Friday, 16 March 2012

Letter from Bedford Gaol

At the Epiphany Quarter Sessions of 1871 James Drage of Harrold was tried for being found at night in the dwelling house of William Bithrey at Turvey with intent to commit a felony. He was found by Bithrey's lodger Thomas Shelton on a sofa, hidden under the cover. While in Bedford Gaol waiting for his trial Drage wrote a letter which was not addressed, but was presumably intended for the Justices of the Peace who would hear his case. In the letter Drage claimed that he did not know what he was doing as he had had "a little too much drink". It was a wet afternoon on the day in question amd he had started drinking early. By the late evening he had no idea what he was doing and says "if I was a going to be hung for it I can't tell how I got in that house". He claims that if he had his wits about him he would have made his escape when discovered but he was too drunk. When Shelton and other men called in to help tried to restrain him they pulled him about which had the effect of sobering him up. Eight years earlier he had suffered from a very bad neck for 14 months which caused him to be discharged from the army. Since that time whenever he had too much to drink it went to his head. He ends by saying that when released he will join the teetotal society. The letter is beautifully written in a clear, even script, but his spelling leaves something to be desired: "it shall be a warning to me it shant be drink that shall get me into haney trubel haney more Gentlemen I jine the teatotle sursitety the very day I get my liberty".

Unfortunately for Drage the constable George Mardlin said he did not appear drunk; he had also previously been convicted at the Northampton Quarter Sessions of June 1869 for stealing more than £5 from the house of Elizabeth Copson at Wellingborough (Northants), for which he had served 12 months in the House of Correction at Northampton. This time he was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment with hard labour, to be followed by 7 years supervision by the police. 

The letter is written on a standard form issued by the Gaol to prisoners awaiting trial which includes printed instructions on the front cover:
  Persons writing to Prisoners are to TAKE NOTICE that the permission to write and receive Letters is not given to Prisoners for the purpose of hearing the news of the day, but to keep up a correspondence with their Relatives, and to address them on the subject of their trials; they will not be allowed to give or receive any improper advice or hints, or use or receive any unbecoming language.
  As all Letters sent into the Prison are read by the Governor, they ought not to be of unnecessary length.
  Visiting days are Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10 to 12 in the morning and from 2 to 4 in the afternoon; the visits must not exceed twenty minutes.
QSR1871/1/5/3/b; QSR1871/1/6/3/b

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