Moondyne/Sir Joshua Hobb's Convict Mill

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Moondyne by John Boyle O'Reilly
Sir Joshua Hobb's Convict Mill

Lord Somers, the Colonial Secretary, had evidently conceived a high opinion of Mr. Sheridan from his first brief visit. He soon renewed the acquaintance by requesting another interview. In the course of a few weeks their relations had become almost friendly.

Their conversation was usually about the Australian colonies, on which subject the Secretary found Sheridan to be a perfect encyclopedia. It seemed that every possibility of their condition, latent as well as operative, had come into his practical mind, and had been keenly considered and laid aside.

But Sheridan was a child in London. He was supremely ignorant of everything that this nobleman considered necessary to existence. He knew nothing of British or European politics—did not even know who was Prime Minister. It gratified the genial and intelligent Englishman, on their frequent rides through the city, to impart information and pleasure to his Australian friend.

One day Mr. Sheridan received another large official letter this time from the Chief Director of Convict Prisons, Sir Joshua Hobb, who, without apologizing for the delayed acknowledgment of Mr. Sheridan's letter, asked him to meet the Board of Directors on the next day at noon, at the Department in Parliament-street.

Sheridan kept the appointment, and became acquainted with the half-dozen men to whose hands Great Britain had intrusted the vast burden of punishing and reforming the criminal class.

Half an hour's conversation, though of a general nature, astonished Will Sheridan, by convincing him of the stupendous conceit and incompetence of these men. They talked glibly about the weight of a prisoner's loaf, and the best hour to light the cells in the morning; they had statistics at their finger-ends to show how much work a convict could perform on a given number of ounces of meat; but they knew nothing whatever of the large philosophy of penal government.

The Chief Director, Sir Joshua Hobb, however, was an exception, in so far as he had ideas. He was a tall, gaunt man, of fifty, with an offensive hauteur, which was obviously from habit rather than from nature. His face said plainly: "I know all—these gentlemen know nothing—it is not necessary that they should—I am the Convict System." He reminded Sheridan of a country pedagogue promoted to high position for some narrow piece of special knowledge. He looked superciliously at Sheridan, as if to ask— "Do you mean to pretend, before me, that you know anything about prisons?"

"Confound this fellow!" said Sheridan to himself, five minutes after meeting him; "he deliberately delayed acknowledging my letters, to show his importance."

But Sir Joshua Hobb was an "expert" in penal systems. He had graduated from a police court, where he had begun as an attorney; and he was intimately acquainted with the criminal life of England in its details. But he had no soul for the awful thought of whence the dark stream came, nor whither it was going. He was merely a dried mudbank to keep it within bounds for a little way.

The admiration of his colleagues was almost reverential. Mr. Sheridan was informed by several of the Board—in subdued voice, of course, so that the great reformer should not be put to the blush—of his wonderful successes in the treatment of criminals.

"They all hate him," said Mr. Pettegrew, one of the Board.

"I give you my word, Sir, that every criminal in England hates the name of Sir Joshua Hobb. He has made them feel his power, Sir, and they know him."

"He was knighted by the Queen for his Separate System," said another Director.

"Is that your present system?" asked Sheridan.

"No," said the Director. " At present we are on the other tack."

"The Separate System was a failure, then I presume?" inquired Mr. Sheridan.

"Not a failure, Sir, but it was abandoned out of regard to the sentimental reformers. It increased insanity from 12 to 31 per 1,000. Sir Joshua himself was the first to find it out."

And then you adopted the Public Works System, did you not?" asked Sheridan.

"No, not so soon. When his Separate System failed, Sir Joshua introduced the mask—a cloth skull-cap coming down over the face, with eyelet holes—to promote a salutary shame in the prisoners. He was made a Knight Commander of the Bath for that wonderful invention."

"Then that system gave beneficial results?" inquired Mr. Sheridan.

"Well, there was no doubt of its moral excellence; but it increased the insanity from 31 to 391 per 1,000. Sir Joshua himself was the first to discover this also."

"He certainly deserves the name of a discoverer," thought Sheridan. Then, aloud—

"And your present system is his invention, also?"

"Yes, our present system is wholly his. We are just now examining results. We discover one peculiarity, which Sir Joshua hardly knows how to class; but he says it certainly is a proof of progress."

"May I ask what is this peculiarity?" inquired Mr. Sheridan.

"That within three years insanity has decreased 2 per cent," answered the Director, "while suicide has increased 17 per 1000."

"Sir Joshua inclines to the opinion," said another Director, who was listening, "that this fact proves that we are at last getting to bear closely on the criminal principle. The law is touching it—there is no escape—and in despair the baffled criminals give up the fight, and kill themselves."

There was something fearfully repugnant to Sheridan's broad and humane view in all this, and he would gladly have escaped from the place. But the Directors meant to impress him with their ability to manage the entire Penal System, both in Australia and England. To secure this general management, Sir Joshua Hobb had recently introduced a bill to Parliament.

"Have you heard, Sir," said Sir Joshua, addressing Sheridan with a patronizing kindness, "of the proposals made to the Government as to penal reform, by Mr. Wyville, of West Australia?"

"No," answered Sheridan, smiling at his own ignorance. "I have never even heard of Mr. Wyville."

"Indeed!" said Sir Joshua, with a stare of rude surprise.

He is the most influential man in the West Australian penal colony."

"I never heard his name before," simply answered Will.

"He, perhaps, resides in a district far from yours, Mr. Sheridan," said one of the Directors. Mr. Wyville is a wealthy settler from the Vasse District."

"From the Vasse!" repeated Sheridan, quite surprised; "I thought I knew every man, rich and poor, bond and free, in that district. I have lived there many years."

Sheridan saw that his importance was lessened to the Board, but, strange to say, increased to the Chief Director, by his confession of ignorance of Mr. Wyville. However, Sir Joshua continued to speak.

"Mr. Wyville wants to introduce the sentimental idea into our penal system—an absurdity that has never been attempted. There is only one-way to blend: punishment with reform, sir—by rigid rules, constant work, low diet, impersonal treatment; and all this kept up with unflaggging regularity for all the years of a prisoner's sentence."

"With educational and religious influences added, of course," suggested Mr. Sheridan.

"No, Sir, not of course," said Sir Joshua, in a tone of severe correction; "a chapter of the Bible read by a warder every morning, in a regular way, may do some good; but these influences have been overrated—they, are of the sentimental School. The quality that is absent in the criminal class is order, Sir, order; and this can best be supplied by persistent and impersonal regularity of work, meals, exercise, and sleep."

"You subject all prisoners to the same course of treatment?" asked Sheridan.

"Precisely," answered Sir Joshua. Our system is the measure of normality, Sir. We make the entire criminal or, abnormal class pass through the same process of elevation, and try to reach one standard."

Mr. Sheridan would have asked what the standard wag, and how many had reached it, and what had become of those who had failed to reach it, who had sunk under the Draconian yoke; but he thought it prudent to keep the questions back.

"Suppose a youth commit a first offence," he said, "or an hitherto respectable and industrious commit a crime in a moment of passion—will you treat him as if he were a professional criminal?"

"Precisely," repeated the eminent reformer; "our system regards criminality as a mass, and ignores its grades. This is our leading idea, sir— uniformity and justice. The criminal body is diseased—our system is the cure, sir; physician and cure in one."

Accustomed to say the word he meant, Will Sheridan could hardly restrain an indignant comment. "Confound the man," he thought, "he would take a hundred men, with as many diseases, and treat them all for the cholera." He concluded that Sir Joshua would have earned distinction as a torturer as well as a reformer, but he did not say so. As soon as possible he ended the conversation, and withdrew from the presence of the Directors of Prisons.

"Lord help the convicts!" he thought, on his way to the hotel. "No wonder they are eager to be sent to the penal colony."