It is popularly supposed that prisoners are taught trades in English Convict Prisons. Such was not the case during my time in Penal Servitude. At most they may get opportunities to pick up one or more trades. That is, a prisoner might be put into one of the trade shops and be given some tools and some material and get a piece of work to do which in reality would be extremely simple to the ordinary tradesman in the shop. It would not be explained to him how he must set about doing the job, yet they have a class of officers known as “trades warders,” who are supposed to understand tradesman’s work, but these officers do not teach trades to the prisoners – as a matter of fact, they only visit the shops occasionally and then but to give orders concerning what jobs are to be done, never to teach a prisoner how to learn a trade.
The green hand in a shop may by observation pick up how to do his first piece of work – that is, by keeping an eye upon how the old hands do things. After a time, the new hand, should he master the simple work, gets other work a bit more difficult; that finished, he gets something still more advanced, and so on step by step.
If the prisoner lacks observation or has no aptitude for the work, he may, as happens with a great many prisoners, remain in the shop for years, and at the end know very little more about the trade than the first day he was put to it. What I state in reference to learning trades is accurate as far as it applies to the ordinary convict. But in the case of Irish Political Prisoners this business of learning a trade was a frightful experience, because of the countless opportunities it afforded to the officers in the trade shop to wreak vengeance upon us – opportunities that were fully availed of. In this connection it must be remembered that at the time of our conviction all England was panic-stricken. The English imagination got rattled and started to work overtime at high pressure speed. There was blood on the moon and a skirmisher or Irish Fenian to be seen at every turn.
The panic was at its height when we were arrested in London. Immediately the howl went up for vengeance. A special Bill dealing with the situation was introduced in Parliament by the Government of the day and passed into law in record time. If I remember rightly, that Bill was introduced, read the necessary number of times in the Commons and House of Lords, and received the Royal signature, all in about twenty-four hours. However, to come back to our conviction, once inside the walls of the Convict Prison we were soon made to realise that the prison gates closed out from us a great many things that we had been familiar with in the outside world. But the prison gates did not close out from us the spirit of vengeance that was holding sway throughout England. That spirit held inside the walls with far greater intensity than it did outside; it was the atmosphere of the place all the years we were there right up to the end. Now, to come back to the matter of learning trades. Let me take at random the trade of tinsmith and my own early experience in learning the trade.
The first day I was put into the shop the officer in charge gave me a set of tools – hammer, rasps, soldering irons and a quantity of soldering liquid – he showed me a place at one of the work benches and told me my place at work would be there at the bench beside a soldering stove. A number of partly completed oil bottles were placed on the bench before me and some bottle necks, and he told me to “go ahead and solder the necks to the bottles.” Never having been inside a tinsmith’s shop in my life before I hadn’t the remotest idea how to set about doing the job, and I am sure looked as foolish and awkward as I felt. It was out of the question to ask any of the prisoners around me how I should do the soldering – to have done so would have brought me three days’ bread and water punishment on a charge of “speaking to another prisoner,” nor dare I stand there doing nothing, that would have brought me three days’ bread and water with the accompaniment of “plank bed” on a charge of “idleness during working hours.”
Although new to the tinsmiths’ shop I was at this time quite an old hand at the game of learning trades, as I had already mastered several of them, so knowing the ropes I started in to make things a bit lively for myself by holding up my hand and going to the officer and quietly informing him (what, of course, he already knew) that I knew nothing about tinsmith work, and was at a loss to know how I was to do the soldering. Then the expected happened. That officer glared at me and roared at me, and proceeded to empty the vials of his wrath upon my wooden head for not knowing how to do such a simple thing as solder a seam; I was the limit of stupidity, and, in his opinion, there was so little brains in that numbskull of mine that, by God, he wondered whether I knew enough to eat my dinner when I returned to my cell. I knew better than to interrupt him; were I to do so I would get three days’ punishment on a charge of “Insolence to an officer.” However, he exhausted his stock of nice talk on me for the time being, and came to a stop by sarcastically inquiring if by any chance I could condescend to open my eyes and look at the way the men beside me were soldering, and advised me to waste no more time idling but to get to my work and solder damned quick.
The soldering seemed very simple, indeed, when one watches a workman doing it. Smear on some liquid on the tin, heat the iron, and apply the solder to the joint and make the seam with the heated iron. How many times by my mistakes have I given the officer a chance to open out and lash me with his tongue! My iron not hot enough or my iron too hot, and the tinning burnt off it or trying to solder without cleaning the iron, or trying to do it, and forgetting to apply the “spirits,” and so on, at each mistake I got it – his jeers, his scorn, his sarcasm, his outrageous insults. But, merciful God! why need I go over it again – day in, day out, harassed and worried at each step. On it went from week’s end to week’s end for years, until the trade was mastered. No sooner had I arrived at the point of being as good a tradesman as any other man in the shop, and thus becoming, to some extent, free from continuous nig-nag, than I would be shifted off to another shop to make a fresh start to learn another trade, with the full accompaniment of incessant harassing, and then having, after years of learning, mastered that one, only to be again shifted off to learn another, and so on.
From the cleaners’ party I was moved off to the foundry, where after four or five years I learnt iron moulding; out of that away to learn stereotyping, then on to learn japanning and stencilling, from that to carpentering and joinery; mastering that shifted off to learn tinsmithing; from the tinsmiths’ shop to learn wood turning; after mastering that set at pattern-making – continuous performance for almost sixteen years.
The officers of the prison – whether in Chatham or Portland – left nothing undone to make life miserable for us. During the day, whether at work, on parade, or in our cells, they harassed us all the time. During the night it was the same, especially during the years when they were applying the “no sleep torture” – while this lasted we never could get longer than an hour’s sleep at a time. Then it was the sterling friendship of manly comrades counted for much. Then it was, John Daly and James Francis Egan, that I learned to know your nobleness of soul. Yes, when your own hearts were wrung with anguish under the torture you were suffering, no weak cry, no coward’s whine fell from you. You were men all the time, you had only a pleasant face and a word of sympathy in your cheery notes for your younger comrade.