Berea House

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The Noose and the Tightrope

The Prologue

Tuesday, 6th June 1780.

In a dank, dark corner of the cell in Newgate, the condemned man’s head slumped wearily against his chest. His grey-green eyes, heavy for the want of sleep, rested wearily on a group of rats scuffling in bitter dispute at his feet. They fought and foraged amid decades of human excrement and filth for food they did not find. The prisoner’s only human companion, a grizzled turnkey, snored sonorously on the rough wooden bench by the door, where he nursed a primed short musket across his lap in readiness to put the prisoner out of his misery if he so much as breathed.

A single shaft of daylight penetrated the narrow barred window at the top of the wall, dimly lighting a tiny miniature clasped limply in the prisoner’s shackled hands. His eyes brimmed with tears as he gazed back in despair at the features of a small fresh-faced child smiling up at him, the one grain of goodness in this long god-forsaken hole.

His lips trembled as he passed a hand across his newly shaven head. He spoke in a tremulous whisper. “I guess you know Kit that your papa’s to be drawn on a trestle through the streets of London and hanged at Tyburn for murder.” He paused, barely able to breathe as fear gripped his every fibre. “Then,” he added, “When I’m dead, they’ll take me to Surgeon’s Hall to be hacked to pieces.”

He stiffened as the turnkey stirred, but the man merely grunted and snored on.

“I shall never see your sweet face again. Oh Kit, let them do their worst, I’m past caring about myself, but what’s to become of you now?”

This final separation was just too painful to think about, “Oh God,” he lifted his eyes in desperation to the fading shaft of light, “I don’t know if you exist… but if you are there, take care of my little angel. Please.”

The turnkey snorted loudly in his sleep and the prisoner hurriedly tucked the picture inside his shirt. He leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes. By concentrating all his energies on the child’s oval face and blaze of red hair he could blot out Newgate’s slimy stone walls. If only he could do the same with the foul stench in the air!

For a brief while the condemned man could feel his little daughter’s arms around his neck and her kisses on his cheek, as though she were there with him. He heard her laughter; the sound of her voice growing louder… louder!

Wait! He really could hear voices… low and murmuring voices, but not Kit’s! They seemed distant and indistinct at first, but rapidly grew in volume. Then a heavy crashing echoed around the walls of his cell, like an earthquake had struck. Somewhere in the depths of his mind he vaguely remembered a story about the Apostle Peter in gaol. Then came a smell of burning and smoke began to filter through the gaps in the gridiron door.

“Wake up!” he shouted at the turnkey, who still snored piggishly. “Wake up, I say!”

Despite strong chains that fettered him to the wall, the man managed to level a kick at the gaoler’s ankle with the toe of his boot. The man leapt up instantly, levelling his gun at the prisoner.

“Kick me would yer, you—”

“There’s a fire somewhere...!

“What fire?” growled the turnkey. He hauled the prisoner savagely to his feet by the throat, so that every inch of his body strained agonizingly against his irons. “If this is some last ditch attempt to escape, you murderous dog, I’ll save the ’angman the job of dancing you at the end of a rope!”

“Can’t you see the smoke?” gasped out the convict, as a small cloud swelled through the door.

The gaoler saw it, thrust the man against the wall, fumbled hastily at the lock, tore open the cell door and fled.

Meanwhile the convict sank to the floor in a haze of pain, gagging for the breath that had been knocked out of him.

“Don’t leave me to die!” rasped the prisoner. He tried to strain at his chains, but it would have taken a stronger man than Samson to loose them. He would soon be at mercy of the flames!

Smoke now poured into the cell like a thick fog. It made his eyes sting and tears stream down his face as he choked for breath.

Heavy footsteps echoed in the passage and a group of men burst into the condemned cell. They carried torches and were armed with primitive weapons. The prisoner was once more hauled to his feet, whilst one of them held a torch to his face and demanded, “Protestant or Catholic?”

“I... I was raised Anglican,” he rasped, unable to see their faces clearly for the glare.

“Release him!” ordered the same voice.

A shadowy figure with hammer and chisel prised open the manacles and the prisoner sank helplessly back to the floor rubbing aching wrists and ankles.

“Don’t be alarmed, friend,” the Voice spoke again. “You’re now a free man, fellow Protestant. Make haste, for the bonfire we made of Governor Akerman’s house is already out of control. The prison is filling with smoke. It’s but a matter of minutes until we torch that, too. Go man, go! Run for your life!”

The prisoner scrambled gratefully to his feet and stumbled blindly into the corridor to collide with other liberated inmates. He found himself heavily pressed amongst a steady stream of men, women and children stumbling, coughing and gagging through the splintered remains of the prison doors into Newgate Street beyond.

Nobody challenged them. Every available man not involved in the riot was busy trying to preserve his own life and property. There was nobody to extinguish the raging furnace that engulfed the prison keeper’s house.

Revived by the air, the prisoner pressed through the mob, sped along Holgate and kept going. Not looking back, but only forward, he tore down Gray’s Lane and across London to the open countryside of Tottenham Court, in the footsteps of the famous outlaw, Jack Shepherd.

Eyes still streaming, head smarting, heart throbbing savagely, every limb aching and forced to fight for every breath, he propelled himself onward, for his life depended on finding a place of safety. Nobody challenged him for nobody seemed to notice him.

At last he collapsed, exhausted, and crawled under a thick hedge, unable to move for some time. When he eventually found sufficient energy to part the bushes and peer into the gathering gloom, it seemed to him the whole of London was ablaze!

Then, unable to take in the sheer scale of the devastation, the prisoner sank back wearily onto his grassy pillow, where he slept blanketed by darkness, unaware his life has been spared by the Gordon Riots.

© 2007 Christine Normington. All rights reserved.

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