Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

How Victorian prisoners communicated

Robert Clibburn, a prisoner at Dorchester in 1898 (Dorset History Centre, via Ancestry). Sadly, probably not the Robert mentioned in this story...

Robert Clibburn, a prisoner at Dorchester in 1898 (Dorset History Centre, via Ancestry). Sadly, probably not the Robert mentioned in this story…

In 1898, a conspiracy case came before the Westminster Police Court, involving two prisoners. One of the interesting details it recorded involved the methods prisoners used to communicate with each other, and how these methods could be used for nefarious aims.

The case was brought against Robert Cliburn, otherwise known as Robert Harris, Robert Collins, Robert Robertson, Robert Stephenson and Robert Carew – he liked a good alias. Robert was described as a well-dressed young gentleman, a former telegraph messenger in the West End of London, but who was currently of no occupation. He was accused of conspiring with two convicts who were currently in prison on robbery and blackmailing charges.

The two convicts in question gave evidence in the case – a Mr Allen and Mr Sanders. Allen had been sent to Pentonville Prison the previous September, and Sanders was brought from Portland prison to Pentonville the following January. It was noted that from his arrival, Sanders was not allowed to communicate with Allen, and to prevent him doing so, he was not allowed to go to the prison chapel (the defendant’s counsel, Mr Geoghegan, commented, “Is preventing a man going to chapel a punishment or a reward?” to which the Pentonville warder, Mr Parkes, admitted it was “not exactly a punishment”).

An extract from the debate about prisoners' means of communication, 1898

An extract from the debate about prisoners’ means of communication, 1898. It refers to a book written by William Hamilton Thomson, who had been confined in Millbank and Dartmoor Prisons, about his experiences of the prison system.

Parkes admitted that prisoners tended to communicate with each other a lot in chapel. In places like  Lincoln Castle, the chapel had separate booths for each prisoner, thus cutting them off physically from head other, but apparently this did not stop channels of communication. Where there weren’t separate booths, prisoners talked to each other by mouthing, and even if the warden tried to stop them, they could find other means of communication. In addition, in their cells, they could also communicate with each other, even though their doors were closed. Mr Geoghegan and Mr Parkes had the following conversation:

“In some of these patent prisons they communicate with a system of raps?”

“Yes, they do. I do not say they do it in chapel; of course, it is only spirit-rapping there.” Loud laughter in the court.

“I am speaking of the cells. They use a sort of Morse telegraphic code?”

“Yes, they do; but they must be located in the same corridor. And then they can communicate through a large number of intervening cells.”

“A prisoner in no. 1 can be heard in no. 12, nine or ten cells away?”

“It is so. If they understand the telegraphic system, they can communicate from one end of the ward to the other by knocking.”

“And whatever the warders do, they can’t prevent that? It shows the march of science?”

“No, they can’t stop it.”

The case showed the ingenuity of prisoners, and their basic human desire to have conversations and interaction with others. Speech was not necessary, but a creative approach was. Where they were visible to each other, they could mouth conversations; but where they weren’t, they created an alternative system of code, fostering a sense of identity among them, and separating themselves from their warders.

Although in this case, communication between Allen and Sanders may have been used to plan further offences, it was also a means of surviving in prison, of getting ‘one over’ on the authorities by being able to forge relationships with each other through alternative forms of communication.

Robert Clibburn was a prisoner at Portland in 1901 - presumably, he was able to communicate with other prisoners there...

Robert Clibburn was a prisoner at Portland in 1901 – presumably, he was able to communicate with other prisoners there…

Source: Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 30 January 1898

1 Comment

  1. I’m curious why you think the photograph of Robert Cliburn is not the one mentioned in the story?

Comments are closed.

© 2017 Criminal Historian

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑