The early nineteenth century in England was a harsh time of poverty for many. When soldiers and sailors were no longer needed to fight the wars that had dogged England from the end of the previous century, many men returned victorious having fought for their King (or Prince Regent) and country only to face unemployment. With little or no social support they often turned to crime to feed themselves and their families. With the increase in crimes, came new laws and harsher sentences.
I recently stopped by one of North Yorkshire’s finest museums in the little city of Ripon. Ripon is an unspoilt cathedral city that has maintained its characteristics of a delightful market town with plenty of historical places of interest to visit. It is also an excellent base for venturing into the Yorkshire Dales or the North Yorkshire Moors!
Ripon Museum comprises of three museums, all to do with the city’s historic law and order buildings that have been lovingly maintained. The photos below were taken in the Prison & Police Museum in St Marygate. It was a prison from 1686-1879 and a police station from 1880-1959.
When I first visited the prison I was writing Dead to Sin. Although the existing building was Victorian, the cells hold exhibits which relate to its earlier history and the development of crime and punishment, cruel and harsh as it was. Nowadays, the museum is clean, whitewashed and immaculately presented. Obviously in the time of Nicholas Penn it would be far from this.
The first chapter of Dead to Sin begins with Nicholas Penn bracing himself as he enters this dark, fettered world.
Nicholas Penn took one last deep breath of fresh air outside the high stone walls of the Gorebeck lock up. He glanced back at the cobbled square of the market town; wagons rattled, farmers haggled, women bartered, children’s laughter melted into the animals’ pitiful cries, the noise of which was in turn drowned out by the banter of the bidders. All was chaotic, all stank, yet there was colour and life here amongst the continuous whirl of people trading their wares.
A heavy lock was turned in the barrier in front of him. Nicholas breathed deeply, his broad chest glad of what fresh air there was as his mind dreaded the prospect of seeing what he would find within the cold walls – and who. The reinforced wooden door creaked and groaned as the warder pulled it open, grating the edge against the stone.
He pulled the high collar of his coat close, covering the ends of his shoulder length locks. ‘Trapped sunshine’ his mother had poetically described his wayward curls when he was a cosseted child. Now straighter, they had matured and grown like Nicholas himself. No sunshine would filter through behind this door. The rain started to pour down. Nicholas was silently led inside along a narrow stone corridor; he was taken further into the building’s bowels, down a spiral metal staircase to an airless chasm where six bolted black doors lined the dimly lit passage. Disembodied coughs could be heard even through the iron-wood barriers, which incarcerated their prey. Nicholas intuitively pulled out his kerchief and held it over his mouth. Gaol fever was to be avoided by the wise man who had the option to, but the inmates of this place had little chance to do that. The warder turned another key in the door lock at the end of the narrow corridor.
“Ten minutes!” he growled back at Nicholas. The man had a curvature of the spine and did not look up at Nicholas’s straight frame. Instead, he shuffled back.
Nicholas grunted what could have been his agreement or a simple acknowledgement. The turnkey gestured for Nicholas to enter.
With some reluctance, Nicholas stepped into the small dank cell, ducking slightly so that his round hat did not contact the top of the door’s stone frame. What light and fresh air there was from the open grate that served as a window, was lost to the rain water, which now poured in, bringing with it the filth washed down from the market street above. The cell’s air stank of damp and excrement. Nicholas stood equidistant from the slime covered walls, not wanting his new riding coat to touch anything in the place.
The cell was putrid. Under his highly polished boots was a stone-flagged floor strewn with soiled hay. Nicholas fought back memories, bleak, barefooted memories, as he glared at the figure in front of him. Like the cell, the man locked within it was unwashed, unshaven and unkempt. His appearance was in stark contrast to the man’s usually immaculate presence. The figure was seated on a small stool, wrapped in a flea-infested woollen blanket, leaning against the edge of the moist wall. Even in such discomfiture he seemed to be calm in manner, resigned perhaps to his fate. Nicholas wondered if this was true. To most people in his circumstance it would have been the case, or a near breakdown of spirits, but not Wilson. Nicholas knew the man too well. He was as hard as the stone walls which held him, to the depth of the heart that beat strong within his chest.
Ebony eyes looked up at him as the door lock was slammed shut behind Nicholas who was trying hard not to show his inner fear, or his loathing of small airless spaces as much as his abhorrence for the pathetic looking creature in front of him.
“You came, Nick!” the voice announced, louder than Nicholas had expected it to. That tone was almost as if he was annoyed at his late appearance. This was not the whispered breathy word of a dispirited soul. The confidence, the strength and the defiance were still there in his comments even if he looked to be in a physically weakened state.