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At Millbank Prison
H. Baden Pritchard The Photographic Studios of Europe (London: Piper & Carter, 1882), p.114-119.
AT MILLBANK PRISON.
It is a clear morning, but a sharp east wind is blowing over the parapet from the steely Thames, as our hansom carries us quickly along the Embankment. We pass the Abbey, Old Palace Yard, the tall and majestic Victoria Tower, the magnificent stone archway known as the Peers' Entrance, and then, suddenly leaving all these fine buildings and grandeur behind us, enter the narrow street that leads to Millbank. Here we come out upon the river again, and the wind blows more chilly than ever; or is it that solemn fortress-looking building, that pile of grim brick and barred windows, that causes the shivering? There is little time for reflection, for cabby presently pulls up at a massive stone gate, beside a black doorway all studded with bars and bolts.
A big round knocker confronts us, for all the word like a heavy iron fetter, but our unsteady hand fails to raise it. "Try the bell, sir," says cabby; who coolly waits to see how we get on, and, in the hope, no doubt, that admission will be refused, speculates about the chance of a fare back. But he is doomed to disapointment. The door opens but slowly, and a little way only, it is true, but it opens sufficiently to show a warder in steel buttons and a shining chain with keys attached to his girdle; he takes the card we thrust into the yawning crevice, and reads it. The card is satisfactory, and in another moment we are standing in the lodge, and indulging in a weak joke about the difficulty of getting into prison. But we are not there yet. Another iron gate has to be unlocked after the first has been carefully shut and we are then at liberty to enter confinement.
The shape of Millbank prison is that of a star-fish, the centre being occupied by the governor and various officers, and the radiating wings by the prisoners. We walk, unattended, along a silent and solemn avenue, to the central offices, the dull prison walls on either side, their embrasure-looking windows more like a fortress than ever; there is no noise, and not a soul is to be seen. But we pass by a warder presently, standing in a recess Bo quietly that he quite startles us, and then we go by two others, one of whom has a note-book in which he makes an entry. "We ask our way to the governor's offices; a gesture, rather than words, is the reply we receive.
But once in the centre of the establishment, the aspect of affairs changes. You feel that chill wind no longer; there are green leaves and ivy to gaze upon, and dilute sunshine even; you pass through busy workshops and yards where men are at work and at exercise.
A cheerful office full of busy clerks is here, and comfortable furniture and a bright fire. There is a savoury smell of lunch about of Irish stew, if we mistake not which exerts quite an appetising effect. One begins to think that a prison is not such a bad place to live in, after all, for a short, a very short time, if if only they did not make such a bother about opening that big black door at the entrance. There is nothing unusual about anybody, now one grows accustomed to the scene. If it were not that the majority of the men were clad in a monotonous grey dress, and the minority wore a dark uniform with steel buttons and steel chains at their side, which have a metallic handcuff ring about them, one might easily mistake Millbank for some other Government establishment, say Portsmouth Dockyard or the Arsenal at Woolwich.
Armed with the governor's authority, a guide now leads the way to the photographic studio in which we are interested. He, too, has a steel chain with a pass-key. Here is the glass-house a little erection in a yard by itself. "We enter. It is a model of neatness and cleanliness ; in fact, we unhesitatingly say it is the brighest little studio we have seen in our experience of " At Homes." The floor is as white from scrubbing as the deck of a man-of-war; there is not a tiling out of its place ; not a piece of apparatus is awry or in disorder ; not a speck of dirt is visible. Strips of clean carpet are laid in the gangway, and where the sitter is posed the floor is painted black.
What about the lighting? It will be asked. The lighting, we reply, fulfils the requirements of a model studio, as we heard them recently expressed at the establishment of Messrs. Hills and Saunders. A high wall at some distance from the studio, that the sun cannot get over, so that there is little or no necessity for blinds, and the diffused light can be used as you find it. The Millbank studio is not lighted from the north, it is true; but there is plenty of illumination, and it may be employed without stint.
The photographer at Millbank is one of the steel-buttoned warders, and we congratulate him on his well-arranged studio. Here are some pictures he has just taken half profile, bold, clear, and vigorous portraits, well lighted, and altogether unlike what prison photographs usually are. There is no 'prentice hand here, and we say so. In reply, our warder unbends his austere manner, and introduces himself as a former acquaintance. He is no other than Corporal Laffeaty, late of the Royal Engineers, an apt pupil of Captain Abney's, and one of the clever Sappers who took part in the Transit of Venus Expedition. The mystery is solved; no wonder the Millbank portraits of late have been so good.
A sitter is departing as we arrive a man in ordinary attire, his short, cut-away beard giving him the appearance of a foreigner. Our guide sees our look of astonishment: "He is a liberty man, and is photographed in liberty clothes ; he goes out next week, and has, therefore, been permitted to grow a beard during the past three months;" and on Ihe desk we see a printed form referring to him, to which his photograph will presently be attached. "Seven years' penal servitude, three years' police supervision," we note is upon it. His crime was forgery.
What, we ask, if a man refuse to be photographed just before the expiration of his sentence? Our guide smiles: "It is a very simple matter; a man is usually set at liberty before his time, but only if he conforms to our regulations."
Our guide leaves us for awhile, and Mr. Laffeaty asks if he shall go on with his work. We reply in the affirmative, and he quits the studio to fetch a sitter. He is not long gone, for there are plenty outside in the yard we have just crossed, men in grey, ambling round the flagged area at a rapid pace at fixed distances from one another, and reminding you vividly of a go-as-you-please race at the Agricultural Hall. He is a young man of stalwart build, the sitter, when he appears, and he is as docile as a dog. He is clean shaven, and has an ugly black L on his sleeve, which means, poor fellow, that he is a "Lifer."
There is a wooden arm-chair for posing. ''Look here, I want you to sit clown like this," says our friend the photographer, placing himself sideways in the settle, so as to give a half profile. The convict does as he is told, and evidently enjoys the business immensely. "Don't throw the head back quite so much; there, that will do. Now put up your hands on your breast, so." For the shrewd governor (Captain Harvey), it seems, believes that a photograph of a man's hands is as important almost as that of his face.
The warder-photographer retires to coat his plate, and we are left for a moment alone with a "Lifer." "Why shouldn't he make a rush for it, fell us to the earth, and have a try for liberty? He might be a murderer; that he had committed a terrible crime was certain from his sentence. Keep the camera between yourself and the man, and be ready to roar out lustily if he so much as move a muscle, was one precaution that occurred to us ; or should we knock him down at once out of hand before he began any mischief at all? *
No such precautionary measures are called for. Indeed, it made one smile to think of such a thing as resistance. One might, perhaps, conjure up such thoughts as these in the presence of an imaginary convict; but the facts here are very commonplace. On the arm chair opposite you sits a young man, almost a boy, with a frank, good-humoured face a poor fellow who is evidently luxuriating in a delightful moment of release from drudging work and monotonous labour. Do what you want him to? Will he be obedient? Why, he would stand on his head to please you and to escape for a few minutes longer his daily toil. And as to bravado and ruffianism; there is just the same difference between the daring robber, and this grey-clad, humble individual, as there is between a fighting cock with his plumes and feathers, and a plucked fowl on the poulterer's counter.
Mr. Laffeaty comes back to the docile prisoner, focusses, gives an exposure of fifteen seconds with a wet plate and No. 2B lens, and secures an admirable negative. "I have never had the least difficulty," he tells us, after he has taken back his charge, "either with the men or with the women. The men are apt to be too grave, the women are sometimes given to giggling; that is, perhaps, the only drawback I have to contend against. I never take any full-face portraits in the old style, and I think I have improved the photography itself of late. There was an article in the Photographic News called 'At Home at Scotland Yard' some months ago, and I have taken up several of the hints given there."
Mr. Laffeaty has to work very quickly at times, and, as a consequence, develops and fixes at once, without waiting to intensify. The latter operation he does in the light, with a few drops of sulphide of potassium in water, a method which, while ready and effective, does not appear to give too much hardness.
We cross the yard once more to make a call on the governor. The grey coats are still hard at it at their go-as-you-please race, except a few men who have fallen out, and standing still with their faces turned to the wall like naughty boys. They have an hour's exercise a day, and some of them seem to be trying to get double the amount out of the time.
To Captain Harvey is, in a great measure, due the improvement in photography that has of late distinguished the Millbank establishment. He is good enough to show us several series of pictures. Here is Kurr, of turf swindling notoriety. This long face belongs to Paine, convicted the other day of poisoning a woman with drink, and who, it appears, was one of the men we just now saw exercising in the yard below. Here are the two Stauntons connected with the Penge mystery, and other more or less well-known criminals. All these are "first convictions," who are confined by themselves, and bear a much better character from the warders than the "habitual criminal" class, for whose special behoof photographic portraiture has been provided. It is for the passer of counterfeit coin, the burglar, and the swindler who have little interest for the public, but a great deal for the prison and police authorities that criminal registers are required, to aid the suppression and detection of crime.
* We hear afterwards that this convict was arraigned on a charge of murder; but a verdict of manslaughter only was returned. He stabbed a woman with a sharp pipe-stem, wounding her so grievously that she died in twenty minutes.