I had thus far avoided the tap room for it was intimidating to me, full of rough men and rougher women. I had no experience of such places beyond reading of them in picaresque novels. I was well out of my depths and I knew it. Although I had fooled Scott and Ainsworth by strongly implying that I was fully grown in our correspondence, there was no faking adulthood in the real world, the universe outside the text. My father, meanwhile, had a Methodist’s disdain for the drink, although it was practical rather than evangelical, as even though our cause was futile he tried to save as much money as he could towards our debts.
‘I might at least settle your accounts,’ he would say, ‘in a couple of years or so.’ There was also the matter of the rent on our cell. I was reasonably certain that it was our constantly pressing need for cash without the possibility of real work that had purchased his permission for this queer venture so easily, for both of us knew, without speaking out, that my poor mother would have been appalled.
The boy Sid was dispatched to collect me on my first night on the job, and although I felt quite awkward around him I was grateful for a familiar face. Such ceremony was hardly necessary; the Malshalsea was really no more than a small brick barracks, though the walk still felt long and terrible to me. Public speaking was a good way outside my area of comfort, and a deal more frightening in prospect than writing for a living, which was odd given that my first publisher had been killed by a rival reviewer.
Henry Mayhew told me once, years later, that he had conducted a survey of this subject among readers of the Morning Chronicle, and had discovered that the majority would, they said, rather die than speak in public. ‘That would mean,’ he had said, with that yawning great grin of his, ‘that at any given funeral in the city, the majority of mourners would prefer to be the corpse over the gentleman that delivers the eulogy.’
By the time we reached the great green door I might as well have been climbing the steps to the triple tree. The atmosphere beyond was solid with smoke, beer, and human grease, and although I later grew to love this foul miasma, at that moment it felt to me like the vapours of a killing jar. ‘Just remember they’re all bastards,’ said Sid, and then he shoved me across the threshold.
The snuggery was no more than another cell, different only in that it was larger than most and included a bar and kegs along with the usual decor. It was about thirty feet long, but quite narrow, no more than ten or twelve feet at the most, with the oak bar at one end, backing on to the communal kitchen, and a large fireplace in the centre of the long inside wall of much the same location and design as the one in our cell. The head turnkey’s son, who was not much older than I, was stationed behind the bar, where, Sid had told me, one might purchase a pint of ale or a measure of gin for five pence, which rather put my fee in perspective.
The room was lit by multiple candles stuck upon various surfaces, casting a vaguely orange light, refracted by thick tobacco smoke, upon the plain wooden benches, stools and tables scattered about the place, about half of which were presently occupied by the unsophisticated sons and daughters of the Marshalsea. The men outnumbered the women (who were quartered above the tap room), by about four to one. Bill was leaning by the fireplace smoking a long pipe, and when he spied me he waved me over, shoved a warm glass into my hand and raised his arms to quiet the company. I nervously sluiced my ivories and was rewarded with the comforting burn of sugared gin and hot water, a drink I had not tasted since the day my mother died.
Bill attempted to work the crowd, such as it was, explaining that I was the young gentlemen of whom he had spoken, and that I was here to entertain them all with a reading.
‘What from?’ moaned a wretched northern voice from the floor, ‘the bloody Bible?’
Bill sought the speaker out with a menacing eye and stared him down. ‘Oh no,’ said he, ‘we’ll have none of that in here.’
A woman at the next table similarly took up my cause, and I received the distinct impression that everyone there present was down on the first speaker, on account of his evident inability to see the bright side of any given situation.
‘Shut your hole, Mournful, you miserable old cadger,’ said she, ‘and give the boy a chance.’ She wore a black damask robe à l’anglaise, tight at the waist and adorned with spidery feathers that would have been the height of fashion at the end of the last century. Like Bill, she could have been in her thirties or much older. As with many in the Marshalsea it was impossible to tell, although she was in possession of a full set of teeth so was perhaps younger than she looked. ‘He don’t look like no cheese screamer,’ she concluded, addressing her final remark to me.
I replied that a cheese screamer, whatever that might be, sounded most disagreeable, and I assured all present that I was certainly no such thing.
‘He don’t patter the Flash, Nanse,’ said a big, bewhiskered badger of a man, leaving me none the wiser for the remark. He had thick black hair shot through to the mutton chops on either side of his broad face with a dirty grey streak. He propped up the bar and regarded the woman with devouring eyes.
‘Leave him be,’ she said, slyly catching me in the arc of her vision as she turned towards the big man, ‘he’ll learn it soon enough.’ She had the look of a raven about her, eying up a field mouse.
‘Thank you very much,’ said I, artificially emboldened by the drink. ‘That’s one friend there, anyway.’
The man called Mournful regarded me desolately but several others laughed, including the woman. Mournful muttered that he did not cadge, which apparently meant beg, causing the company to laugh all the louder, for by the look of him he surely did.
I was unsure how to proceed, but Bill saved me by furnishing me with the chosen text of the evening and telling me to get on with it.
‘I just stand here and read this, then?’ I asked him, and he affirmed with a nod, after which he took a long match, already spent, from a pot on the fireplace, thrust it into the fire and then lit his pipe.
I regarded the booklet, which was my first full Newgate Calendar. There was a crude woodcut of a billowing black flag bearing a skull and cross’d bones beneath the bold title in the form of a frontispiece, and a note at the bottom of the title page acknowledged that the work was printed in Seven Dials, although author, publisher and printer were not identified. There was no date upon the thing, and for all I knew it could have either been printed in the last century, or last year.
‘While we’re still young, son,’ said Bill, taking a seat by the once fine woman in black.
I positioned myself to the side of the fire, availing myself to the light of a candle stuck in a mound of ancient tallow cascading in fantastic shapes down the brickwork. The book was printed in tiny text laid out in two tight columns, its legibility made worse by the ancient stains on the delicate paper. I tossed off my drink and cleared my throat theatrically, then, squinting desperately at the infinitesimal print, I began to read the first entry, which was entitled ‘The True and Accurate Account of the Vile Crimes of Captain William Kidd, Who Suffered for Piracy at Execution Dock, May 23, 1701.’
‘Piracy,’ I read out carefully, enunciating every single syllable, ‘is an offence committed on the high seas, by villains who man and arm a vessel for the purpose of robbing fair traders.’
‘Speak up,’ called a male voice, not the badger, from the back of the room.
‘Piracy,’ I bellowed, ‘is an offence committed on the high seas, by villains who man and arm a vessel for the purpose of robbing fair traders. It is also piracy to rob a vessel lying in shore at anchor, or at a wharf.’
‘That’s better,’ said the unidentified man at the back.
‘Piracy,’ I continued, voce di petto, ‘is a capital offence by civil law.’ Bill nodded sagely from the floor, as if this was an obscure legislative point and he wished to signal his expertise on the matter. I paused respectfully for a moment (it was his shilling after all), and then carried on. ‘The life of Captain Kidd,’ I read, beginning to catch the flow of the thing, ‘while in agitation, engaged the attention of the public in a very eminent degree, though the man himself was one of the most contemptible of the human race—’
William (or John, the chronicler was unclear) Kidd (or Kyd) was born in Greenock (or possibly Dundee) in or around 1645, I read, and was the son of a sailor lost at sea. Like many Scotsmen he found himself more in sympathy with the French than the English, and ran away to sea on board the French privateer Sainte Rose, serving his seaman’s apprenticeship among Caribbean buccaneers in a mixed crew that included one Robert Culliford, later a notorious pirate in his own right. Patriotism eventually got the better of the British sailors, and they took the ship by mutiny. They renamed her Blessed William, probably after the King rather than the Catholic martyr. Kidd was elected captain, but he was later deposed by Culliford. The crew surrendered to the English colony of Nevis in the West Indies, whereby the governor engaged them as privateers to defend the island from her enemies, declaring that they must take their pay from the French. Kidd was once again made captain, and he harried the French across the Caribbean until Culliford stole the ship at Antigua.
Kidd fruitlessly pursued the Blessed William to New York, where he married a rich widow and set himself up in business as a sea trader, undercutting the legitimate competition by secretly dealing with pirates and smugglers, who tended not to bother with import and export duties. ‘He was neither remarkable for the excess of his courage, nor for the want of it,’ wrote his anonymous biographer, ‘but his ruling passion appeared to be avarice.’
While in the company of pirates Kidd would converse and act as they did; to the mercantile middle classes he appeared as they were. He was a natural raconteur and would often discourse with authority upon the subject of pirates. Impressed, the town fathers recommended Kidd to Lord Bellamont, the Governor of the Province, as a ‘wizard of the seas’ who could rid the West Indies of the piratical menace. Bellamont agreed, as did the King, and Kidd was asked in a way that could not be easily refused to accept a commission to seize pirates and their assets, along with any French ships he might happen to encounter.
The account at that point became vague, convoluted, and, to be frank, boring, as the author explained the funding of the expedition. Although supported by the Admiralty, the venture was a private one patronised by a long list of English and colonial noblemen who expected a major share of the profits against their investment. I gritted my teeth and kept reading, aware that I was losing the crowd.
I prayed for a good bit, which came at last when Kidd, at the helm of his new thirty-four gun man o’ war Adventure Galley, made prize of two French ships off Madagascar and then turned pirate. He refused to attack British ships, a stance which led to an altercation with his gunner, William Moore, over the decision to let an East India Company ship pass unmolested. Kidd beat him to death with the first object that came to hand, which was a bucket.
Kidd then took the Quedah Merchant, an Indian ship under a French passport. He inexplicably burned the Adventure Galley at Hispaniola and divided the profits from the Quedah Merchant cargo with his crew, taking forty shares for himself. He then sailed for the West Indies in a sloop bought off an Englishman name of Bolton, leaving the Quedah Merchant in his charge. Kidd disposed of a great part of his treasure at a secret location, and then steered for Boston. Bolton sold the Quedah Merchant and also sailed for Boston, where he arrived before Kidd. He then sold Kidd as well, turning evidence against him. Kidd was arrested on his arrival, and charged with numerous acts of piracy, including the murder of William Moore.
Kidd argued that he thought the Quedah Merchant was a lawful prize, but Bellamont sent him to England in chains. Such was the public and political clamour surrounding the case that Members of Parliament debated an emergency opposition motion that ‘The letters-patent granted to the Earl of Bellamont and others respecting the goods taken from pirates were dishonourable to the King.’ The motion was defeated, yet Kidd’s principle English backers continued to face public accusations that they were giving countenance to pirates and no less culpable than the actual offenders. Kidd, by then in Newgate, was examined at the bar of the House of Commons, with a view to fix part of his guilt on his noble business partners, but he was too pissed to give a good account of himself. His original letters of commission had also mysteriously vanished.
Kidd protested his innocence to the last, but nothing came of the political inquiry, and he was hanged in chains at Execution Dock. He reportedly refused the exhortations of the attending ordinary to repent of his sins and prepare himself for this important change, and went to the gallows in silence. He did not die well. Such was the weight of his chains that on the first drop the rope that was to hang him broke, depositing him upon his arse. According to the biographer, the preacher then seized the opportunity to speak with the condemned man once more. This entreaty appeared to have the desired effect, and Kidd supposedly cut his last fling ‘professing his charity to all the world, and his hopes of salvation through the merits of his Redeemer.’ (Of course he did, I thought.) His body hung in a gibbet at Tilbury for three years as a warning to those that would be pirates.
The inhabitants of the snuggery were by now completely entranced by the narrative once more, and a silence so profound had fallen that I could hear each tap of the legs of the huge spider slowly perambulating across the top of the mantelpiece. Fortunately, the beast was moving away from me, but I kept a weather eye on the bastard nonetheless. At that moment, I owned that crowd.
I took a long breath and delivered the author’s closing remarks. ‘Thus ended the life of Captain Kidd,’ I said in a stage whisper that was, if I say so myself, most effective. ‘A man, who, if he had entertained a proper regard to the welfare of the public, or even to his own advantage, might have become a useful member of society, instead of a disgrace to it. Hence we may learn the destructive nature of avarice, which generally counteracts all its own purposes. The story of this wretched malefactor will effectually impress on the mind of the reader the truth of the old observation, that honesty is the best policy.’
‘Bollocks,’ muttered someone from the back.
As the former conclusion was not the message that I had extrapolated from the account either, I felt emboldened enough to embellish: ‘Or,’ I concluded, ‘to put not your trust in princes.’
The room exploded with applause. Bill rose, clapping, and then elbowed his way to the bar, from which he presently returned with two very large flashes of lightening, one of which he thrust into my hand. ‘Well done, son,’ said he, causing me to flush with pride, or gin, or both. It can be difficult to tell in these situations.
My audience was now talking enthusiastically upon matters literary and piratical, while ordering up brimming pots of baptised beer or tall measures of the blue ruin, several of which came my way. The night, it would appear, was yet young, so when my dark congregation had returned to their seats and looked towards me with expectation, I took up once more The Lives of the Pirates. That night I also read the other two pieces that related to Kidd, one on his treasure, which was never recovered (if it ever existed), the other on the unfortunate Darby Mullins, an Irish waterman who fell in with Kidd and consequently joined him at Wapping in the dance without music. ‘From the fate of this offender,’ concluded his biographer, delivering the final sermon that I soon learned characterised the form (a muddle of morality, voyeurism and sensationalism), ‘we may learn the sin and danger of quitting an honest employment to engage in a business of a contrary nature.’
So that was us telt.
I returned to our room late. ‘Have you been drinking?’ said my father, sniffing the air suspiciously.
‘No,’ I said, hurriedly taking to my bed and turning to the wall.
My first performance was deemed a great success, and on the subsequent month of Sundays I refined my technique by also reading the histories of Samuel Burgess, who was peached by Robert Culliford (proving, said Bill, there was no cure for a cunt); Henry Every, the ‘King of Pirates,’ who vanished with his treasure; Walter Kennedy, cretin, whose navigation skills were such that he confused Scotland for Ireland and then wrecked his ship anyway; Henry Morgan, who occupied Panama but was killed by his doctor; Israel Hands, who served under Edward Teach, the most terrible of all pirates ever to embark upon a pillaging spree, Blackbeard himself. ‘A very great man,’ said Bill, with a heartfelt solemnity that could not easily be gainsaid.
He was not present on the following Sunday, although Flashy Nanse was in her usual position. That night I read of the female buccaneers Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who sailed the Caribbean with Captain Jack Rackham. The presence of women and boys in a band of brigands was, said their chronicler, generally forbidden in ship’s articles, the so-called ‘Pirate’s Code,’ because the men would fight to obtain their favours. Anne and Mary, who wore dresses and finery when not in battle, were excepted as they made themselves available to the entire crew. ‘They were both very profligate,’ said a witness at their trial, ‘cursing and swearing much, and very ready and willing to do anything.’ They pleaded their bellies and got off, although Captain Jack and his men all went to the scragging post.
Three Newgate biographies, each two or three thousand words long and in the most visually taxing script, were usually enough (especially given the attention span of the listeners), so I called it a night, bowed out, and approached the bar.
‘Give it a name, Jack,’ said a voice behind me that was, being feminine in origin, both beguiling and disconcertingly deep.
As with Bill, I had become quite close to Nanse over the intervening weeks, and although incarcerated like the rest of us they were certainly the master and mistress of the snuggery or, in the Flash tongue, which I was at that point learning, the cove and covess of the ken, Freddie and Sid at their feet like dogs. She was standing close by me, so when I turned I inhaled the warm and heavy scent that came off her hair and clothes, an alchemical blend of tobacco, gin, and human odours.
I shyly requested a drop of the creature.
Bertie the Badger was by my other side and he laughed. ‘By God, the boy’s gammon,’ said he, ‘better make it a large one, Nanse.’
In reply she wrapped an arm around the both of us and began to sing quite sweetly:
‘How happy could I be with either
Were t’other dear charmer away
But while you thus tease me together
To neither a word will I say.’
She had what my mother would have called a filthy laugh. I had initially made sport of this attribute in my own mind, filing it away as an interesting character trait that might one day be applied in a work of fiction, but just then the sound was ineluctably thrilling.
She leant on the bar and flirted with the tap-man, and was rewarded with a complimentary brace of jackeys. She guided me back to her usual table and we talked for hours, the barman inexplicably bleeding quite freely, and that wonderful liquid darkness warming our thoughts and our bodies. By the light of the candle her greying hair, worn loosely up, regained its lustre, her slightly skull-like countenance softened, and the folds of her flesh testing the seams of her dress became as alluring as they were sometimes repellent. What was different that evening was that Bill and the boys were absent. Bill, attended by Freddie and Sid, had been in a card game for two days and two nights that was showing no signs of quitting, but Nanse had needed to deliver to me the precious book, and she had, she informed me, not wanted to miss the girl pirates.
She was particularly taken with Bonny and Read, and quizzed me in detail although in truth I knew no more than she, having never heard of them before I opened the tatty volume that night. ‘I am also very profligate,’ she said huskily, ‘and ready and willing to do anything.’ There was no answer to that, so I stared at her dumbly and could think of nothing better to do than finish my drink. She gently brushed my hand from my face and leaned forward, mashing her wet mouth into mine. She tasted sharp and bitter; her hair smelt of bear, whiskey and wine. ‘Walk me home,’ she whispered.
I had never had a woman before, and were I not drunk to a merry pin I would have been laughably flustered by the subsequent encounter. As it was, she took me in her mouth in the dark, deserted courtyard by the stairs to the women’s rooms. It was all over pretty quickly. Afterwards she spat on the gravel, gave me a warm and final kiss, and then charged me a shilling.
I told my father I had lost the money. The effect upon him was as a naked flame applied to black powder.
‘You did what?’ he cried, leaping from his chair with uncharacteristic energy.
‘I’m sorry, Dad,’ I stammered, instinctively backing away. ‘I didn’t mean to.’
‘Liar!’ he bellowed, clearly losing all mastery of his passions. ‘You witless, selfish boy! Don’t you realise how much we need that money?’
He was severely agitated by this point, pacing the cell and waving his arms violently as he berated my general incompetence, as if he meant to batter the very words he spoke with his fists. I was too young and too shocked to understand that I had fired a train of thought within him that, once set, could not be easily extinguished.
His voice rose to a constant bark as he accused me of spending the money on my new friends as he called them. He raved and he ranted, and I pleaded and apologised and denied. He seemed possessed by some terrible force that could not be calmed or controlled until it had tasted blood. He denounced me as a drunk and a whoremaster and struck me repeatedly about the head and face. He had never beaten me before, and the shock of the act itself was much worse than the pain it engendered. I finally managed to push him from me, but he continued to shout, lamenting his lot and repeating over and over again the need for us to make and save as much as we could, wasting nothing, so as to pay off our creditors and be free.
It was a hopeless argument. He owed hundreds of pounds, with interest accruing. ‘But Dad,’ I said in desperation, shouting to get above him and giving voice to that which we both knew, but of which we never spoke. ‘We will never be free. Can you not see that? It makes no difference what we do. This is a life sentence.’
He froze then, turned to stone in the glow of the fire, and from the contortions of his face I would not have been surprised at rage, tears or laughter. The anger did not stay in check for long though. He re-ignited quickly and damned me for a rake and a cur, raising his fist once more.
At this point, a tiny voice from the corner of the room very distinctly cried, ‘No.’ My little sister was standing, wide awake, in her cot and regarding my father with a look of absolute horror. He staggered back as if shot, and fell into a chair. It was soon apparent that he was quietly weeping.
I left him to it and took little Sarah in my arms, eventually calming her, although I very much doubted she would sleep. She was trembling and unnaturally quiet, and I stayed by her for an age, stroking her hair and soothing her as best as I could until she finally drifted off. I had nowhere else to go, so I went to my bed, cursing quietly, for I was now horribly sober and there was thus no possibility of slumber. Whether my swollen eyes were tightly shut or staring miserably at the skylight, I could not burn the image of my father’s fury from the front of my mind, where it howled around the equally powerful memory of Nanse’s lips, like a banshee screaming and clawing about a well. In an epiphany of both shame and elation I knew then that I must have her again, whatever the cost. As I had hitherto grimly suspected, there was apparently an implicit connection in life between sex and violence.
Click here to read Chapter X