The information contained herein is embargoed from press use, commercial and non-commercial reproduction and sharing - in the public domain - until Tuesday 29 July 2014.
Secrets from The Clink
In a brand new, two-part series, entertainer Len Goodman, comedian Johnny Vegas, actress Michelle Collins, broadcaster Mariella Frostrup and reporter Daisy Mcandrew, discover the crimes their ancestors committed dating back to the Victorian Era and the punishments they received.
The Victorians built many of the prisons that are still in use today such as Wormwood Scrubs, Strangeways and Pentonville but life inside them was very different. Back then prisoners were subject to hard labour and isolation and the alternative was the death penalty or transportation. Through exploring the story of each of the star’s ancestors, Secrets From The Clink gives an insight into the Victorian penal system and what day-to-day life was like for convicts.
In episode one, Len Goodman is shocked to discover that his great-great grandfather James Blackhall, was assaulted by his own son Henry. Mariella Frostrup finds out that her great-great grandfather William Martin Eckersley was found guilty of fraud. And Johnny Vegas discovers that both his great-great-great-great grandfather Philip and his wife Ann Haines, spent time in prison for stealing and drunkenness. He also finds out that Philip was not just a criminal but a southerner to boot.
Johnny says: “This is taken from the Bristol Mercury. Bristol! That’s amazing, I thought I was pure blue blood northern. We’re southern! I’m going to have to pack up our belongings. They’re going to take me St Helens season ticket off me!”
He visits the record office in Bristol to find out that stealing a knife and some coins got Philip banged up for six months, with hard labour. Punishments for hard labour were designed to break a prisoner’s will and inmates were given activities that served no real purpose, like turning a handle called a crank. The crank could be tightened and made harder to turn by the prison warders, which resulted in the nickname ‘screws’.
The hard labour seemed to stop Philip re-offending but his alcoholic wife Ann still required reforming. Historian David Taylor explains that the Victorians held wayward women in particular disdain, which is why the press stereotyped Ann as an, ‘inveterate drunk’ and ‘notorious drunkard’.
Johnny is upset to discover that, while he built his comedy career by sending up being drunk and disorderly, his ancestor Ann had no help or support for her addiction. Trapped in a vicious cycle of deprivation, her drunkenness and vagrancy saw her being imprisoned repeatedly and Ann effectively served a life term in short sentences.
Johnny says: “I’ve made a career and been lauded for sending up what was a desperately sad outcome, for Ann. She was living it. I’ve made a joke of it but she is fundamentally institutionalised. With a system that doesn’t know how to cope with somebody with the obvious social dysfunction that Ann had. It’s very hard when you can’t envisage a Disney ending for this.”
Then Johnny discovers that Phillip died young and that Ann’s particular spiral of drunkenness, vagrancy and prison seems to have been triggered after his death.
Johnny says: “She’s lost her husband and then turned to drink in her grief. It just breaks your heart to think she might have been fundamentally grieving for 20 years. Is it wrong to feel better that there’s some explanation for her misbehaving, even if she’s lost her husband?”
After hearing Ann’s story, Johnny is keen to find out if her daughter Mary-Ann broke the cycle of poverty and drunkenness, and escaped Ann’s life of crime and punishment.
Journalist and Broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, discovers that her great-great grandfather William Martin Eckersley was a Victorian entrepreneur who went bust when the economy crashed in the 1870s. With no social security, and creditors breathing down his neck, William siphoned off the equivalent of £2000. At first Mariella is embarrassed by the nature of her ancestor’s crime.
Mariella says: “It’s a bit of a tacky crime really isn’t it? It’s a bit like sort of tax dodging. He’s just been siphoning away money. I’m a bit embarrassed about it at the moment but I’m hoping to find redeeming features in this ancestor.”
She also discovers that the stress of the ensuing court case causes William to suffer a stroke at just 30 years old. Paralysed and bed-ridden, he is confined to a dingy cell in HMP Lancaster Castle. There was no drainage or sanitation and prisoners had to slop out with a bucket every day. Mariella learns that prisoners were also forced to do back breaking shot drill, carrying a cannonball back and forth for hours on end.
Mariella says: “That is the most ludicrous punishment I have ever heard of. Completely, randomly cruel for no purpose.”
William’s paralysis meant he was physically incapable of doing hard labour. Being a burden on the prison, documents show he was released early. Worried that William was sent home to die, Mariella is keen to find out what happened to her ancestor after he finally came home.
Entertainer Len Goodman visits the Old Bailey, to find out what happened when his great-great grandfather gave evidence against his own son, Henry. Len is shocked to discover that Henry threatened to kill his father with a pickaxe, assaulted his mother and was sentenced to five years penal servitude.
Len says: “He was obviously a hooligan, basically, out of control, and with a vicious temper. Well, I think Henry got his just desserts.”
The Old Bailey stands on the site of Newgate, once one of Britain’s most notorious prisons and the site of London’s gallows. Len is shown Dead Man’s Walk, which led the condemned towards the hangman’s noose. Len realises that if Henry had carried out his threat of murder, he would have never have left Newgate alive.
Instead, Henry was then transferred to Pentonville where he spent nine months in the ‘separate system’. The Victorians believed that prisoners should be kept totally isolated from each other to reflect on their crime. Prisoners spent hours working alone in their cells, had to walk at set distances from each other during exercise and wear special masks over their faces to make them anonymous and prevent communication.
After the mental torture, came physical hardship. After doing hard labour building the docks at Chatham, Henry was transferred to the remote prison of Portland on the Dorset coast where he was made to quarry for stone.
Having learned about the conditions his ancestor was subjected to, Len’s opinions on whether Henry’s punishment fitted his crime, begin to change:
Len says: “It makes me feel so sad for him. We all lose our temper, and what he did was terrible, but we all have that trait in us. I just hope and fingers crossed that Henry comes good in the end.”