A revolt among convicts at St Mary’s Prison, Chatham, was put down brutally by the authorities in January 1861.
The audacity of the convicts made national news for many weeks and was considered so serious that the Home Secretary intervened personally.
Warders were sacked, officials resigned, and the prison guards’ incompetence blamed on the petty jealousies of the older, more disciplined guards on the Chatham hulks and a newer intake of men.
The Times reported: “A considerable degree of uneasiness, almost amounting to alarm, has been occasioned to the officials of the convict prison on St Mary’s Island … in consequence of the disaffection and mutinous conduct of the convicts confined in that establishment.”
It all revolved around a convict named Peters, who – with most of the other prisoners – worked every day at nearby Chatham Dockyard.
“Peters, although employed in what is termed as the light labour department, had managed to becoming possessed of a skeleton key … between six and seven o’clock on Saturday morning, Peters and other convicts were in the hall of the prison awaiting their periodical medical examination when Peters took the opportunity to escape the hall by unlocking it with his skeleton key.
“He then crossed the parade grounds to one of the cells occupied by a notorious character named Bennett, who is under sentence of penal servitude for life for numerous burglaries in London and was in the process of unlocking his door when he was seized by the warder before he could accomplish his intentions, the key being thrown to the ground.”
It was the cue for revolt. Soon afterwards, the 1,000 convicts held at St Mary’s began their protest. First they started disturbing the minister in the chapel service by “hooting yelling, cheering and other marks of disapprobation, although no act of violence was resorted to”.
A minor offence, we might now think – but it was the prelude to something worse and the authorities decided it was time for a clampdown. The governor, Captain Powell and his deputy Mr Measor ordered that the ringleaders be rounded up and put in punishment cells. The next day, “extra warders, of whom 150 are employed in that establishment, all heavily armed, were placed in the chapel, but this did not prevent further disturbances being made by yelling, cheering and other disorderly sounds”.
The mutiny continued in the cells, where “in a few instances, the convicts commenced smashing cell windows and breaking furniture”.
It was time for official action, The Times reported, and the Home Secretary decided to send Captain Gambier, inspector-general of the convict establishments, to start an investigation.
That was not, however, the end of it. Trouble started brewing the next Friday, after the dockyard working party was marched back for dinner. A number of prisoners protested about the quality of the food – although, The Times said, without any apparent irony, that the prison diet was greatly superior to that found in any union workhouse – and then refused to go back to work.
At a pre-arranged signal, about 50 convicts rushed the keepers “assailing them with fearful oaths and threatening to massacre them”. They stole the cell keys and began to release their fellow prisoners. “The wildest uproar now ensued, the whole of the prisoners being loose within the prison and being ready for any excesses.”
They got into the governor’s office and started destroying papers, books and records and then smashed every piece of furniture that “came into the way of the infuriated ruffians”. Damage was estimated at £1,000.
The 150 warders were powerless to stoop them. It was time for drastic action – so the governor called in the military. Fortunately for the authorities, a detachment of 400 Royal Marines was nearby and sprang into action. They charged the rioters with their muskets, with the warders – armed with heavy truncheons – behind them. Order was soon restored – but lessons would be learnt.
The assistant governor resigned and many guards were sacked. “Most of these officers have been in the convict service a great number of years, having served on board the prison hulks at Woolwich and Chatham, where the discipline was altogether different from that observed at the St Mary’s Prison.
“Yesterday, a number of the most experienced warders from Pentonville were transferred to Chatham and at the same time four of the most active and intelligent warders – Courtman, Kemp, Weldon and Curtis – were selected to fill the office of principal warders
“Upon the establishment of St Mary’s in 1856, the staff of the two hulks contributed to make up the body of the officers and not only were there innumerable jealousies between them but in many cases to offers so selected new little of strict prison discipline and were both unaccustomed and unfitted for the more trying management of a prison on shore.”
The blame culture, Victorian style.