Chapter 24. Criminal Courts

by Charles Dickens

We shall never forget the mingled feelings of awe and respect with which we used to gaze on the exterior of Newgate in our schoolboy days.  How dreadful its rough heavy walls, and low massive doors, appeared to us—the latter looking as if they were made for the express purpose of letting people in, and never letting them out again.  Then the fetters over the debtors’ door, which we used to think were a bonâ fide set of irons, just hung up there, for convenience’ sake, ready to be taken down at a moment’s notice, and riveted on the limbs of some refractory felon!  We were never tired of wondering how the hackney-coachmen on the opposite stand could cut jokes in the presence of such horrors, and drink pots of half-and-half so near the last drop.

Often have we strayed here, in sessions time, to catch a glimpse of the whipping-place, and that dark building on one side of the yard, in which is kept the gibbet with all its dreadful apparatus, and on the door of which we half expected to see a brass plate, with the inscription ‘Mr. Ketch;’ for we never imagined that the distinguished functionary could by possibility live anywhere else!  The days of these childish dreams have passed away, and with them many other boyish ideas of a gayer nature.  But we still retain so much of our original feeling, that to this hour we never pass the building without something like a shudder.

What London pedestrian is there who has not, at some time or other, cast a hurried glance through the wicket at which prisoners are admitted into this gloomy mansion, and surveyed the few objects he could discern, with an indescribable feeling of curiosity?  The thick door, plated with iron and mounted with spikes, just low enough to enable you to see, leaning over them, an ill-looking fellow, in a broad-brimmed hat, Belcher handkerchief and top-boots: with a brown coat, something between a great-coat and a ‘sporting’ jacket, on his back, and an immense key in his left hand.  Perhaps you are lucky enough to pass, just as the gate is being opened; then, you see on the other side of the lodge, another gate, the image of its predecessor, and two or three more turnkeys, who look like multiplications of the first one, seated round a fire which just lights up the whitewashed apartment sufficiently to enable you to catch a hasty glimpse of these different objects.  We have a great respect for Mrs. Fry, but she certainly ought to have written more romances than Mrs. Radcliffe.

We were walking leisurely down the Old Bailey, some time ago, when, as we passed this identical gate, it was opened by the officiating turnkey.  We turned quickly round, as a matter of course, and saw two persons descending the steps.  We could not help stopping and observing them.

They were an elderly woman, of decent appearance, though evidently poor, and a boy of about fourteen or fifteen.  The woman was crying bitterly; she carried a small bundle in her hand, and the boy followed at a short distance behind her.  Their little history was obvious.  The boy was her son, to whose early comfort she had perhaps sacrificed her own—for whose sake she had borne misery without repining, and poverty without a murmur—looking steadily forward to the time, when he who had so long witnessed her struggles for himself, might be enabled to make some exertions for their joint support.  He had formed dissolute connexions; idleness had led to crime; and he had been committed to take his trial for some petty theft.  He had been long in prison, and, after receiving some trifling additional punishment, had been ordered to be discharged that morning.  It was his first offence, and his poor old mother, still hoping to reclaim him, had been waiting at the gate to implore him to return home.

We cannot forget the boy; he descended the steps with a dogged look, shaking his head with an air of bravado and obstinate determination.  They walked a few paces, and paused.  The woman put her hand upon his shoulder in an agony of entreaty, and the boy sullenly raised his head as if in refusal.  It was a brilliant morning, and every object looked fresh and happy in the broad, gay sunlight; he gazed round him for a few moments, bewildered with the brightness of the scene, for it was long since he had beheld anything save the gloomy walls of a prison.  Perhaps the wretchedness of his mother made some impression on the boy’s heart; perhaps some undefined recollection of the time when he was a happy child, and she his only friend, and best companion, crowded on him—he burst into tears; and covering his face with one hand, and hurriedly placing the other in his mother’s, walked away with her.

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