History Of Madame Tussaud's
( Originally Published 1920 )
We visit the Old Bailey for mementoes—A mock trial—Relics of Old Newgate—Two famous cells—The Newgate bell.
AS soon as I learned in the winter of 1903 that the Old Bailey was to be demolished and its mementoes sold by auction, I hastened to the historic court-house, armed with a catalogue, to tick off such articles as might be wanted for Madame Tussaud's.
The grim building brought many impressive scenes to my recollection, and it struck me as a curious freak of fate that the place where house-breakers had been tried and sentenced should now be itself in the hands of the "house-breakers."
The Royal Arms and the Sword of Justice had been taken down, and the walls behind the judge's seat had been stripped of their faded hangings, giving to the old court an air of desolation; while the removal of the doors and windows admitted the chilly blasts of that bleak February day.
From court to court I passed, noting the catalogued items that attracted me. I observed the long form, covered with black, time-worn leather, where I sat on the occasion of my first visit, thirty years before, a sensitive and imaginative youth, contemplating with awe and a strange depression of spirits the final stages of a murder trial.
Then, as now, it was the interests of Madame Tussaud's that sent me to the Old Bailey, and it may seem odd to confess that of all my many duties none ever afforded me less real pleasure than such duties as this.
This time my visit was unexpectedly relieved by an amusing incident which might have served for a scene in a melodrama.
I came upon a bevy of workmen, in charge of a jovial carpenter, improvising a mock trial to pass the time between the conclusion of a meal and the resumption of their work.
Presently I heard a scuffling noise and the voice of someone in distress. A lanky old man was being forced by a couple of fellow workmen into the prisoners' dock, obviously on some sort of vamped-up charge.
"Silence !" shouted a shrill-voiced little man, wearing an apron and paper cap, who had made himself usher of the court.
I looked towards the jury-box, and there saw a droll-looking individual finishing his dinner out of a newspaper.
"Stop that row ! Such conduct is disgraceful in a court of justice," he called, looking across at the struggling prisoner.
Then, observing himself to be alone, the occupant of the jury-box managed to empanel six of his friends to make seven "good men and true." The jurymen came forward from different sheltered parts of the court, bringing with them what remained of their meal.
As by some prearranged signal, an elderly man, with a round, red face, quietly slipped into the judge's seat, assuming a judicial air, and fixing his stern gaze upon the protesting prisoner in the dock. The judge paid no attention to the banter directed to him by a number of workmen who constituted the "public" and had sauntered in to enjoy the sport.
His "lordship" took on himself the duties of judge and clerk of the court, and gravely recited a long and terrible indictment of the accused, who might have been some arch-fiend from the list of crimes charged against him—a list that seemed to box the compass of the Ten Commandments. He was involved in domestic complications which drew forth groans from all in court, and the judge's reference to his "poor dear wife and little innocent children" evoked well-simulated execration.
A comical fellow entered the witness-box, and re-minded the prisoner of a blood-curdling murder he had committed years ago, for which somebody else had been hanged. The witness paused, and then, bringing down his first, said, "Worse than all this, my lord, 'e's been known to work overtime without extra pay."
While these harrowing details were visibly moving the jury, the clocks of the neighbourhood struck the close of the dinner hour, and the whole seven men with one accord jumped to their feet shouting "Guilty!" adding, "No recommendation to mercy."
The judge put on a billycock hat in imitation of the black cap, and addressed the prisoner with due solemnity to this effect :
"Prisoner at the bar, we regret we cannot ask you whether you have anything to say. Justice has no time for that. A jury of your countrymen has found you guilty, and they know best. My duty is to order you to be taken to a public-house near at hand, where you are very well known, and at a certain hour you shall buy drinks for everyone in this court, including myself, the jury, and whatever members of the public care to be present. If you fail to turn up at the appointed time and place, may the Lord have mercy on your stingy soul!"
In the course of a few days the Old Bailey jury-box and several other fittings of the ancient criminal court were installed under the roof of the Exhibition. The prices they fetched were hardly more than nominal.
It was very different, however, with the relics of the adjoining prison. The mementoes of Old Newgate found many eager buyers, and the bitter February weather did not prevent a large crowd of bidders fol-lowing the auctioneer about as he crossed the bleak prison yard and passed through the long dreary corridors.
The bidders came from all classes of society, bent on obtaining some keepsake of the sombre establishment. I see that procession now, some muffled to the ears, some blowing their finger-tips in the piercing cold, others stamping their feet, but all indulging in one form of humour or another to keep up their spirits in very dispiriting surroundings.
There were three lots on which the crowd bestowed special attention.
One was Jack Sheppard's cell, from which he made his daring escape—a trilling feat dear to the imagination of boys young and old.
Another lot was the cell in which Lord George Gordon, the instigator of the riots that bear his name, died of gaol fever on the 1st of November, 1793. His exploits will be remembered by readers of Barnaby Rudge.
The third lot was the famous bell which, for just upon a century and a half, had never failed to notify the good citizens of London the precise moment when a condemned prisoner had paid with his life for a life he had taken.
There was an idea at the time that the metal of the Newgate bell contained in it a quantity of silver, and this belief gave rise to the impression that it would fetch a high price.
But it fell to our bidding, amid a hearty burst of approval, for the round sum of £ 1 oo, by no means a high price for such a coveted relic.
Not only the bell, but also the cells, came into our possession that day. The thick solid masonry and heavy iron work were taken down and carefully marked, so that each part should be set up again in its right position when installed at Madame Tussaud's —a tedious process that incurred a far greater outlay than the original cost.
Satisfaction was widely expressed that the Newgate relics should find their way into Tussaud's.
These memorials of Old Newgate have already reposed in their new home sixteen years, and have been viewed by millions of people who otherwise would not have had an opportunity of seeing them.
Visitors of all grades of society linger long before these narrow cells, and I have often seen them rap with their knuckles the Newgate bell, which never fails to respond with a soft mellow resonance, reminding one of the time-honoured couplet, deeply inscribed upon it:
Ye people all who hear me ring