In the Hulks

FROM Monday, April 7th, to May 17th, the men who had been condemned were called on to work with the gunwharf party, and in that employment they continued for the whole of the time they were in Portsmouth. It was six weeks’ arduous toil, and all of them were exposed to the weather and the dampness of the cells when they were taken back to prison. But in spite of the coughs which came to them, and the general feeling of misery their lack of knowledge as to what was happening in their homes brought to them, they looked back upon those six weeks as some respite from their troubles, when they thought of them afterwards.

On May 17th, all were called on to prepare for a voyage to Botany Bay. One hundred and twenty convicts had been brought to Portsmouth from Woolwich, and another one hundred and twenty were in this party from Portsmouth. They were stripped bare, and a new suit, including irons, was put on each man fit for the sea voyage. They then were taken on board the William Metcalf lying at Spithead and remained there until May 23rd. In the afternoon of that day they weighed anchor. What a voyage was that! It must have been the experience of thousands at different times in the history of this country. But most of them were criminals of the worst character. Two hundred and forty men there were shut down together and locked in the hulks.

To these men who had lived the lives of high-minded Methodists, using a language absolutely free from oaths, and having always in their thoughts the next world as well as this, the companionship of the men who were with them was as hard to bear as their discomforts. The language of their fellow-sufferers was gross in the extreme. They spoke in a boasting way of some of the deeds that had led them to the position in which they now found themselves. They were thieves and worse. They had little or no respect for women, speaking in a most disgusting way of some of the episodes of their past lives. These men, bound to such profligates by a common punishment, felt sick and dejected as they listened to a view of womanhood that was foreign to their own natures.

George Loveless, thinking of his wife, distressed and struggling at home, wondering how she would be able to provide for the family, hoping they would not be wholly deserted in their need, yet had time to think of her as his wonderful and beautiful help-meet. He remembered her loyalty to him in all his struggles, and he thought of the little ones at home. Thomas Standfleld was too old to be thinking in quite the same way. He had his grown-up son with him. It seemed a shame to be leaving the dear old lady to fend for herself. John Standfield and young Brine thought of the mothers who had meant so much to them. And in the midst of these thoughts of pure womanhood, came the spate of filthy talk about the poor creatures who had been the associates of their fellow-convicts.

They were, however, practical men. They had heard this sort of thing in isolated places before. It was the tremendous power of evil represented by the association of many filthy minds together that seemed so overwhelming. To James Hammett, with his silences and his thoughts continually on prayer and the things of God, the attack had not the full force that it had on the others. Brine, who knew what they must be feeling, cried shame on the offenders for a lot of beasts, and was beginning to say something about his companions and to say how unsuitable such language was for the ears of such good men. But George Loveless stopped him just in time. He knew that such a reproof would only make the men ten times worse, and hoped that their example would gradually effect some change even in that sink of iniquity.

They were nearer together in this hold than they had been in the later days in the prison. George Loveless had some things to say to his brother and the others about the offers he had had there. ‘I had a visitor in the prison, James,’ he said to his brother, ‘after I had got over my illness.’

‘Your illness?’ asked James. ‘What was that?’

Oh, I just got the dampness of the prison on me, and I had to go to the prison hospital. And, by the way, the hospital doctor tried to get at me. Dr. Arden evidently thought we were a bad lot. He kept asking me questions and I was really not well enough to argue. I told him I was too ill for conversation and asked him to allow me to go to bed. But he appeared angry at what I had been saying. At length I threw myself on the bed and answered all his questions. It may have been because he saw I was too ill to deal with him, or perhaps he saw that we had been badly treated. Anyhow, he became very mild; and after that he treated me with the greatest possible kindness. I told him they could hang me with as much justice as transport me for what I had done. Then on Wednesday—April 2nd it was—Mr. Woolaston came to see me. I don’t know whether Dr. Arden had said anything to him or not, and I am not sure whether he was representing only himself or his brother-in-law as well.’

‘You mean Mr. Frampton?’

‘Yes, you remember they were both on the Bench when we were examined in the first place. Anyhow, he seemed very kind. He asked me how I was in health and I told him I was much better. He then said: “Loveless, I am sorry to see a man like you in such a situation, but it is your own fault; you are now suffering for your own stubbornness and obstinacy. You have such a proud spirit, you would not pay attention to the cautions of the magistrates, but rather hearken to idle fellows going about the country, who have deceived you.” I told him I had not been deceived by any, for I said I knew no such persons as he had been describing. “Yes, you do,” he said, “for you have been hearkening to them rather than pay attention to the ‘cautions’ of the magistrates, for I am certain you saw them, one of them being found on your person in prison.”

‘Is Mr. Woolaston in his right mind?’ I said.

‘What do you mean?’ said he.

‘Why, you tell me,’ I replied, ‘I should listen to the advice and cautions put out by the magistrates. A copy of these cautions being found in my pocket when I went to gaol, does it not prove that I did pay attention to them, or should I have taken so much care to preserve it in my pocket? And besides, the circumstances concerning which the witnesses swore against us took place on December 9th, and the magistrates’ cautions did not appear till February 21st, following; so that we have been tried for what took place at last nine weeks before the cautions; and yet you say I paid no, attention to the magistrates but listened to idle fellows going about the country; within three days after the cautions appeared I was in the body of the gaol.’

‘Ah,’ he said, ‘it is of no use talking to you.’

‘No, sir,’ I replied, ‘unless you talk more reasonably.’

‘Then Mr. Woolaston went away from me,’ added Loveless to his brother. ‘What he wanted I cannot think, unless he wanted to get you five out of the country and persuade me to tell him about someone else and save my own skin at somebody else’s expense.’

‘Well, he wouldn’t do that very easily, George. You’re the wrong stuff for tricks of that sort.’

‘I hope so, James. I have never acted the traitor yet. Though we may not be able to follow the Master except at a long distance away, we can still keep from doing the Judas trick. But, James, I heard that all of you had been taken away whilst I was in hospital. I didn’t want you to be taken away by one ship and me by another, if we are to be transported. Let us all stick together if we can. So I entreated the doctor to allow me to be sent away. I didn’t expect that I should have leg-irons put on me, and that I should be locked up in the coach, but they did it. As if law-abiding men like us would attempt to run away! When I got to Salisbury, Mr. Glinister, at the entrance to the town, asked me if he should take the irons off my legs. He is the clerk of the prison, you know. I asked if he meant to put them on again when I left the town. He said he did, but as I should have to walk through some portion of the town, I had better have them off, as the rattling of the chain would cause people to be looking after us. I told him I did not wish for any such thing, as I was not ashamed to wear the chains, conscious as I was of my innocence. Then I got to Portsmouth about nine o’clock at night, and was given up to the officers of the York hulk, where I met you again.’

They spoke for some time about the life they had led on the hulk, their astonishment at the sight of the place, of so many men being stripped. George talked of his being ordered to put on the hulk livery and being called upon to attend the smith to have fetters rivetted on his legs. He just about collapsed, but then the first mate came up and ordered him to go to number nine middle deck, one of the best and quietest wards in the ship, by the Captain’s orders in consequence of a good character he had received from the prison.

They spoke bitterly together of the striving and struggling of their adversaries to discover some foul blot against their reputation without effect. And yet so cruel and reckless for revenge were the employers that they had described these peace-loving and law-abiding men as rioters. Not one of them had used a threat, or intimidation in any way, when they were agitating about their wages. Incendiarism was prevailing all over the kingdom, and a watch had been set in the parish in which they lived for the protection of property in the night, and the two Lovelesses amongst others were chosen as watchmen. Would rioters have been chosen for such a responsible position? Another slander was the statement that they were regular smugglers and poachers. These things were done in the dark, behind the back, out of sight; but it had come to the ears of the men who were slandered.

‘I have challenged my accusers to come out into the light. I shall challenge them when I come back, ay, if it is seven years hence. But you know what it is, James. I am from principle a Dissenter, and for that in our village there is no forgiveness either in this world or the world to come. You remember the years 1824-25. You won’t remember them as well as I do. You know how many men were persecuted, banished, and not allowed employment if they entered the Tolpuddle Wesleyan Chapel. That is what they are sending us abroad for. They talk about the secret oath and Trade Society and so on. But it is all a sham. I’ll be bound the parson is at the back of it.’

‘George,’ said James Hammett, ‘don’t dwell on those things. God knows all about it, and he’ll bring us through. I am just putting my trust in Him, and its helping me to bear up, though I can still hear the cry of my wife when they dragged me out of bed. Not one sparrow falleth, George, without our Father. Are not we of more value than many sparrows? Our Father knows we have need of His help and He’ll give it to us.’

‘Thank you, James,’ said George, ‘perhaps I needed that word. But I can still keep my head up and I still say, irons or no irons, “We will, we will, we will be free “.’

‘Hush,’ said young Brine in a quick low voice. ‘They’ll think you are planning a breakaway. You would need to think what you are always singing “All things are possible to me” if you could plan that here. But if you say too much about our being free, they’ll make the guard ten times as strong, and we have enough of them as it is.’

‘Well, you are a good one for caution,’ rejoined his friend, John Standfield. ‘I never knew you care much about it before. But these irons are a nuisance. I suppose we shall have to go through with it. I don’t mind much if it means any one will benefit by it. But they’re so strong now there seems very little chance.’

‘All things are possible,’ said George Loveless. ‘It is true. What chance was there for Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms? What chance had John Haime in the army in Flanders? There’s one thing Hammett has been teaching me these last few days. He doesn’t come out into the open and speak with us much on the village greens, but it’s true that he is at peace because his mind is stayed on God. We more active talkers have not learnt his secret so well as we might.’

And that was the last long conversation they had for many a day.