EACH IN HIS SEPARATE HELL
The Privy Council's compromise between the stern demands of the country's offended laws and the dictates of humanity was hailed with more rejoicing by the intercessors than it was by those for whom they had interceded. The latter had already composed their minds to accept the fate which awaited them with fortitude and without the least indication of fear. It was not surprising that Oakley and Darling received, almost with indifference, the news that the execution of their sentence was respited. They found no pleasure in it if it meant only that their lives were to be spared for a few days or a few weeks ; if this was so they indicated that they would far rather die with their still doomed companion.
The respite arrived at the gaol on the evening of Monday the 10th of January, and was immediately communicated to Oakley and Darling, but it was not until the next morning, the morning of the execution, that Winterbourn learnt that he was to suffer alone. He bore this additional trial in a manly and becoming manner. He expressed himself glad that his companions were to be spared and did not regret that mercy had been denied him ; on the contrary he continued to declare that he was prepared and willing to die. His wife was lying dangerously ill with typhus and he had been informed of her condition which was considered to be hopeless. One of his last wishes was that she might die before he suffered. (1)
There was no special treatment for a man condemned to death for a crime other than murder. He was, of course, in solitary confinement, though his friends had access to him "at seasonable times". His diet was the prison allowance only. For exercise he was allowed "to walk a short time every day in the yard attached to his cell." (2) So, like Wilde's guardsman, "it was there, he took the air, beneath the leaden sky."
The hour appointed for the last sad ceremony which the ill-starred man had to undergo was 12 o'clock. Shortly before that hour he came out of the chapel, pinioned, and attended by officers of the prison who were to lead him to the scaffold. His large muscular frame seemed cramped, probably from the position of his arms and the tightness of the bands by which he was pinioned. He walked firmly but his cheek was pallid, his eyes glazed, and the prayers which he uttered, though fervently and audibly expressed, broke from quivering lips.(1)
As was usual at that time the scaffold was erected at the top of the gaol. Winterbourn ascended the steep flight of steps without assistance and with a steady step. Reaching the platform at the top he submitted himself to the hands of the executioner. As the prison clock finished striking twelve the drop fell, and, after a short struggle (1), thus died the very first "Victim of Whiggery". As the correspondent of "The Times" put it, "Life had not dealt so tenderly with him for death at last to hold much bitterness."
Someone who was present at the execution later described the scene in the following words
"I was about nine years old at the time and in common with an immense crowd I went to see the execution. The gallows was on the west wall of the gaol, facing the ruins of Reading Abbey; people climbed the rocks and portions of the old walls so as to get a good view. I watched till I saw the officials etc., on the scaffold and Winterbourn standing under the beam. He looked a strong, heavy man, and wore a velveteen jacket. I looked till I saw a white cap pulled over his face, then I could look no longer. I got behind other people and looked on the ground. After about a minute a suppressed groan ran through the crowd and I knew it was over. The groan had scarcely ceased when a lot of fellows, selling what they claimed was a printed copy of Winterbourn's dying speech and confession, began shouting their wares. I remember reading this print which stated that Winterbourn had admitted that his sentence was just." (4)
Lord Melbourne and his colleagues of the "liberal" government were no doubt relieved to receive the report from the Mayor of Reading that the execution had passed "without tumult or extraordinary excitement." (5)
Meanwhile the condemned man's comrades had been otherwise occupied. Darling had expressed gratitude for the mercy which had been extended to him, and expressed the hope that, by the blessing of the Almighty, he should be enabled to follow the good advice given to him by the worthy chaplain of the gaol. (6) That this conversion was not a permanent one is shown by his subsequent conduct in the convict settlements of New South Wales.
Between the time when sentence of death had been passed on him and that when he was informed that a respite had been granted, Oakley had shown some pretence of religious feeling. However, when it became clear that he was not to lose his life, he "became as hardened and vicious as ever, throwing off all pretence at religious feeling which he had before assumed." Oakley must have been a very good actor for he not only deceived the good chaplain, he successfully hood-winked all observers into believing that he had resigned himself to his fate. (6) In fact it would appear that he had long been meditating upon a plan of escape, and had endeavoured to gain the support of other convicts in this enterprise.
The plan he proposed, and which was entered into by several others, was to seize the Governor, Turnkey and Chaplain while in chapel, secure the alarm, and take their own clothes. Assuming that no further difficulties remained to be overcome, they were then to make their escape. The prisoners in different parts of the gaol who agreed with and were prepared to take part in the scheme were to shake hands in chapel on the morning previous to carrying their plan into effect. (6) According to the reporter of the Reading Mercury, this preliminary signal was given on the morning of the day before the executions were to take place. That this was so is doubtful as it would have meant that the escape would have been attempted on the actual day of the executions, and, unless procedures were then different from those which applied when Oscar Wilde was an inmate of the same gaol, "there is no chapel on the day on which they hang a man." (7) Even if this was not true in 1831, or it was not known to Oakley, he would have been most naive if he had believed that he, due for execution at noon, would have been present at the chapel service on that same morning. According to Wilde, "they kept us close," (7) during the period preceding an execution, and the 1825 Gaol Regulations state that "During an execution all the prisoners of the gaol shall be confined in their separate cells so as to be excluded from the sight thereof." (2)
However, though there may be some doubt as to exactly when the escape plan was to be put into effect, confirmation that such a plan existed is given in a Report of the Visiting Magistrates, who were "sorry to report that a conspiracy had been formed, chiefly among the prisoners engaged in the late disturbances, to rise upon the Turnkeys in the Chapel during Divine Service, to overpower them and to effect their escape." (8) The reason why Oakley's plan was not put into operation was that the authorities "had timely notice of it and took precautions ...by limiting the number admitted to the Chapel." (8) The timely information was provided by an informer, a fellow convict, William Appleby, who had been convicted of horse-stealing at the March Assizes, 1830, where he had been sentenced to two years imprisonment. (8) The thwarting of his first plan of escape did not deter Oakley from devising another ; on the journey to the hulks he tried to persuade his fellow prisoners to sway the caravan over. (6)
On the same day that the news of reprieves for Oakley and Darling had been received at Reading, the Deputy Lieutenant, Mr. Frederick Page, and the Hungerford magistrates, had separately written to the Home Secretary requesting that the wives and children of those who were to be transported might be allowed to join them ; to both requests the Home Office returned a decided negative.(9) On the 18th January, at the Berkshire Quarter Sessions, the Marquis of Downshire moved that the permission of H.M. Government be sought for the wives and children of the convicts sentenced to transportation to join them. As the chief objection appeared to be the expense to the public purse, it was also proposed that a sum of money be raised by subscription in the county for the purpose. The Marquis, as Chairman, and J.Pearce, M.P., (and a Hungerford J.P.) were requested to proceed in this matter. They did so proceed but with no more success than their predecessors.
The rioters who were to be transported remained in the County Gaol until Thursday. 27th January, when twenty-three of the 45 Berkshire rioters so sentenced were taken by caravan to Gosport where they were taken aboard the "York" hulk. This group included nine men -
Daniel Bates, David Hawkins, Francis Norris, Edmund Steel, Thomas Goodfellow, Joseph Nicholas, William Page, William Sims and William Westall -
from the south-western corner of the county, all of whom were "lifers", except Goodfellow who had been sentenced to 14 years.
The remaining twenty-two, together with two other "transports" unconnected with the riots, were similarly transferred on the following Monday, 31st January. This group included -
William Oakley and Alfred Darling who, having only narrowly escaped hanging, were "lifers", and nine "seven year" men, Cornelius Bennett, William Carter, Timothy May, Robert Page and Thomas Radbourn from the Kintbury area , and John Aldridge, Charles Green, Joseph Tuck and Joseph Smith from Hungerford. (6)
Twenty-four men from south-west Berks remained in the County Gaol when the "transports" had left. Their names (together with the periods of hard labour to which they had been sentenced in brackets) were as follows :-
Jacob Gater (9 months); Charles Bates, John Gater, Robert Gibbs, George Holmes, Richard Nutley, William Pearson and William White (12 months); and George Liddiard and James Watts (18 months) all of Kintbury : and William Chitter and James Grant (6 months); Elijah Baker, John Cope, Thomas Dance, Jeremiah Dobson, John Jennaway and David Garlick (12 months); and John Field, Israel Pullen, Charles Rosier, George Rosier, George Whiting and Thomas Willoughby (18 months) from Hungerford.
The County Gaol which was to be their domicile for some time was relatively new, having been built in 1793 on lines suggested by the well-known prison reformer, John Howard. (10) It was originally intended to accommodate only forty prisoners. By 1830, however, it had been enlarged to enable it to "receive a hundred and twenty-four", though, as the same writer remarked, "At times of excitement and riot as many as two hundred and fifty have been contained within its walls, but with very great inconvenience." (11)
In spite of its relative newness "severe criticisms were passed at the Midsummer Sessions (of 1840) upon the harsh administration and insanitary conditions (then) prevailing," (12) and, in 1842, it was condemned by the Inspectors of Prisons as "a stigma and detriment to the county." The inspectors also stated that it answered "none of the purposes for which it was established, i.e. the deterring, correcting and reclaiming of offenders." (13) The county magistrates at the next Quarter Sessions decided to rebuild and the existing gaol was opened at the end of 1844. (14)
Unless prevented by sickness, prisoners sentenced to hard labour were employed every week-day, except for Christmas Day, Good Friday, and other officially prescribed days of fasting and thanksgiving. (2) Reading Gaol was one of the first to introduce the tread-wheel, and parties of fashionable ladies and gentlemen considered it an entertaining diversion to watch the prisoners at their futile task of climbing at the rate of 13,000 feet in a day of ten hours.(15) Only those declared fit by the gaol surgeon were put upon this sisyphean task.
Every convicted person had to "attend Divine Service on Sundays and other days, unless prevented by illness or other reasonable cause." On Sundays it was the Keeper's responsibility to "take care that every prisoner appeared in Chapel ... fresh shaved and in clean linen." (2)
Next to the inculcation of godliness and the proper discipline of the body, cleanliness was an important aspect of prison life. Apart from the initial warm bath, and such other means of cleansing as the circumstances demanded, the prisoners were provided with "a proper supply of water with convenient places to wash" together with "an adequate allowance of soap,towels and combs; the towels to be delivered clean, at least twice every week". Shirts and other clothing were washed and also delivered clean once a week. The men were to shave at least twice a week, razors being provided to those without. (2)
Like certain religious the convicts' long day was broken up into precise periods, the change-over from one occupation to another being "signified by the ringing of a bell". At the first bell-ringing (the time of which varied according to the period of the year, i.e. at six o'clock during the months of April-September; at half past six during the months October-March; and not later than seven o'clock during the months November-February) the convicts rose, stripped their beds and placed their bedding in accordance with the instructions from the Keeper, washed and breakfasted. At the second bell they were "conducted to their respective places in the Chapel." At the conclusion of Divine Service they were put to work. The actual working day of those sentenced to hard labour was ten hours in summer and eight hours in winter.
To this must be added one hour for dinner and a period of air and exercise; "as much as may be deemed proper for the preservation of their health." A convict could receive visitors between the hours of twelve noon and two p.m. ; the number of such visitors in one day was not to exceed three, and they could stay for only half an hour. "At a quarter of an hour before sunset throughout the year" the prisoners retired to their night or lodging cells. Each male convict was supposed to be lodged "either in a separate cell,or in a cell with not less than two other prisoners", and was to be provided with "a separate bedstead, a straw-filled mattress, two blankets, a coverlet and a sig-pan." The coverlets and blankets were to be washed every three months. (2)
"Every prisoner maintained at the expense of the county was allowed a sufficient quantity of bread and water, and any other coarse but wholesome food, as directed by order of the Justices in Session; or such other food as was judged necessary and ordered by the surgeon.". In fact, providing they conducted themselves in a quiet and orderly manner, to the satisfaction of the Keeper, they received "daily, in addition to the usual allowance of food, such an allowance as the Visiting Justices might direct." (2) According to two quite different writers these men were, in respect of food at least, better off than their comrades who had retained their freedom.
In the fifth issue of his "Politics for the Poor" (published in the same month that the rioting occurred in Berkshire) William Cobbett unfavourably compared the potato based diet of most agricultural labourers with that provided by the Berkshire Jail Regulations, which stated that "If the Surgeon thinks it necessary the Working Prisoners may be allowed Meat and Broth on Week Days." Less than two years after the riots Edwin Chadwick included in his Report to the Poor Law Commissioners certain statistics which he had collected, one of which is particularly relevant for making a comparison between the condition of a free labourer and his imprisoned comrades. It was given in terms of ounces of solid food consumed per week.
a transported prisoner 330 ounces
a convicted prisoner 239 do
a soldier 168 do
an able-bodied pauper 151 do
an independent agricultural labourer 122 do (3)
In spite of being provided with shelter, clothing and such palatial fare at the County's expense, the convicted rioters appear to have been singularly lacking in gratitude, for Mr. Bully, the Gaol Surgeon. in his report dated, 28th June, 1831, stated "that more discontent has existed in the prison since the admission of the County Rioters than he recollects to have seen for twenty or thirty years before." (16) Neither the savage sentences meted out to their transported comrades, nor the terrible fate suffered by their leader, William Winterbourn, appears to have completely cowed them; these harsh examples had not yet made them into the ox-like Hodges which, according to some writers and commentators, their descendants were to become.
REFERENCES. CHAPTER 6.
(1) Reading Mercury, 17th January, 1831.
(2) Rules and Regulations for the Government of Reading Gaol (1825)
(3) quoted by N. Gash, op.cit.
(4) Letter printed in the Newbury Weekly News, 24th February, 1898.
(5) P.R.O. H.O. 52-12.
(6) Reading Mercury, 7th February, 1831.
(7) Oscar Wilde, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol".
(8) Berks R.O. Quarter Sessions Order Book, 5th April, 1831.
(9) P.R.O. H.O. 40-27.
(10) Rev. J.M. Guilding, "Notable Events" (1895).
(11) Doran, "The History etc. of Reading" (1835).
(12) Reading Mercury, 4th July, 1840.
(13) ditto 18th January, 1842.
(14) ditto 19th October, 1844.
(15) ditto 23rd December, 1822.
(16) Berks R.O. Quarter Sessions Order Book, June,1831.
Part 1 - Berkshire:
Part 2: To "Botany Bay"