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Chapter 24. Fleet Prison Garnish. - John Ashton 1888

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We saw in the lines, under the Frontispiece to the foregoing poem, _Garnish_ was mentioned, and the fact was stated as a Custom then in force of taking the prisoner's coat to pay for his fees on entrance.

"But kind Sir, as you'r a Stranger, Down your Garnish you must lay, Or your Coat will be in danger, You must either Strip or pay."

In the Criminal prisons, the prisoners themselves demanded Garnish from a new-comer, that is, a trifle of money--to drink. In 1708, at Newgate, this sum seems to have been Six shillings and Eightpence "Which they, from an old Custom, claim by Prescription, Time out of Mind, for entring into the _Society_, otherwise they strip the poor Wretch, if he has not wherewithal to pay it."[149] And in the old Play of the _Lying Lover_ we are introduced to a Scene in Newgate where the prisoners are demanding _Garnish_ from some new-comers.

"_Storm._ Nay, nay, you must stay here.

_Simon._ Why, I am _Simon_, Madam _Penelope's_ Man.

_Storm._ Then Madam _Penelope's_ Man must strip for Garnish; indeed Master _Simon_ you must.

_Simon._ Thieves! Thieves! Thieves!

_Storm._ Thieves! Thieves! Why, you senseless Dog, do you think there's Thieves in _Newgate_? Away with him to the Tap House (_Pushes him off_). We'll drink his Coat off. Come, my little Chymist, thou shalt transmute this Jacket into Liquor."


Yet although this custom was general, I have only once met with an engraving of the actual process, which, judging by the man's agonized countenance, was not a pleasant one to him. It occurs in the frontispiece to a little pamphlet called "An Oration on the Oppression of Jailors; which was spoken in the Fleet Prison, on the 20th of February, 1730/1," &c. And under the engraving, are these lines.

"Unhappy, friendless Man! how hard thy Fate! Whose only Crime is being Unfortunate. Are Jailors suffer'd in such Acts as these? To strip the Wretch, who cannot pay his Fees? Is there no kind _Samaritan_ will lend Relief, and save him from th' accursed Fiend?"

Respecting this practice let us hear what Howard in his "State of the Prisons in England and Wales," 1777, says, in his Chapter on "Bad Customs in Prisons." "A cruel custom obtains in most of our Gaols, which is that of the prisoners demanding of a new-comer GARNISH, FOOTING, or (as it is called in some London Gaols) CHUMMAGE. 'Pay or strip' are the fatal words. I say _fatal_, for they are so to some; who having no money, are obliged to give up part of their scanty apparel; and, if they have no bedding or straw to sleep on, contract diseases, which I have known to prove mortal.

In many Gaols, to the Garnish paid by the new-comer, those who were there before, make an addition; and great part of the following night is often spent in riot and drunkenness. The gaoler or tapster finding his account in this practice, generally answers questions concerning it with reluctance. Of the Garnish which I have set down to sundry prisons, I often had my information from persons who paid it.... In some places, this demand has been lately waved: in others, strictly prohibited by the Magistrates"--so that we see that this custom was already in its death throes, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

But in the interval between Bambridge and Howard, the prison was not a pleasant place of residence, if we may judge from "The Prisoner's Song" published in 1738, of which I give an illustration and the Words.

[Illustration: THE FLEET PRISON.]

"A Starving life all day we lead, No Comfort here is found, At Night we make one Common bed, Upon the Boarded Ground; Where fleas in troops and Bugs in shoals Into our Bosoms Creep, And Death watch, Spiders, round y^e Walls, Disturb us in our Sleep.

Were Socrates alive, and Bound With us to lead his life, 'Twould move his Patience far beyond His crabbed Scolding Wife; Hard Lodging and much harder fare, Would try the wisest Sage, Nay! even make a Parson Swear, And curse the Sinful Age.

Thus, we Insolvent debtors live, Yet we may Boldly say, Worse Villains often Credit give, Than those that never pay; For wealthy Knaves can with applause Cheat on, and ne'er be try'd, But in contempt of human Laws, In Coaches Safely ride."

When Howard visited this prison in 1774 and 1776, he found on the former occasion 171 prisoners in the House, and 71 in the Rules. On the latter there were 241 in the House and 78 in the Rules. And he says:

"The Prison was rebuilt a few years since. At the front is a narrow courtyard. At each end of the building there is a small projection, or wing. There are four floors, they call them _Galleries_, besides the Cellar floor, called _Bartholomew-Fair_. Each gallery consists of a passage in the middle, the whole length of the Prison, _i.e._, sixty six yards; and rooms on each side of it about fourteen feet and a half by twelve and a half, and nine and a half high. A chimney and window in every room. The passages are narrow (not seven feet wide) and darkish, having only a window at each end.

"On the first floor, the _Hall Gallery_, to which you ascend eight steps, are a Chapel, a Tap room, a Coffee room (lately made out of two rooms for Debtors), a room for the Turnkey, another for the Watchman, and eighteen rooms for Prisoners.

Besides the Coffee-room and Tap-room, two of those eighteen rooms, and all the cellar-floor, except a lock up room to confine the disorderly, and another room for the Turnkey, are held by the Tapster, John Cartwright, who bought the remainder of the lease at public auction in 1775. The cellar floor is sixteen steps below the hall Gallery. It consists of the two rooms just now mentioned, the Tapster's kitchen, his four large beer and wine Cellars, and fifteen rooms for Prisoners. These fifteen, and the two before mentioned, in the hall gallery, the Tapster lets to Prisoners for four to eight shillings a week.

"On the _first Gallery_ (that next above the hall-gallery) are twenty-five rooms for Prisoners. On the _second Gallery_, twenty seven rooms. One of them, fronting the staircase, is their Committee room. A room at one end is an Infirmary. At the other end, in a large room over the Chapel, is a dirty Billiard-table, kept by the Prisoner who sleeps in that room. On the highest story there are twenty seven rooms. Some of these upper rooms, _viz._, those in the wings, are larger than the rest, being over the Chapel, the Tap-room, &c.

"All the rooms I have mentioned are for the Master's side Debtors. The weekly rent of those not held by the Tapster, is one shilling and three pence unfurnished. They fall to the Prisoners in succession, thus: when a room becomes vacant, the first Prisoner upon the list of such as have paid their entrance-fees, takes possession of it. When the Prison was built, the Warden gave each Prisoner his choice of a room, according to his seniority as Prisoner.... Such of the Prisoners (on the Common Side) as swear in Court, or before a Commissioner that they are not worth five pounds, and cannot subsist without charity, have the donations which are sent to the Prison, and the begging box, and grate. Of them there were, at my last visit, sixteen....

"I mentioned the billiard table. They also play in the yard at skittles, missisipi, fives, tennis, &c. And not only the Prisoners; I saw among them several butchers and others from the Market; who are admitted here, as at another public house. The same may be seen in many other Prisons where the Gaoler keeps or lets the tap. Besides the inconvenience of this to Prisoners; the frequenting a Prison lessens the dread of being confined in one.

"On Monday night there is a Wine Club: on Thursday night a Beer Club; each lasting usually till one or two in the morning. I need not say how much riot these occasion; and how the sober Prisoners are annoyed by them.

"Seeing the Prison crowded with women and Children, I procured an accurate list of them; and found that on (or about), the 6th of April, 1776, when there were, on the Master's side 213 Prisoners; on the Common side 30. Total 243; their wives (including women of an appellation not so honorable) and children, were 475."

In Howard's time the fees payable by the Prisoners were the same as were settled in 1729 after the trials of Huggins and Bambridge; but the prisoners exercised a kind of local self-government, for he writes:--

"There is, moreover, a little Code of Laws, eighteen in number, enacted by the Master's-side Debtors, and printed by D. Jones, 1774. It establishes a President, a Secretary, and a Committee, which is to be chosen every month, and to consist of three members from each Gallery. These are to meet in the Committee room every Thursday; and at other times when summoned by the Cryer, at command of the President, or of a majority of their own number. They are to raise contributions by assessment; to hear complaints; determine disputes; levy fines; and seize goods for payment. Their Sense to be deemed the sense of the whole House. The President or Secretary to hold the cash; the Committee to dispose of it. Their Scavenger to wash the Galleries once a week; to water, and sweep them every morning before eight; to sweep the yard twice every week; and to light the lamps all over the House. No person to throw out water, &c., anywhere but at the sinks in the yard. The Cryer may take of a Stranger a penny for calling a Prisoner to him; and of a Complainant two pence for summoning a Special Committee. For blasphemy, swearing, riot, drunkenness, &c., the Committee to fine at discretion; for damaging a lamp, fine a shilling. They are to take from a New Comer, on the first Sunday, besides the two shillings Garnish, to be spent in wine, one shilling and sixpence to be appropriated to the use of the House.

"Common-side Prisoners _to be confined to their own apartments_, and not to associate with these LAW MAKERS, nor to use the same conveniences."

In 1780 the famous Lord George Gordon, or "No Popery" Riots took place--those Riots which were so intensely Protestant, that (according to the Contemporary _Gentleman's Magazine_) "The very Jews in Houndsditch and Duke's Place were so intimidated, that they followed the general example, and unintentionally gave an air of ridicule to what they understood in a very serious light, by writing on their Shutters, "This House is a true Protestant."

These Riots are very realistically brought before us in Charles Dickens' "Barnaby Rudge," but then, although the account is fairly historically faithful, yet the weaving of his tale necessarily interfered with strict historical details; which, by the way, are extremely meagre as to the burning of the Fleet prison. The fact was, that, for the few days the riot existed, the outrages were so numerous, and the Newspapers of such small dimensions, that they could only be summarized, and the burning of Newgate eclipsed that of the Fleet. But, on the Wednesday, June 7, 1780, the _Annual Register_, p. 261 (which certainly has the best description I have been able to see) absolutely breaks down, saying:--

"It is impossible to give any adequate description of the events of Wednesday. Notice was sent round to the public prisons of the King's Bench, Fleet, &c., by the mob, at what time they would come and burn them down. The same kind of infernal humanity was exercised towards Mr. Langdale, a distiller in Holborn, whose loss is said to amount to L100,000, and several other Romish individuals. In the afternoon all the shops were shut, and bits of blue silk, by way of flags, hung out at most houses, with the words "No Popery" chalked on the doors and window shutters, by way of deprecating the fury of the insurgents, from which no person thought himself secure.

"As soon as the day was drawing towards a Close, one of the most dreadful spectacles this country ever beheld was exhibited. Let those, who were not spectators of it, judge what the inhabitants felt when they beheld at the same instant the flames ascending and rolling in clouds from the King's Bench and Fleet Prisons, from New Bridewell, from the toll gates on Blackfriars Bridge, from houses in every quarter of the town, and particularly from the bottom and middle of Holborn, where the Conflagration was horrible beyond description."

The burning of the Fleet was done calmly and deliberately, as is well told in "A Narrative of the Proceedings of Lord Geo. Gordon," &c., 1780. "About one o'clock this morning (Tuesday, June 6), the Mob went to the Fleet Prison, and demanded the gates to be opened, which the Keepers were obliged to do, or they would have set fire to it. They were then proceeding to demolish the prison, but the prisoners expostulating with them, and begging that they would give them time to remove their goods, they readily condescended, and gave them a day for that purpose, in consequence of which, the prisoners were removing all this day out of that place. Some of the prisoners were in for life." And in the evening of the next day, they fulfilled their threat, and burnt it. This was the second time it had been burnt down, for the great fire of 1666 had previously demolished it.

[Illustration: RACKETS IN THE FLEET PRISON, 1760. (_Published by Bowles and Carver, 69, St. Paul's Churchyard._)]

It was rebuilt, and remained the same, with some few alterations and additions until its final destruction. We get a good view of "the Bare" or racket ground in 1808, an outline of which I have taken from Pugin and Rowlandson's beautiful "Microcosm of London," 1808,[150] according to which book, "The Fleet Prison, it is believed, after the fire of London in 1666, was removed to that site of ground upon which the almshouses through Vauxhall turnpike, on the Wandsworth road, now stand, until the old prison was rebuilt, Sir Jeremy Whichcott, then Warden, having his family seat there, which he converted into a prison; for which patriotic act, and rebuilding the old one at his own expence, he and his heirs were wardens as long as they lived. The Office of Warden of the Fleet was formerly of such consequence, that a brother of one of the Edwards is said to have been in the list of Wardens."


In this illustration we find the prisoners by no means moody, but playing at rackets and skittles. The Racket ground was under the superintendence of a Racket Master, who was elected by the Collegians, annually at Christmas. This post was eagerly sought after, as it was one to which some pecuniary profit was attached, a small fee being demanded from each person, the Racket Master having to find bats and balls. I have before me three printed handbills of aspirants for the post in 1841. One bases his claim on the fact that he is already Racket Master, and says, "I feel the situation is one that requires attention and unceasing exertion, not so much from the individual position, as from the circumstance that the amusement, and (what is more vitally important) the health of my fellow inmates is in some measure placed in the hands of the person appointed." Another candidate pleads as a qualification, that he has served as Watchman for Seven years, and at last election for Racket Master, he only lost the appointment by five votes. And the third publishes the caution "Collegians, Remember! All Promises that have been (_sic_) before the Vacancy, are Null and Void!!!" This gentleman was determined to secure, if possible, some of the good things going about, for, at this very same Annual Election, he issues another circular, "Having had many years experience in the Tavern Department and Eating House Business, I beg leave to offer myself for the Situation in the Public Kitchen, now about to become vacant." He, too, had an opponent, who had been engaged for nine years as a baker, and was, by profession, a Cook. The Office of Skittle Master was also contested in that year; the holder of the place being opposed by one whose claim to the position seems to be that he had a wife and one child.

[Illustration: A WHISTLING SHOP IN THE FLEET, 1821.]

They made themselves merry enough in the Fleet, as we read in Egan's "Life in London," where Jerry Hawthorn, and Corinthian Tom, visit Bob Logic, who was detained in the Fleet. Among other places there, they went to a Whistling Shop--of which the brothers Robert and George Cruikshank have given a faithful representation. Here at a table, screened off from the draught of the door we see, Tom, Jerry, and the unfortunate Logic, whilst the other frequenters of the place are excellently depicted. Spirits were not allowed in the prison, under any circumstances, other than by the doctor's order; but it is needless to say, the regulation was a dead letter. Of course it was not sold openly, but there were rooms, known to the initiated where it could be procured. It was never asked for, and if it were the applicant would not have received it, but if you whistled, it would be at once forthcoming.


Says Logic to his Corinthian friends, "'In the evening I will introduce you both to my friend the _Haberdasher_. He is a good _whistler_; and his shop always abounds with some prime articles which you will like to look at.' The TRIO was again complete; and a fine dinner, which the CORINTHIAN had previously ordered from a Coffee house, improved their feelings: a glass or two of wine made them as gay as larks; and a _hint_ from JERRY to LOGIC about the _Whistler_, brought them into the shop of the latter in a _twinkling_. HAWTHORN, with great surprise, said, 'Where are we? this is no _haberdasher's_. It is a----' 'No _nosing_, JERRY,' replied LOGIC, with a grin. 'You are wrong. The man is a dealer in _tape_.'"[151]


There was a class in the Fleet, who acted, as far as in their power lay, up to the Epicurean "_dum vivimus vivamus_," and among them the prison, however inconvenient it might have been, was made the best of, and the door of the Cupboard which contained the skeleton was shut as far as it would go. We have an exemplification of this in Robert Cruikshank's water colour drawing of "The Evening after a Mock Election in the Fleet Prison," June, 1835. In this drawing, which I have simply outlined (see previous page), we get a graphic glimpse at the uproarious fun that obtained among a certain set. The gradations in Society of this singular mixture is well shown in the following key to the picture:

1. Bennett the Candidate.

2. Mr. Fellowes of the Crown P. H. Fleet Street.

3. Mr. Houston, _alias_ Jack in the Green.

4. Mr. Perkins, _alias_ Harlequin Billy (Architect), who tried to sink a shaft at Spithead to supply the Navy with Water.

5. Mr. Shackleford (Linen Draper).

6. Mr. Bennett, the Watchman.

7. Geo. Weston, Esqr. (Banker, of the Boro').

8. Mr. Hutchinson (Dr. at Liverpool).

9. L. Goldsmith, Esqre.

10. Mr. Thompson (Irishman).

11. Robert Barnjum _alias_ Rough Robin (Hammersmith Ghost).

12. Robert Ball, _alias_ Manchester Bob (wore a Murderer's Cap).

13. Captain Wilde, R.N.

14. Mr. Hales, the Cook.

15. Mr. Walker.

16. Captain McDonnough, 11th Hussars (real gentleman).

17. Mr. Halliday (Manchester Merchant).

18. Harry Holt the Prize Fighter.

19. Captain Penniment (Trading Vessel, Yorkshire).

20. Mr. Palmer, Cutler to Geo. III., near the Haymarket Theatre.

21. Mr. Scrivener (Landlord of the Tap).

22. Captain Oliver, Smuggler and Tapster. Capias, L117,000.

23. Mr. Goldsbury, _alias_ Jailsbury, driver of omnibus all round the Fleet.

24. Mr. George Kent.

As a souvenir of the talented Isaac Robert Cruikshank, I append a facsimile of his autograph, which was written in the Parlour, No. 16, Hall, in the Fleet Prison, June 24, 1842. His method of utilizing the blot of Ink is unique.

The remaining Notices of the Fleet must be taken as they come, as far as possible, chronologically--and first of all let us look at the enormous quantity of people who were imprisoned for debt. In the _Mirror_, No. 615, vol. xxii. July 20, 1833, is a cutting from the _Times_: "By the return of persons imprisoned for debt in 1832, in England and Wales, just printed by order of the House of Commons, it appears that the gross number was 16,470: of whom maintained themselves 4,093, so that three fourths of the whole were too poor to provide themselves with bread."

The terrible destitution to which some prisoners were reduced is shown in an extract from the _Morning Herald_ of August 12, 1833.

"_Guild hall._ A Gentleman complained that the Overseers of St. Bride's had refused to relieve a distressed prisoner in the Fleet. The Prisoner was Mr. Timothy Sheldvake, who had been well known for his skill in treating deformities of the body. He once kept his carriage, and obtained L4,000 a year by his practice, but he was now quite destitute. He was eighty years of Age, and of that temper that he would rather starve than make a complaint. When applicant saw him he had actually fasted forty-eight hours. St. Bride's Parish had assisted the unfortunate Gentleman, but they denied that he was legally entitled to such relief. The Applicant contended that, as the Prison was in St. Bride's parish, and was rated at L70 a year, St. Bride's was bound to afford casual relief to those within the walls of the prison, and to recover it from the respective parishes to which those who have been relieved belonged.


"The Vestry Clerk said, relief must be given out of the County rate.

"Sir C. Marshall said he would take time to consider the Point, but he thought a sufficient relief should be afforded out of the County rate."