It is a rare thing indeed to hear the voices of prisoners. The archives typically prioritise administration and control over enquiry into the circumstances of prisoners’ lives. Such silences in the records seem wrong – when prisons are – or should be about prisoners.
So to come across a prisoner’s true voice is a thrill – especially when it may have not been seen for nearly two hundred years. I discovered the following in the records at the Surrey History Centre. It is the testimony of one Thomas Dix against Brixton’s first and most notorious governor, John Green. Dix had been committed to Brixton as an ‘idle and disorderly’ person, but almost immediately on his arrival made the mistake of crossing the man in charge:
. . . unacquainted with the regulations I looked out of the windows that same evening and asked some men working below if they could get me a drop of water when Mr Green called out to get away from the window, not thinking that he meant me I did not answer till he called the second time when I said “Sir do you mean me?” His answer was “Yes, you rascal.” I told him I was not aware of doing wrong in looking out of the window or asking for a drop of water. He said “you do you rascal you were beckoning to those men opposite and if you tell me that again I will come and drag you out of the place.” I told him it was false and I knew no one there and I was never in confinement in my life before and I would appeal to some higher power than him – he then ordered a man to fetch me down. I told him that I was no thief and that he was no Gentleman nor a man to treat me so – with that he struck me with his fist on the head and then shook me by the collar – I told him I would make him suffer for striking me and I would subpoena the man standing by who was [the head turnkey] Mr Wilson – he then ordered one of the keepers to lock me up in the dark cell upon bread and water.
Dix’s words were used in a subsequent inquiry into the conduct of Green, who found himself sacked not just for violence, but drunkenness, being addicted to swearing and neglecting the reading of morning prayers.