Life imitating my books

I do like researching. I’m a natural researcher when it comes to digging up information and for many years that was my main career: finding and managing information. These days, the closest I get to researching is watching programmes like Who do you think you are?  It’s not the celebrity that fascinates me, but the effort involved in discovering their family background, all of which is done before the programme is even filmed by unsung genealogists and archivists, combing through archives and online records for an elusive entry. It takes time. Patience.

While watching a foray into the family history of Paul Merton the comedian, the programme touched on prison life during mid-Victorian era. Now as it happens I’m writing a book that dips into this period in history, although the main story is contemporary. Merton’s ancestor was sent to Wandsorth Prison, the comparable location in my book is Lincoln prison in the grounds of the castle. An old gaol that once practised segregation and isolation, just as Paul Merton’s ancestor experienced during her prison sentence.

Prisoners wore masks so that they couldn’t see each other’s faces, this included the wardens, who were forbidden to interact with the inmates. The condemned were referred to by numbers and not by name, their crimes unknown. There was strict silence, nobody was allowed to speak to each other. Prisoners where kept physically separated at all times in solitary cells and when exercising they couldn’t come into close proximity. The idea behind this draconian practice was to force the prisoner to address their crimes and find salvation. But really, let’s face it, it’s a form of mental torture and unlikely to result in rehabilitation, just good old fashioned punishment. The Separate System didn’t last long and the concept was abandoned, but not on humanitarian grounds – it was costly and hard to maintain.

The TV programme showed an illustration of the chapel with its individual cells where prisoners stood unable to see each other, only the preacher on his high pulpit would be visible.

prison chapel
Surrey House of Correction, Wandsworth

Lincoln Prison’s segregated chapel still exists and is a popular part of the museum’s tour. It also features in my current work in progress – a ghost story where nothing is seen, just heard. My protagonist, Laura, finds herself seemingly alone in one of those cells. But is she really?

The final part of the visit was the chapel, a well-known exhibit, and she believed in savouring the best last. Facing the eagle’s nest pulpit was a honeycomb of tiered wooden cubicles in the form of four crescent rows of individual pews, each with their own divider and no view other than the pulpit before them. Plain and simple, the chapel was a tidy construction that ensured a prisoner never saw another; they were loaded into the row at one end and kept in a perpetual state of isolation until the service ended.

Laura entered one such lidless crate and shut the door. There was only space to stand or sit upon a hard bench. She tucked her elbows in and perched on the edge of the seat. Opposite her was the high balcony. What kind of sermon would the prisoners have heard? Hell fire and damnation or redemption through salvation? Either way, the congregation in their tiny upright coffins had no choice but to listen. The layout reminded her a little amphitheatre. Was there about to be a real-life performance – she glanced up at the overhanging pulpit. Empty, the towering box seemed to loom over the pews, casting a long shadow. Had the prisoners quaked in their boots or dozed off in boredom?

She stood, swayed slightly, aware of a cooling brush of air against her face. Then a noise close by: a cough? A sneeze?

She turned, cocked her ear and focused on the sounds slipping by her. Shuffling, or scuffling shoes? The direction was clear: somebody was in the cubicle next to her, and probably seated as the crown of his or hers head wasn’t visible above the partition. The unnerving discovery meant her neighbour had been there since she’d arrived in the chapel – how else could a person be barricaded into a miniature cell when she blocked their exit? Holding her breath, she leaned toward the wooden partition. Should she say a little ‘hello’ or clear her throat?


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