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‘prison is the best school of crime which we possess’ (Jerome Caminada, 1901)

I’ve been very much enjoying the 2-part documentary shown recently on ITV about Victorian prisons, Secrets from the Clink, and I’ve been particularly interested in following the trail of entertainer Len Goodman’s criminal ancestor, Henry Blackall, as his time behind bars was very similar to one of my ‘favourite’ convicts: violent burglar and nemesis of Detective Caminada, Robert Horridge.

By the time Horridge embarked on his life sentence at the end of the 1880s, he had already stacked up a staggering almost 17 years in prison. His convictions began with petty theft and he also served two much longer stretches of penal servitude as his crimes accumulated. In the 1870s, his second long prison term began at Pentonville, just like Len’s relative featured in the programme.

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Built in 1842, Pentonville was a blueprint for model British prisons. Designed with a central hall and five radiating wings, it was well known for its ‘separate system’, in which prisoners were isolated to prevent the ‘contamination’ of new offenders by seasoned criminals. After a period of nine months in solitary confinement at Pentonville, prisoners were usually transferred to a public works prison, such as Chatham, Portland (where Henry Blackall was sent), Portsmouth and Dartmoor, to serve out the rest of their sentence.

Career criminal Bob Horridge was known for his daring escapes, as he often managed to evade the clutches of the police in the most dramatic ways. Time in Pentonville didn’t prevent him from trying to flee. He made a sprint for the wall and prison wardens had to shoot him twice before he gave up his bold attempt. After Pentonville, Horridge was transferred to the convict prison at Portsmouth. He then enjoyed a brief spell of ‘legitimate’ freedom, before being convicted of the attempted murder of two police officers in 1887 and sentenced to life imprisonment in Parkhurst Prison, on the Isle of Wight, where he spent the rest of his days.

Horridge’s adversary, Detective Jerome Caminada, also had extensive experience of prison life, albeit from the other side of the bars, and he was particularly scathing about the effectiveness of the harsh penal system:

Penal servitude has become so elaborate that it is now a huge machine for punishment, destitute of discrimination, feeling, or sensitiveness; and its non-success as a deterrent against crime, and its complete failure in reforming criminal character, are owing to its obvious essential tendency to deal with erring human beings – who are still men, despite their crimes – in a manner which mechanically reduces them to the uniform level of disciplined brutes.