Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 7

Didst thou not share — hadst thou not fifteen pence?

Rashleigh, having heard Tyrrell’s story to an end, complimented him much upon his talents and good fortune in escaping so easily, shortly after which they were all locked up for the night. Parties of the ward inmates being formed, some sang songs, some gambled, some related their exploits to others, and all drank most plentifully, there being in those days no lack of either spirits, wine or porter to be found within the precincts of His Majesty’s Gaol, Newgate. Porter, indeed, was allowed by the regulations. and those who had money found no difficulty in obtaining all the rest.

The manner in which the prison days were spent being so much alike, it is needless to do more than say that every day they went to prayers, ate, drank, sang, gambled, and drank again. In fact, it would appear that all the knowing ones were quite as comfortable in gaol as anywhere else; and those who were not fully initiated into all the arts of thieving and villainy when first they went into prison were sure, at least, of being quite proficient by the time they came out of it. There was not the slightest attempt at classification, save that arising from the sale of superior accommodations to those who could pay for them. In all other respects the hoary thief, who had passed a long life in successful violation of the law, was here placed in the same apartment with the raw shop-boy, confined for robbing his master’s till. And the freedom from restraint and self-congratulation of manner with which these old practitioners in knavery boasted of their exploits, and the glowing pictures they frequently drew of the enjoyments derivable from a life of plunder, seldom failed in making confirmed and hardened villains of all those who listened to them.

In this manner the time sped until the week before the sessions arrived, that period which some wished for, others dreaded, and all prepared to meet. This was indeed a busy season with the inmates of the Smugglers’ Ward. They had counsel to fee, attorneys to instruct, witnesses to bribe and defences to draw up. Rashleigh, having once been in some sort a member of the legal profession, now found his services much in request, to write letters, prepare statements and adapt questions for the cross-examination of inflexible evidences. For all this he obtained a considerable sum of money, so that he was not only enabled to fee counsel for himself, but also to procure some decent apparel for his approaching trial. He, however, entertained very slight hopes of an acquittal, the evidence of his quondam associate being quite strong and conclusive. Besides, there was every prospect of strenuous endeavours being made on the part of the Crown to secure his conviction; as unless he were found guilty, the Israelite indicted for receiving the plate he had stolen was sure of an acquittal likewise. And it will be remembered that the thief catchers of the metropolis had long been endeavouring to suppress so noted a fence as the person in question was well known to be. Indeed, for several years they had been upon the alert, ardently longing for the opportunity, which now seemed to offer itself to them by chance. Under these circumstances Ralph saw no prospect save that of conviction before him; yet he was resolved not to omit anything that might tend to his escape from justice. With this view he prepared his defence with all the skill of which he was master, and thus occupied, the day fixed for the commencement of the sessions came upon him: those sessions which were fraught with the destinies of upwards of four hundred human beings of both sexes, all ages and conditions.

The inmates of Newgate were informed by the Calendar of the order in which the trials were to occur, and the arched gateway through which the prisoners returned from the Sessions House being close by the ward in which our adventurer now lived, he had ample opportunities for observing the features and deportment of the confines, both before and after they received their sentences. But in few cases indeed could he perceive either regret or compunction. Those who were condemned to any periods less than seven years’ transportation triumphed almost as much as if they had been acquitted. The boys particularly, who were very numerous, jested with the greatest sang froid at the idea of a flogging, which most of them had been sentenced to receive, and which they scoffingly termed a “teasing”. Those who had been doomed to seven years’ transportation called it a “small fine of eighty-four months”. Even those who had been sentenced for fourteen years or life to the same punishment had some joke to pass on the subject to their fellows in the yard as they went through to their several destinations. As for those sentenced to die, they endeavoured to eclipse all the others in the daring obscenity and gross brutality of their jests.

By some accident a number of housebreakers were ordered for trial on the same day, and Ralph’s blood ran cold on being informed by one that had just returned from the Court, that all had been found guilty, and all had been doomed to death, or as his informant expressed it, “that they were celling them like b —— y bullocks”, meaning, sending them to the condemned cells. The crime of burglary had been peculiarly prevalent in the metropolis during the previous winter, and it seemed as if the jurors were determined not to allow any of the accused to escape. It was therefore with a depressed mind that our adventurer obeyed the summons which placed him before his judge at the criminal bar. As usual in this well-known Court, there was an ample assemblage of spectators, most of them being of the lowest class. Some of these were gossiping, some cracking nuts, others jokes on various subjects. Upon the appearance of the prisoner, the lawyers began to handle their papers with a business-like air, and the solemn farce called a trial began.

Ralph Rashleigh was indicted by that name for having on a certain day and date, set forth in the arraignment, with force and arms feloniously broken into and entered the dwelling-house of Westley Shortland Esquire in the night-time, and for having therein stolen taken and carried away a large quantity of silver plate his property contrary to the statute and against the peace of Our Soverign Lord the King his crown and dignity, the indictment being interlarded with a vast number of other legal phrases. To this, of course, he pleaded “Not guilty”, and put himself upon his trial.

A jury was now empanelled, and the advocate for the prisoner having declined to challenge any of their number, the case proceeded. The learned counsel for the Crown, after an eloquent exordium, in which he dwelt at great length upon the many daring depredations recently committed under covert of the night upon the properties of the peaceful and well-disposed inhabitants of the town, proceeded to give a sketch of the case in question as he had been informed it would be proved in evidence; and he wound up by reverting to the skilful and adroit manner in which the robbery had been perpetrated, at the same time charitably requesting the jurymen to dismiss all prejudices from their minds and to try the case solely by the statement of the witnesses. Nevertheless, he kindly averred his private opinion to be that the prisoner at the bar was a scoundrel of the deepest dye, steeped in crime to the very lips.

The evidence of Mr Shortland’s butler was now taken. He swore that having obtained his master’s permission to pay a visit to a sick friend for a day or two, he had collected the whole of the plate under his care and safely locked the articles in the pantry on the night in question. A female servant next deposed to finding the pantry locked up but all its valuable contents missing on the following morning. The approver then completed the whole case by giving a clear and distinct detail of the manner in which the prisoner and himself had actually committed the crime in question. His evidence was sustained by that of the hackney coachman, who had also been admitted to give testimony on the part of the Crown. And though Rashleigh’s counsel most cunningly cross-questioned both these latter personages, and elicited from Jenkins in particular the admission that he had been a thief from his earliest youth and of his having been actively engaged in the commission of every species of crime during a period of twenty-five years, yet the damning fact of the want of any regular or honest mode of livelihood on the part of Rashleigh rendered all efforts abortive. After a brief pause, the jury, without retiring, found Ralph Rashleigh guilty of the crime of burglary.

A moment of thrilling suspense followed. The recorder, amid an awful silence, then addressed the convict, pointing out the enormity of his offence, dwelt at some length upon the villainous career of crime which it was evident he had passed through, and which he was now about to consummate by an ignominious end, and finally passed upon him the sentence of execution in the customary formula. Ralph scarcely saw his judge or heard a syllable of what he said, for notwithstanding this event had been in a great measure fully anticipated by him, yet at last the reality of the blow fell upon him with a force that was absolutely paralyzing. After having cast a hurried and furtive glance around the Court upon the spectators who thronged it, he stepped mechanically out of the dock. No eye appeared to pity or regard him. Most of the auditory were already occupied in speculations upon the probable fate of the next prisoner, who now excited their attention as he approached in his turn to take his trial.

The prisoner and his guide traversed the long and gloomy vaulted passage that separated the gaol from the Sessions Hall in silence, and at last reached the yard Ralph had so lately quitted for trial. Tyrrell stood there. He asked, “What luck?”

Ralph had not time to answer before the turnkey shouted out, “Cells!” to another officer who there awaited to receive the prisoners.

With a significant gesture Tyrrell shook Rashleigh by the hand, saying, “Keep up your heart, my boy. Never drop down,” and he slipped a small packet to his friend at the same time.

Rashleigh returned the pressure with a sickly smile as he was hurried off. They now passed through several yards and many passages, until at last they reached the condemned side and were ushered into a large room, the counterpart of that comfortless domicile in which our confine had spent his first night within these dreary walls.

Here, though it was as yet only the third day of the sessions, there were no less than forty-six men, most of them very young and all sentenced to die by the hangman’s hated noose. Yet with all this, there was not a single instance of gravity, far less of that gloom which might have reasonably been expected as a Concomitant to these circumstances. They hailed Ralph’s entrée with loud cries of “Fish-oh!”

Many of them crowded around him to ask his crime, to which briefly replying, “a crack,” (housebreaking) he was told that twenty-eight of those present were condemned for similar offences, and one fellow remarked that “the scragsman (hangman) would get a rare benefit that touch”. All present joined in a hearty peal of laughter at this sally, as if it had been some brilliant jest that called forth their admiration.

Ralph being now invited to dinner by a quondam companion from the Smugglers’ Ward, they sat down together, speculating during their meal upon the probable number that would actually suffer that sessions. It was pretty well known that not one-fourth of the men sentenced to die ever were hung at that time; but yet, as none could tell upon whom the lot would fall, every man, even the most criminal, enjoyed the illusions of hope. Indeed, whatever were the motives for extending mercy to any, they were sufficiently obscure to set the most astute calculators among even the officers of the prison at defiance, sometimes hardened old offenders, convicts of atrocious crimes, escaping, while the comparatively young thief suffered death as the penalty of his earliest essay.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent by the inmates of this den in various pastimes, some gambling, some telling stories of their old career, a few singing, and still fewer gloomily pacing the common room. At length the hour arrived when they were to separate for the night, and in divisions of three each they were marshalled to their dormitories; these were cells, about twelve feet by eight in size, provided with three rude bedsteads on each of which was a mattress of straw and two rugs. The evening was rapidly closing, and as they were unprovided with light, they lay down at once, one of them remarking that it might be called going to bed, but for his part he could see no bed to go to.

Now, for the first time since his sentence, Ralph had leisure to consider his position; and the ideas that rapidly careered through his brain almost drove him mad. At first he looked upon his fate as certain; and a thousand thoughts of self-destruction urged themselves upon him, each to be in turn dismissed or replaced by another. At length it suggested itself to him that he was no more sure to die than any of the rest, and should he be actually left for execution, it would be time enough then to anticipate the hangman. Anon the hope of breaking out of gaol crossed his mind, and many schemes for doing so presented themselves to him. Hour after hour pealed from a neighbouring clock, the iron tone jarring upon his nerves with the impression that another of the perhaps few subdivisions of time he had to live was now absorbed in the gulf of eternity.

At length, towards morning, he sank into a sort of sleep, broken by horrid dreams. Again the scene of the Court was enacted before him; again the full, deep and bitter tones of the recorder dealt forth the death doom upon the trembling convict. At once that semblance passed away. He was again at play among the companions of his youth.

Again the scene changed: the solemn pealing of a funeral bell smote upon his very inmost soul. He knew it was the signal for his own execution. The sad procession moved forth; the awful service for the dead, in all its dread solemnity, reverberated in his ears; he turned to gaze at the attendant clergyman. Horror of horrors, the face he saw was that of a fiend. Suffering the most excruciating torment, the criminal shuddered convulsively. But now he had reached the scaffold. They ascended that fatal platform. A sea of upturned human heads was visible; but they all appeared to mock at and gibe the tortured sufferer with unearthly demoniacal features. Another instant . . . The drop fell, and a dreadfully agonizing feeling of strangulation supervened, so intensely painful that Ralph awoke. Cold claws overspread his whole body, and a strange numbness paralyzed his every limb. He lay for a considerable time in a state of semi-somnolence, unable quite to rouse himself, and yet dreading to relapse again into such painful slumbers, though he could not still recall his senses sufficiently to be certain that he had only dreamed.

At length a bustle in the stone-floored passage thoroughly awakened him, and he jumped from his wretched pallet. In a few minutes they were all reassembled in the day-room, and the company of his fellows reassured the drooping spirits of our unhappy prisoner.

The days of the session passed over. The total number of those condemned to death amounted to sixty-five, all of whom met in the same large room by day and were separated into threes at night. A few days of dreary monotony passed over; but the nights were at first most painful to Rashleigh, as more dreadful dreams harrowed his soul. But at length he ceased to dream at all or even to think about his future fate, all his ideas being engrossed by contemplating schemes of escape.

Having ascertained that the sleeping-cell in which he spent his nights was next to the outer wall of Newgate, he determined to try to break through it, trusting to chance for what the exterior might present. He now broached his scheme to his companions, one of whom embraced it with avidity; but the other seemed to be sunk in apathy. As the latter, however, engaged not to betray their purpose, they determined on commencing operations that very night. All the tools they possessed were two files given to our adventurer on the day of his condemnation by Tyrrell, and a piece of iron about two feet long, which had once formed part of the handle of a frying-pan, and which was rather sharp at one end something like a chisel.

With these implements they raked the mortar out of the joints of the stonework, choosing a place beneath one of the beds as most secluded from observation, carefully removing the lime dust, which they carried out concealed on their persons every morning and afterwards threw among the ashes in the fireplace. In three nights’ time they had succeeded in loosening enough of the stonework to enable them, by displacing the ashlar of which the wall was built, to form an opening through the massy exterior enclosure of the gaol; but they found a timber framing on the outer side of the wall, which utterly bade defiance to all their efforts. They had no remedy but to replace the stones as well as they could, and wait for another night, by which time they doubted not to be able to provide some substitute for a saw and a chisel, with which to renew their attempt. Accordingly, next day they procured two table-knives, which they notched on their edges. They then sharpened the piece of iron on the hearthstone by stealth. These implements, together with a phosphorus box — which they had bribed a turnkey to bring them — and a piece of candle, they very carefully stowed away about them, and returned to their cell, resuming their labour as soon as all was still.

Having first removed the stonework, they procured a light and examined the wooden partition. This seemed to be only a kind of weatherboarding, such as is sometimes used to finish the gable-ends of a roof in lieu of carrying up a brick wall. Their first business was to make holes in the wood with their chisel and knives in four different places, forming the angles of a square about two feet across. The boards being only of deal, it was not long before they had got their holes made. They then set to work to cut out the pieces, in which they finally succeeded, taking great care that nothing fell into the Terra incognita outside the wall. When they had sped thus far, they looked through the opening and found this space consisted of the apex of a roof, above the attics of the adjoining houses. They now easily got through the aperture on to the joists of these garrets, and had only next to remove the tiles, when they should once more he enjoying the pure free air of heaven.

Just as they began to work at the tiles with renewed vigour Ralph’s companion, happening unluckily to slip, stepped suddenly off the piece of timber he was standing on and came with his whole weight upon the laths of the plastered ceiling, which, being old and decayed, gave way. The luckless wight was then precipitated into the apartment beneath, where he chanced to alight upon the bed of an ancient dame, who was servant to the reverend chaplain of Newgate, under whose roof, it seems, our adventurers had unwittingly penetrated. Dire were now the outcries of “Rape!” “Fire!” “Murder!” and “Robbery!” that emanated from the old woman, who refused to be pacified by the earnest entreaties of the intruder; and in a very few seconds the hurried tramp of many feet, with the noise of clamorous tongues, announced that the household was alarmed. A moment after a promiscuous mass of half-clad beings hurried into the attic, where, amid the débris of fallen plaster, laths, etc., the horror-stricken dame was venting her objurgations upon the author of this mishap. He for his part, the moment he saw the door open, bolted out of it and had got half-way downstairs, pursued by hurried cries of “Stop him!” “Knock him down!” etc., which burst from the petrified group in the attic, when he encountered a posse of the officers of Newgate, who had been aroused by the uproar which truly seemed enough to awaken the seven sleepers — and who had left the enjoyments of the porters’ lodge to ascertain the cause of this confusion.

Unluckily, the foremost of these worthies well knew the escaped one, and felled him on the staircase instanter. They then separated, part of them returning to the lodge with their captive, and part going upstairs into the room whence they now learned he had run. Here, of course, the first thing they saw was the hole in the ceiling, and a ladder being procured, some of them ascended it to search the roof.

In the mean time Ralph Rashleigh, nerved by desperation, had torn away the battens and tiles and blundered out through the orifice; but in doing this he missed his hold and fell. He rolled over and over on the tiled roof, utterly unable to stop himself and full of despair at the horrible death which awaited him. At last, with a bound, he was jerked from the roof and restored to sense by finding himself immersed in water. He struck out to swim, and presently received a violent blow on the head, but quickly recovering himself, groped with his hands, it being so dark that he could not set a yard before him, and catching hold of the parapet wall, scrambled out, congratulating himself that his life was spared as yet. Of course, he was perfectly ignorant where he was, and knew not how far from the ground his present position might be. The darkness also prevented his attempting to escape, lest he might again fall from this unknown height. The only resource he had was to sit still, astride the wall on which he was now seated, until day should dawn. Wet through, the frosty air chilling him to the quick, thus did Rashleigh spend the seemingly interminable hours, until the light faintly glimmered from the east; and then he found he was not in any very enviable position.

The wall on which he sat surrounded a small reservoir of water that abutted from the back of the house, about half-way between the top and bottom. There was no window or other opening near him by many feet; and it was at least fifteen yards from his position to the ground, which seemed to be a paved courtyard surrounded by lofty buildings. Added to this, it was evident the daylight must betray him on his “bad eminence”, as there was no means of concealing himself save by jumping into the reservoir, which was not quite full; and even then, he might be seen from the roof. Thus he was quite as effectually confined as if he had been in the strongest cell within the walls of Newgate. and he tantalised himself by thinking of his recapture after having so narrowly escaped a fearful death, that even a few inches of difference in his fall must have resulted in his being dashed to atoms.

He was not very long in suspense. The day became rapidly fighter, and in a few minutes a gruff voice from the roof hailed him. “Ha, my fine fellow! You’re there, are you? You’re safe enough, anyhow, and we’ve got your pal, too.”

Rashleigh looked up and soon discovered one of the turnkeys sitting at the foot of a stack of chimneys on the roof above him, who appeared to be taking aim at him with a carbine. “Hold on!” cried our échappé. “Don’t shoot me.”

“Oh, I don’t mean it,” said the other, “if you sit still; but if you offer to stir, I’ll let fly and riddle you with bullets.”

This was anything but a cheering prospect, and Ralph hardly dared move hand or foot, until, a ladder being brought, he was fain to descend it and was soon reconducted to prison.

Here he was placed in a dark cell by himself and kept on bread and water for a week, at the end of which time the Governor of Newgate ordered him to be very heavily ironed, and permitted him to rejoin his companions. Here he found the partner of his late attempt, and they had many a laugh together at their ill-starred enterprise.

Day after day sped on over their heads. It was now the fourth week after the sessions, and they expected every evening that the report of the recorder, and the King’s decision thereon, would be made known to them. One afternoon in the fifth week they had all been locked in their separate cells above an hour, when the noise of several feet in the stone-floored passage attracted the attention of the inmates of these dreary domiciles. Cell after cell was heard to be unlocked, and finally, when the visitors drew nigh, Rashleigh distinctly recognised the solemn voice of the prison chaplain recommending some unfortunate to make the most of the few brief hours yet allotted to him in this world by supplicating for mercy from his God; and our convict was now aware his fate would soon be made known to him. With agonising dread the few minutes passed away, during which intervening cells were visited. At length the sullen doors slowly revolved. The sheriffs in their official dresses, the chaplain in his robes, and some others entered the cell.

Rashleigh scarce heard the exordium which, as customary, was addressed to them, but blessed heaven when one of the sheriffs, with much solemnity. addressed another of the confines as follows: “William Roberts, your case has received His Majesty’s most gracious consideration; but your frequent previous convictions, and the circumstances of peculiar atrocity with which your last crime was accompanied utterly preclude the possibility of mercy being extended to so hardened a criminal. You must therefore prepare to expiate your offences on the scaffold: you are ordered for execution in fourteen days from the present.”

The chaplain now addressed the condemned in anything but a charitable or kindly tone, and impressed the necessity of prayer and repentance upon his mind. The wretched man rolled his eyes, which seemed dim and glassy, from one to the other of the bystanders and attempted to speak, but ineffectually; his tongue denied him utterance, and he was led away.

The same sheriff now addressed Ralph and his remaining companion, saying that in the exercise of his royal prerogative of mercy, His Majesty had graciously been pleased to spare their lives; but to vindicate the insulted laws of their country they must be transported for the residue of their existence to a distant land, never more to revisit the isle of their birth.

The chaplain now told our criminals that they ought to fall instantly upon their knees and return thanks to God for sparing their unworthy lives. Rashleigh’s companion here interrupted the reverend orator by saying, “If ever I pray to God, it will only be that I may live to set you hanged, you prayer-mumbling old beast!”

The chaplain flung out of the cell in a rage, and the sheriffs having followed him with suppressed smiles at this rude rebuff, the convicts were once more left alone.


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