George Griffith 1903

Sidelights on Convict Life

Fifth chapter:


Of all my excursions into Prison Land I found my visit to Broadmoor at once the most interesting and the most depressing. It is a mental and moral wilderness situated in the midst of a physical paradise. As regards scenery, Parkhurst is pretty, but Broadmoor is magnificent.

As you stand on the terrace, covered with lawns and flower-beds, and flanked by trees in orderly rows and avenues, your eye wanders down over other smaller terraces, brilliant with flowers and greenery, and shaded by fruit-laden trees. These are the gardens belonging to the patients, and every plant and tree has been planted and tended by hands which have been stained by crime of some sort, and overlooked through long, patient years by intellects clouded with the mists of madness.

Beyond and below these lies the kitchen-garden for the supply of the asylum, an area of nineteen acres, inclosed by a high brick wall. Beyond this again are the farm lands, about a hundred and twenty-five acres in extent, enclosed by a dark belt of fir forest; and beyond this again stretches out as fair a landscape of hill and vale and forest and field as the eye of man, mad or sane, need wish to wander over.

The whole domain of Broadmoor stands upon Crown land which was originally heath and forest. That was forty years ago, and now, seen as I saw it, under a bright June sun, it is one of the most charming spots that I have ever seen in England or out of it.

Before I go on to the actual description of the asylum and its inmates, it may, perhaps, be as well to dispose of a few popular delusions with regard to Broadmoor which seem to have gained currency through the publications of writers who either did not know what they were talking about, or who seem to have considered that their readers would prefer the spurious glamour of sensationalism to the more sober, but infinitely more interesting, narration of the thing that is.

There is romance enough about Broadmoor without anything of this sort, such romance as no sane genius, however gifted, could ever have conceived, much less written ; tragedies unspeakable, crimes indescribable, pathos unutterable, but all this is real, and any attempt to " write it up" could only be a puny insult to the eternal verities.

In the first place, Broadmoor is not a prison : there are no prisoners there, only patients. Around the enclosing walls you see no little towers with armed sentries walking about them as you do in convict prisons ; you see no chief warders with swords, and officers with batons; no handcuffs or chains; no dismal exercise yards, with the oval, flag-paved paths which a prisoner may not step off during the hour of exercise.

The only likeness that Broadmoor bears to a prison consists in the fact that you can go nowhere without the unlocking and relocking of solid doors and iron gates ; but within these there is no evidence of restraint. In the male wing you see men lounging about the long, airy corridors, or sitting in the big, well - furnished, common rooms, reading, smoking, looking out of the windows, or sitting motionless, thinking the thoughts and dreaming the dreams of a world that is not ours.

So, too, in the female wing there are women sitting about the corridors, knitting and doing lacework or embroidery, or, like the men, sitting in their common rooms reading or talking, or also thinking those strange thoughts. In another room you will find one at a grand piano, playing, it may be, some standard piece of music, or it may be some weird creation of her own, and others sitting about on the chairs and lounges listening to her.

I noticed, however, that neither among the men nor the women was there very much conversation. Those who were not engaged in some definite occupation seemed to take very little interest in the others. Probably they found their own dreams and broodings more entertaining than converse with other minds which they doubtless think to be hopelessly deranged.

In the second place, Broadmoor is not, as some imaginative writers have described it, and, as I confess, I thought it myself before I saw it, a delightful retreat in which atrocious criminals who have managed to maintain a plea of insanity, either through their own cunning or the skill of their counsel, are kept in lavish luxury at the nation's expense. Everything that is supplied out of the public funds is of the plainest possible description. With two exceptions the ordinary diet is little if anything better than the diet of prisoners undergoing penal servitude ; male patients have three-quarters of a pint, and females a half-pint of beer or porter; every day for dinner ; but it is a fluid distinctly calculated not to disturb the . feeblest of intellects. The supply of bread, too, is theoretically unlimited, but practically the consumption per head is not more than the authorised allowance in prison.

Another article, not exactly of diet, may be mentioned. Every male patient who smokes is allowed one ounce of tobacco a week, but this costs the nation nothing, because it comes out of " His Majesty's tobacco-pouch"; in other words, it is contraband tobacco seized by the Customs, which used to be most unprofitably burnt in the receptacle known as the Queen's Pipe because it could not be lawfully sold to the public.

It is true, however, that the patients, or, at any-rate, a considerable proportion of them, do enjoy a certain number of delicacies and even luxuries, but these are provided by themselves.

In the first place, all patients, both male and female employed in productive labour, such as farming, gardening for the asylum, tailoring, shoemaking, laundry work, baking, printing, bookbinding, carpentering, etc., are supposed to be working at given .wages, and of the sum earned one-eighth' is credited to them for their own personal use, and is paid to them in kind - that is to say, in such comforts or delicacies as they may wish for, subject, of course, to the Superintendent's consent - since it stands to reason that a homicidal maniac with a bottle of whisky at his disposal would be anything but a desirable guest, even at Broadmoor.

Then, again, several of the patients possess private means. There are two or three whose incomes run into four figures, and in such cases as these the cost of the patient's maintenance is deducted from his income, the remainder being in the hands of trustees appointed by the Court of Chancery, and these trustees may supply a patient with such extra comforts as are permitted by the regulations.

Lastly, the products - the flowers, fruit, and vegetables - raised in the patients' gardens belong to them, and, subject to the approval of the Medical Officer, they may exchange these for other articles with their fellow-patients, or send them to their friends, in which case they are credited with the value. In the aggregate, therefore, many comforts and luxuries are enjoyed by the best class of patients at Broadmoor, but the price of them does not come out of the tax-payer's pocket.

Of course, the labour in Broadmoor is not always of a high class, and a good deal of it is performed by men and women who are feeble, not only in mind but in body ; still it is interesting to learn that, according to a recent official estimate, which probably does not err on the side of extravagance, the year's work done by 242 men and 117 women was valued at about £5000 ; while the farm and garden account show receipts amounting to nearly ,£2000. All this, of course means so much off the maintenance-vote for the asylum, since without it the whole expenses would fall upon the tax-payer.

Before leaving this part of the subject, I may say, that the elaborately- furnished billiard-rooms, of which I and many others have read such glowing descriptions, have no existence at Broadmoor. In one of the men's smoking and reading-rooms there is a table on which billiards can be played. From what I saw of it, I should say that it dates from somewhere in the Fifties. At any rate, it looks a great deal older than the asylum itself, although, of course, it amply fulfils its purpose, and is quite as suitable for the playing of a match between a homicide and an incendiary as the most up-to- date exhibition table would be.

The outdoor life of the patients at Broadmoor is occupied by gardening, farm - work within the enclosure, keeping the place tidy, and just wandering about the beautiful grounds smoking and talking, or, as I have said, more frequently dreaming or carrying on conversations with imaginary hearers, which to the student of psychology would no doubt be most deeply interesting.

The majority of the patients are dressed in the asylum uniform, which is not unlike the ordinary workhouse dress. The broad arrow, of course, never appears, because it is not there. The men and women are really patients of the State; they are prisoners only in the sense that they cannot go beyond certain bounds. Several of them, however, are dressed in the everyday costume of the outside world. These are patients who have private means or receive allowances from their friends.

It was amongst these ladies and gentlemen that I found some of my most interesting experiences. Unfortunately, however, from the story-teller's point of view, but most justly from that of public policy, I should be guilty of a breach of confidence were I to reproduce them in identical form. There is throughout the whole of the prison service of this country a most just and humane rule which forbids any visitor to a prison or asylum under Government control to give personal details which might be in any way offensive, not only to those who have sinned, but also to their relations who have not sinned, and no one but a purveyor of unreliable sensation would dream of breaking such a rule. It will be understood, therefore, that any instances which I may give here are true only as to their details and not as to their personalities.

I must confess that while I was strolling about the grounds in company with the Superintendent, listening to his kindly greetings, and every now and then shaking hands and having a few words of conversation with those quietly-behaved, sober-looking men, I found it for the moment impossible to believe that among them were criminals with whose crimes the whole country had rung; that hands which closed so quietly on mine had been stained to the wrists in the blood of friends and kindred ; that the grave and even venerable - looking men who spoke so quietly and so rationally while they were showing their garden patches and exhibiting their cucumbers and their tomatoes, their flowers and their fruit-trees, for my admiration, had committed crimes for which, in many cases, decent human speech has no description - and yet - so it was. On the surface everything was calm and quiet, and, as regards the surroundings at least, beautiful ; and yet underneath that placid surface what depths of horror there must have been !

If the life histories of those quiet gardeners could be brought together into plain print what an appalling record it would be.

I was introduced to one venerable old gentleman who immediately asked me whether I was a freemason, and on my replying in the affirmative, he informed me that he was a Son of Jupiter, Knight of the Golden Rose, Commander of the Rosy Cross, Emperor of all the Masons, and rightful King of England, in testimony whereof he afterwards forwarded to me through the Superintendent a diploma admitting me to many precious privileges.

Shortly after this I was introduced to a fine-looking old man who still bore the stamp of the soldier, although his shoulders were bending beneath the weight of years. On the left breast of his grey jacket he wore three silver medals, one of which had five clasps and a bronze star. His was the saddest story that I heard.

"I have served my Queen and country sixty-three years," he said, " and you can see that I have fought for them too, and now that I'm an old man they're keeping me here and won't let me out."
Of course, there was a very good reason for his not being let out, and, in another sense, a sufficiently bad one; but that, of course, was a matter which he could not be expected to appreciate.

In the -female wings this contrast between the calm, orderly, and often cheerful bearing of the patients, and the reasons for their being where and what they were, was, if possible, even more startling and more shocking. A well - dressed lady, sitting in one of the spacious, sunlit corridors, put down her lace-work and bowed as we passed, murmuring a few words of polite greeting to the Superintendent. Her eyes were perfectly calm, her features were those of a delicately-bred woman, her abundant hair was beautifully arranged ; in fact, she might have entered any drawing-room in the country without exciting suspicion, and yet the delicate-looking hands which had been making the lace were stained with the blood of her own offspring.

Another lady, with whom I had a conversation in her own room - there are no cells at Broadmoor - was engaged in copying a head from one of the illustrated papers, and doing it very well, too. The walls of her room were neatly covered with similar pictures, and all about were little signs of feminine taste and refinement. She received me most affably, talked with thorough intelligence as to the comparative merits of her drawings and the originals, and received my good opinions of the former with quiet but evident satisfaction. So far, indeed, as our interview showed, she was just an entirely harmless lady pursuing a peaceable employment in a calm retirement, and yet this was a woman whose crime, committed something like a quarter of a century ago, sent a thrill of horror from end to end of the kingdom.

Another acquaintance that I made was that of a good-looking, buxom, middle- aged woman in the best of health and spirits, and apparently perfectly contented with her surroundings, as, indeed, the majority of the better patients appeared to be. She asked me if I didn't think she was looking exceedingly well after being fifteen years in the asylum. No one would ever have dreamt that such an amiable-looking creature could possibly have set fire to the bed in which her children were sleeping.

There are something like 120 women now confined in Broadmoor, out of a total of less than 200, who had murdered their own child or children. In fact, homicide, with attempts to murder and maim, would appear to be the crime to which the great majority of criminally-inclined lunatics are most prone.

As regards its general architectural structure and internal design Broadmoor does not differ very greatly from an ordinary prison save in the following respects : - the cells are replaced by rooms, small, but comfortably furnished, and very cheerful-looking. Instead of the great " halls" lighted from the top and containing three or four tiers of cells opening on to iron-railed galleries, the patients' rooms at Broadmoor are arranged in long corridors, most of which face ample-sized windows, barred, of course, but affording a good view of the grounds, and some of them splendid views of the surrounding country.

Then, of course, there are the common rooms, recreation-rooms, theatre, and concert-rooms, which you would look for in vain in the most perfect of British prisons. In short, the main idea of the designers appears to have been to get as much fresh air and sunlight as possible, and they have certainly succeeded exceedingly well. In fact, take away the bars from the windows, the iron gratings at the ends of the corridors and at every entrance from the grounds, and you would have in Broadmoor a perfectly arranged sanatorium, situated amidst the most delightful surroundings, to which anyone might go and make himself or herself thoroughly comfortable and happy.

The bakeries, cook-houses, laundries, tailors', shoe- makers', and carpenters' shops are just the same as in an ordinary prison - the only difference observable is in the costumes of the workers. So far I have dealt only with what may be called the pleasant aspect of Broadmoor, but behind it, and away out of sight of those who are enjoying in their own way these agreeable conditions, is another infinitely sadder - sad, in fact, almost to repulsiveness - and it is this aspect that you see when you enter the " back blocks" on either side.

The population of Broadmoor is divided into three classes. First come what are called the convalescents - that is to say, lunatics who are tranquil in their general behaviour, and do not exhibit any active signs of insanity, but who, of course, are nevertheless always insane. Then there come those who are as a rule quiet, orderly, and obedient, but who are actively insane and liable to outbreak ; these, like the convalescents, are allowed the greatest measure of freedom compatible with due restraint, but they are under ceaseless observation by attendants who are trained to recognise the slightest sign that indicates relapse.

Thus, for instance, if a man at work in his garden, or on the farm, or in any of the workshops, shows symptoms of restlessness or begins to work in an irregular way, or complains of headache, he is immediately taken to his room, where he is examined by a medical officer, and he is not allowed to go back to work till he returns to his normal condition. So, too, if a man voluntarily leaves his work he is not allowed back to it till he has been examined and certified fit. Every morning, too, the attendants on night duty have to make their reports to the principal attendant as to how their charges have slept during the night. If any suspicious symptoms are reported, an examination is made, and the patient does not go out till they are allayed. If necessary, he or she is sent into hospital. On one of these reports I noticed a rather curious entry : -

Slept well. Mouth and nose distinctly seen.

The explanation was this - the rooms are all supplied with a slit beside the door, through which the attendant can see the patient. This particular case was that of an epileptic, and if the attendant had seen the bedclothes over his face it would have been his duty to go in and remove them, otherwise the probability is that he would have suffocated himself.

I have mentioned these minute precautions here because they apply to all classes of patients, but more particularly to the third class, which consists of the refractory and violent - that is to say, those who would be called in common parlance, stark, staring mad. These I only saw through bars of the corridor, whose windows gave on to the exercise ground.

That corridor was one of the most unpleasant places I have ever been in in my life. Outside in the big, walled-in courtyard, plentifully planted with tall trees, were about a hundred grey-clad figures walking along, all alone - I didn't see two of them together - mostly only taking a few strides in one direction, then stopping a little as if they were lost, and starting off in a different direction. Others would walk swiftly in a straight line for several yards, then stop, look up at the sky, and make some half-human gesture, and then crawl away to a seat and crouch down on it.

Others, again, were swinging their arms and addressing imaginary audiences on imaginary wrongs ; but on every face, and in every eye, there was that horrible expression which only blank madness can give. Every now and then one would catch sight of us, run ,up and catch hold of the bars, and begin pouring forth the most piteous nonsense, mingled with horrible blasphemies and obscenities, and, seeing that I was a stranger, charging the officials with the most appalling cruelties.

I had a talk with one of them who had come from Parkhurst. He vowed that he had seen me there, which was within the bounds of possibility, as he had been sent from the Convict Convalescent Home since my visit there. When a convict becomes insane in prison he is sent to Broadmoor as a criminal lunatic. If he recovers he is sent back to prison to be discharged; if not, he is kept at Broadmoor. This poor wretch's complaint was that he had served the legal part of his sentence and earned a certain remission by good conduct. He remembered perfectly the date of his conviction, the name of the judge who had sentenced him, and even the date of what would have been his legal release.

So far his story, although gabbled out with the volubility of insanity, was perfectly coherent; but when he came to the reason why he was detained in Broadmoor instead of being released, it was a very different matter. The Lord Chief-Justice, the Home Secretary, the Governor of Parkhurst, both Houses of Parliament, and even Her Majesty herself had entered into a deliberate conspiracy to deprive him of his rights - and after that the rest was the most hopeless and piteous nonsense.

I was not at all sorry when the iron gateway of that corridor closed behind me; but in the back block of the female side the sight was, if anything, more pitifully repulsive than this, and here, too, there were no conversations.

" We will just walk through, so that you may see it," said the Superintendent, " and I must ask you not to take any notice of anyone. We have a lot of inflammable material here."

The warning was almost unheeded, for the difference was only too obvious. Here there was nothing like what I had seen in the other wards ; no trim, well-dressed, ladylike figures engaged in the ordinary employments of women in the outer world ; no sounds of music or conversation : only figures in female dress lying down on the floor, or huddled up in corners, or walking with slow, dragging footsteps, scraping their hands and bodies along the walls, wild eyes staring out under untidy hair, dog-like whimperings and crooning noises which were even more horrible.

In these back blocks the guards, both male and female, are doubled, and I noticed that whereas in the other parts of the asylum and grounds the Superintendent and I wandered about unattended, here there were never less than three attendants always within arm's length. I was not at all sorry when their services could be safely dispensed with. Here, too, the furniture is reduced to the minimum of absolute necessity. Everything is massive and solid, table utensils are made of tin instead of china, knives and forks are constructed so that they can neither be used for cutting or stabbing; in short, there is nothing that could be used as a weapon.

Before I conclude I should like to remove one more popular delusion with regard to Broadmoor. It is a too common belief that murderers and other criminal lunatics are maintained in comfort in Broadmoor at the national expense when they are quite well enough to be discharged. Now, there are two systems of discharge from Broadmoor: a patient may be released unconditionally if he is certified as fully recovered. This very rarely happens, there being only one case in 1897 ; but patients are also discharged into the care of friends who can prove their ability to take care of them, and who have to make periodical reports certified by responsible persons as to their state of mind ; nine such cases were discharged in 1897.

Now I, in my ignorance, should have thought that a great many of the patients whom I saw were fit to be discharged, but, as the Superintendent explained, it is not their behaviour in the asylum, where they have no worries, no responsibilities, and no cares for the morrow, that has to be considered ; the point is whether they are fit to go back to the world to which they have been strangers for so long and there conduct themselves like sane people. The answer of mature experience is an emphatic " no." Just after we had discussed this point the Superintendent introduced me to a quiet and most pleasantly-spoken individual who was tending a most carefully-kept flower-bed, brilliant with blooms. From his conversation I should never have dreamt that he was mad, yet this man had once been released from an asylum as cured, into the custody of his wife, and within three days he had relapsed and smashed her head into pulp with a hammer.

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