Chapter XVI. — Stone Walls
The first ex-convict whom I knew at all well was an exceedingly pleasant company promoter. In the good old days, company promoting was by no means the highest walk of life to which a former prisoner could apply, for, when Parliament first met in Auckland, was it not possible for a very impolite Member to refer to the Founder of English settlement in New Zealand as “that convicted felon?” Edward Gibbon Wakefield, whose only crime was the adventurous spirit, very rightly was instrumental in the proroguing of Parliament, and the Member for Nelson, who was a Wakefield man to his marrow, was roughly handled in a free fight with the hero's opponents.
Like most of the older British overseas settlements, New Zealand has some grim memories of early convict days… . and some very ugly present survivals of them, though when I wrote a few of the latter up for an Auckland weekly (after hearing from the Rev. Jasper Calder an inside story of Mount Eden gaol's manners and customs), officials spent hours looking up prison records to get track of an ex-convict named Robin Hyde.
Executions that were free shows for the public, who congregated above the Mount Eden stockade .… a public hanging at the bottom of Victoria Street.… jury's summing up of a convicted man's state of mind as “seduced and moved by the instigation of the Devil.…” a thousand other details, some purely tragic, some amusing in a grim way, one can find by glancing through the yellow page 203 old files kept in every public library's newspaper room. We have even, at Opononi's placid little bay, a link with the bloodstained horrors of old Botany Bay. The sea-wall there is of stone blocks quarried by manacled men in one of the most dreaded of the early penal settlements. The blocks were brought across to New Zealand as ballast in old sailing-ship days.
Anyone who thinks that we have put all the barbarism of the penal code behind us is self-deluded to an extraordinary degree. Even the Borstal establishments, for girls, as well as for young men, are a lot prettier on the surface than underneath. Careful consideration of one such would convince any discerning person that there might be a good deal of truth in the statement of an eighteen-years-old girl (kept at Point Halswell for a term of years, against her parent's wish, because she was reported to the police as being overfond of dancing and late hours), that whilst there she learned “all the filth under the sun.”
To do the Prisons Board justice, the obvious trouble with the Borstal Institute for young women is neither in its locality nor in the type of prison accommodation provided, but in the lack of classification of young prisoners. Many of the women here seem so obviously of subnormal mentality that to sentence them to any form of prison confinement is a childish waste of time and money. Others, as the matron of the Institute frankly stated, are uncontrollable.…
Yet it is not all ugliness, this strange house by the sea. Male convicts (the men's prison at Point Halswell is not far away, a very dubious advantage from the young women's viewpoint, as they are expected to do all the washing and mending for the men prisoners) have planted acre on acre of pinetrees on the sheltered hill-slopes, and below shines the great blue sweep of sea. Escape from Point Halswell is almost impossible, and the girls are per- page 204 mitted a good deal of outdoor life. Their situation is bettered by the fact that the matron of the Institute —a splendid and capable woman—took a leading part in the English landgirl movement during the war, and came to her present position with a mind free from the old lock-and-key traditions which obsess so many people entrusted with the care of others' lives.
There is some attempt at both schooling and pleasure at Point Halswell… . a big, airy schoolroom, occasional dances, the music of an old gramophone, a little circulating library. The wards are christened after departed vice-reines of this Dominion, and the highest “promotion” an inmate can win is to get to the Lady Alice Fergusson part of the building. Lady Alice took an interest in the work, presented each girl with a pocket handkerchief on her departure—which was ornamental, if not so prodigiously useful.
There is a “punishment cell”—unlighted, bleak, unfurnished—a mere concrete tank in strange contrast with pretty little rooms and pretty little ideas. It is legitimate to keep a rebel here, on bread-and-water menu… but I doubt if this regime lasts for very long.
In addition to the really unpleasant and none too healthy work of laundering convict clothing, a certain amount of outdoor work—milking, gardening —is thrown in.
One of these days we may even come to treat Mother Earth with more than a perfunctory courtesy, when it comes to helping and healing the socially unfit. After all, it was in New Zealand, and with Canterbury's sweeping ranges for his inspiration of a free and noble world beyond, that Samuel Butler wrote his tale of “Erewhon”—the land where the sinner is accounted the sick man, the diseased is the person to be punished.
The Borstal is of course the velvet glove. The iron hand is not far away.page 205
The eighteen-years-old child confined there for very youthful indiscretions was released on parole. A trifling action was interpreted as a breach of faith, according to the statement published in an Auckland weekly. In the prison van which took her (still against the hopeless opposition of a mother distracted with fear of the law), to Mount Eden gaol, she shared company with a murderer. In her confinement at Mount Eden, prostitutes were her companions.
She is by no means the only sufferer. Nor is there any sort of discretion used in the handling of prisoners—men or women—who are on remand, and the cells beneath the courts are insanitary to a disgusting degree.
In the year of grace 1934, month of July, a question was asked in Parliament as to the especial reasons the police might have for conveying a woman prisoner in an extremely delicate state of health in a “Black Maria” from Timaru to Christchurch. The fact that the prisoner was released, “No Bill” being brought against her, adds point to the fact that from the time of a prisoner's arrest, “manners none and customs beastly” seem to be sometimes considered quite suitable for his or her usage.
In Mount Eden, grim stone fortress patrolled by an armed sentry, women convicts wear big sun-bonnets that hide their faces away from men who may see them pass in the distance. Shapeless, shadowy, lost to identity, they live out the days of their sentence.…
There is a Discharged Prisoners' Aid Society, under the control of the Rev. G. Moreton, a sympathetic and human enough individual. What sympathy Mr. Moreton gets from the public may be judged from the repeated efforts that have been made to shift his offices from any “respectable” locality. “The Padre” was shunted from the old Victoria Arcade Buildings, moved on to Khyber Pass. Repeated efforts were made to thrust him out page 206 of the old shop, re-painted by ex-convicts, where the wives of men in Mount Eden could obtain some little relief for themselves and their families, and where men who had turned away at last from the grimmest gate in Auckland might drift in for a few words of advice, or for some more material help.
Giving Padre Moreton a “write-up” was an offence against the righteous moral code of at least two of Khyber Pass's most respectable old ladies. Into our office came they, bubbling over with wrath. It was explained that they were not merely good church-goers of the district, but shop-owners also, and that the gathering of the ex-convict clans might damage the valuation of their property……
I liked the retort my editor made on showing the infuriated church-goers out. “Madam,” said he, with perfect civility, “there are two kinds of Christians We are the other sort.”
Mount Eden suffers somewhat from age and aspect. As a prison official sadly wrote to us, after an initial article on abuses in that particular strong-hold, “Heaven knows we are not proud of the fact that the gaol looks grim.” It is generally admitted to be quite the most unpleasant berth a New Zealand convict can find.… Yet, in addition to its little difficulties and large tragedies, it has its funny side.
Even the grim confines of Mount Eden gaol have their unofficial moments of recreation. It is credibly reported that during the latter part of this year, a bookmaker inmate helped so substantially to brighten the lot of his fellow convicts (and of warders), that, on being unexpectedly searched, he was found to be in possession of several hundreds of pounds. Among other things this proves that they can pick a lock, but are not so hot on winners. Nor are warders always “the clean potato” their honourable profession calls for: a story goes that one boarder sent out (per warder) for some cigarettes, which duly arrived. But when the warder refused to hand over the change, said ex-burglar got quite nasty. page 207 It looked like intense competition. Everyone, including the warders, is perfectly well aware of the existence of minute and concealed “receiving” sets. … The most popular barber in the prison is one who at one time committed a gory deed with a knife. At least one convicted murderer may at times be seen walking quietly at large in Auckland streets… Not unaccompanied, of course.
The official hangman has a hobby. He knits coloured waistcoats. He is garrulous, and not in the least averse to discussing the most ghastly details of his profession—but his difficulty is to get an audience.
New Zealand is probably one of the very few countries where women have volunteered to act as executioners. This was after the quite recent Coates murder case in Wellington, when an unfortunate young girl, still in her 'teens, was apparently buried alive after a brutal attack by her murderer, a relief worker. Several women wrote offering their services in the despatch of Coates.
The Prince of Wales indirectly saved a woman who would have been found “not guilty,” or at the very least let down very lightly, in any other country, from the unwarrantable life sentence imposed by the late Sir Robert Stout. She killed the father of her dead child, who had promised her marriage, only to break off negotiations at the last moment… … a “crime passionel” if ever there was one. Summing up and sentence were equally brutal. The I.W.W. organisations of New Zealand, getting in some stout work for once, threatened to raise such a fuss during the visit of H.R.H. that the policy of “suaviter in modo” was belatedly adopted.
“Joe,” who drove Jasper Calder's lorry and was a cheerful and sociable soul, told me a good deal of the inside of Mount Eden, which holiday resort he had inhabited for several years. The quaintest prison restriction is the “one match a day” allow- page 208 ance. A man may smoke—within limits—but let his one light fail, and all is lost. However, there are innumerable little devices for splitting the match, and flint and steel are also commonly secreted and used.
“Strip parade” can take place at almost any time when the prisoners are in their cells. This means some difficulty in keeping one's cherished possessions concealed, but the hidey-holes of the old hands are at once the admiration and the despair of warders.
The silliest farce in the New Zealand penal code is the paper distinction between reformative detention men and “old lags.” There is indeed a distinction. One class wears a brown uniform, the other a blue one. They exercise in separate yards on Sundays. Otherwise, the distinction amounts to nothing. The boy sentenced for some trifling offence, the sex pervert, the out-of-work husband unable to keep up maintenance payments, the habitual criminal, herd together. New Zealand gulls itself with a phrase, considers itself progressive and fair because of a distinction in the colours of uniforms. The actual offence against youth is not so sickening as the cant that masks it.
The habitual criminal in New Zealand is deserving of some sympathy, none the less. A very few convictions—perhaps taking place in a brief “outlaw” period of a man's youth—may entitle him for a place in this legion of the socially damned. An habitual criminal can be arrested at any time, on cancellation of his license whether he has complied with this or not, and without further ceremony landed back in prison.
The most interesting document I ever saw, as produced by a Mount Eden inmate, was the diary of a young man convicted of murder. His sentence was commuted, but he wrote a long plea whilst actually in the condemned cell, and this was smuggled out by another convict at a later date. It was never used, page 209 mainly out of consideration for his relatives, and for the same reason his name is not mentioned here. But his reason for protesting his innocence struck me as rather unique. He asserted that he could not be held responsible for any action, as he had recently written to the Mayor of a North Island township, offering him the sum of £1,000,000, if he would kindly send along a village damsel of heretofore blameless character, divested of all raiment and encased in a box. If this letter was cold fact, the Mayor in question must certainly have felt one up on those who are merely asked to act as matrimonial agents now and again.
Prison advice, as brought in by an old offender:
“When you've come here for a little rest
From the sinful world without
Don't do your block, but do your best
To learn your way about.
Learn to cadge a cigarette
From the chap that holds a few,
Learn to grab all you can get
Like the other roosters do.
Try to land a cushy job,
It's been done before—
But play the game with your pals, begob,
Or you'll find your pals get sore.
Don't grouse or sneak like some chaps do,
And the prison world will be kind to you.”
And the prison bill of fare? Hear the same poet-philosopher hold forth:
“Dry hash, corned beef, then again the stew,
Vegetables in plenty—great for me and you —
Plum-duff on Sundays, treacle and all that —
Is it any wonder that you cows are getting fat?”
I have never heard a word in praise of the Mount Eden diet, but I suppose you can't take a Hotel St. George appetite to this little resort.
It's not always philosophy that is brought to the outer world from the prison walls. Once, in my page 210 little Princes Street room, four men who had seen the inside of Mount Eden sat together, told of four attempts at gaol-breaking. The most bitter hatred that man could hold was that expressed against those responsible for the fate of their friend, whose escape didn't come off.… Everyone liked him. He was talented, sang, laughed, worked like a greaser. He was in love, though, and it was a communication from his lady fair that determined him on escape.
His friends will never believe that there was no official fore-knowledge of his escape. For he had hardly commenced his crazy dash to the top of the gaunt stone quarry where the gang worked that day when the shot rang out… He didn't die at once, but in hospital.
However, a well-known Auckland business man, whose little specialty was fraud, went in a yellow-faced wreck and came out boosting the place as a health resort. He was the antithesis of my company-promoting acquaintance, who told me sadly that a few years of prison diet ruined a man's stomach once and for all. I suppose it depends on the standard of stomach.
The quaintest little recompense for prison cell life that exists in New Zealand is the compensation paid out by the pakapoo bankers and agents' fund to the unfortunate Celestials caught in the act.
Pakapoo provides a lot of innocent fun for the police, and meant a big money turnover a few years ago, when many of the Chinese in Wellington and Auckland were spending up to £5 a day on this recreation. Agents are as thick as blackberries even now, and trade is brisk, for £80 can be won for six-pence, whilst it is possible to break the £300 bank if you have real four-leaf-clover-black-cat luck.
Usually pakapoo (which, by the way, isn't regarded by the Chinese as anywhere near so interesting a diversion as fan-tan, dominoes or mah-jong, the real Celestial gambling games) is absolutely fair. page 211 The crookedest syndicate ever run in Auckland was started by white men in Grey Street. A suspected murderer was one of this little gathering's warmest backers. The Chinese banks have become better known to whites since the depression, which has, of course, meant an inevitable increase in street loafers, all more or less “on the make.”
To prove that all is fair, it is an old Celestial custom to call in a complete stranger to draw the winning “characters”—marked down on green slips of paper—from the four bowls in which these are placed. Key numbers are drawn first, then ten out of the eighty possible characters marked down. Score seven characters you win £4: eight brings in £20, nine £40, ten £80. The agent who sells the winning ticket is in luck's way, too, for he automatically gets a prize a character below that with which his client collects.
The £300 always has existence in actual fact, and is kept in cash by the bankers. Paying out was stopped on one occasion, when it was found that an extremely “cute” European had faked the tickets. The agent was reported to the police, and went blandly to Mount Eden. He didn't have to worry. During his incarceration £2/10/-weekly was put aside for him from the bankers' and agents' fund mentioned above, and a nice little nest-egg was waiting what time he emerged from his dungeon.
Chinese only worry about gaol, as a general rule, when they are opium smokers. Opium-smoking, whilst not the omnipresent vice usually associated with the words “Chinese quarter,” goes on frequently enough in New Zealand cities. Wellington has the larger Asiatic population, but few dens have been better fitted out than the steel-doored one in Grey Street, Auckland, which had to be smashed open by police axes last year.
It is absolutely untrue that Celestials “lure” whites into opium smoking. On the contrary, the page 212 white drug-trafficker who goes too far not infrequently has a spoke put in his wheel by some quiet little yellow man, who drops a word in official quarters. Smuggling in plenty goes on. Only two years ago, the Customs Department is said to have quite accidentally intercepted a large consignment in Auckland: a big bundle of newspapers had safely crossed the main, hollowed out inside to make room for the drug consignment. Another popular way is for the smuggler to carry the flat oval tins of “twang”— molasses-like stuff which brings a market price of close on £40 per lb.—in the small of the back. A surprising bulk can be carried in this way.
Hindus were just as deft in one opium smuggling attempt which surprised New Zealand police officials not so long ago. They used four vegetable marrows as their receptacle.
An occasion when the Chinese turned out to help the police was rather funny. A Chinese ship was manned by two rival Canton tongs—a gross error of judgment on somebody's part. The headman of each tong acted as treasurer for his supporters: to the righteous indignation of one gathering, it was found when the ship berthed at Auckland that Tong A had got down on Tong B's money-box. The tong headman of the outraged clan joined in the police search, and an Auckland detective officer told me he would never forget the sight of the little yellow man, lithe as a mongoose, wriggling under the coolie mats which act as mattresses, delving into every secret cache and corner. The moneybox wasn't recovered, for the thieves had very sensibly dropped it overboard: but Tong B was avenged. Next trip out the police found, to their helpless mirth, that Tong A's money-box had also done the disappearing trick.
Mount Eden's condemned cell was on one occasion inhabited, not by doomed men, but by Communists… . the prison being full to overflowing page 213 just then; or perhaps the subtle wit of some prison overlord gave the political offenders a little taste of the might-have-been, were New Zealand measures against the politically unsettled as strong, say, as those of Russia.
As a general rule, our amateur politicians make nothing—except capital—out of prison sentences. After the famous “Jim” Edwards had been released from the two years' sentence which Santa Claus (Mr. Justice Herdman) bestowed on him for his part in the Auckland riots, a notice advertised his next meeting thusly: “Come along and meet your pals, just out of gaol.” Jim had a continual stream of visitors whilst in durance vile, and was liked by all. He is not without a sense of humour, but can stand on his dignity too. When I wrote up the little abode in which he supported his wife and eight children (according to himself, purely on the proceeds of a cleanser of his own invention), he sent a slightly haughty letter assuring me that on leaving gaol he intended to move to a “more bourgeois dwelling.” The most striking adornments of his former abode were two near-life-size portraits—one of himself, one of Lenin. Jim, off-stage, has the pleasantest nature one could ask for, and is not averse to doing a little business with the “capitalistic” press. He sold an Auckland weekly the tale of his elusive adventures just after the Auckland riots for the modest fee of two guineas, but scrupulously refrained from giving away the names of any who had helped him. His wife, a little dark-eyed woman, whose family are well-clad, well-nourished and attractive infants (the eldest of them, a “nipper” of fourteen, has already been his father's pal on more than one “lecture tour”), also gave me a story about her pre-riot experiences, and was decidedly scornful of police agility in stalking her when she wished to communicate with her vanishing husband.
Jim Edwards' antithesis was one of the few bona page 214 fide Russians whom the Auckland police have managed to secrete for a time in gaol—Sargiff, who being found in possession of a bomb in 1932, was sentenced to two years' imprisonment. His tale was that he intended to blow up some fish—not so bad considered as a fish story, but the police weren't having any. However, his sentence was shortened by nearly a year, after lonely days in Mount Eden, during which he would see no outside visitors. Working in the quarries, he was handed over £4 what time he departed for the great open spaces—and, indeed, the competition of cheap prison labour makes things tough for more than one Auckland company which still have to pay some homage to Trade Unionism. “Gaol is gaol, whatever way you look at it… while I may forgive, I never forget,” were the parting words of the little Russian, who declared that his one real crime was the fact of his being born on Russian soil.
Not Auckland but Wellington is the journalistic centre of the Soviet crusade, for there is published the little Soviet News, organ for acquainting New Zealanders with all the brightest news from Russia of the Soviets. Sad to say, the Soviet News is not infrequently faced with grave financial difficulties, and, like “Brother” Dallimore, has no hesitation in reprimanding those Comrades whose “cash is slow in coming in.”
The Friends of Soviet Union, with headquarters in Karangahape Road, a red star outside advertising its affiliations, alleges as its main object “To counteract any plans for war against the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, by means of the mobilisation of workers and working farmers of New Zealand.” Furthermore, “To expose the lies and misrepresentations of the capitalist daily papers, periodical journals and books, and also the malicious stories depicted on the stage and cinema screen about the economic state of the Soviet Republics” page 215 is another duty of F.S.U. supporters. It is only fair to mention that of the F.S.U. delegates sent to Russia, none has ever become a permanent resident, though several have succeeded in landing themselves since their return to New Zealand where “no telephone communicates with their cell.”
F.S.U. headquarters were draped with brilliant banners, until the owners of the building (who had not had the faintest idea that their tenants would turn out so “extreme”) insisted on their removal.
There is an earnest-minded little class for learning Russian. This meets weekly. I don't know whether Stalin follows the encouraging custom of the Alliance Francaise, and presents particularly bright New Zealand pupils with medals and addresses.
Socialist Sunday Schools have flourished for years in New Zealand. Christchurch led off, and great was the indignation in the Cathedral City: naturally the institutions are without benefit of clergy, but whether they are really much the worse for that is a question which every man must decide for himself.
It is the thing to say “Comrade Chairman” when you would address a meeting at an F.S.U. assembly. Something rather clubby about it.…
The F.S.U. is, if anything, less virile than the Labour Defence League, which is a section of the International Red Aid, with headquarters in Berlin. For a time there was also an exceedingly active Anti-Eviction League in Auckland, and evictions caused more than one brush with the police. Although those evictions which caused most fuss were not necessarily those deserving a great deal of sympathy, there have been some cases of genuine hardship since the depression began. Accommodation for the very poor is in certain instances appalling—and equally appalling is the idiocy and tactlessness of the organisations whose duty it is to deal page 216 with cases of real destitution. The case of the North Island man who was denied relief because he “possessed” the tumbledown motor car in which he and his family huddled for shelter at nights is only less damning than that of the out-of-work man “remanded for sentence” in 1934 for stealing vegetables, value fivepence, from an Auckland Chinese fruiterer: he had a family to fend for.
Mount Eden's shadow has by no means encompassed all New Zealand's political firebrands, many of whom are University students. (Indeed, a lecturer at the Auckland College was cast into grave displeasure of the professorial board because he dared to preface an outspoken book on Russia.) W.E.A. lecturers are kept on a tight rein. A new Free Speech organisation was this year formed throughout New Zealand, its backbone the repressed University “politicians.” One of them, exeditor Lowry, of the now defunct Phoenix, lost every penny trying to print open-minded periodicals, and though not a member of the Communist Party, was arrested with Smith and other Red Flag-waggers as a Free Speech advocate. It is interesting to note that the Phoenix succeeded whilst Lowry ran it. He is now associated in a printing partnership with R. A. K. Mason, of poetic and Communistic fame. Their first and highly successful effort was a Free Speech pamphlet by Professor Sewell—and, by the way, their office is just next door to the Auckland Magistrate's Court.
The ancient and tragic days of public execution, of burial in the prison grounds (there are eleven graves at Mount Eden prison), seem far enough away. Sometimes the post of executioner carried high privilege with it. The convict who acted as hangman in the case of James Stack (executed for the murder of James, Mary and Benjamin Finnegan in 1866), received his pardon, and a bonus of £10. Being an old Indian Mutiny man, and having carried out other such summary despatches in his stormy page 217 career, he was no bungler. Executions were regarded as free entertainments in those times, and always drew a morbid crowd.
There is a touch of grim humour even in a murder trial at times. Sir George Arney, judge when Alexander McLean was on trial for murdering his wife in the wild old days, was not in good health, retreated for a time from the court room. On his return, prisoner accused Crown Prosecutor Merriman of approaching a witness for the crown, pinching his posterior, and cracking jokes. The blushing prosecutor had to admit the impeachment, declaring that “this was the most painful moment of his life.” Sir George declared that he had never heard of anything more improper—and, indeed, there does seem to be a time and place for such sportive little acts. At the McLean trial, the jury, kept without blankets, beds or refreshments, threatened in court to go on strike, whatever penalties might be imposed: their hotel expenses were after this vigorous protest paid by the judge himself.
Occasionally the law affects its own “minions.” Witness the case of a very popular official, Police Superintendent Hollis, who was presented with a beautiful shiny automatic revolver, the pride and joy of his heart. On the day after the passing of the present Arms Act (which illegalises automatics, whilst leaving the deadly sawn-off shot gun a possibility for anyone), the presentation revolver was solemnly taken back, broken to bits. A more innocuous gun was substituted.
So far, the Auckland police have not had the painful duty of pulling in their gallant comrade who, on retiring from the detective force of the Queen City (he was given a presentation and a nice little speech when he departed), promptly went into the bookmaking business.
Indeed, though an occasional waif and stray of the bookmaking world is hauled over the coals, the page 218 police seldom go big game hunting. Nobody has ever touched the Big Four in Wellington, or passed unpleasant strictures concerning the fact that New Zealand bookmakers have their own club headquarters—quite sumptuous ones—in a central position in Auckland. This is not always because of the blameless character of the “bookie.” Queen Street, a room adjoining one of the best-known legal offices in Wellington, the select Christchurch suburb of Cashmere Hills, have all boasted minor princes of the bookmaking world. There is enough money in it for “dummy” offices and telephones to be maintained by the bigger men in the game, and the “dummy” is always the man who takes any trouble that the police may feel it their solemn duty to bestow on breakers of the law. Of course it is opposition from bookmaking chiefs themselves—flourishing better in darkness than in a state which would permit the small fry to compete with them on equal terms—that keeps the bookmaker outside the legal pale in New Zealand.
Prison's comedies and tragedies . . I shall never forget walking down an old street of lime trees and gracious moonlight with a little man who for eight years had been the Government's most unwilling guest. He had a story to tell of old Mount Eden customs. He stopped, watching a great moon rise, corn-gold, over Albert Park.
“That's what I couldn't get over, when I came out,” he said simply. “The moon seemed so enormous. I couldn't believe it was real. I hadn't seen it for eight years.”
I was sorry for the little man, angry in a futile way with the enormous moon. What pity has she, or we who walk under her, for the quaint Endymions whose cramped hearts stir as they watch her, hardly daring to believe that her beauty is true?