chapter < | THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON
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A COLD drizzling rain was falling, as Chichester proceeded along the streets
leading to the debtors' prison. The noise of pattens upon the pavement; the
numbers of umbrellas that were up; the splashing of horses' feet and
carriage-wheels in the kennels; the rush of cabs and the shouting of
omnibus-cads, were all characteristic of a wet night in a crowded metropolis.
Chichester shivered - more through nervousness than actual
cold; and he felt an oppressive sensation at the bottom of his stomach, as well
as at the chest.
The officer endeavoured to console him, by observing that
"it was lucky he had been taken so close to the prison on such a rainy
The ruined young man envied many a poor wretch whom he passed
on his way; for he knew that it was far easier to get into a debtors' gaol than
to get out of it.
At length they arrived at the prison.
It was now nine o'clock; and the place, viewed by the
flickering light of the lamp at the gate of the governor's house, wore a
melancholy and sombre appearance. The prisoner was introduced into s small
lobby, where an elderly turnkey with knee-breeches and gaiters, thrust a small
loaf of bread into his hand, and immediately consigned him to the care of
another turnkey, who led him through [-96-] several
alleys to the staircase communicating with the Receiving Ward.
The turnkey pulled a wire, which rang a bell on the first
"Who rings?" cried a voice at the top of the
"Sheriff's debtor - Arthur Chichester - L. S.,"
replied the turnkey, in a loud sing-song voice.
Chichester afterwards learnt that he was mentioned as a
sheriff's prisoner, in contra-distinction to one arrested by a warrant from the
Court of Requests, and that L. S. meant London side - an intimation that he had
been arrested in the City of London, and not in the County of Middlesex.
Having ascended a flight of stone steps, Chichester was met
at the door of the Receiving Ward by the steward thereof. This steward was
himself a prisoner, but was considered a trustworthy person, and had therefore
been selected by the governor to preside over that department of the prison.
The Receiving Ward was a long low room with windows secured
by bars, at each end. There were two grates, but only one contained any fire.
The place was remarkably clean - the floor, the deal tables, and the forms being
as white as snow.
The following conversation forthwith took place between the
new prisoner and the steward:-
"What is your name?"
"Have you got your bread ?"
"Well - put it in that pigeon-hole. Do you choose to
have sheets to-night on your bed?"
"Then that will be a shilling the first night, and
sixpence every night after, as long as you remain here. You can, moreover, sleep
in the inner room, and sit up till twelve o'clock. Those who can't afford to pay
for sheets sleep in a room by themselves, and go to bed at a quarter to ten. You
see we know how to separate the gentlemen from the riff-raff."
"And how long shall I be allowed to stay up in the
Receiving Ward ?"
"That depends. Do you mean to live at my table? I charge
six pence for tea, the same for breakfast, a shilling for dinner, and four-pence
"Well - I shall be most happy to live at your
"In that case, write a note to the governor to say you
are certain to be able to settle your affairs in the course of a week, and I
will take care he shall have it the very first thing to-morrow morning.''
"But I am sure of not being able to settle in a
"Do as you like. You won't be allowed to stay up here
unless you do."
"Oh! in that case I will do so at once. Can you oblige
me with a sheet of writing-paper ?"
"Certainly. Here is one. A penny, if you please."
Chichester paid for the paper, wrote the letter, and handed
it to the Steward.
He then cast a glance round the room ; and saw three or four
tolerably decent-looking persons warming themselves at the fire, while fifteen
or sixteen wretched-looking men, dressed for the most part as labourers, were
sitting on the forms round the walls, at a considerable distance from the
The Steward, perceiving that the new prisoner threw a look of
inquiry towards him, said,- "Those gentlemen at the fire are
Sheriff's Debtors, and live at my table: those chaps over there are Court
of Requests' Men, and haven't a shilling to bless themselves with. So, of
course, I can't allow them to associate with the others."
"How many prisoners, upon an average, pass through the
Receiving Ward - in the course of one year?"
" About three thousand three hundred as near as I can
guess. All the Debtors receive each so much bread and meat a-week. The prison
costs the City close upon nine thousand pounds a year."
"Nine thousand a-year, spent to lock men up, away from
their families !" exclaimed Chichester. " That sum would pay the debts
of the greater portion of those who are unfortunate enough to be brought
"You may well say that," returned the
Steward. "Why, half the prisoners who come here are poor working-men,
snatched away from their labour, and obliged to know that their wives and
children will starve during their absence. That man over there, with the little
bundle tied up in a blue cotton handkerchief, is only arrested for 8d. The costs
are three and sixpence."
"He is actually a prisoner, then, for four and
"Exactly. The man next to him is arrested for 3d., the
balance of a chandler's shop debt; his costs are five shillings. But the case of
that poor devil who is crying so up in the corner, is the worst. It appears that
he had an account at a tally-shop, and paid one shilling a-week towards its
liquidation. He was in full work, and earned eighteen shillings a week; and so
he regularly gave his wife the money every Saturday night to put away for the
tally-man. But the woman is fond of tippling, and she spent the money in gin.
Well, the tally-man takes out a summons from the Court of Requests; the wife
receives it, and is afraid to tell her husband. Next week comes the Rules
this the woman also hides, hoping, somehow or another, to get together the debt
and costs, and settle it unknown to her husband. But no such thing : so this
morning, as the poor fellow was going home to dinner, he was arrested for four
shillings debt, and six shillings costs."
"This was cruel indeed," observed Chichester, to
whom all these details were perfectly new.
"Yes," continued the Steward; "but that is
nothing to the things that I have heard men tell up in this room.
Loan-Societies, Tally-Shops. and the low pettifogging lawyers, keep this place
It was now a quarter to ten; and the poor wretches who could not
afford to pay for sheets were huddled off to bed. Chichester, and the "gentlemen
who boarded at the Steward's table," remained up, smoking cigars and
drinking ale, until twelve.
Chichester was then introduced into a large room containing
ten or a dozen beds, whose frame-work was made of iron. One miserably thin
blanket, a horse-cloth, and a straw mattress and pillow, were all provided for
each couch, by the Corporation of the City of London!
Oh! how generous - how philanthropic - how noble to tear men
away from their homes and give them straw, wrapped up in coarse ticking, to
On the following morning Chichester awoke early, and rose
with every bone aching from the hardness of his bed. He performed his toilette
in a species of scullery attached to the Receiving [-97-]
Ward; and the enjoyment of this luxury was attended with the following
disbursement.:- Towel, 2d.; Use of Soap, ld ; Loan of Razor and Lather-box,
Breakfast, consisting of coffee and dry toast, was then
Those who boarded with the steward sate down and commenced a
desperate attempt upon the provisions; and those who fancied an egg or a rasher
of bacon with their meal, paid twopence extra. The conversation was entirely
associated with the prison affairs; it appeared as if those men, when once they
set foot in the prison, discarded all thoughts of the great world without, from
which they have been snatched away. Even when the morning newspaper came in,
attention was first directed, by a strange kind of sympathy, to the list of
Bankrupts and to the Law Notices, the latter of which afforded them the pleasing
and interesting intelligence of who were that day to appear before the
Commissioners of the Insolvent Court.
At five minutes past nine, a violent ring at the bell called
the Steward in haste to the door. This was the summons of a turnkey who came to
remove new prisoners to the respective departments of the establishment to which
they belonged. Thus [-98-] they were
classified into Middlesex Sheriffs' Debtors, London Sheriffs' Debtors, and City
Freemen who were also Sheriffs' Debtors; and London Court of Requests' Debtors,
and Middlesex Court of Requests' Debtors.
Chichester was ordered to remove to the Poultry Ward, on the
London side, the governor declining to comply with the request contained in his
It will be seen from what we have already said, that
Whitecross-street prison is essentially different from the Bench, descriptions
of which have been given in so many different works, and the leading
features of which are so familiar to a large portion of the community, either
from hearsay or experience. If a man cannot muster four or five pounds to
transfer himself from the custody of the Sheriffs to that of the Judges, by a habeas
corpus writ, he must remain in Whitecross-street prison, while the more
wealthy debtor enjoys every luxury and privilege in the Bench. And yet, we are
constantly assured that there is the same law for the poor as there is for the
The system of imprisonment for debt is in itself impolitic,
unwise, and cruel in the extreme:- it ruins the honest man, and destroys
the little remnant of good feeling existing in the heart of the callous one. It
establishes the absurd doctrine, that if a man cannot pay his debts while he is
allowed the exercise of his talents, his labour, and his acquirements, he can
when shut up in the narrow compass of a prison, where his talents, his labour.,
and his acquirements are useless. How eminently narrow-sighted are English
legislators! They fear totally to abolish this absurd custom, because they dread
that credit will suffer. Why - credit is altogether begotten in confidence, and
never arises from the preconceived intention on the part of him who gives it, to
avail himself of this law against him who receives it. Larceny and theft are
punished by a limited imprisonment, with an allowance of food; but debtors, who
commit no crime, may linger and languish - and starve in gaol.
The Poultry Ward was a long, dark, low room, with seven or
eight barred windows on each side, sawdust upon the stone floor, and about a
dozen or fourteen small tables arranged, like those of a coffee house, around
the walls. The room was full of debtors of all appearances - from the
shabby-genteel down to the absolutely ragged. Here a prisoner was occupied in
drawing up his schedule for the Insolvent Debtors' Court ;- there an emaciated
old man was writing a letter, over which he shed bitter and scalding tears ; -
at another table a young farmer's labourer-looking man was breakfasting off
bread and cheese and onions, which he washed down with porter ;- close by was a
stout, seedy-looking person with grey hair, who did not seem to have any
breakfast at all ;- in this nook a poor pale wretch was reading a newspaper ;-
in that corner another individual was examining a pile of letters ;-
several were gathered round the fire in the scullery or kitchen attached to the
Ward, preparing their breakfasts ;- and others were lounging up and down the
room, laughing, and talking over the amusements of the preceding night up in the
The steward of the Poultry Ward had just finished his
breakfast when the turnkey introduced Mr. Chichester.
"Well, Mr. Thaynes," said the Steward, quite
delighted to see the new prisoner, "I began to think we should have had
none down this morning. Pray takes a seat, sir."
This invitation was addressed to Chichester, who sat down
The Steward, after exchanging a few observations with the
turnkey, produced a book from a drawer in the table, and addressing himself in a
semi-mysterious tone to Mr. Chichester, said "These are our rules and
regulations. Every new member is required to pay an entrance fee of one pound
and sixpence; and this goes towards the fund for paying the officers and
servants of the ward, providing coals, avid administering generally to the
comforts of the place."
"I am quite satisfied with the justice of the
charge," said Chichester; and he paid it accordingly.
"I suppose you will live at my table?"
enquired the Steward. "Same charges as up-stairs in the Receiving
"Oh! certainly," answered Chichester. "Have
you any body here of any consequence at all ?"
"Not particularly at this moment. Lord William Priggins
stayed a couple of days with us, and went over to the Bench yesterday
"Who is that gentleman walking up and down the narrow
court outside ?" enquired Chichester, glancing towards a window through
which might be seen a tall slim young man, with black moustachios, a long faded
cotton dressing-gown, a dingy velvet skull cap, and pantaloons hanging low and
loose, because the owner had forgotten his braces.
" Oh! that is Count Pitchantoss - a celebrated Russian
nobleman, who was cleaned out some weeks since at a West-end Hell, and got put
into prison for his hotel bill."
"And who is that respectable old gentleman with the bald
head, and dressed in black ?"
"That is a clergyman, the Rev. Henry Sharper; he
is an excellent preacher, they say - and the best securer of a die that I ever
saw in my life."
"And that very sickly pale-faced youth, who seems to be
scarcely twenty ?"
"He is only twenty-one and a month. He was arrested the
day after he came of age for blank acceptances which he had given, during his
minority, to the tune of three thousand pounds, and for which be never received
more than three hundred."
"And that quiet-looking old gentleman at the table
"He is a Chancery prisoner -committed for contempt. It
appears that he was one morning walking by the Auction Mart, and saw large
posting-bills announcing the immediate sale of an estate consisting of thirteen
houses somewhere in Finsbury, under a decree of the Court of Chancery. My
gentleman hadn't a guinea in his pocket, nor the means of raising one at the
time. Nevertheless he walked into the Mart as bold as brass, strode upstairs to
the auctioneer's rooms, and bid for the estate. There were plenty of
competitors; but he didn't care - he bid away: and at last the estate was
knocked down to him for four thousand three hundred pounds. When sales are
affected under an order of the Chancellor, no deposit-money us required. This
may seem arrange to you, but it is not the less a fact. So off walks my
gentleman, quite rejoiced at his bargain. The first thing he does is to go and
collect all the arrears of rent he can from the tenants of the houses, and to
distrain upon those who couldn't or wouldn't pay. Lord! what a game he did play,
to be sure! He called into request the services of half the brokers in Finsbury,
and made the tenant cash up to the very last farthing that was due. Well, the
lawyers employed for the sale of the estate, drew up the deeds [-99-]
of conveyance and the abstract of the title; but my gentleman never meant
paying - so at last the Chancery Court, getting tired of his excuses, and
finding that he would not disgorge the amount he had already received for rents,
nor yet come down with a shilling towards the purchase-money, clapt him into
limbo under some form or another; - and so here he is.
In this manner did the steward of the Poultry Ward render the
new prisoner familiar with the leading characters of that department of the
prison. In addition to the few instances of flagrant dishonesty, or culpable
extravagance which were pointed out to Chichester, information was given him of
many - very many cases of pure and unadulterated misfortune. The churchyard has
known no sorrow - the death-chamber has known no anguish equal to that acute and
poignant suffering which many an inmate endures within the walls of that prison.
If he be an affectionate father, he thinks of his absent little ones - and he
feels shocked at the cold cruelty of the rules which only permit children to
visit their incarcerated sire twice a week - on Wednesday and Sunday - and then
only for thee hours each time. If he be a kind husband, and possesses a tender
and a loving wife, he dreads the fatal hour of five of an evening, which is the
signal for all strangers and visitors to leave these walls. Misery - lank, lean,
palpable misery - is the characteristic of Whitecross Street prison.
The legislature says - "We only allow men to be locked
up in order to prevent them from running away without paying the debts they
owe." - Then why treat them as felons? Why impose upon them rules and
regulations, the severity of which is as galling to their souls as the iron
chains of Newgate are to the felons' flesh? Why break their spins and crush
their good and generous feelings by compelling them all to herd together - the
high and the low - the polite and the vulgar - the temperate and the drunkard -
the cleanly and the filthy - the religious and the profane - the sedate and the
O excellent legislators! do you believe that a man ever went
out. of the debtor's gaol more moral and better disposed then he was when he
went in? The answer to this question will, in one word, teach you the efficacy
of Imprisonment for Debt.
Chichester walked out into a large stone-paved court attached
to the ward, and bearing the attractive but somewhat illusive name of the
"Park." At twelve o'clock the beer men from the public-houses in
Whitecross-street were allowed admittance; and then commenced the debauchery of
the day. The seats round the "Park" were soon crowded with prisoners
and visitors, drinking, smoking, laughing, and swearing.
Many poor wretches, who could not boast of much strength of
mind, but were in reality well disposed, took to this occupation to kill
And who will blame them? Not you, proud peer, who bury
your vexations in crystal goblets sparkling with the choicest juice of Epernay's
grape - nor you, ,fine gentleman, who seek in gaming at your club a relief from
the anxieties and petty troubles which now and then interrupt the otherwise even
tenure of your way!
In the course of the day Mr. Chichester wrote a very penitent
letter to his father, the pawnbroker, lamenting past follies, and promising
future good conduct. The postscript contained an intimation that prison was bad
enough when one possessed plenty of money; but that it was ten thousand times
worse when associated with empty pockets. This precious epistle succeeded in
inducing the "old gentleman," as Chichester denominated his father, to
loosen his purse strings, and remit a few pounds to supply immediate wants.
Chichester was thus enabled to live at the Steward's table
and smoke his cigars and drink his ale to his heart's content. In a small
community like that of a ward in Whitecross Street, as well as in the great
world without, he who has the most money is the most "looked up to "-
which is a phrase perfectly understood, and almost synonymous with respected;
and thus Mr. Chichester very speedily became the "star" of that
department of the prison to which he had been assigned.
chapter < | THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON
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