Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens

Chapter xii

The Prisoners’ Van

We were passing the corner of Bow-street, on our return from a lounging excursion the other afternoon, when a crowd, assembled round the door of the Police-office, attracted our attention. We turned up the street accordingly. There were thirty or forty people, standing on the pavement and half across the road; and a few stragglers were patiently stationed on the opposite side of the way — all evidently waiting in expectation of some arrival. We waited too, a few minutes, but nothing occurred; so, we turned round to an unshorn, sallow-looking cobbler, who was standing next us with his hands under the bib of his apron, and put the usual question of ‘What’s the matter?’ The cobbler eyed us from head to foot, with superlative contempt, and laconically replied ‘Nuffin.’

Now, we were perfectly aware that if two men stop in the street to look at any given object, or even to gaze in the air, two hundred men will be assembled in no time; but, as we knew very well that no crowd of people could by possibility remain in a street for five minutes without getting up a little amusement among themselves, unless they had some absorbing object in view, the natural inquiry next in order was, ‘What are all these people waiting here for?’ — ‘Her Majesty’s carriage,’ replied the cobbler. This was still more extraordinary. We could not imagine what earthly business Her Majesty’s carriage could have at the Public Office, Bow-street. We were beginning to ruminate on the possible causes of such an uncommon appearance, when a general exclamation from all the boys in the crowd of ‘Here’s the wan!’ caused us to raise our heads, and look up the street.

The covered vehicle, in which prisoners are conveyed from the police-offices to the different prisons, was coming along at full speed. It then occurred to us, for the first time, that Her Majesty’s carriage was merely another name for the prisoners’ van, conferred upon it, not only by reason of the superior gentility of the term, but because the aforesaid van is maintained at Her Majesty’s expense: having been originally started for the exclusive accommodation of ladies and gentlemen under the necessity of visiting the various houses of call known by the general denomination of ‘Her Majesty’s Gaols.’

The van drew up at the office-door, and the people thronged round the steps, just leaving a little alley for the prisoners to pass through. Our friend the cobbler, and the other stragglers, crossed over, and we followed their example. The driver, and another man who had been seated by his side in front of the vehicle, dismounted, and were admitted into the office. The office-door was closed after them, and the crowd were on the tiptoe of expectation.

After a few minutes’ delay, the door again opened, and the two first prisoners appeared. They were a couple of girls, of whom the elder — could not be more than sixteen, and the younger of whom had certainly not attained her fourteenth year. That they were sisters, was evident, from the resemblance which still subsisted between them, though two additional years of depravity had fixed their brand upon the elder girl’s features, as legibly as if a red-hot iron had seared them. They were both gaudily dressed, the younger one especially; and, although there was a strong similarity between them in both respects, which was rendered the more obvious by their being handcuffed together, it is impossible to conceive a greater contrast than the demeanour of the two presented. The younger girl was weeping bitterly — not for display, or in the hope of producing effect, but for very shame: her face was buried in her handkerchief: and her whole manner was but too expressive of bitter and unavailing sorrow.

‘How long are you for, Emily?’ screamed a red-faced woman in the crowd. ‘Six weeks and labour,’ replied the elder girl with a flaunting laugh; ‘and that’s better than the stone jug anyhow; the mill’s a deal better than the Sessions, and here’s Bella a-going too for the first time. Hold up your head, you chicken,’ she continued, boisterously tearing the other girl’s handkerchief away; ‘Hold up your head, and show ’em your face. I an’t jealous, but I’m blessed if I an’t game!’ — ‘That’s right, old gal,’ exclaimed a man in a paper cap, who, in common with the greater part of the crowd, had been inexpressibly delighted with this little incident. — ‘Right!’ replied the girl; ‘ah, to be sure; what’s the odds, eh?’ –‘Come! In with you,’ interrupted the driver. ‘Don’t you be in a hurry, coachman,’ replied the girl, ‘and recollect I want to be set down in Cold Bath Fields — large house with a high garden-wall in front; you can’t mistake it. Hallo. Bella, where are you going to -you’ll pull my precious arm off?’ This was addressed to the younger girl, who, in her anxiety to hide herself in the caravan, had ascended the steps first, and forgotten the strain upon the handcuff. ‘Come down, and let’s show you the way.’ And after jerking the miserable girl down with a force which made her stagger on the pavement, she got into the vehicle, and was followed by her wretched companion.

These two girls had been thrown upon London streets, their vices and debauchery, by a sordid and rapacious mother. What the younger girl was then, the elder had been once; and what the elder then was, the younger must soon become. A melancholy prospect, but how surely to be realised; a tragic drama, but how often acted! Turn to the prisons and police offices of London — nay, look into the very streets themselves. These things pass before our eyes, day after day, and hour after hour — they have become such matters of course, that they are utterly disregarded. The progress of these girls in crime will be as rapid as the flight of a pestilence, resembling it too in its baneful influence and wide-spreading infection. Step by step, how many wretched females, within the sphere of every man’s observation, have become involved in a career of vice, frightful to contemplate; hopeless at its commencement, loathsome and repulsive in its course; friendless, forlorn, and unpitied, at its miserable conclusion!

There were other prisoners — boys of ten, as hardened in vice as men of fifty — a houseless vagrant, going joyfully to prison as a place of food and shelter, handcuffed to a man whose prospects were ruined, character lost, and family rendered destitute, by his first offence. Our curiosity, however, was satisfied. The first group had left an impression on our mind we would gladly have avoided, and would willingly have effaced.

The crowd dispersed; the vehicle rolled away with its load of guilt and misfortune; and we saw no more of the Prisoners’ Van.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30