It was not the fault of the prison authorities if Littlechild’s mission wasn’t more successful. If making things hot for us could have prepared the way for his success, he certainly would have succeeded. We were never so mercilessly or savagely dealt with as we were for two or three years previously. In the preceding winter I underwent some forty days’ punishment inside of three months. It had been an exceptionally cold winter, and, after taking from me portions of my clothing, I was put into the coldest cell in the prison – one that was known as the Arctic cell. Some time before I had to complain to the director about this cell being so frightfully cold that I had known the thermometer on frosty days, with a north-eastern blowing, to stand some degrees below freezing point. I got forty days’ starvation and solitary confinement in that cell. Talk of hunger and cold! Many a time I was forced to chew the rags I got to clean my tinware in an effort to allay the hunger pangs.
One day when I was nearing the end of this punishment, wanting to leave the cell for a moment, I put out my signal. After a while the officer came and let me out, and then stood looking over the corridor railing, apparently interested in the ward below. I went off along the corridor, and nearing the end my heart gave a great jump. There on the floor beside one of the cell doors were several pieces of broken bread. I was absolutely starving and could have eaten it ravenously, but like a flash a revulsion of feeling came, and in my impotent rage and misery I uttered curses fierce and bitter against English villainy as ever Irishman uttered. The blackguard officer, whose name was Membry, had got me thirteen days of the long spell of punishment I was doing, and, not satisfied, he had put that bread there thinking that in my famished state J could not resist taking it. He stood pretending to look into the ward below, but his eye was on my every movement, and had I touched the bread he would have pounced upon me and taken it from me, and would have had me up before Pontius Pilate to be awarded still more punishment for “stealing bread.” Many will think such incidents incredible, and before I went to prison I should have thought them incredible too.
By the time I had finished that terrible forty days I was so weak and exhausted that I was unable to straighten myself or to stand upright, and I could not walk without staggering like a drunken man. Being absolutely exhausted I applied to the doctor to be put on light labour for a while, as I was unfit to do hard labour. It was customary for any prisoner who applied to be put on light labour, to have his request acceded to, because light labour entails a corresponding reduction of food. But my application was refused, and, exhausted as I was, I was kept at hard labour and had to work out my salvation as best I could.
Twenty-three of the forty days I had been sentenced to was given me by the Governor on a false charge. An officer charged me with having a piece of newspaper in my possession, though I knew no more of it than a person who had never stood inside the prison gates. However, some years afterwards, I had the satisfaction of honestly earning the twenty-three days with compound interest, for I managed by an underground channel to get in newspapers wholesale for about two years as well as to carry on communication with outside friends without being suspected. How this was done will be told in the next chapter.
It was at this time I read a copy of Mr. Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill in the Weekly Freeman. I got the paper while at labour, and the question was how to get the bulky thing into my cell, for only in the cell and on Saturday evening would it be possible for me to read it. The paper contained not only the bill but the debate on its introduction. My usual way of dealing with a newspaper was to tear out the most interesting paragraphs and articles and bring them into my cell one at a time concealed in my underclothing, somewhere easy to come at in case of emergency. The uninteresting portions I destroyed at once. But I could not deal with the Home Rule Bill and debate in this way, for it filled several pages, and it was, need I say it, so very interesting that it would have to be brought into the cell entire and read, re-read, and studied.
To meet the rub-down search that was certain, and the special search that was possible, I got a piece of brown wrapping paper and tore it into the shape of an insole for my boot. Then folding the Weekly Freeman, I put it into the bottom of one of my boots with the paper insole over it. From this it will be seen how neat and well-fitting our boots must have been. My next move was to make a needle. The mere making was not a very difficult task, as I was a tinsmith, and had the tools necessary to do the job, but to do it and the rest without letting the officers suspect anything required rather artful dodging. But at this time dodging the officers’ eyes and dodging the prison rules had been reduced to a fine art by Daly and myself.
Well, when the bell rang to knock off labour I was ready with the needle in my mouth so that I could quietly spit it out in case of emergency, and the newspaper in my boot prepared for either “rub-down” or special search. There was no special search that day, and of course I got through the rub down easily enough, and as soon as I got to my cell I ripped open my mattress and placed the newspaper in the centre of it under the cover and then threaded my needle and sewed up the mattress again. Your old convict has always some thread hidden away somewhere in his cell.
All this occurred sometime in the middle of the week, and when Saturday afternoon came the mattress was again ripped open and the paper taken out and the remainder of the evening was spent reading the speeches, studying the Bill, and making notes. Next day, Sunday, I passed the notes to Daly with the paper and the needle so that if he was not able to finish the reading before turning out in the afternoon he could do as I had done, conceal the contraband in his mattress.
Talking of newspapers reminds me of the first and only time I edited a paper. It was in prison in the worst days of the Chatham régime, while I was working as a stereotyper in the printers’ shop. Daly, in his notes to me at this time, took to writing in newspaper style, using the editorial “We” on all occasions. Entering into his humour I told him I would give him a head-line in a week or so to show him how a thing of that kind ought to be done. So I set myself the task of printing a newspaper, or rather a sheet resembling a newspaper, for news I had none. It certainly was a difficult thing to attempt under the eyes of the five officers in the shop, who had me, as an Irish prisoner, singled out for special surveillance, and it had to be carried through without arousing the slightest suspicion. As a start I made “pie” of a couple of forms I had got to stereotype – that is, I loosened the quoins or wedges and spilled the type all in a heap. Then I went to the officer in charge and reported this “accident,” and asked him to allow me to take down some cases from the compositors’ department to my own corner and reset the job. I got permission, and brought down the cases and was ready to start on my newspaper.
Of course, I wasn’t going to waste much time sorting the “pie,” and instead of going into the cases it went into my melting pot, I worked at my paper at every odd moment I could, and it was only occasionally I could get a few minutes unobserved, and after eight or nine days I got it up after sundry accidents and close shaves of being detected. The next difficulty was to get it printed, for each machine and press in the shop had men working round it, and I had to be just as careful of them as of the officers, for they would have been only too glad to give me away to curry favour. It was out of the question, to approach any of them, but necessity is truly the mother of invention. “Any port in a storm,” I thought, and turned to my stereotyper’s oven. This I saw would answer the purpose. A stereotyper’s oven is an apparatus closely resembling a letter-copying press, and I placed my first page on the bed of the oven, inked it, and laid the paper on the type, brought down the top plate, and applied the necessary pressure. It printed beautifully, and in turn each page of my newspaper was printed off. It was on tissue paper, because ordinary paper would have been too bulky to escape the everlasting searches.
Anyhow, on Sunday I delivered the paper to Daly, and his coughing and chuckling in his cell that evening told me how he was enjoying the perusal of it. I have said that it was a newspaper without news, but in appearance, except that it was printed on tissue paper, it might easily be taken for a newspaper just come in from the outside world. In capitals on the top of page one was the name “The Irish Felon,” and under that in small capitals came the information – “Printed and Published at Her Majesty’s Convict Prison, Chatham, by Henry Hammond Wilson, Saturday, such and such a date.” The leading article was as treasonable as a leading article could well be. Next followed a page of what purported to be news, then an essay on prison philosophy, and I had one page illustrated. The illustrations were wood-cuts of convicts who had escaped from prison, and whose portraits had appeared in the Hue and Cry. A couple of the most villainous-looking of these pictures, with “criminal bumps” and all that, were made to stand for the infamous Sadlier and Keogh, and served as pegs upon which to hang the story of these renegades’ base betrayal.
Another meek and harmless-looking photo was made to stand for that wise old gent who was supposed to be versed in all ancient lore, and who wrote interestingly upon the domestic policy of the Lacedaemonians – this old party, when interviewed by the representative of “The Irish Felon,” had a great deal to say about England’s Prison System – very little of it complimentary. Of course, there was a poet’s corner where I dedicated some verse to Pontius Pilate alias Governor Harris, not very complimentary to that gentleman, commencing with:
The song I’ll sing
In the air will ring,
Of Pontius Pilate O!
That thundering thief,
Our Chatham chief,
The grunting dog you know.
I forget the rest of it, but the last verse ended: –
So come along
And raise the song,
Damn Pontius Pilate O!
Pontius Pilate little suspected that while he and his assistants were striving with might and main to destroy us, body and mind, we were indulging in such amusements and having such gibes at him.