Monday, 27 February 2017

Point of no return

University of Tasmania Family History course - Writing Family History

Assessment Task 2: Write a short narrative focussing on one person, place time or event from your family history.
Word limit 1,000 words.

Point of no return

One silly mistake changed my life. It should have been easy. Just cut a hole in the window, retrieve as many items as possible, then take the goods to the Benjamin house.

When Mrs Benjamin suggested the idea to the three of us we jumped at the opportunity to earn a little money. Finding a job was not an easy task. For three years I worked for Henry Jacobs learning about glass, including how to cut glass with a diamond. But once I turned fifteen I was out on the street looking for work once more.  

The chosen time was six o’clock on Friday evening, 8 December 1798 to be exact. A date I will not forget. Being winter, it was totally dark as sunset was before four o’clock. Most people were indoors, especially in this Jewish community where the Sabbath was usually strictly observed. It was unlikely that we would be noticed. Cutting a hole in the window with a diamond rather than breaking the glass would also reduce the chance of anyone hearing us. 

What could go wrong?

I cut the glass and reached through the hole to collect items to pass to the other two lads who were my accomplices. It all went well until I misjudged the opening in the glass and cut my hand. There was blood everywhere. The other two disappeared into the night but I decided to finish the job. Taking as many items as I could carry I hurried to the Benjamin house as planned.

Mrs Benjamin ran a lodging house and I rushed upstairs to hide the items in the designated spot. I then set out to find Mrs Benjamin. When she saw my cut hand she cursed as she bandaged it quickly in an old, not too clean, shawl and told me to hurry to the hospital.

I managed to make my way to the river, crossed the bridge and finally arrived at Guy’s Hospital. My hand was cut in several places and there was a lot of blood on the shawl. I was in bed in a room with many other people when a constable arrived to arrest me. Mrs Benjamin had told him where I had gone.

Someone must have seen me leave Mr Holmes’ shop and followed me to the house where most of the stolen items were found. The constable asked me how I cut my hand and I told him that I had had a fall when crossing London Bridge. The teapot I was carrying broke when I fell and I cut my hand. He did not believe me.

When I arrived at the hospital I hid the one card of lace that I kept under the mattress. I did not see it again.

Newgate Prison was a dismal place. Although the prison building had recently been rebuilt, for those of us incarcerated within these walls it was dreary, crowded and dirty. And then there was the noise and the smell… So many people crowded together in unsanitary conditions. I was used to crowds in the streets and laneways in Whitechapel. I was used to living in crowded lodgings. But in here there was no escape from people. Occasionally we were allowed out in the prison courtyard for a short time and no matter what the weather it was good to have some fresh air. Food in the prison was also an issue. Prisoners with money were given better treatment and food while the rest of us had to exist on the slops provided.

It took a while for my family to find out what had happened and where I was.  My father visited me but I did not know what to say. We did not know what would happen to me but the future did not look good.

I had been in prison for a month when one morning a group of us was called to go to court. We were taken down a narrow passage connecting the prison to a dingy, crowded room beneath the court where we waited to be summoned.

The courtroom was a different world compared to the prison. The room was huge and from the high ceiling hung four chandeliers. I had never seen anything like it. I was told to stand where everyone could see me. Mrs Benjamin was there too.  A mirror was angled to reflect daylight on my face. During the trial there were lots of people talking about what had happened at Mr Holmes’ shop, at the Benjamin house and at the hospital.  They asked a lot of questions. When I was asked about events I said, 'I know nothing at all of it'.

Kitty Jacobs and three other witnesses were called to testify about my character. I don’t think that they knew that Kitty is my sister. Kitty said that I was honest when I worked with her husband. 

Then the verdict was given - Guilty with Death as the penalty. I stood there shaking and was hustled back to prison.

We had all seen prisoners leave down a narrow passage leading to the gallows outside the prison, never to return. We also knew that watching a hanging was considered a public entertainment. So this was to be my fate. I as only eighteen and would lose my life because I stole a few cards of lace and some cloth.

Then my luck changed. I was to be transported to another country for the rest of my life. I knew I would never see my family again but I was to be given a second chance.

Another year and the prison gates are closed behind us. Chains on, we are loaded into a cart. Our destination is a hulk in Portsmouth. Eventually a ship will take us to the other side of the world with no hope of returning to England, home.

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