One of the most extraordinary characters I met whilst inside the prison walls was “Bobby Burns.” He was certainly the strangest, and in a class all by himself. Bobby had been born in Ireland, but lived a long while in Scotland, where he had been convicted for forgery, I believe.
From the point of view of the prison authorities Bobby was one of the worst characters, if not the very worst, that ever came inside a convict prison gate. Yet Bobby Burns is associated in my memory only with kind thoughts – kinder thoughts than I have for any prison official – be he priest, parson, doctor, or warder.
The first time we became aware of Bobby’s existence was on a certain Sunday in Chatham when we Irish political prisoners were at exercise, monotonously walking around the ring in the prison yard, with a ten-pace distance between each two, several officers being in charge of the party. All of a sudden we heard a terrible smashing of glass; it came from one of the cell windows overlooking our yard; the glass was being rapidly smashed, pane by pane, as if with a sledge-hammer. The whole thing only took a few seconds, but it was a clean job – not a particle of glass remained in the sash. Immediately could be seen the jolly smiling face of a prisoner clutching the iron guardbars with both hands. His first words were – “Cheer up, boys. To hell with the Crown and Constitution. I wanted to see you as I heard you were Irish Fenians. God save Ireland. Maybe you’d like a song,” and off he started to sing “Who Fears to Speak of Ninety-Eight?” He had a loud voice, and that song seemed to ring all round the prison. Our officers had tried to frighten him down by shouting at him and shaking their clubs at him, but Bobby quite ignored them. All the same he didn’t get far with the song; the officers inside had interrupted him and pulled him down from the window, and the next thing we heard was the sounds of scuffling, jangling of key chains, and Bobby’s howls of pain as the officers beat him with their clubs. Then we heard the cell doors close as the officers left his cell, and immediately Bobby was up at the window again to resume the song as if nothing had happened.
For many a Sunday after that Bobby appeared regularly at the window and sang Irish songs for us. I don’t think there is an Irish rebel song known to me that I haven’t heard Bobby sing during those Sunday concerts. Of course, all the time Bobby was liable to interruption by the officers coming in and pulling him down and beating him, but just as soon as they would go out and close the cell door Bobby would get up to the window again and continue as if nothing had happened. Sometimes he used to inform us in a kind of stage whisper – “That was Parker and Beel (or whoever it might be) in murdering me.”
At times Bobby would vary the programme by introducing an impromptu speech full of “local colour.” We heard him on a variety of topics, but his pet subject was “English Humanity as illustrated by the Convict System of the Country.” Certainly Bobby should have been an authority on the subject. He had been through the whole course – flogging, penal chains, parti-coloured dress, dark cells, silent cells, penal cells, semi-dark cells, No. 1 scale and plank bed accompaniment, and all the other varieties of punishment for torturing the human mind and body.
Poor fellow! All the time we knew him he was constantly under punishment. Punishment, some of it sanctioned by prison rules, but the worst and more brutal punishment inflicted upon him at the whim of the individual officers. The officers had every opportunity to do this in the lonely separate cells. Many a time we have heard poor Bobby “done up” in his cell. At times he would get frantic and rave and howl like a frenzied lunatic. At times, when he would keep this up too long, he would be brought over and put into one of the “silent cells,” below where we were located in the penal cell. He could there howl all he wished, but no word of it could be heard outside once the cell door closed upon him. These “silent cells” were dark, and with their peculiar cone-shaped roof were specially constructed to allow no sound to escape out.
The hand of every official in the prison was against Bobby, and Bobby’s hand was against them. Yet he was not by any means a vicious character. As far as I could learn Bobby’s bad conduct started over a question of religion. He was a Presbyterian, and on certain week days he, in common with those of other Protestant denominations, had to attend services in the Church of England Chapel. Bobby protested and refused to go; and kept on refusing and getting punished for this every time. However that may have been, he certainly had no respect for prison rules, and at the time we knew him he appeared to treat with contempt all prison rules and regulations; his voice was always to be heard, speech-making or singing, loud laughing or howling with pain from beating – Bobby couldn’t be subdued.
On one occasion Bobby was awarded a flogging thirty-six lashes with the “cat” – officers and everyone else thought that would subdue him for a while at least. They brought him out to the yard and fastened him up to the “triangle” (all floggings took place outside the cell windows of the Irish political prisoners) and gave him his flogging. He was then taken back to his cell, and the doctor had the usual large plaster of zinc ointment applied to his lacerated back. In a couple of hours after, when the officer opened the cell door to inspect him, he found Bobby sitting on his bed-board with one knee thrown over the other, his arms folded and his cell pot (the only thing allowed him in the punishment cell) jauntily placed on the side of his head for a hat, and Bobby himself singing at the top of his voice an old popular music-hall song – “Oh, we’ll carry on the same old game.”
Poor Bobby! I believe he died in Chatham before we were shifted away.
Speaking of Bobby’s treatment reminds me of another prisoner who worked for a while with me in the foundry. This was George Barton, who was decidedly feeble-minded, and afforded great amusement to the officers, and, indeed, to most of the prisoners, by his queer, uncouth ways. George worked the handle of the coal-grinding machine in the foundry. This was the only work it was safe to put George at, as he had merely to keep on turning the wheel.
One day a brute of an officer named “Bully Parker” came to the foundry door and stood speaking to the officer in charge. Parker caught sight of George in the corner beside him (I worked in the opposite corner) and went over and said something to George. I didn’t catch what it was, but I saw Parker draw back and give the poor simpleton a terrible kick in the stomach. George gave a wild yell and fell down unconscious. Parker dashed out laughing. The officer in charge bade one of the other prisoners bring over some water, and after a while George regained consciousness and was helped to his legs – he appeared to be in great pain – sobbing and crying he leaned on the wheel for support.
I went over to the officer in charge and made application to speak to the chief warder when he next came around, then went back to my work. Soon after Principal Warder Ruffel came in, and I was brought over to him, and I made complaint to him of what had happened, Barton all the time crying and moaning. Ruffel went out, and after a few moments two assistant warders came in and took Barton to the infirmary. I never saw him again, but I heard he died in a very short time after being taken to the infirmary.
I told of this incident in a letter soon after the occurrence; that letter was suppressed, and should be found amongst the other suppressed letters, etc., in the Prison Department of the Home Office.
The English convict prisons, as I knew them, contained a motley assortment of criminals drawn from the different strata of English society. The ex-M.P. was there, the banker and snip broker represented; we had lawyers and doctors, policemen and soldiers, artisans and labourers, wastrels and scoundrels of various degrees. As the years passed, on they came, criminals all, thousands of them, passing in from the gutters of English civilisation and passing out again. I had them for companions – these criminals, guilty of almost every crime in the calendar, ranging from the multi-murderer down to the court-martialled soldier. But let that pass. England might force me to associate with the dregs raked in from the gutters, might shave my head like theirs, and stamp the Government broad arrow all over me; humiliation might be heaped on to me with an unsparing hand, and punishments – diabolically brutal – measured out for years, but never for one moment did I forget I was an Irish Political Prisoner, and, in spite of it all, never felt any degradation. On the contrary, I wore that convict garb with a certain amount of pride, and took satisfaction in the thought that all her laws and with all her power this great England could not force me – one of the mere units of the Irish rank and file – to regard myself as one of the criminal class any more than I could ever be forced to regard myself as English.
The struggle for Irish freedom has gone on for centuries, and in the course of it a well-trodden path has been made that leads to the scaffold and to the prison. Many of our revered dead have trod that path, and it was these memories that inspired me with sufficient courage to walk part of the way along that path with an upright head.