Experience taught us that while in our cells we never could be certain when the officer’s eye was looking in at us through the “Judas hole.” The shape and colouring of this inspection aperture, together with the glass on the spy hole, made it impossible to tell whether or not the officer’s eye was at the hole. While patrolling the corridors the officers wore fustian shoes and moved about so stealthily that no sound betrayed him to the prisoner inside. This made it very difficult to write or read notes with safety. Not being able to rely on sight or hearing to safeguard ourselves from this danger, nature after a time came to the rescue and enabled us to cultivate the sense of smell to a degree that would astonish mortals living in the world of this twentieth century civilization.
In the Penal Cells Building the tiers of cells occupied one side, and these opened on to corridors; a plain wall with windows formed the other side of the building. These windows, for purposes of ventilation, were always left open; as a consequence a current of air, carrying an “institution” smell, swept around the corridors and was carried into the cells by means of a shaft, the opening of which was overhead in the doorway outside. A prison has a smell peculiar to institutions where crowds of humanity are herded together in a building. I have noticed similar smells in asylums, workhouses, etc. However, the smell of a convict prison has an unmistakable individuality. An officer might slip along to the cell door as noiselessly as he wished, but some foreign smell from him, such as hair-oil, tobacco, blacking from his accoutrements, beer, etc., would be wafted into the cell to give warning to the prisoner inside of danger – that an officer was hovering around outside, probably watching in. For years I trusted to my sense of smell to detect the silent sleuth outside my door who was on the alert to discover infringements of the Prison Rules. Many a time it gave me timely warning. Never did it fail me.
I have referred to the multitudinous notes that passed between my comrades and myself. We got our supply of black-lead pencils for years from John Daly. He worked in the carpenters’ shop and was able to secure all we needed for our purpose; but on one occasion a note of Egan’s with a piece of black-lead pencil in it went astray and fell into the hands of the enemy. The Governor – Pontius Pilate – at once gave orders that Daly was not to be allowed any pencil at his work- that a piece of chalk was to be supplied to him instead, and friend John for a long while had to do carpentry work as best he could without a pencil. We were then in sore straits for pencils to write notes to each other. At this time I was working as a moulder in the iron foundry, and I set myself at work to make some black-lead pencils. I had some black-lead of the kind used for cleaning stoves and grates, and there was any amount of fire clay and also blue clay in the foundry. I got a piece of fire clay and dissolved a lump of it in water, and after allowing it to stand for a couple of minutes poured off the water (which, of course, held minute particles of clay in suspension) into another vessel, which I left to stand till next day, when all the particles of clay had fallen to the bottom. Emptying off the water I gathered up the clay. I did exactly the same with the blue clay, and then mixed together the black-lead, fire clay and blue clay in such proportions as I thought would turn out when properly baked a good writing lead.
I rolled the stuff out into long thin cylinders and brought them up to the drying room, where all cores for use in the foundry were baked. The prisoner in charge of this drying room (I’ll call him here by a fictitious name), Billy Jackson, was very friendly to me as I had done him a few kind turns, and he always stood ready to oblige me at all times. I got Billy to carefully bake the pencils for me, and on getting them back found they wrote beautifully. But they had one very bad defect – they would not resist moisture. For our purpose it was absolutely necessary they should possess this quality of resisting moisture, as our safest place to conceal the lead pencil if a sudden alarm came was to put it in the mouth. Assuming that the defect in my articles was due to their not being sufficiently baked, I again took them to Billy Jackson and asked him to pile up his fires and give the pencils all the heat he possibly could. Billy did as I asked, but it was all to no purpose, the pencils still would melt in the mouth.
I tried again and again, altering the proportion of the blacklead and clays each time, but I couldn’t manage it – they could not resist the moisture. I finally came to the conclusion that the trouble lay in the direction of their not getting a sufficiency of heat, that they required something more intense than Billy’s drying room could furnish. At this time I was engaged at making solid cylinder castings that weighed about a ton each. In getting one of the moulds ready I inserted the pencils about an inch down below the surface of the bottom. When the mould was ready the ton of molten metal was poured into it, and, of course, the pencils an inch below the surface were subject to a terrific heat – a heat so great that the sand of the mould would be still glowing red hot for several inches all around the casting when it would be uncovered next morning. Upon digging out my pencils and testing them I found they were still failures – they would still melt. The fault obviously lay in the ingredients, but, of course, I was restricted to the materials that were at my disposal.
Failing in this, it occurred to me that the crucibles used in brass foundry work were made of graphite, so I told Billy Jackson my troubles, and asked him to try and get me a few pieces of old crucible the first time one got broken at the brass foundry beside the drying room. It was not long till Billy had a few pieces for me, but on testing them on a sheet of paper I found they wouldn’t do, as the molten brass had penetrated the graphite when the crucible was in use, and this grit tore the flimsy paper when I tried to write.
Again I told Billy my trouble, and explained that if I could only get a bit of new crucible I was certain it would make a good pencil. Billy struck a melodramatic attitude and asked, “Do you want a piece of new crucible?” I said “Yes.” “Then wait a second,” and over he jigged to a dark corner singing: –
“The Marquis of Lorne
Had a little one born,” etc.
He returned to the middle of the room carrying a very large new crucible between his hands, again striking an attitude and in best tragedy tones he apostrophised the ceiling, “Romans, countrymen and lovers, Wilson wants new crucible and the gods are kind and are going to give him the wish of his heart.” Crash went the crucible on the floor smashed to smithereens. I mildly remonstrated with him for doing this. He shook a reproachful finger at me as he reminded me it was only Government property. I took away a few pieces of the graphite. It served the purpose well, and the stock lasted until we struck luck again and were able to get real lead pencils.
Billy Jackson was a unique character. There in that dark, almost air-tight room, heated to nearly suffocation point, Billy was most of the time as merry as a lark – sometimes perched on the top of a big cask, with his arms folded, he sang his songs or his hymns with great gusto. He rarely got into trouble with the authorities, though. In fact, I only remember him to have been “reported” once. I was standing in the delinquent line that same evening waiting to be brought before the chief warder on some charge or other. Billy’s turn came before mine, and when the officer preferred the charge against him – “whistling and making unnecessary noise in his cell” – the chief warder asked Billy what he had to say to the charge. Billy answered that he was only whistling in a whisper and didn’t think he could be heard outside the cell. Chief Warder – “What were you whistling?” Billy – “‘Jerusalem the Golden,’ sir.” Chief Warder to officer standing by – “Is that right?” Officer – “No, sir; he was whistling ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me.'” “It won’t do, Billy,” said the chief warder, and Billy was sent on to the governor to get bread and water.
On one occasion I went up to the drying room to get some cores for the work I had in hand. Standing at the door, I signalled Billy. He told me to wait a bit, that he was busy. He was engaged at doing something at one of his fires. After waiting a few minutes, fearing the officer would get on to me for delaying, I shouted in to Billy to hurry up. He snappishly told me he couldn’t as he was busy. He certainly seemed very intent upon whatever work he was doing. Finding the officer’s eye off me I stepped in to the fire and found Billy with a piece of stick stirring something in an old swab can.
To my surprise I saw that the contents of the can seemed to be a rich-looking soup, with vegetables and other things in it. Inquiring what the deuce he was up to, Billy told me he was making turtle soup.
“Wait a few minutes,” said he, “and it will be ready and I’ll give you some. ‘Tis grand, I have made it several times before.”
“But,” said. I, “where in thunder did you get the stuff?”
Striking one of his characteristic attitudes he made answer in this fashion – “J464, there are more things in heaven or a prison hell than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Let me tell you I cleaned out my swab can, that’s the saucepan, and I got water at the tap. When last over emptying ashes in the dust-pit, beside the cook-house, I sneaked some old cabbage leaves that were lying there. The screw’s (officer’s) eye was off me and I slipped them under my coat and brought them back. I got some Russian tallow from Hansford (the Instructor) – I have to get some for my work – but this was grand fresh stuff. I brought the bread crusts from the cell in my boots. It makes fine soup; it is nearly done; I’ll give you some.”
Hungry as I was that concoction was too much for me, and I declined Billy’s hospitality, but none the less I appreciated the generosity of that starving wretch’s offer.
The last time I had a talk with Billy he asked me if I knew how poteen was made in Ireland (Billy was a Cockney). I described the process as well as I could, and then asked him why he wanted to know. He told me he had been reading an article in one of the magazines dealing with the making of poteen and that he intended to make some. I inquired how he proposed to do it. He said he had just got in two empty molasses barrels from the stores to break up for firewood, but that he could get nearly a quart of molasses out of them; that, of course, he had any amount of gas pipe for core iron purposes that he could utilise for a worm, and that he had running water at the tap in the corner. A few days later I was moved off to another party, and never heard whether or not Billy succeeded in making his Irish poteen.