Good Friday, and Christmas day, in the morning and afternoon, with a sermon at both services. The Holy Communion has been celebrated from time to time on Sundays and on the great Sunday Festivals. The hospital has been daily visited; special attention has been paid to the prisoners confined in the punishment Cells, and constant opportunity has been offered to all of private instruction and advice. Books from the prisoners' library have been issued to all who are entitled to receive them, all prisoners who cannot pass standard three, as set forth by the Education Committee have been admitted to school instruction.

"School books and slates and pencils are issued to prisoners in their cells.

"The medical officer states that the health of the prisoners at Coldbath Fields, and since the transfer to this prison, has been good. One case of smallpox occurred at Coldbath Fields; as the prisoner had been some months in gaol, it was clear that he had caught the disease, either from a warder, or from some prisoner recently received; he had been a cleaner in the rotunda, and, of course, had been coming into contact with warders and prisoners alike, in the busiest part of the prison, the presumption is that the disease had been carried by the uniform of some warder. There were five cases of erysipelas at Coldbath Fields, and one at this prison, at the former place the cases came from all parts of the prison, new and old. The air shafts were thoroughly swept and limewashed, and disinfected as far as could be reached, and there is no doubt that it checked the disease.

"The dietary has been satisfactory during the year, and the new pattern clothing a great improvement.

"Every precaution is taken in classing prisoners for labour suited to their age, physique and health.

"The sanitary arrangements are most carefully supervised; the ventilation in the cells is very good."

* * * * *

I offer no apology for intruding this report of Prison life, which, if one took the trouble to look up the yearly reports, he would find they are all couched in almost identical language. I simply give it for the consideration of my readers--who, with myself, do not belong to the criminal classes--to show them how those who have preyed upon them, and have deservedly merited punishment, meet with treatment such as the indigent and industrious poor, when, fallen upon evil times, can not obtain, and the sooner these pampered criminals feel, through their flesh--either by the whip, hard labour, or hunger--that the wages of sin are not paid at a higher rate than that procurable by honest labour, the probability is that the community at large would be considerably benefited, and the criminal classes would be in a great measure deprived of clubs to which there is neither entrance fee, nor annual subscription, in which everything of the best quality is found them free of charge, and the health of their precious carcases specially looked after, and gratuitously attended to.