Skip to main content
Hide Articles List

2 articles on this Page

A FORTNIGHT FOR THE FRANCHISE.

News
Cite
Share

A FORTNIGHT FOR THE FRANCHISE. By MARIE WINTON EVANS. (Continued.) To those gifted with a keen sense of the ridiculous, the journey of the suffragists, convicted of a mere technical offence, from police court to prison, was not without its humorous side. Here were more than a dozen earnest, thoughtful women of the type of which any State may well be proud, possessing those necessary qualities that are essential to the formation of useful citizens- all intelligent, educated persons, and more than one of them University graduates- subjected to the conditions provided for the ordinary criminal from whom Society demands to be protected. Each was locked up in a small box-like compartment containing a seat, scarce sufficient to contain a well-proportioned person; not too clean, and insufficiently ventilated, the only means of obtaining glimpses of each other being through a small iron grating about eight inches square. Secured in our narrow cells, as though we were dangerous thieves, or drunken, braw- ling harridans, our very transit through the streets a menace to the security of Society, it was necessary for us to be further guarded by the presence of the inevitable Robert. The humour of the situation lay in the fact that the authorities had not even the courage to risk the indignation of public opinion by proceeding against us for the actual technical offence which we had com- mitted-which was, to approach in pro- cession within the prescribed radius of one mile to the House of Commons, and had to manufacture a charge of disorderly conduct, of which not one had been guilty. The consent of the Attorney General would have been necessary to enable us to be proceeded against on the first charge, but, by making our offence the more vulgar, one of "disorderly conduct and resisting the police," no more formidable evidence was necessary than the word of a policeman. This fact probably accounted for Mr. Herbert Gladstone's decision to advise the adoption of the least unpopular course, and the fiction was kept up by the aid of a corrupt press which described the proceedings as a scrum- mage between woman and policemen. The knowledge of these things, while it strengthened our determination to protest against the action of the Government, helped to preserve our equanimity of spirits during the journey to Holloway, and although the bright summer day seemed to be an in- appropriate one on which to sacrifice our liberty, we cheered each other by antici- pating the time when we should again be free, having secured the unique experience of actual life in that unknown world in which the enemies of Society spend a portion of their existence. After a jolting drive of about half an hour, our van W2S brought to a standstill. There was a harsh grating sound of heavy locks being unbarred, of huge doors being drawn open, and we were again driven forward, this time into the courtyard of the castle, the doors being securely locked again after the van had passed through. Here we stopped. There was a sound of hurrying feet, and of many voices. The policeman who had been stationed as guard upon us opened the van door and dismounted, reappearing in a few moments to let out his prisoners. As each cell door was opened we stepped out and surveyed our new surround- ings, and the prospect was gloomy and forbidding. High walls of solid masonry completely shut out the outside world, and dispelled at once any thoughts of escape that might have lurked in the bosom of even the most daring of our band. The tall towers of the castle itself symbolised, in their mediaeval strength, the unyielding rigidity of the system into the hands of which we had been delivered, and according to the rules of which we were to purge ourselves of the offence committed against the State. Our spirits fell with our entrance within these dread walls, we silently awaited developments, and when the sharp order came to come this way quickly," each one quietly obeyed, and entered the precincts of this silent world. Inside the door, we were ordered by an irritable, sour-faced wardress, to range our- selves along the corridor, and as two van loads of suffragists had been already de- posited, there was a goodly number to take their places. Discipline was at once strictly enforced, and an attempt to speak was re- primanded in a sharp, domineering manner. The roll-call having been responded to, and no one being found missing, the for- malities of reception commenced. To the order of loosen your garments and step this way quickly," we were hurried into the presence of the prison doctor for medical examination, in order that our fitness or un- fitnoss for the ordinary routine of prison discipline might be ascertained. This medical examination was a mere formality, consisting of a hurried application of the stethoscope to the chest, and a quick dis- missal if nothing was found wrong. So hurried was the examination, that any un- satisfactory state of health would require to be very obvious to be detected. This part of the proceedings having been satisfactorily gone through, we were placed in the reception cells, and as our number was so unusual, the accommodation for our reception was woefully inadequate six of us were locked in a small cell designed for one person only, and very much smaller in size than the cells which we afterwards occupied when we had been properly installed as part of the prison population. Our first acquaintance with a prison cell was anything but agreeable. The one in which we were now locked was very limited in space, being only about six feet long, by four feet wide, and about seven feet high. The walls were very dirty, and the window, which was placed as high as possible, was sadly in need of an application of elbow- grease. The air was heavy and foul. the only means of ventilation being a slight opening of the lower part of the small window by sliding it forward into the cell. This might serve as an outlet for an over- charged atmosphere, but was utterly inade- quate to allow a current of fresh air to enter the cell. The seating accommodation was a small narrow bench provided for the use of one prisoner only, and as there were six of us, already fatigued with the day's proceed- ings, the prospects of a long wait under these conditions was not a cheerful one. Near the door a small pane of very thick, ribbed glass, about six inches square, was let into the wall, to allow the flickering light from a gas jet in the corridor outside, to further emphasise the gloom of this tomb- like abode. This light was too insufficient to make reading possible, so that a prisoner confined here has nothing but the com- panionship of his own rebellious thoughts to relieve the tediousness of the weary hours that intervene between the passing of day- light and the time for going to bed. This world into which we had entered being strange and unknown to us, our first acquaintance with it chilled our blood, and we were all more or less expectantly alert for any sounds that might help us to under- stand the next movement. From outside came a continuous sound of the jingling of heavy keys, of grating locks, of hurrying feet, of curt, sharp instructions delivered to prisoners who were addressed by their respective numbers, and of orders given to those newly arrived suffragists who were undergoing the preliminaries of reception through which we had already passed. After some time the jingle of keys stopped outside our cell, the door was unlocked with a harsh grating noise, and a wardress appeared followed by women in prison dress carrying our supper. This was placed on the little table fixed into the wall of the cell, by the door not a word of explanation was given, and the door was again banged to and re-locked. This being our initiation into the mys- terious fare known as prison diet, we all gathered around it, curiously regarding the contents of two tin cans which were provided for each one of us. One of them contained a pint of liquid known in prison as cocoa, though I had never met that particular sample of it outside Holloway and the other contained a roll of coarse brown bread and a slab of cold, dried mutton. This latter, we afterwards learned, is a concession made to first division offenders on arrival, and was not to be expected at any other time. After smelling the cocoa, carefully inspecting the meat, and examining the quality of the bread, we unanimously arrived at the con- clusion that the pangs of hunger were not yet keen enough to over-rule the niceties of the palate, and we decided in favour of going to bed supperless, preferring the reflections of our last meal to the taste of this. It was afterwards removed by a wardress who sneered at our refusal to patronise prison food" Slowly the hours dragged on; we knew by the advancing darkness that we had been in our cell for a very long time, but still there were no indications of release. Owing to the limited space and the defective venti- lation, the atmosphere had become unbear- ably impure, and we had long since relapsed into a silence that resembled dumb despair, when loud, prolonged shrieks rang through the place. Instantly we sprang to the door, resolving that, if any of our women were being com- pelled to submit to any undignified or un- just treatment, we should unite in a vigorous protest. We rang the bell to demand an explanation of the cries that again rang out, but no wardress appeared in reply to our summonses. Slowly the cries died away into moans, and gradually ceased alto- gether, but we had been too terrified to remain any longer in that close, foetid atmosphere, and as the ringing of the bell brought no relief, we all united in knocking upon the cell door with our fists. At last the door was opened, and a ward- ress demanded the reason for the noise we made. I informed her that the officials had presumably overlooked the fact that the cell in which we were confined was not meant to contain more than one prisoner, and that unless we were released some of us would be taken ill; we therefore demanded that some of our number should be removed, and the door left open for those who remained to breathe fresher air. To our surprise, our demand was granted. Three were drafted into a neighbouring cell, and upon pro- mising not to attempt to leave ours, the door was allowed to remain open, and we could now occupy the time in watching the for- malities that attend the reception of all new prisoners. (To be continued.)

Advertising