After working some time as a tinsmith in Portland Prison, where I had been engaged at making oil bottles, cannisters and various kinds of tinware, I was shifted out to the yard to the job of packing the manufactured articles.
When changed to this packing job I hadn’t an idea where the tinware I had to pack was being sent to. I merely got orders day by day to pack certain classes of the goods into the cases supplied to me for that purpose. When I finished packing, the cases were immediately taken up to the prison store rooms out of the yard where I worked.
My curiosity was aroused almost as soon as I started on the job as to where the enormous quantity of tinware was being sent. Setting myself to discover this, I soon learnt that the prison authorities had a contract with the Admiralty for supplying such tinware as was used by the English war vessels, and that this tinware I was packing was sent up to Woolwich Arsenal.
This gave me an idea which I at once set myself to work out.
For the purpose of clearly understanding my narrative it will be necessary to explain that one side of the yard I worked in was occupied by the carpenters’ shop. The tinsmiths’ shop adjoined the carpenters’ shop, and formed a second side to the yard, while a sawpit shed and entrance to the yard formed a third side, the fourth side being a blank wall.
Communicating with John Daly, who was then working in the carpenters’ shop, I asked him to try and plane me up a thin piece of stuff, something like a Venetian blind lath, and to manage to drop it out of the shop window into the yard so that I could get it. John, of course, did as I requested, and I smuggled away the lath without the officers inside or the sentry who had charge of me outside noticing anything. I had some black paint for stencilling purposes in connection with lettering and numbering the packing cases, and I gave the lath a coat of this paint. After it was dry I got a piece of chalk (supplied to me for keeping count of the tins I packed) and wrote on the lath: – “For God’s sake throw in a piece of newspaper any old newspaper and earn the gratitude of a long term convict.”
The packing cases were all numbered, and the one I then had ready was No. 24, and it was to be packed full of five-gallon oil bottles, and these were to be packed with cocoanut fibre. The handles of the bottles were all placed upwards, and I ran my lath with the chalk-written message through the handles of three or four of the bottles in such a way that whoever unpacked the case could not fail to notice it. The packing finished, No. 24 was sent away, and in due time it was returned empty to the prison. It was nearly dinnertime the day it reached me in the yard, but I was so anxious to know whether it brought anything that I couldn’t wait till after dinner, so I at once unscrewed the bolts, lifted the lid, and peeped in. The case appeared to be full of newspapers. I hastily closed the lid down again and re-fastened it. There was scarcely time to finish when the bell rang out to knock off labour.
After the usual routine, parading and searching, we of the Penal Cells lined up in our usual places ready to be marched off to our cells. While waiting, Daly (who, of course, knew all about the game I was on) and I got the opportunity to exchange a few words. He had noticed the arrival of No. 24 in the yard, and at once inquired –
“Yes, a donkey load.”
“Good Lord, what can you do with them?”
“Can’t say yet; will think it over in the cell.”
In the cell during dinner hour I thought out a plan of dealing with the situation, which I proceeded to put into execution after our resuming labour.
On getting back to the packing yard I moved the case into a blind corner between the tinsmiths’ and carpenters’ shops, then got a couple of lids of other cases, and with these made a platform on each of the two front sides of the case. Upon these platforms I proceeded to pile up as many bottles as they would hold. All this was done with a view of making it difficult for any of the officers to get near the case when I removed the lid and got inside it.
Having secured all the approaches as far as possible I was then ready to take off the lid. It was hastily removed, and I jumped inside and lost no time in putting the newspapers out of sight by placing them all at the bottom and arranging the cocoanut fibre packing on the top. When satisfied that everything was right I wet the packing and then jumped out and went over to the sentry and told him, with an air of great concern, that the packing in that case was very wet, that if tinware was packed with that fibre there would be such damage to the bottles that they would be rejected and returned, and that someone would get into trouble.
I suggested that he should allow me to take the packing out and spread it on the timbers in the sawpit shed, where it would dry out in a very short time. The sentry went over to the case and examined the packing; finding it quite wet he adopted my suggestion, and ordered me to take the packing and spread it in the shed, and then he moved off that very obliging sentry with his rifle at the shoulder, pacing backwards and forwards a few feet away from me, his chief business being to guard me and see to it that I was guilty of no infringement of prison rules or of any irregularity.
I at once set to work at securing the newspapers. I got into the case, caught up a small bundle of the papers and secured them inside my waistcoat, then gathered up a bundle of the wet packing, holding that in my arm so as to conceal the lump under my waistcoat, got out of the case and over to the shed, and from behind the timbers arranged the packing to dry, and at the same time concealed the papers; then made another journey back and forwards, and kept on repeating this until I had all the papers in safety. Day by day for a long time after this I examined portions of the papers that is, I would take some papers with me when going to the closet and look through them. On discovering a “newsy” bit I would, after reading it, tear it out and take it back with me to be put in concealment in order to be passed on to Daly later.
From this time onwards newspapers of various kinds kept coming into me in fairly good numbers, and what a heavenly break it was on the hideous monotony of convict prison life!
At length I decided to try and get into communication with friends outside through the medium of Woolwich Arsenal. It was not difficult for me to get a sheet of tissue paper, as the high-grade tin that was supplied to the prison came to the tinsmiths’ shop packed with a sheet of tissue paper between the sheets of tin to protect the surface. I provided myself with a sheet of this paper and wrote three different notes on it. One was to the nameless friend in Woolwich Arsenal, who was sending me the newspapers. In this note to him I asked him to write his name and address on the sheet and then send the sheet on to London to a lady whose address I gave, stating that he would get in return a £5 note for himself and a bundle of newspaper cuttings. I told him the £5 note was for himself and the newspaper clippings would be for me, and to send them in the usual way.
The second note on the tissue paper, addressed to the lady friend in London, merely asked her to send on the sheet to my old colleague, Jim. She would understand what I meant, and sent on the notes to James F. Egan, who had been released from Portland some time previously.
The third note, addressed to Egan, read something like this – “Dear Jim, I got a taste of the gold fish you presented to Jerry; ’twas delicious. X also got a taste and pronounced it good. He is well, and has gone in for acrobatics over Wee’s good luck. Please attend to request in above first note. Regards from X and from D1.”
The note to Egan was written in a kind of Prisonese, the translation of which is as follows: – “Dear Jim, I got a read of the newspaper you sent to Blank (a prison officer); it was very interesting. John Daly also got a read of it, and was delighted with the news. He is well and in the best of spirits. Attend to above (Woolwich Arsenal) business. Daly sends regards. Same from Henry H. Wilson.”
The note to Egan, written in the way I wrote it, was a guarantee to him of its genuineness. He was certain when he received it that it came from me, for only Daly or myself could have written it, and only the three of us could understand the language of it that language had been manufactured by ourselves for the purposes of our prison correspondence.
This note went through all right and reached Egan, who lost no time in attending to the business. He and Dr. Mark Ryan went down to Woolwich to the address given on the tissue paper note, and interviewed my nameless friend (he was an Englishman, now dead, otherwise this story would not be written now); they gave him the £5 note and a bundle of newspaper cuttings; the latter came into me all right and were a delightful treat. Egan made the selection, and knew what was likely to be most interesting. This arrangement went on for some time, and I then got ambitious and devised a plan of escape from Portland Prison, which I was satisfied would be successful, if I could only have the assistance of a reliable confederate outside the walls to work in co-operation with me. The question of safely communicating the plan outside seemed to me the principal difficulty in connection with the matter. To overcome this difficulty I decided to communicate the plan in shorthand to Egan as being the less risky way of sending it. Egan and I could read each other’s shorthand. Up to this no shorthand had been used in the notes passing through Woolwich Arsenal.
My nameless friend never suspected I was anything else than an ordinary convict up to the time of Jim Egan and Dr. Ryan’s visit to him. After that he knew he had been showing kindness to one of the Irish Political Prisoners, consequently I feared a note sent to him that would be all in shorthand might alarm him, so I determined before saying anything about the plan of escape to send a note through him to Egan in ordinary writing, but with a short paragraph in shorthand. This I thought would to some extent familiarise him with the shorthand, so that in the following one, which of necessity would have to be a bulky one, he would not baulk at the volume of shorthand. However, that second note was never written, for the reason that a few days after I dispatched the other with the shorthand paragraph an order came down to shift me from the tinsmiths’ party and work I was at, to another party and other work.