Wight Life

Prison Kid

By 'Dreamer'

The children of Prison Officers were known in the town and at the village school, as 'Prison Kids, as opposed to those of the Albany Barracks next door who were 'The Barrack Kids' There was great rivalry between the groups, and somehow the Prison Kids always felt slightly superior, but for what reason I have no idea. Maybe because I was one of them!

Drawing of prison kid

THE OUTSIDE LAVATORY in the backyard of our cottage faced the green in front of the prison, or to be more accurate, it faced the hospital block which towered above the high brick wall before it. At the end window at the top row of cell windows a face was always looking out at me. I was haunted by this face and dreaded to use the toilet in the dark winter days. Never did I tell my parents of this fear as I should only have been told not to be silly. Yet, I can still easily recall those feelings after fifty or more years.

Each of us children had our own favourite prisoner, and although this practice was frowned upon, it persisted. We used to leave sweets in places, and by pointing to the spot when a party of men were passing, enabled them to collect our gifts. In return, they would leave us a present. Sometimes it was a soap bible made from the hard issue soap and coloured and decorated with threads of coloured cotton from their uniforms; other times it would be items made from slate, or photograph frames made from the hard tack biscuits. The latter were trimmed and coloured, the colour having been taken from the covers of the library books.

On reflection, I feel that we had many advantages over the town children, for so much was done for us. We had our own tennis courts, swings and slides, the green to play on, dances and parties, and the 1st Parkhurst Guide troop. One could never be lonely.

At Christmas we were given a party in the printing shop of the prison, each child receiving a rather splendid present, and I remember on one occasion the prisoners had made a lifesize and lifelike elephant from grey canvas on which we fought for rides.

Empire Day was loyally celebrated at that time in the Island and was a Bank Holiday. At the prison it was a fete day, and started with all of the children carrying a flag and marching in fours round the houses and grounds. The procession ended at the flag staff outside of the officers' club where we sang patriotic songs. This was followed by sports of all kinds for both children and adults. Tug-of-war, greasy pole and vaulting for the men; and races, three legged, egg and spoon and sprint, for the children. Sad to say, the only prize I ever remember winning was for making the funniest face through a horse's collar!

Later in the day, the prisoners would parade the farm animals round the green wearing the rosettes which they had won in the agricultural shows on the Island. The most impressive animal was the enormous bull, led on a stout stick. At about 4pm the children were seated in large 'fairy' rings marked out on the grass with whitening, and were served with tea by the committee formed of the mothers.

The final highlight of the day was the open-air concert performed by the prison officers. It took the form of a black-faced minstrel troop, with Mr Interlocutor and stooge. It may not have been as professional as the Black-and-White Minstrels but it was enjoyed and appreciated as much. The prison had a very good library which was open twice a week for our use. My father was the librarian for many years, and I remember him telling me that he had 5,000 books; not bad for those times. One vivid memory I still have is of sitting on the high steps at the back of the bookshelves reading whatever took my fancy.

In the high summer the 'Prison Kids' had what we all called 'the prison treat'; a trip to Sandown, by train from Newport station. We used to be driven to the station in the prison farm waggons, which were pulled by the large farm horses. The driver was always a prison officer, with a prisoner walking and holding the horse's head. The greatest thrill was to be allowed to sit up with the driver instead of being at the back with the others on the sloping sides of the cart.

Not such pleasant memories came back of the times when a prisoner had escaped. On walking back from school, we always used to look up to see if the red flag was still flying over the Governor's office. If it was, we knew that he had not yet been caught, and that our fathers would be out all night searching for him, either in Parkhurst forest or at the Island stations and piers. On these occasions my mother would walk out and find my father, taking him tea and sandwiches. Realising now howvery scared my mother must have been, I feel that she was pretty plucky, but, of course, most of the other wives did the same thing for their husbands.

Socially, everything stopped until the man was safely back 'inside'; at the time there had never been a successful escape. As in these days, prisoners would occasionally climb on to the roof of the cell blocks or on to the roof of the chapel where they would tear off the slates and hurl them down into the exercise yards, making a terrific clatter. They were left aloft to cool off, and they usually came down after a night in the open. But I never felt comfortable when a man was up there. Seeing him so clearly, it always seemed possible that he would find a way to get out.

There were one or two notorious people 'inside'. I can remember Horatio Bottomley, the remarkable 'con man', and a murderer named Stenie Morrison. He was said to have an 'S' carved on his cheek but I never saw him. The trusted prisoners (trusties), who wore different coloured uniforms from the rest, were allowed into our homes to do maintanance work. They always enjoyed these outings, and many a cup of tea and slice of cake surreptitiously came their way while the officer's back was turned.

,p>At that time — 1915 onwards — the outer perimeter of the prison was guarded at strategic points by civil guards, who had sentry boxes similar to soldiers, and were armed with rifles, whilst the officers carried truncheons and handcuffs. Occasionally, father had to go to London on escort duty, taking perhaps one or two prisoners to the Old Bailey, and this meant a present from London on his return — a much looked-tor treat.

In those days, of course, we all had to walk to school at Hunnyhill, which we shared with the local children of the district. At the entrance to where St Mary's hospital now stands were three trees called 'The Three Sisters' and if one could not see any children passing that point, then one knew that everyone else would have gone into class by the time one got there. That meant the cane.

,p>During the fine summer weather; many of our parents used to allow us to sleep out on the green in home-made tents. Although quite often during the night we woke and went back to our own beds, if we did stick it out until morning, the usual thing was for the officers going on early duty to poke their heads through the tent openings just to make sure that all was well.

Firework night! Now there was a highlight. The staff would build a very large bonfire on the green and we would bring out our own fireworks to add to those supplied by the social club. The whole community would turn out for this exciting event which always was concluded with the serving of as many hot roasted potatoes as one could eat.

What a large part the green played in our lives in those days! Cricket matches and football still go on there now but I wonder if the other things do. I rather doubt it with so many competing interests available now. Television which puts us in touch with what is happening on the other side of the world also brings about our ignorance of what is happening to our next-door neighbours.

Bread was baked twice a week in the prison ovens and was brought over to the officers' club from where it was our job to collect it, all hot and steamy and tempting to pick at. And after there had been 'a killing' on the home farm we would be sent off to buy a leg or two of pork and some bladders of lard, which would hang on hooks in the kitchen and make one's mouth water in anticipation. If we were ill, we were usually treated by the prison doctor. On reflection it would seem that he only knew of castor oil and liquorice powder!

To children, Newport seemed a long way away in those days, and we only went there with our parents when we were of school age. There were no buses until Mr King started a Saturday night service, this being before the advent of the Vectis buses; even they were very different in those days. One could always hang on to the step of a full bus, and on Saturday nights, when they were loaded to capacity, this was quite a normal procedure. We all had to get off and walk up the steep Hunnyhill, and get on again at the top. I wonder what the police would say now if they saw loads of passengers following their buses up the hill on foot?

In the summer, we would walk to the sea at Gurnard marshes or to Sticelet. What a long, hot and dusty road it was! The hedgerows would be covered with a film of dust so that if one picked blackberries and ate them on the way, one had to put up with a mouthful of powder.

When I was about ten years old, my parents moved to a new house built by the prisoners, and a little further away from the prison gate than before. It had a front garden which was my mother's delight and which she kept beautifully; there was always a flower to take to teacher from that garden. We had a fitted bath which was something we had not previously had, but, pleasant though it was, I missed the feeling of cosiness which bathing in front of a coal fire on the rug in the kitchen used to engender.

If the green was the centre of life for us in the summer, then the lecture room was the winter centre. It was available for use by all and we had wedding breakfasts, dances, whist drives, concerts and Guide meetings there, throughout the long evenings. We were a very close community, and enjoyed life to the full, Newport being merely a rather distant city to which one occasionally went in order to 'go to the pictures' or attend evening classes.

Having now returned after a great many years to live in the Island again, I often drive past the prison and look over the hedge at our old cottage where I spent my happy childhood so long ago. It has not changed in appearance at all. But, alas, everything else has. And little of it for the better.