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Reports of meeting talks

19th February 2018
‘Life and Death in a Victorian Gaol’
Mike Wabe

On the afternoon of 19th February a number of members met at The Lophams village hall in the afternoon for talk by Mike Wabe, attired in the uniform of a gaoler for his talk ‘Life and Death in a Victorian Gaol.’ Going to gaol was not a pleasant experience as the emphasis was on punishment to dissuade offenders from a life of crime, however the lure of three meals a day however sparse and basic and being able to wash did encourage some to reoffend. Mike quoted the example of one man who was unable during the time of his incarceration to finish reading the bible, which was given to all prisoners. He was desperate to do so and reoffended just for that purpose! Men and women were treated equally with regard to their sentencing although separated.

After sentencing the guilty were taken straight to gaol. It was preferable for that to happen early in the morning because then the bath water was clean. As it wasn’t changed until next morning one can only imagine what it was like by the end of the day. The cell contained a mattress, a bucket with a lid which doubled as a stool and a cup and plate which had to be thoroughly washed after use. The prisoner was issued with a clean uniform and brushes to keep nails and hair clean as well as a face mask called a peak which they had to wear if outside the cell. They were not allowed to speak.

All prisoners worked. The women were deployed in the laundry while the men were put to hard labour which could be on the treadmill or turning a crank or there was shot drill. This entailed moving a pile of 35lb metal balls from one side of the yard to another. Another task was picking oakum. The process of unpicking 3lbs of rope a day released oakum fibres into the atmosphere and had similar effects on the lungs as inhaling asbestos.

The diet was poor. Breakfast was 8oz. bread and a pint of tea, dinner was poor quality meat with vegetables, accompanied by bread and tea. At the end of the day they received 6oz of cheese and 6oz of bread with cocoa. Punishments were harsh. Those being flogged could receive up to 36 lashes. Mike had brought with him a selection of restraints and manacles, some for the hands, some for the feet and some cruel devices which constrained both, severely limiting movement.

Hangings had originally been executed by a process known as ‘The Short Drop.’ This method was not ideal. Death was effected by strangulation and although a victim would become unconscious within a few seconds they could remain alive for up to 20 minutes. It was not ideal and distressing for the staff but this practice persisted until 1874 and the appointment of William Marwood. He perfected the Long Drop after rigorous testing with ropes and bags of sand which led to a table based on height, weight and physique. This method broke the neck and death occurred instantly. It was used for over a hundred years. Mike also spoke about the technical aspects of the procedure, the construction and operating of the trapdoor and the rituals observed in the last minutes of the victim’s life. It was an interesting and somewhat sobering talk.

Jenny Jenkins

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