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Monday, April 7, 2014

The Kindness of Oscar and Thomas

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sharing the extraordinary in ordinary lives

The Kindness of Oscar and Thomas
by Eleanor Fitzsimons
n Monday, May 17, 1897, three frightened children were made to stand in line in the high-ceilinged central inspection hall of Reading Jail in Berkshire. The two older boys had been issued with coarse prison uniforms, each one emblazoned with a pattern of broad arrows signifying that the wearer was, for the time being, the property of Her Majesty’s Government. The youngest boy was so slight that no uniform could be found to fit him and he wore instead the ragged clothes that he had been arrested in. Each boy carried his bed sheet under his arm. All three had been convicted of snaring rabbits and were waiting to be escorted to the cells that had been allocated to them.
By chance the three lads were spotted by Prisoner C.3.3 as he was being escorted back to cell number three on landing three of C Block, located high above where they stood. A compassionate man, he was moved by the abject vulnerability of these children; they reminded him of his own two sons, aged ten and almost twelve at the time, although thoughts of his own beloved boys caused him nothing but anguish. Prisoner C.3.3 was due for release within two days, but the crime for which he had been convicted carried with it the probability that he would never see his sons again. He missed them dreadfully: ‘I envy other men who tread the yard with me. I am sure that their children wait for them’, lamented the man we know as Oscar Wilde.
Wilde encountered a good many child convicts during the seventeen months he spent in Reading Jail, but he had never before seen one as young as the little lad who couldn't find a uniform to fit him. Determined to help if he could, he made inquiries and learnt that the boys would be freed if someone paid a fine that was clearly beyond the means of their parents. Once he was back in his cell, he scribbled a note on a scrap of paper and slipped it under his door in the hope that it would catch the eye of Warder Thomas Martin as he patrolled the corridor. This scrawled note has survived and reads as follows:

‘Please find out for me the name of A.2.11. Also, the names of the children who are in for the rabbits, and the amount of the fine. Can I pay this and get them out? If so I will get them out tomorrow. Please, dear friend, do this for me. I must get them out. Think what a thing for me it would be to be able to help three little children. I would be delighted beyond words: if I can do this by paying the fine tell the children that they are to be released tomorrow by a friend, and ask them to be happy and not to tell anyone.’

The fine was paid and the children freed.

Wilde’s reference to ‘A.2.11’ demonstrates that he had also used this opportunity to inquire about a fellow adult prisoner, a young soldier named James Edward Prince who was being held in a cell located on the landing below him. Although it was perfectly obvious to the inmates of Reading Jail that this unfortunate man was suffering from some form of mental disturbance, his unorthodox behaviour had earned him the label ‘malingerer’. Rather than dealing with him sympathetically, the prison authorities prescribed a regime of regular beatings, and his anguished howls reverberated throughout the jail. Once he had discovered this man’s name, Wilde planned to use his access to the popular press to raise awareness of his plight and shame the authorities into intervening. His primary concern however, was for the children.

The notion of imprisoning children might seem barbaric to us now, but it was common practice in Victorian England, and represented a significant improvement on the treatment that had been meted out during the early part of the nineteenth century. Under the Bloody Code, a set of draconian laws that were in force between the years 1688 and 1815, children and adults alike were regularly sentenced to death for stealing; as recently as 1814, the year before the code was repealed, five children, all of them aged under-fourteen, were hanged at the Old Bailey for relatively minor transgressions.

Although their lives were spared during the years that followed, children frequently lost their liberty and their dignity. More often than not the crimes perpetrated by them were a direct response to the awful poverty they experienced; convictions for poaching and stealing food were commonplace. During 1845, seven children—six boys and one girl, not one of whom had reached his or her tenth birthday—were incarcerated in Reading jail. All had been sentenced to hard labor, with several suffering the further indignity of being whipped on release. When seven year-old Frank Stockwell was convicted of arson in 1884, he became the youngest prisoner to serve a sentence in Reading Jail. In 1891, a ten year-old boy was sentenced to three days in Reading for stealing cherries. The following year, an eleven year-old boy got twenty-one days hard labor followed by twelve strokes of the birch upon release for poaching rabbits.

Many of the warders in Reading Jail were family men who sympathized with the children under their charge, but each was fully aware that any attempt to express their compassion could lead to their instant dismissal, and leave their own families vulnerable to the very desperation that might result in their incarceration. One man among them was prepared to act on the pity he felt in defiance of the very real threat hanging over him. Warder Thomas Martin had been assigned to C Wing in February 1897, just two months before Wilde was due for release, and during that time the two Irishmen had struck up a strong and unlikely friendship.
Thomas Martin soon earned a reputation for compassion. He shared Wilde’s concern for the children who had been sent down for poaching rabbits and as soon as he realized that the youngest of them was too upset to eat the unpalatable, dry bread that constituted a meal, the kindly warder brought the boy some sweet biscuits that he had paid for himself. The poor child was so grateful for this act of generosity that he mentioned it innocently to a senior warder, having no notion of the harm this would cause. For this minor act of kindness, Thomas Martin was dismissed from his post and obliged to forfeit his pension.

Days later, Wilde, a free man by then, was horrified to read of Martin’s dismissal in the Daily Chronicle. Since he had been assigned to C-wing, Martin had shown great kindness to many of the inmates, and in particular to the man he called ‘the poet’. In defiance of  prison regulations, he had kept Wilde supplied with copies of the Daily Chronicle and a steady delivery of Huntley & Palmer Ginger Nut biscuits, which he obtained from the factory next door. On one occasion, as Wilde lay ill in his prison bed, Martin fetched him a prohibited bottle of hot beef tea, which he concealed beneath his shirt to avoid detection. As he returned to Wilde’s cell, Martin was summoned by the Chief Warder and obliged to stand talking to his superior for several minutes as the scalding bottle burned his skin.

Wilde had long planned to use the unique insights gained during his time in Reading Jail to campaign for prison reform and in a letter he wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas, later published as de Profundis, had declared: ‘The prison system is absolutely and entirely wrong. I would give anything to be able to alter it when I go out. I intend to try.’ Martin’s dismissal gave him the impetus he sought. Although Wilde had left England by then, and was in Dieppe at the time, he wrote a long letter, which he telegraphed to Henry William Massingham, Editor of the Daily Chronicle, protesting at the dismissal of Martin and highlighting the cruel treatment meted out to the children that were held in English prisons. This letter was published in full on May 28, under the heading: ‘THE CASE OF WARDER MARTIN: SOME CRUELTIES OF PRISON LIFE’.  It began:

‘I learn with great regret, through the columns of your paper, that the Warder Martin of Reading Prison has been dismissed by the prison commissioners for having given some sweet biscuits to a little hungry child’.

The thrust of Wilde’s argument was that children, unlike adults, simply do not have the capacity to understand, let alone reconcile themselves to, the notion of being punished by society for some perceived transgression: ‘The terror of a child in prison is quite limitless’, he wrote. Realizing that his argument would be more persuasive if he cited individual cases, Wilde described how on one particular occasion, as he was heading to the exercise yard, he witnessed the small boy who occupied a dimly lit cell located across the corridor from his own being spoken to sternly by two warders, one who was in the cell with him and another who stood outside.

Wilde describes how, in the face of this onslaught, the boy’s face became, ‘like a white wedge of sheer terror’, adding that, ‘there was in his eyes the terror of a hunted animal’. The next morning, Wilde overheard the child crying out for his parents and begging to be released. Rather than offering him any words of comfort, the warder on duty repeatedly told him to keep quiet, although in the man’s defense it must be remembered that he was prohibited from offering assistance and would have been dismissed if discovered doing so. To compound matters, this particular child had not even been convicted of any crime, but was being held on remand at the time.

One practice that concerned Wilde in particular was that of keeping children locked in their cells for twenty-three out of every twenty-four hours. Reading was primarily an adult prison and few special provisions were made for its younger inmates. If several children happened to be present in the prison at any given time, then they were permitted to receive one hour of school instruction in the prison classroom. Besides this, and the short time they spent in chapel, each child would pass the remainder of the day in solitary confinement, obliged to confront the horror of their circumstances while utterly alone.

Perhaps the most poignant line in Wilde’s epic poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written while he was in exile in France, reads: ‘For they starve the little frightened child, Till it weeps both night and day’. Wilde was horrified by the poor quality of food provided to inmates: breakfast at half-past seven consisted of a small piece of dry prison bread accompanied by a tin of water; at twelve midday each prisoner was served a main meal composed of a tin of coarse Indian meal ‘stirabout’, a type of cornmeal porridge; finally, at half-past five, a supper that was identical to the unpalatable breakfast was brought to each cell. Children who were upset and frightened could barely stomach this indigestible fare, but no alternative was offered.
Wilde proposed a series of reforms to address the shortcomings he highlighted, the most fundamental of which was that no child under the age of fourteen should be sent to prison at all. Yet he was pragmatic enough to realize that there was little likelihood of such a radical proposal being adopted and suggested instead that children who were incarcerated should at least have access to a dedicated workshop or schoolroom during the daytime and at night should sleep in a dormitory overseen by a night-warder. Wilde also advocated that children be allowed to exercise for at least three hours a day and receive a diet of tea, bread-and-butter and wholesome soup.

As to the warders, Wilde allowed that they were decent men on the whole who were constrained from showing any kindness to their charges, but he singled Thomas Martin out for particular praise, writing:

‘I know Martin extremely well, and I was under his charge for the last seven weeks of my imprisonment. On his appointment at Reading he had charge of Gallery C, in which I was confined, so I saw him constantly. I was struck by the singular kindness and humanity of the way in which he spoke to me and to the other prisoners’.

Although Wilde’s letter whipped up considerable public sympathy for Martin, the Prison Authorities would not entertain his reinstatement, and vociferously defended their actions in dismissing him. 

Although little is known of what became of Thomas Martin after his dismissal, what is certain is that, in spite of Wilde’s eloquent plea in his defense, he experienced a long and difficult period of unemployment, although efforts were made to raise funds on his behalf. In February 1898, a sixteen page reproduction of Wilde’s letter in pamphlet form, entitled The Case of Warder Martin was published by Murdoch and Co. and offered for sale to the general public at a penny a copy. A note from the publisher, carried on the front page, read:

‘Martin was dismissed. It happened in May last year. He is still out of employment and in poor circumstances. Can anybody help him?’

Wilde continued to campaign for prison reform. On March 24, 1898, a day that fell during the week that the Home Secretary’s Prison Reform Bill was due to be read for a second time, he had a follow-up letter published in the Daily Chronicle outlining, ‘what reforms in our present stupid and barbarous system are urgently necessary.’ It seems his campaigning was effective as, when the Prison Reform Bill became law in August 1898, a number of the changes contained within it replicated exactly the proposals proffered by Oscar Wilde.

As to the friendship between Wilde and Martin, although the two never met again, the warder maintained his admiration for ‘the poet’. After learning of Wilde’s death in 1900, Martin contributed a chapter entitled, ‘The Poet in Prison’ to R.H. Sherard’s Life of Oscar Wilde, published in 1906. Sherard, a loyal friend to Wilde, dedicated this biography to Martin and his touching dedication reads:

 To T. M., who in the extreme of adversity, proved himself the true friend of an unhappy man’.

Eleanor Fitzsimons is a freelance journalist and researcher. Her work has been published in The Irish Times, The Sunday Times, History Ireland and other publications, and she has researched documentaries for the Irish national broadcaster, RTÉ. In 2013, she won the Keats-Shelley Prize and was runner-up for the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize with “A Want of Honour”, her proposed biography of Harriet Shelley. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin. She is represented by the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency and is working on a book examining the influence of women on the work and life of Oscar Wilde. She lives in Dublin, Ireland.

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