Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Forethought for winter nights


There are a few persons in England who remember, and who will never forget while they live, the winter of 1811—1812, for the misery it was to be alone after dark, and the terror of going to bed. On the 9th of that December, the whole family of the Marrs and their shop-boy, near Ratcliffe Highway, were murdered in a quarter of an hour, with singular brutality, their brains being dashed out with a mallet. The servant-girl had been sent out for oysters; and, on her return, the household were all lying dead.

On the 19th of the same month, the whole family of the Williamsons, in the same neighbourhood, were barbarously murdered in the same manner. For some time no discovery was made beyond the arrest of one man, who hanged himself in prison without having made any disclosures. I remember the horror of the murderers being known to be abroad, and the anxiety in every house about bolts and bars, and the search before going to bed. I remember the shrinking from all intercourse with all strangers who applied for work, or by any means obtained access to any dwelling. I was then nine years old; and the care with which parents avoided the subject before the children, and the new indulgence about lights in the chambers, and about placing somebody within call, only deepened the impression on the minds of timid children. I remember being utterly unable to carry a message across the hall after dark, and being so paralysed by a cry of “Stop thief!” in the street, as to be incapable of joining the dance in the middle of the room by firelight.

It was useless to tell us children (as I heard neighbours say to each other) that only two or three persons could well have been engaged in the murder of the Marrs and the Williamsons; and that those two or three probably remained in London, and certainly could not be all over the kingdom at the same time. In many of our cities there were serious alarms of the gang being present; and every stranger in the streets was an object of suspicion. It was a winter never to be forgotten.

This was only a strong instance of the alarm which pervades society from criminals of the worst class being known to be at large. The same sort of panic, less vivid, but still very painful, has recurred repeatedly since. The nearest approach to it was perhaps a few winters ago, when burglaries were extraordinarily frequent. They seemed to be stopped for the time by the servants of a gentleman living in Regent’s Park shooting a burglar.

At present there is something of the same feeling of insecurity from the dreadful cases of rape and murder which have roused the wrath and horror of all England. When we heard, the other day, that Mr. Hall the farmer was dead, we were all thankful that the wretched father of the murdered Miss Hall was out of his pain. If we could hardly bear the thought of her fate—brutally murdered on her way to church—we could not wonder that he took to his bed at once, or that he died before the year was out. And just when he died, there was another case,—that of a poor little servant-girl, sent out for candles, who never returned, and was found dead, set up against a tree.

Both these murders were done by ticket-of-leave men. One of them is hanged: and there seems to be no doubt that the other will be hanged too: but the public mind is not much relieved by the riddance of the individual criminals. The class of ticket-of-leave men is abroad, and the universal terror of them is so strong that, as all sensible men are saying, something must be done to remedy the intolerable evils of our present system,—the sense of insecurity in which we are living on their account, and the injustice with which a large class is treated by us, for the crimes of a very small proportion of their number. All men and women who come out of prison—whatever their offence, and whatever may be their state of mind and character—are feared and hated as much as the desperadoes who are improperly at large. By this injustice and cruelty we are perpetually increasing the amount of crime in the country; for we allow no chance in life to persons who have once offended; and, as to our own sufferings from the sense of insecurity of person and property, we know it too well to need any description of it here.

Everybody says that something must be done. Is there anything that can be done? To this question, so wistfully asked every day, and especially as winter comes on, there is a clear, strong, confident answer by those who know best—“Yes, certainly: the evil may diminish from this day forward; and in a few years it may be entirely at an end.” The case is, in fact, one of gross mismanagement; and there is satisfactory proof that we hold the remedy in our own hands.

The first thing that occurs to many of us is that we did much better under the transportation system. Fifty years ago, when our criminals were hanged in rows, by threes and fours, or by dozens, we did not feel much more secure than at present. There were plenty of people then who cried out, like the tipsy young legislator who remonstrated with Sir Samuel Romilly, “Hang them all, damn them! Hang them all!” whatever their offences were: but it was in such days that the Marr and Williamson murders took place; and it seemed as if crime was actually propagated by the hanging of criminals: so we reduced the capital punishment, and found presently that less crime was perpetrated, and that what was perpetrated was more effectually discovered and punished. So far we succeeded.

At the same time we went on transporting our convicted criminals; and, when they were once shipped off, those who looked no further could rub their hands and say, “There! we are rid of them!” Society here was purified, we said; and a chance was afforded to the convicts to make a new start in a new country, if they chose to reform.

There was a drawback in the fear of returned convicts—a fear like that which prevails about ticket-of-leave men; but it was not very constant or oppressive. There was, however, a sequel to this experience of ours. Year by year we became aware that there was something very wrong in those parts of the world to which we sent hundreds upon hundreds of vicious men (with very few women among them), to poison every society they entered, or to live like wild beasts beyond the margin of society. I saw a family letter from Tasmania, twenty years ago, which revealed to me something of the workings of the system. It was from a gentleman in an official position, which seemed to command everything that the father of a rising family could wish for. He had fine healthy children, and schools were within reach; he had landed property in a district of great fertility and beauty: he had an honourable office with a good salary, and a command of all reasonable comforts and pleasures. Yet he and his wife were so miserable that they declared they must give up everything, and come to England to begin the world afresh, unless the transportation system was immediately discontinued. Anything was better than living in the moral cesspool in which they found themselves. The convicts spoiled their whole life. Not all the care they took to keep their children incessantly in their presence sufficed to prevent the contamination from entering their home, and poisoning the transactions of every day. I need not say more. The colonists generally said the same thing; and some acted so vigorously upon it as to render it impossible to thrust any more of our criminals upon them; and the system came to an end. Western Australia still receives a few, for the sake of their labour; but it is only for a time, and to a very small extent. As regards our needs, the method may be said to be abolished; and it is certain that it can never be resorted to again.

Now that we are obliged to deal with our criminals at home, we have occasion to learn more than anybody knew before of the natural history of the class. That study has produced some happy effects, and on a large scale. It is a vast blessing that the supply of criminals is mainly cut off by the care now taken of the desolate and doomed children who have hitherto grown up as a criminal class. The operation of our Reformatories and Ragged Schools is already very marked in the reduction of crime; and it will become more evident as the old generation of offenders dies out. But we still have to deal with that generation, and with such apprentices as they get hold of; and the crimes and alarms of the present year are a sufficient evidence that there is a good deal more for us to learn and to do.

Thus, it is not a return to transportation, nor any attention that can be paid to reformatory schools—satisfactory as those schools are for their purpose—which will relieve us of the immediate evil of our criminals at large. What is it, then?

“That is plain enough,” some reply. “There is not so much to learn as you pretend. The ticket-of-leave system is the mischief; and what we have to do is to get rid of it. We have never had any peace and comfort since we had ticket-of-leave men roaming the country.”

It is precisely those who make this reply who are most conspicuously in need of more knowledge. They at once fancy tickets-of-leave to be bad things, and suppose all discharged convicts to be ticket-of-leave men. It would puzzle them to have to recommend a plan for disposing of our criminals, in the place of the present system; and they are certainly not qualified to do so if they cannot distinguish between a convict who has gone through his whole term of imprisonment and one who is let out on licence, under a liability to be brought back, to undergo his full term, in case of misbehaviour.

Thus,—after everything has been done to cut off the supply of criminals by taking hold of the children, we must have some method of disposing of our convicts; and none has been proposed that can at all compare with the ticket-of-leave system, either in regard to practicability or to positive success, where it has been well administered. We may ask, on the one hand, where we are to put our convicts if they are not to be let out; and we may show, on the other, a part of the United Kingdom where eighty per cent. of the criminals are restored to society with character and credit.

That part of the kingdom is Ireland, where, under the same law which is supposed to work so badly in England, the ticket-of-leave system works better than any other method ever tried. Though this looks like the same fountain yielding sweet and bitter water, it is not so. The difference is that in Ireland the provisions of the Act have been respected, while in England they are neglected. Our remedy, therefore, is to get the system duly put in practice in England. When that is done, we may be relieved of our insecurity of life and property from so many of our criminals being at large: and till it is done we cannot be relieved.

The class of hard and hopeless criminals is not large. It is a disgrace to a society like ours that it cannot manage that mischievous element: but the failure is partly due to the good-natured mistake of respectable people in imagining criminals to be like themselves in feelings and in views. It does not enter their innocent heads that criminals are not ashamed, but vain of their pursuits; that they have peculiar notions of honour and conscience, and views quite unlike ours of what is desirable in life. Our respectable people therefore do not know what to aim at in the management of our convicts, and do not understand the importance of the system which is entirely spoiled in its operation in England by certain of its provisions being neglected which are carefully fulfilled in the successful cases in Ireland.

Most of us agree so far as this: that the first aim in the management of our convicts is the security of society; and the next, the reformation of the criminal. Beyond that point, most people’s notions are still very hazy: and they cry out for a new system because society ought to be secure from burglary and garotting, and is not, while the burglars and garotters are often found to be ticket-of-leave men, or discharged convicts who are confounded with them.

The manifest necessity of the case is to render society secure by one of two ways; by bringing the criminal to the right view of good, and into the habits which belong to it, or to seclude him from the opportunity of doing mischief. The last method is impracticable for the whole number of our convicts, for their whole lives: and society in England has decided that so much seclusion as is necessary to the other object shall be inflicted, and no more. This is the principle of the ticket-of-leave system; and its soundness is not questioned by any sensible person who rightly apprehends it.

A certain term of imprisonment is specified which the convict is sentenced to fulfil, unless his moral improvement renders him fit to re-enter society sooner. But the relaxation of the sentence is by the Act rendered cautious and gradual, and the punishment remains impending for the whole term, in case of any reason appearing to suppose that the liberated offender is not behaving well. He has the conditions printed on his ticket-of-leave. He is informed that the eye of the police is always upon him; and that he will be brought back to prison, not only if he commits any new offence—(for which he will be more heavily punished than for a first offence)—but if he associates with persons of notoriously bad character, if he leads an idle or dissolute life, or if he has no visible means of livelihood. Such circumstances show that he is not fit to be trusted with freedom; and he will be brought back to prison, to undergo the remainder of his sentence.

So says the Act,—the same Act that is the professed sanction of the system pursued in London and in Dublin. Yet, in Ireland society is relieved of its criminals, and of the dread of them, while in England our suffering from them is what we have seen. The reason of the contrast is that in England those provisions of the Act which relate to the security of society are grossly neglected, while in Ireland they have been taken to heart, and fulfilled with eminent wisdom and conscientiousness. Here we reach the practical point. We, in England, must get its full worth out of the Act, as the administrators at Dublin have done. Instead of crying out against the ticket-of-leave system, we must see that it is faithfully administered, according to law, and fairly brought into use.

The grand consideration is to train the criminal up to a condition of harmlessness, and to make sure that this is done before he is presented with his freedom. He comes into prison hating work and admiring idleness; despising small and gradual earnings, and covetous of sudden and large gains by theft; utterly contemptuous of simplicity and honesty, and respecting and honouring hypocrisy and lying when anything is to be got by them.

It can do no good to shut a man up, full of such notions, which are those of his whole life, and of all his companions; and to suppose that he has changed his mind when he says he has, or when he has behaved well for a certain term; and to let him loose upon society, with a ticket-of-leave. He knows very well that the conditions printed on the ticket will never be thought of again; or he gets out of sight and out of reach, as soon and as nearly as he can; and thus society is again afflicted with the pest which it so dreads. He murders somebody, or commits a burglary, and is brought back to prison under a new sentence. If he is recognised for what he is, his sentence is the heaviest provided by law: and it can hardly be heavy enough for the wrath of society which complains of being haunted by ruffians like these who are every day prematurely released from the punishment of their former crimes. One instance of the operation of the English procedure, as related by four visiting justices of the West Riding, who have been studying the two methods, gives us a fair notion of the working of the system in England.

There is now a convict, six-and-twenty years old, who is likely to be a pest to society for his whole life, if society goes on to treat him as it has done for the last ten years. His story is as follows:

Ten years ago J. H., as I will call him here, was, at the age of sixteen, a well-known thief. He had been repeatedly convicted; and he was then sent to Parkhurst. He behaved so ill that he was further punished at Pentonville for “three years’ continual bad conduct.” When in solitary confinement he always behaves decently; and he obtained some credit on that account at Pentonville, whence he was sent to Portsmouth. By good conduct for a little while longer he could get out; and he did get out at the end of five years—his sentence being for seven. This was on the 4th of September, 1857. Being desired to name some person of respectability who would be likely to employ him—such a precaution existing at that time, but being dispensed with now—he named his own father, who had been described in the description of the boy himself as having been eight times in prison. The family occupation was passing bad coin. In six weeks J. H. was apprehended for a fresh crime, for which he was sentenced to four years’ penal servitude. As usual, he behaved well while in solitary confinement; but, as soon as he was among comrades at Portsmouth again, he made such mischief—stirring up mutiny—that he was flogged, deprived of all advantages previously gained, and sent again to Pentonville. So he went on, between Pentonville and Portsmouth, till in February, 1861, he was actually provided with another ticket-of-leave, on the ground of good conduct!—the remission being even greater than the law allows. In six weeks he was again apprehended, for fresh crime, and was sentenced at the next assizes to ten years’ penal servitude. He arrived at the Wakefield prison with the ominous description—“Character bad: conduct in gaol very good.” We may conclude that, unless the system is looked to, J. H. will win a good many more tickets-of-leave, commit a good many more robberies, cost us his weight in money, and keep society in hot water till the end of his natural life, or till he dies by the halter. If such were the proper working of the ticket-of-leave system, society could not cry out too strongly against it, for it would be doing all that method could do towards the depravation of the convict and the destruction of the security of society.

In Dublin, meanwhile, there was a man who not only considered that the Act was made to be observed, but set all his faculties to work to administer its provisions in the soundest spirit and the completest manner. The name of Walter Crofton will be for ever remembered for this work. Captain Crofton (now Sir Walter) was till lately the Chief Director of Irish Prisons; and it was under his administration that the true method of working the system was recognised and established. The essential parts of his method are these.

Idleness is proved to be an evil and a humiliation by a fair trial of it by the new convict. He is kept idle till he obtains by good behaviour the right to work, and learns by experience that work is an honour and a privilege. He passes through three stages of trial of his conduct under discipline, at school, and at work; his conduct is recorded, and he receives marks accordingly—a certain number of marks entitling him to promotion to a higher class. In brief, his behaviour is observed, recorded, and, above all, tested, from point to point. Bad conduct prevents his rising, or sets him back, or subjects him to punishment, according to its degree; while improvement ensures benefits, more or less distant—the improvement which obtains recompense being altogether of a practical character—talk going for nothing at all from any member of a class which considers hypocrisy to be a talent and a grace.

It takes two years of unbroken good conduct to carry an offender into the first class. A convict under a three years’ sentence must pass through those two years and two months of irreproachable behaviour in the advanced class before he can obtain any remission at all. One under a seven years’ sentence must serve two years in the advanced class; and may thus obtain remission, at the very earliest, after four years’ punishment. In that advanced class marks become unnecessary. The members have now a character to sustain—a reputation of their own winning; and it is supposed that their self-respect will operate as it does outside the prison.

Earnings, small and slow, begin after the probationary stage is past. By the time the advanced class is reached the earnings are 7d. a week for the first six months, and 9d. afterwards. The great privilege of the promotion, however, is the increase of liberty. The men go to and from their work, and on business errands, with no guard but a single warder for each party. It is impossible to over-rate the importance of this gradual introduction to freedom and the ordinary transactions of industrial society.

Even now the convict is not sent roving by himself, to take his chance of good or evil in the world. The Intermediate Prison is to be his abode for a time, benefiting him morally as the Convalescent Hospital benefits the poor infirmary patient, whose disease is subdued, but whose strength is not yet sufficient to bear the roughnesses of life. The Intermediate Prison has no appearance of being a prison at all, as far as bolts and bars, soldiers and police, are concerned. Five warders were looking after sixty men when the West Riding magistrates were at one of these establishments: there was nothing to prevent anybody running away; but, out of a thousand convicts, only two had attempted it. Their work is hard, their diet is lower than in their actual imprisonment, and they have no luxury in their huts. They can spend only sixpence a week (out of the half-crown they earn), and the life is one of considerable hardship, favouring sincerity in the final stage of discipline.

Criminals of the worst class—murderers and the like—are not admitted here. Those who have life sentences have no business among those who are going out. About 75 per cent. of the convicts pass through the Intermediate Prison,—the other 25 per cent. consisting of the excluded class and of those whose health, commutation of sentence, or other circumstances interfere. Almost all, however, who are found in that establishment are grave offenders, and old offenders—often punished, but never before in the way of restoration as they are now.

At last, the convict becomes free. He has earned the remission of a part of his sentence, and he goes out. He does not plunge into the dark, like the English convict, as soon as the gaol doors close behind him. He has established a character so far as that the authorities expect him to do well. He would not otherwise be free; and society regards this as a sort of guarantee on the part of his trainers. Thus, these Irish convicts have no difficulty in getting employment, and beginning an honest life: and they are in fact in great request as labourers,—as the female convicts who have gone through a similar training are as servants. If, after all, unworthy, they have little opportunity for harassing society. All are under the surveillance of the police,—good and bad alike; and their way of life is thoroughly known to those who are in fact responsible for their conduct. An incorrigible offender is presently in durance again; so that the terror of ticket-of-leave men which afflicts English society is almost unknown in Ireland.

It is nothing to our purpose here that the Irish have something worse to dread in the popular disposition to lawlessness, and proneness to murder on land questions. That is a separate affair altogether. Our business now is to see how the curse of our floating criminal class of the worst order can be got rid of; and, if we find that the Directors of Irish prisons can show us the way, to insist that the right way shall be taken by our authorities.

The first step is to insist that the terms of the ticket-of-leave shall be fulfilled. The police must not only know every confined criminal (that is the case already), but must keep every member of the class continually in view; and, whenever a ticket-of-leave man is seen to be living in bad company, to be idle, to be subsisting without honest apparent means, he must be apprehended as a dangerous person, as unworthy of his release, and a proper subject for the full punishment decreed on his trial.

But, if the rascal shifts his place incessantly, and tries new fields of exploit,—what can the police do then? Do not these escaped villains perpetrate new crimes, and receive the punishment of a first offence for what may be the twentieth?

This is too true; and it is one of the main points on which reform is wanted.

It is a scandal and a shame, we all say, that the remnant of our old criminal population,—the generation that is still at its tricks after we have mainly cut off the supply of juvenile apprentices,—is not effectually dealt with by our apparatus of justice. Why cannot we, a practical people, manage a business which after all must be manageable?

We are less able to manage it now than we were five years ago, because Government has thought fit to fix the allowance for the expenses of witnesses so low that the proper evidence of the identity of some culprit with a former offender cannot be had.

The effect is this. John Smith is charged with a burglary or something worse in Devonshire. There is reason to believe that he is the James Salter who has undergone more or less punishment for a robbery in Warwickshire; and he is moreover suspected of being the Jonas Sadler who was in a Derbyshire gaol for some time. The police could clear this up; but if a Warwickshire or a Derbyshire policeman cannot get through a journey to Devonshire on eighteenpence a day, they will not go. They cannot afford to pay out of their own pockets; and their local magistrate writes to excuse them, on the ground of short memory, or some other obstacle. If suspected ticket-of-leave men thus escape identification and its consequences, many more escape even the suspicion. Instead of every known criminal member of the population being watched by the police, it is impossible to get the strongest suspicions verified.

The Recorder of Birmingham tells us in print that he is “informed by the authorities of Birmingham that the governor of the gaol in a neighbouring county wrote to them to request them not to require the attendance of his officers, as the poor men really could not afford the loss imposed upon them by their journeys.” Shall we be so penny wise and pound foolish as to let loose our worst criminals before their time, to murder, rob, and do worse, to save the expenses of witnesses who could tell who they were? This seems incredible; yet this is what is happening, under the direction and control of Sir George Grey.

In 1858, it was found that some abuses had happened, under the pretence of this payment of witnesses. A tariff was framed which may afford sufficient payment to some witnesses, but which certainly subjects others to loss, if they do their duty. As they cannot bear the loss, they shirk the duty. It is well understood also that crimes are passed over without notice, because the witnesses are afraid of the loss they would incur if they were bound over to give evidence. Some of my readers may remember that the magistrates and grand jury of South Lancashire prepared a memorial on this subject, two years ago, after discovering the fatal effects of the reduced tariff.

Other representations of the same kind followed: the whole Bar has but one opinion upon it: and Sir George Grey has so far given way as to have proposed that the pay of witnesses shall be augmented on occasion from the local rates. Those rates are not the fund which ought to be charged in such a case, because the desire for economy will be almost as strong an impediment in the way of justice as the economy of individuals. It is miserable work,—this spreading of temptation to the frustration of justice in a country suffering under the difficulties of a change of system. No money can be better spent than in getting a sure hold of every known criminal, and preventing his doing more mischief.

Till this is done, and until we can show here in this realm of England what Ireland has already shown—the certain reformation and restoration of eighty per cent. of her convicts—we are in danger of a life of terrorism under the virtual dominion of a small but bold class of criminals, and of our popular character sinking into a resemblance to the Irish in its lowest phase,—that of connivance at crime and obstruction of justice.

This must be looked after in the next session of parliament. After the strong alarm and disgust excited by the outrages of ticket-of-leave men this year, it cannot be difficult to find members of parliament who will guide, correct, or sustain the Home Secretary in reversing the mistake of 1858, in the matter of the expenses of witnesses. The thing will not bear delay.

From the Mountain.