It must not be thought that Gallagher and Whitehead received any worse treatment than the other prisoners. By no means. Generally speaking, we were all treated alike, for the authorities deliberately set themselves to drive us all mad or to kill us, and they succeeded in doing this with most of our number. Some of us realised this situation early in our imprisonment, and saw that the mercilessly savage treatment was meant to smash us, and three of us, Daly, Egan and myself deliberately set ourselves to defeat the officials’ design.
It was a fight against frightful odds. On the one side were the prison authorities, with all the horrors of their prison machinery, relentlessly striving to accomplish their objects with unlimited ways and means at their disposal. On the other side were the prisoners, each standing alone and friendless, but resolved never to give in, with nothing to sustain him in the fight but his own courage and the pride he had in being an Irish Fenian, without encouragement save the sympathy and cheering words coming to him every now and then from his plucky and self-reliant comrades, fighting the same fight as himself, in the same spirit of “no surrender.” Throughout the whole time we stood loyally by each other, and, as I have said, were in close and constant communication with each other. Never a week passed but I received a voluminous note from John Daly – and some weeks two or three notes – and he received the same from me. This went on for about eleven years. As with Daly, so with Egan, for the eight years he was with us. Tell that to the prison authorities and they would say it was utterly impossible. But we, too, had reduced our business to a scientific system – it was diamond cut diamond. At all events they never had the satisfaction of catching notes with either of us.
Several times I got terms of thirteen days’ punishment for notes of mine being found with others of the prisoners.
With what pleasure I used to look forward to getting these bulletins from them and the nervous delight with which I would peruse them and the peculiar satisfaction I used to feel at our being able to outwit Harris and his satellites and enjoy such luxuries in spite of all their precautions and carefully laid traps.
Egan’s notes would sometimes be illustrated with comic sketches, and they used to afford me many a chuckle and quiet laugh in the corner of my cell. At Christmas time we all wrote verses to each other – verses more treasonable perhaps than poetic. I cannot remember any of Daly’s or Egan’s verses, but have by me a copy of one of my own effusions, and a few verses of it will serve as a sample of our prison rhymes and show the spirit in which we were facing the Chatham music.
My Jimmy, dear,
Has snail-like crept away
Since you I wrote
That “P.P.” note1
My gift last Christmas Day.
And I again
Unearth the pen
To try what I can do
At stringing rhyme
This Christmas time
For comrades staunch and true.
For Ireland, dear,
We’ve spent in these drear cells
Where England strives
To blast our lives
With torments fierce as hell’s.
But their worst we scorn,
For we’re Fenians born,
And, by heaven, the same we’ll die;
No slaves are we,
We bend the knee
To none but God on high.
Ah! no, old man,
They never can
Our Fenian souls subdue,
For our love is bound
Too firmly round
Our cause to prove untrue.
Here’s to our land,
May she withstand
The might of England vile;
May the future bring
On swifter wing
True freedom to our Isle.
The “pen,” to which I referred in the second verse, was the prison name we had for my tiny bit of black-lead pencil. This I used to conceal by burying it in the floor of my cell. Thanks to Daly we were rarely without a “pen” – he kept us supplied.
Not only had we to exercise the utmost care and craftiness in writing and transmitting our correspondence, but we had also to very carefully get rid of the notes after reading them. It would never do for one of them to be found – it would mean thirteen days’ punishment for the writer, if not for others, besides making the officers, if possible, more vigilant than ever.
There were perforated iron ventilators built into the walls of our cells, and these masked horizontal air shafts. They formed very convenient waste paper receptacles, for anything pushed through the ventilators dropped down a foot or so into the air shaft and could not be seen.
While the Times-Parnell Commission was on, and before we had yet been visited by Inspector Littlechild, of Scotland Yard, or had heard a word about the Commission (in fact, I may say that during those years we heard practically nothing from the outside world) one day returning from labour I was halted in the corridor on my way to my cell by the search warder and questioned as to how long I had occupied the cell I was in then and had I been putting paper into the ventilator. It was the duty of this officer to search our cells at uncertain times, and for this purpose he was armed with hooks and spikes and a bull’s-eye lantern and other paraphernalia for examining the chinks and crevices and suspicious angles of the cells.
The search warder removed the ventilator of my cell and got a coal scuttle full of material that had once been paper. Away he went to Daly’s and Egan’s cells, and some other cells as well, and found about an equal quantity in each. In reply to all interrogations we protested our ignorance of how the material had got there.
The prison authorities knew that somehow we were able to carry on a clandestine correspondence. This they were aware of from their having captured a few notes by accident. Finally they thought of the ventilator in the cells, and eager to find some scrap of evidence that could be used by the Government at the Times-Parnell inquiry they ordered the ventilators to be opened and searched. No doubt the private and confidential correspondence of John Daly and other Irish Felons in Chatham Prison would have a peculiar value if they could only get hold of it, and so ventilators were torn down and many buckets full of material taken out. It was carefully, very carefully examined, but all to no purpose, for not a single note was ever put into the ventilators without first being put into the mouth and reduced to pulp by rolling it between the hands. That is the history of the private and confidential correspondence of certain treason-felony prisoners in Chatham which the Government did not produce at the Times-Parnell Commission.
Shortly after this incident came Pigott’s visit to Daly and Inspector Littlechild’s interview with the so-called Irish-American prisoners with a view to getting informers to give evidence before the Commission.
Some ten or eleven of us were one day kept in our cells after dinner instead of being turned out with the others in the usual way for labour. As I waited in my cell that evening, wondering what this meant, I could hear one after another of the others in the cells before me taken away and then brought back again after intervals of half or three quarters of an hour.
Presently came my turn, and I was marched away and ushered into a cosy little room, where I found Mr. Littlechild sitting at a table in front of the fire. He and I were old acquaintances. He was in charge of the party of Scotland Yard officers who arrested Dr. Gallagher and myself in London; it was he who had charge of working up the case to convict us.
Soon as I got inside the door I was met with a bland smile and a “Good day, Mr. Wilson; how are you?” That was the first time I had ever been addressed as “Mr.” in prison, and I duly made note of the courtesy and suspected he wanted to work something out of me. “Good day, Inspector; what’s up? What has you here?” With a considerable lot of hem-ing and ha-ing Littlechild started off spinning a rambling kind of a yarn about nothing in particular. Now, I knew that Mr. Littlechild did not come all the way to Chatham for the mere pleasure of telling me that kind of thing.
I knew Scotland Yard methods, and that he was there to do a stroke of business, so I cut his rigmarole short with – “I say, Mr. Littlechild, never mind beating about the bush, just tell me what you want with me and I will give you an answer.”
“Oh, just so, Mr. Wilson; thank you very much; ’tis a pleasure to talk to a sensible man like you, etc. Well, you must know that there has been a Special Commission appointed by the Government to investigate certain allegations that have been made against the Irish Parliamentary Party. These allegations are to the effect that there is a connection between that party and the Irish Revolutionary Party in America, and that the workings of the one party are made to serve the purpose of the other. This question at the present time excites the greatest possible interest right through the country, but especially in Ireland. Most of the Irishmen prominent in public life are to appear and give evidence before the Commission. In fact, everyone is anxious to go forward as a witness. Certain persons in London, knowing that you came from America in connection with the skirmishing movement, believe that you were in a position there to enable you to speak authoritatively on the subject. These persons have sent me down here to see you so as to give you an opportunity of also going forward as a witness before this Commission to say what you would wish to say about the matter. There is no reason why you should not have a chance of appearing as a witness any more than the others, like William O’Brien or Michael Davitt, etc.”
“Now,” said he, dipping his pen in the ink, “I am ready to take down anything you’d wish to say.”
My answer was brief and to the point.
“Look here, Mr. Inspector, if a single word of information would get me out of here to-morrow, sooner than give it to you I’d prefer to remain here till the day of judgment. Please take that as final.”
I rose from the chair thinking that that had closed the interview, but it hadn’t. Mr. Littlechild was not to be choked off so easily. He talked at me for about three-quarters of an hour, complimenting my intelligence one moment, calling me a damned unpractical fool the next, and so on. I said very little – in fact, scarcely anything – beyond reminding him at every turn when he paused for breath that “I was not the scoundrel he would like to have me, and that I had given my answer.” He threatened, he appealed, and when his bullying did not work he tried gentleness. He was the stern police officer one moment and the sympathising kind friend the next. He would contrast my life in there as a prisoner with life outside as a free man. Why should a man like me be cooped up there with the blackguardism and ruffianism of the country and be subject to all the misery and degradation of convict life, denied God’s free air and the love and sympathy of friends and everything else that goes to make life worth living; neglected even by those who were really responsible for my being in prison, for after all I had been used by others. There were they enjoying the sunshine and pleasures of life going about with plenty of money in their pockets and caring no more about me or my sufferings than if I were a disgrace to them. He gave me to understand that if I would only be “sensible” (as he phrased it) not only would it mean release for me but also a job in the Civil Service.
At length the hateful interview drew to a close.
Littlechild snapped out, “That will do.” and I got up and was making for the door and the escort that awaited me outside to see me safely back to my cell.
As I was about leaving Littlechild said: “Well, now, look here, Wilson” (he had dropped the “Mr.” early in the interview) “am I to understand and report to those who sent me here that you refuse to give me any information to prevent the commission of crime?”
I replied: “Mr. Inspector, you are to understand that I refuse to give you information for any purpose whatever.”
Well,” said he, “when you go back to your cell and think this thing over coolly, you will probably change your mind; in fact, I know you will. If you do just drop me a line. The Governor will give you pen, ink and paper. Scotland Yard will find me. Good day.”
I went out and the escort brought me “home” to my cell. The uppermost feeling in my mind was wrathful indignation at this outrage put upon me by the authorities.
When next due to write a letter I wrote to a friend telling of Littlechild’s visit and what my answer was, and telling what I thought of the authorities for compelling me to receive such a visitor on such a business. That letter was suppressed, but I was allowed to write another in lieu. This second letter was written in practically the same terms. That also was suppressed, and again I was allowed fresh paper to write another. When the Governor notified me of the suppression of the second letter I asked him what was the reason for the suppression of these letters because the authorities did not wish me to inform my friends of Inspector Littlechild’s visit and the offer he made me.
After a short pause the Governor said: “No; it is not.”
I then wrote the third letter, telling about the visit and my reply to Mr. Littlechild, but avoiding anything in the nature of blaming the authorities. That letter was despatched all right, and the friend to whom I sent it returned it to me after I was released from prison. It is now in my possession.
1 On the previous Christmas I had written to Daly and Egan a skit on Pontius Pilate, alias Governor Harris.