Decline of the English Murder by George Orwell

  George Orwell


  George Orwell

  Decline of the English Murder




  Decline of the English Murder

  Just Junk - But Who Could Resist It?

  Good Bad Books

  Boys' Weeklies

  Women's Twopenny Papers

  The Art of Donald McGill

  Hop-Picking Diary


  This trip was a failure, as the object of it was to get into prison, and I did not, in fact, get more than forty-eight hours in custody; however, I am recording it, as the procedure in the police court etc. was fairly interesting. I am writing this eight months after it happened, so am not certain of any dates, but it all happened a week or ten days before Xmas 1931.

  I started out on Saturday afternoon with four or five shillings, and went out to the Mile End Road, because my plan was to get drunk and incapable, and I thought they would be less lenient towards drunkards in the East End. I bought some tobacco and a 'Yank Mag' against my forthcoming imprisonment, and then, as soon as the pubs opened, went and had four or five pints, topping up with a quarter bottle of whisky, which left me with twopence in hand. By the time the whisky was low in the bottle I was tolerably drunk - more drunk than I had intended, for it happened that I had eaten nothing all day, and the alcohol acted quickly on my empty stomach. It was all I could do to stand upright, though my brain was quite clear - with me, when I am drunk, my brain remains clear long after my legs and speech have gone. I began staggering along the pavement in a westward direction, and for a long time did not meet any policemen, though the streets were crowded and all the people pointed and laughed at me. Finally I saw two policemen coming. I pulled the whisky bottle out of my pocket and, in their sight, drank what was left, which nearly knocked me out, so that I clutched a lamp-post and fell down. The two policemen ran towards me, turned me over and took the bottle out of my hand.

  THEY: 'Ere, what you bin drinking? (For a moment they may have thought it was a case of suicide.)

  I: Thass my boll whisky. You lea' me alone.

  THEY: Coo, 'e's fair bin bathing in it! - What you bin doing of, eh?

  I: Bin in boozer 'avin' bit o' fun. Christmas, ain't it?

  THEY: No, not by a week it ain't. You got mixed up in the dates, you 'ave. You better come along with us. We'll look after yer.

  I: Why sh'd I come along you?

  THEY: Jest so's we'll look after you and make you comfortable. You'll get run over, rolling about like that.

  I: Look. Boozer over there. Less go in 'ave drink.

  THEY: You've 'ad enough for one night, ole chap. You best come with us.

  I: Where you takin' me?

  THEY: Jest somewhere as you'll get a nice quiet kip with a clean sheet and two blankets and all.

  I: Shall I get drink there?

  THEY: Course you will. Got a boozer on the premises, we 'ave.

  All this while they were leading me gently along the pavement. They had my arms in the grip (I forget what it is called) by which you can break a man's arm with one twist, but they were as gentle with me as though I had been a child. I was internally quite sober, and it amused me very much to see the cunning way in which they persuaded me along, never once disclosing the fact that we were making for the police station. This is, I suppose, the usual procedure with drunks.

  When we got to the station (it was Bethnal Green, but I did not learn this till Monday) they dumped me in a chair & began emptying my pockets while the sergeant questioned me. I pretended, however, to be too drunk to give sensible answers, & he told them in disgust to take me off to the cells, which they did. The cell was about the same size as a Casual Ward cell (about 10 ft. by 5 ft. by 10 ft. high), but much cleaner & better appointed. It was made of white porcelain bricks, and was furnished with a W. C., a hot water pipe, a plank bed, a horsehair pillow and two blankets. There was a tiny barred window high up near the roof, and an electric bulb behind a guard of thick glass was kept burning all night. The door was steel, with the usual spy-hole and aperture for serving food through. The constables in searching me had taken away my money, matches, razor, and also my scarf - this, I learned afterwards, because prisoners have been known to hang themselves on their scarves.

  There is very little to say about the next day and night, which were unutterably boring. I was horribly sick, sicker than I have ever been from a bout of drunkenness, no doubt from having an empty stomach. During Sunday I was given two meals of bread and marg. and tea (spike quality), and one of meat and potatoes - this, I believe, owing to the kindness of the sergeant's wife, for I think only bread and marg, is provided for prisoners in the lock-up. I was not allowed to shave, and there was only a little cold water to wash in. When the charge sheet was filled up I told the story I always tell, viz. that my name was Edward Burton, and my parents kept a cake-shop in Blythburgh, where I had been employed as a clerk in a draper's shop; that I had had the sack for drunkenness, and my parents, finally getting sick of my drunken habits, had turned me adrift. I added that I had been working as an outside porter at Billingsgate, and having unexpectedly 'knocked up' six shillings on Saturday, had gone on the razzle. The police were quite kind, and read me lectures on drunkenness, with the usual stuff about seeing that I still had some good in me etc. etc. They offered to let me out on bail on my own recognizance, but I had no money and nowhere to go, so I elected to stay in custody. It was very dull, but I had my 'Yank Mag', and could get a smoke if I asked the constable on duty in the passage for a light - prisoners are not allowed matches, of course.

  The next morning very early they turned me out of my cell to wash, gave me back my scarf, and took me out into the yard and put me in the Black Maria. Inside, the Black Maria was just like a French public lavatory, with a row of tiny locked compartments on either side, each just large enough to sit down in. People had scrawled their names, offences and the lengths of their sentences all over the walls of my compartment; also, several times, variants on this couplet -

  Detective Smith knows how to gee;

  Tell him he's a cunt from me.

  ('Gee' in this context means to act as an agent provocateur.) We drove round to various stations picking up about ten prisoners in all, until the Black Maria was quite full. They were quite a jolly crowd inside. The compartment doors were open at the top, for ventilation, so that you could reach across, and somebody had managed to smuggle matches in, and we all had a smoke. Presently we began singing, and, as it was near Christmas sang several carols. We drove up to Old Street Police Court singing -

  Adeste, fideles, laeti triumphantes,

  Adeste, adeste ad Bethlehem, etc.

  which seemed to me rather inappropriate.

  At the police court they took me off and put me in a cell identical with the one at Bethnal Green, even to having the same number of bricks in it - I counted in each case. There were three men in the cell beside myself. One was a smartly dressed, florid, well-set-up man of about thirty five, whom I would have taken for a commercial traveller or perhaps a bookie, and another a middle-aged Jew, also quite decently dressed. The other man was evidently a habitual burglar. He was a short rough-looking man with grey hair and a worn face, and at this moment in such a state of agitation over his approaching trial that he could not keep still an instant. He kept pacing up and down the cell like a wild beast, brushing against our knees as we sat on the plank bed, and exclaiming that he was innocent - he was charged, apparently, with loitering with intent to commit burglary. He said that he had nine previous convictions against him, and that in these cases, which are mainly of suspicion, old offenders are ne
arly always convicted. From time to time he would shake his fist towards the door and exclaim 'Fucking toe-rag! Fucking toe-rag!', meaning the 'split' who had arrested him.

  Presently two more prisoners were put into the cell, an ugly Belgian youth charged with obstructing traffic with a barrow, and an extraordinary hairy creature who was either deaf and dumb or spoke no English. Except this last all the prisoners talked about their cases with the utmost freedom. The florid, smart man, it appeared, was a public house 'guv'nor' (it is a sign of how utterly the London publicans are in the claw of the brewers that they are always referred to as 'governors', not 'landlords'; being, in fact, no better than employees), & had embezzled the Christmas Club money. As usual, he was head over ears in debt to the brewers, and no doubt had taken some of the money in hopes of backing a winner. Two of the subscribers had discovered this a few days before the money was due to be paid out, and laid an information. The 'guv'nor' immediately paid back all save PS12, which was also refunded before his case came up for trial. Nevertheless, he was certain to be sentenced, as the magistrates are hard on these cases - he did, in fact, get four months later in the day. He was ruined for life, of course. The brewers would file bankruptcy proceedings and sell up all his stock and furniture, and he would never be given a pub licence again. He was trying to brazen it out in front of the rest of us, and smoking cigarettes incessantly from a stock of Gold Flake packets he had laid in - the last time in his life, I dare say, that he would have quite enough cigarettes. There was a staring, abstracted look in his eyes all the time while he talked. I think the fact that his life was at an end, as far as any decent position in society went, was gradually sinking into him.

  The Jew had been a buyer at Smithfields for a kosher butcher. After working seven years for the same employer he suddenly misappropriated PS28, went up to Edinburgh - I don't know why Edinburgh - and had a 'good time' with tarts, and came back and surrendered himself when the money was gone. PS16 of the money had been repaid, and the rest was to be repaid by monthly instalments. He had a wife and a number of children. He told us, what interested me, that his employer would probably get into trouble at the synagogue for prosecuting him. It appears that the Jews have arbitration courts of their own, & a Jew is not supposed to prosecute another Jew, at least in a breach of trust case like this, without first submitting it to the arbitration court.

  One remark made by these men struck me - I heard it from almost every prisoner who was up for a serious offence. It was, 'It's not the prison I mind, it's losing my job.' This is, I believe, symptomatic of the dwindling power of the law compared with that of the capitalist.

  They kept us waiting several hours. It was very uncomfortable in the cell, for there was not room for all of us to sit down on the plank bed, and it was beastly cold in spite of the number of us. Several of the men used the W.C., which was disgusting in so small a cell, especially as the plug did not work. The publican distributed his cigarettes generously, the constable in the passage supplying lights. From time to time an extraordinary clanking noise came from the cell next door, where a youth who had stabbed his 'tart' in the stomach - she was likely to recover, we heard - was locked up alone. Goodness knows what was happening, but it sounded as though he were chained to the wall. At about ten they gave us each a mug of tea - this, it appeared, not provided by the authorities but by the police court missionaries - and shortly afterwards shepherded us along to a sort of large waiting room where the prisoners awaited trial.

  There were perhaps fifty prisoners here, men of every type, but on the whole much more smartly dressed than one would expect. They were strolling up and down with their hats on, shivering with the cold. I saw here a thing which interested me greatly. When I was being taken to my cell I had seen two dirty-looking ruffians, much dirtier than myself and presumably drunks or obstruction cases, being put into another cell in the row. Here, in the waiting room, these two were at work with note-books in their hands, interrogating prisoners. It appeared that they were 'splits', and were put into the cells disguised as prisoners, to pick up any information that was going - for there is complete freemasonry between prisoners, and they talk without reserve in front of one another. It was a dingy trick, I thought.

  All the while the prisoners were being taken by ones & twos along a corridor to the court. Presently a sergeant shouted 'Come on the drunks!' and four or five of us filed along the corridor and stood waiting at the entrance of the court. A young constable on duty there advised me -

  'Take your cap off when you go in, plead guilty and don't give back answers. Got any previous convictions?'


  'Six bob you'll get. Going to pay it?'

  'I can't, I've only twopence.'

  'Ah well, it don't matter. Lucky for you Mr Brown isn't on the bench this morning. Teetotaller he is. He don't half give it to the drunks. Cool!'

  The drunk cases were dealt with so rapidly that I had not even time to notice what the court was like. I only had a vague impression of a raised platform with a coat of arms over it, clerks sitting at tables below, and a railing. We filed past the railing like people passing through a turnstile, & the proceedings in each case sounded like this -


  All this in the space of about five seconds. At the other side of the court we reached a room where a sergeant was sitting at a desk with a ledger.

  'Six shillings?' he said.


  'Going to pay it?'

  'I can't.'

  'All right, back you go to your cell.'

  And they took me back and locked me in the cell from which I had come, about ten minutes after I had left it.

  The publican had also been brought back, his case having been postponed, and the Belgian youth, who, like me, could not pay his fine. The Jew was gone, whether released or sentenced we did not know. Throughout the day prisoners were coming and going, some waiting trial, some until the Black Maria was available to take them off to prison. It was cold, and the nasty faecal stench in the cell became unbearable. They gave us our dinner at about two o'clock - it consisted of a mug of tea and two slices of bread and marg. for each man. Apparently this was the regulation meal. One could, if one had friends outside get food sent in, but it struck me as damnably unfair that a penniless man must face his trial with only bread and marg. in his belly; also unshaven - I, at this time, had had no chance of shaving for over forty-eight hours - which is likely to prejudice the magistrates against him.

  Among the prisoners who were put temporarily in the cell were two friends or partners named apparently Snouter and Charlie, who had been arrested for some street offence - obstruction with a barrow, I dare say. Snouter was a thin, red-faced, malignant-looking man, and Charlie a short, powerful, jolly man. Their conversation was rather interesting.

  CHARLIE: Cripes, it ain't 'alf fucking cold in 'ere. Lucky for us ole Brown ain't on to-day. Give you a month as soon as look at yer.

  SNOUTER (bored, and singing):

  Tap, tap, tapetty-tap,

  I'm a perfect devil at that;

  Tapping 'em 'ere, tapping 'em there,

  I bin tapping 'em everywhere

  CHARLIE: Oh, fuck off with yer tapping! Scrumping's what yer want this time of year. All them rows of turkeys in the winders, like rows of fucking soldiers with no clo'es on - don't it make yer fucking mouth water to look at 'em. Bet yer a tanner I 'ave one of 'em afore tonight.

  SNOUTER: What's 'a good? Can't cook the bugger over the kip-'ouse fire, can you?

  CHARLIE: Oo wants to cook it? I know where I can flog (sell) it for a bob or two, though.

  SNOUTER: 'Sno good. Chantin's the game this time of year. Carols. Fair twist their 'earts round, I can, when I get on the mournful. Old tarts weep their fucking eyes out when they 'ear me. I won't 'alf give them a doing this Christmas. I'll kip indoors if I 'ave to cut it out of their bowels.

  CHARLIE: Ah, I can sling you a bit of a carol. 'Ymn
s, too. (He begins singing in a good bass voice) -

  Jesu, lover of my soul,

  Let me to thy bosom fly -

  THE CONSTABLE ON DUTY (looking through the grille): Nah then, in 'ere, nah then! What yer think this is? Baptist prayer meeting?

  CHARLIE (in a low voice as the constable disappears): Fuck off, pisspot. (He hums) -

  While the gathering waters roll,

  While the tempest still is 'igh!

  You won't find many in the 'ymnal as I can't sling you. Sung bass in the choir my last two years in Dartmoor, I did.

  SNOUTER: Ah? Wassit like in Dartmoor now? D'you get jam now?

  CHARLIE: Not jam. Gets cheese, though, twice a week.

  SNOUTER: Ah? 'Ow long was you doing?

  CHARLIE: Four year.

  SNOUTER: Four years without cunt - Cripes! Fellers inside'd go 'alf mad if they saw a pair of legs [a woman], eh?

  CHARLIE: Ah well, in Dartmoor we used to fuck old women down on the allotments. Take 'em under the 'edge in the mist. Spud-grabbers they was - ole trots seventy year old. Forty of us was caught and went through 'ell for it. Bread and water, chains - everythink. I took my Bible oath as I wouldn't get no more stretches after that.

  SNOUTER: Yes, you! 'Ow come you got in the stir lars' time then?

  CHARLIE: You wouldn't 'ardly believe it, boy. I was narked - narked by my own sister! Yes, my own fucking sister. My sister's a cow if ever there was one. She got married to a religious maniac, and 'e's so fucking religious that she's got fifteen kids now. Well, it was 'im put 'er up to narking me. But I got it back on 'em I can tell you. What do you think I done first thing, when I come out of the stir? I bought a 'ammer, and I went round to my sister's 'ouse and smashed 'er piano to fucking matchwood. I did. 'There,' I says, 'that's what you get for narking me! You mare,' I says etc. etc. etc.

  This kind of conversation went on more or less all day between these two, who were only in for some petty offence & quite pleased with themselves. Those who were going to prison were silent and restless, and the look on some of the men's faces - respectable men under arrest for the first time - was dreadful. They took the publican out at about three in the afternoon, to be sent off to prison. He had cheered up a little on learning from the constable on duty that he was going to the same prison as Lord Kylsant. He thought that by sucking up to Lord K. in jail he might get a job from him when he came out.

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