Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 5

Forewarned by legends of my youth,

I trust not an associate’s truth.

Overpowered by dismay, Ralph Rashleigh turned from the scene, and felt as if he wished himself whelmed beneath the ruins of the house which had thus destroyed all his hopes — so fondly cherished — of future independence. Except about £100 which he had taken with him into the country, not only all the booty for which he had risked his life, but all his clothing, books and other effects were thus lost to him for ever. Scarcely knowing what he did, he went into a neighbouring public-house and endeavoured by repeated libations to drown the memory of his loss.

The effect of this debauch, combined with his mental anxiety, threw him into a fever, from which he did not recover for several weeks. In the mean time he was exposed to the mercenary extortions of a stranger, who appeared to proportion his charges to his knowledge of the contents of his guest’s purse, which this pattern for landlords had taken away on the occasion of Ralph’s becoming intoxicated the first night of his arrival at the house. As soon, therefore, as Rashleigh became sufficiently sensible to arrange his own business, he enquired for his cash, when a bill was presented to him, amounting to upwards of £56 for lodging and attendance, exclusive of the surgeon’s charge for visits and medicine, which last, when he received it, was £32 more. After these were paid Rashleigh found himself master of only £7 10s. 8d. and the suit of clothes he wore, to begin the world anew with.

One effect of his last sickness had been, however, to disgust him sincerely with his past life, and he determined upon living honestly for the future, to do which he resolved upon procuring employment again as a legal copyist. But some time must necessarily elapse before he could hope to be sufficiently restored to health for this purpose. In the mean time his scanty stock of cash would soon be exhausted. He therefore left the public-house and took a small furnished room in a court near the Temple, where after a week or two he found himself so much better that one day he set out to wait upon an old employer for the purpose of asking some work. He was well received and promised employment on the morrow.

On his return from making this call, his evil fortune threw him in the way of that associate who had assisted him in the robbery of the house in Welbeck Street, and who was now in custody of an officer for some other offence. This fellow hailed Rashleigh, and the officer, who was on the lookout for another pal of his prisoner, suspected from his manner that there was something in common between them. As he looked with the usual eyes of a thief catcher upon all the associates of thieves, so he now determined on taking our hero into custody likewise. And this he shortly after effected; for meeting a brother officer, he described the person of Ralph Rashleigh to him, and in a few minutes more that unlucky wight was arrested as he turned into the court where he lodged.

Resistance and enquiry were alike vain, and Ralph was lodged in the watchhouse without even knowing the charge on which he had been taken up. After a night of mental anxiety, which may be much more easily conceived than described, he was brought before the sitting magistrate at Bow Street next day. Here the officer first charged Thomas Jenkins — alias Thomas Jones, ALIAS Thomas Smith, with about twenty other aliases by which, it seemed, Rashleigh’s former associate had been known at some period of his eventful career — with having been concerned in the commission of a daring robbery at a gentleman’s house in the Adelphi; and certainly, as far as the evidence of the policeman went, a very clear case indeed was made out against him, for it appeared he was seen lurking near the house in question the evening the robbery had been perpetrated, in company with an associate, who, by the by, was sworn much to resemble the unfortunate Ralph. Besides this, on searching his person, the duplicate of one of the stolen articles had been found in his pocket. Again, his character, which was notorious as that of a thief, bore hard against him, and he was fully committed for trial at the Old Bailey.

It now became necessary to examine our adventurer; and the only evidence against him being of a negative character, he was requested to state his occupation, which he averred to be that of a legal copyist. And as he most indignantly denied all knowledge of Jenkins or his acts, he was remanded to prison for a week, in order that rime might be afforded the police to make enquiry into the truth of his assertion.

Behold Rashleigh once more in gaol, surrounded with the outcasts of England’s vast metropolis, destitute of money, of friends, and of necessaries, a prey to the bitterest feelings of remorse, and vainly vowing a complete reformation if ever he again obtained his liberty. But this was not to be his lot, for his quondam companion thought by telling the truth with reference to the former robbery that his sentence might be rendered lighter, or perhaps, as the gentleman robbed on that occasion was of high respectability and influence, that he might even escape altogether with impunity. Having therefore freely made a full confession, implicating Rashleigh in the strongest manner, also the hackney coachman who had assisted in the removal of the plate, together with the Israelite who had bought it, the two last were arrested, and on the day appointed for hearing Ralph upon the former charge, he was placed at the bar with the hackney man, whom he hardly knew, and to his utter confusion saw his former associate enter the witness-box to give evidence against him.

The testimony of Jenkins was corroborated by many circumstances which, though trivial of themselves, formed a very strong aggregate, and by the unsatisfactory defence offered by Ralph, coupled with the statement made by the policeman who had been deputed to enquire how our adventurer lived, to the effect that although he had enquired for employment at the place he stated on the day he was taken into custody, and although he had been so employed by the same person about eighteen months before, yet nothing appeared as to how he had been obtaining a living in the interim. And as, for reasons well known to the reader, he could by no means clear up this point or bring evidence as to his honesty, the investigation closed by his being fully committed to Newgate, to take his trial at the ensuing sessions for the County of Middlesex upon a charge of burglary, which at the time was a capital offence, and one for which mercy was rarely granted to such as were found guilty.

The van which conveyed the daily gleaning of crime collected by the ever vigilant officers of Bow Street, and whose inmates were strongly secured by leg-chains and handcuffs, contained, besides Ralph Rashleigh, two prostitutes, committed on charges of pocket picking, a girl apparently new from the country, who had been sent to prison for having stolen a few articles of female finery from her mistress, an apprentice boy, who was committed for robbing his master’s till, a hoary old beggar, to be tried on a charge of assaulting a street keeper, and a ferocious-looking Irishman, who had beaten his wife so severely that her life was despaired of. The tears of the poor servant girl, who wailed most pitifully, the obscenity of the two strumpets, the bitter lamentations of the ‘prentice boy, and the awful objurgations of the Irishman formed a truly disgusting mélange, and Ralph was almost glad when the van stopped before the gloomy portals of the prison, now rendered doubly repulsive by the darkness of the night and the fitful glare of the torches held by the officers in attendance, to light the prisoners into that abode of doom, which some of them felt they should never more quit with life.

The surrounding mob, collected outside in vacant curiosity to gaze upon the newly arrived criminals, hailed their appearance with many obscene jests and very much brutal laughter; but upon their entry into the porch or gate-house the outer doors were closed, and Rashleigh felt his heart sink within him as the grating noise of the sullen hinges and the clank of massy bolts seemed to cut him off from the external world for ever.

Here a strict search was made upon the person of each; but their money and other trifling articles were immediately returned to them. The women were then taken in one direction, and the men, among whom of course was Rashleigh, were ordered to follow a turnkey in another, through a long and gloomy passage, which displayed at intervals festoons of fetters of all shapes and sizes, handcuffs, fire-arms of every kind and capacity, from the bell-mouthed musketoon with bore as wide as a teacup to the pocket pistol, carrying a bullet not much bigger than a pea. There was no lack of naked cutlasses or swords, and many hideous, grim-looking engines were suspended against these dreary walls, the names and uses of which were equally unknown to Ralph; but his heated imagination appropriated to each some foul or horrible purpose. Frequent gates, composed solely of iron bars, crossed this gallery, at each of which was stationed an attendant turnkey. The numerous direful ideas conjured up by the mind of our captive in his transit caused this avenue to appear interminable; but at length the whole party stopped in a small room apparently used as an office, where a clerk in attendance entered the personal description, together with a statement of the dress worn by each of the new confines. They were then directed to proceed onward, which they did through a small yard surrounded by the gaol apartments, until they again halted at a grated door. Having been admitted, they went up three flights of stone stairs and were shown into a large ill-lighted apartment, the unglazed windows of which, strongly secured by iron bars, left no doubt of its purpose. Around this room, which contained no other furniture than a rough table and two or three forms, were lying many prisoners. Here they were received by a man who had charge of the ward, as the apartment was called, and who gave to each a portion of very dark-coloured bread, a mat similar in material and appearance to those placed at the outer doors of houses, and a coarse horse rug. The latter articles formed the bed and bedding allowed by the civic authorities to such prisoners as had none of their own.

The turnkey who had ushered them in now withdrew, and a scene immediately ensued of which Rashleigh could give but a very faint account, for one of the rugs having at this moment been thrown over him from behind, he was immediately pulled to the ground and in a few minutes stripped of every article of clothing: an operation which he quickly discovered had been simultaneously performed upon all those who had arrived with him. Remonstrance being of no avail, nothing remained but patience, and of this inestimable quality Ralph had lately acquired a sufficient portion to enable him to submit in silence. When the uproar had somewhat subsided he secured his rug and mat, spread them upon the ground, and lay down to sleep. The numberless myriads of vermin, however, together with the continual noise of conversation, and other nameless annoyance prevented his doing so for many hours; and when at last he did rest, the intense cold, from which his scanty covering but ill defended him, caused him soon to awake, after which he lay tossing and tumbling until his bones were sore, revolving many bitter thoughts of the past am anticipations for the future.

At length the wished-for morning dawned, and our adventurer had an opportunity of observing the nature of his place of confinement more a leisure; but he could find nothing very cheering in the view. The room was of great size, furnished, as before stated, only with a rough table and benches, together with the rugs and mats which formed the bedding of the prisoners, who seemed to be in number from thirty to forty. When it became quite light Ralph saw a quantity of clothing lying in the middle of the floor, which he examined and found that his own was among them. He then quickly dressed and went to sit by the fire. In a short time many others joined him, and numberless questions were asked by the former inmates of the newcomers, as to what they were “in for”, etc. in making replies to these queries the time sped away until eight o’clock, when several buckets full of gruel were brought in, which served those who, like Ralph had no means of purchasing any other food for breakfast. With some of the bread he had received the night before our adventurer made a hearty meal, to which the abstinence of the previous four and twenty hours no doubt contributed in a very great degree.

After breakfast Ralph went down to the yard, the doors of all the sleeping-wards being by this time thrown open. The prisoners attended prayers in the chapel, after which Rashleigh joined a number of others who were performing their ablutions at a pump. This necessary operation concluded, the new-comer began to look around him, to see if among his fellow-confines he could recognise any one he knew. This investigation had no effect for some time, until he perceived a bustle among the assembled crowd, whose attention seemed to be concentrated upon the outer entrance of the yard, where a turnkey ever and anon called out the name of a prisoner, who then answered, “Over”, as loud as he could bawl and ran to the door to receive a message or parcel, or be shown into the visiting room, accordingly as a message or a visitor awaited his attention.

The name of William Tyrrell, having been vociferated in this way, was replied to by a person whose face appeared familiar to Rashleigh, who asked another man close by for information as to who Tyrrell was.’ The former replied that he was a first-rate swindler, then confined for twelve months, having, been bowled out in some of his malpractices. This account did not altogether satisfy our hero, who was confident he had known Tyrrell in some other circumstances than such as had been detailed to him, though he could not at the time remember how or where they had met, and he now awaited with some impatience for his reappearance. In the mean time the inmates of this vast prison commenced their daily amusements or occupations. The greater part of them, breaking up into knots, retired either into the wards or out-of-sight comers of the yard, to form what they called schools, for the pursuit of their favourite pastime, gambling; but cards being prohibited, a number of ingenious devices were resorted to, among which the most popular appeared to be the tossing up of one, two, or three halfpence at once, technically termed gaffing. A scene now ensued to which the uproar of Babel or the din of Pandemonium must have been perfect peace, the gamblers staking often their clothing on the chances, until at length some of them were shortly covered only by scanty and wretched rags begged from the more fortunate, who in their turn were stripped by other successful competitors. The various vicissitudes of the game were marked by the most horrid imprecations, of a power and energy only to be appreciated by those who have ever haunted the classic solitudes of Billingsgate, or the secluded shades of Chequer Alley and Winfield Street. In several instances the opponents resorted to blows, when rings were formed, seconds selected, and all the minutiae of prize-fighting rigidly adhered to, the bystanders encouraging their respective favourites, and freely betting their money, articles of apparel, and even their food on the issue of the contest.

Amid this uproar some were moodily fixed in anxious expectation, awaiting the arrival of a friend or relative with news from without, or a promised supply of cash or clothing. Another few were pacing the yard alone, “in silent meditation fancy free”. Some who, like Rashleigh, expected no visitors, and to whom the scene at any rate offered the attraction of novelty, were listlessly gazing, first at one part of this strange mélange, and then at another. But nowhere could he observe any traces of that sorrow or despair which might have been supposed the fit accompaniment of such a place, where many of those whom he saw knew full well that “they were sure to be twisted (hanged) at the next sessions”, as they daily expressed themselves to that effect. On the contrary, the only object of most appeared to be the enjoyment of the passing hour, varied in a few cases and at intervals by deep-laid schemes to defeat their two great enemies, the public justice and their private prosecutors, as well as by cunningly devised projects of plunder to be put into execution when they should again recover their liberty.

After a short time the door of the yard opened, and the person who had answered to the name of Tyrrell reappeared. He now passed quite close to Rashleigh, who remembered him as a person whom upon one of his country excursions he had rescued from the clutches of a constable in whose custody he was proceeding to Hertford Gaol on a charge of robbery; which service Ralph had performed by effecting the intoxication of this vigilant guardian of the public peace, when he stole the key of the room in which Tyrrell had been confined and let him out, providing him with a supply of money to assist his flight. Rashleigh now addressed this man, enquiring how he had got into his present confinement. The latter, upon recognising one who had rendered him such an essential obligation, after a few preliminary remarks, informed our adventurer that being sentenced a year’s imprisonment in the Start (Newgate) he had, as was customary at that time, obtained the situation of a wardsman (person appointed to keep order in each of the sleeping apartments) and that, by a dexterous application of some of the renowned oil of palms to one of the gaol officers, he had been placed in what was considered the best room of the prison, where he had ample opportunities for enjoying himself and also, strange to say, of getting a good deal of money. He then enquired into Rashleigh’s case and present circumstances, when, finding that the latter could scarcely be worse, he ended by inviting his newly arrived friend to share his mess until the sessions, promising also to get him removed into the same ward with himself. Ralph joyfully acceded to this arrangement. Never before had he found so apposite an illustration of the old proverb, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” Shortly after this, the principal turnkey on that side of the gaol coming to the gate to preside over the distribution of the meat and soup allowed for the dinner of the confines, Tyrrell preferred his request to that awful functionary, and duly supported it by a recurrence to the usual all-powerful Argentine arguments commonly applied in such cases, and which, in this, proved effectual; for Rashleigh obtained permission to change his lodging to that occupied by his friend, whom he immediately accompanied to the famed apartment then known as the “Smugglers’ Ward”.

The first view of this room impressed our hero with a much more cheerful opinion of the comforts attainable even in a felons’ gaol than any place he had yet seen within the walls of Newgate. Here were many very clean-looking beds. Coarse curtains screened portions of the room and, in fact, subdivided it into small apartments, which were rented by those among the confines who were opulent enough to afford the payment of what Trapbois would have called “a fair con-sid-e-ra-tion” for it in the shape of a weekly rent to the wardsman for such an indulgence. A few decent tables and chairs, with many other miscellaneous articles of comfort and even luxury also were to be seen. In the whole, this portion of Newgate presented an infinitely preferable appearance to many houses outside its walls, independent of the parish of Saint Giles.

Tyrrell now introduced Ralph to his own berth, which was formed like the rest by curtains, and in addition to two decent beds, etc., contained several shelves, with drawers and a table. In fact, it presented the appearance of a small huckster’s shop, to which purpose it was actually appropriated; for in a few minutes a number of persons applied for tea, sugar, coffee, milk, eggs, bacon, butter and many other comestibles, the supplying of which occupied both Tyrrell and our hero, who was quickly installed into office as his assistant, during more than an hour. Tyrrell then ordered breakfast to be brought, acquainting his new messmate that the inmates of the Smugglers’ Ward, justly considering themselves as the aristocracy of the entire community within the walls of Newgate, were by far too independent to adhere to the same hours for taking their meals as were observed by the common order of criminals. Accordingly, though they were obliged to go to chapel every morning at nine o’clock, which occupied half an hour, they very carefully resumed their beds as soon as they returned, nor did they rise again until noon, by which time the ward had been thoroughly cleaned out, their boots or shoes and clothes brushed, and their breakfasts prepared by their servants; of whom each person of high ton, who had plenty of tin, kept one to himself; in other cases two or three of inferior means clubbed their messes together and supported one slavey among them.

These slaveys, or servants, were a sort of pariahs among the prisoners, chiefly Johnny Raws, or country chaps, apprentices, or others, who had no acquaintances to assist them while in gaol, and who were not possessed of sufficient dexterity in gambling to supply their wants by any of the various cheating tricks resorted to among the knowing ones. They were consequently glad to earn a trifle of cash and some food, by administering to the necessities and submitting to the various practical jokes or tyrannical tricks of their imperious masters; for Ralph had ample opportunities of observing that many of the so-called highflyers of Newgate were not a whit behind those whom they copied — the gay and gilded butterflies of fashion who fluttered in the external world — in scorning those whom fate or fortune had for the time placed in subordinate situations to themselves.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00