Joseph Owen – banged up barge-man…

It has been a while since I posted anything on my family history but I have started doing more research recently and have something new to share.

Joseph Owen, born in 1853, was my great-great-great-grandfather. In his twenties he was a short man, just five feet and a quarter of an inch tall with a slender build, round face, fair complexion, brown hair and hazel eyes. But by that time he had picked up a fair few injuries, having scars on the side of his head, left eyelid, bottom of his back, right hip and the back of his left hand.

How can I know such detail? Well, from his prison discharge record when he was released from Pentonville Prison on 28th September 1881 and catalogued in the Metropolitan Police Record of Habitual Criminals!
Joseph grew up on the Grand Union canal, his father and his father before him being masters of horse-drawn barges plying the route from London to Birmingham.

The events that led him to be incarcerated we know from his trial record which survives in the Old Bailey archives.

In September 1877 his barge was probably moored in Paddington Basin because on the night of Saturday 29th September he was in the Running Horse pub on the Harrow Road, just round the corner from the canal basin. At about 8.15pm he got into a drunken quarrel outside the pub with a dustman called James Whitmill.
A passer-by, George Turner, intervened to break them up, whereupon Joseph turned on him and attacked him, biting a chunk out of his nose and cheek. Fortunately for George Turner, a policeman was nearby, a PC Higgins, who broke up the fight and arrested Joseph Owen. He took him to the local police station where he was charged with being drunk and disorderly, charges which were increased in severity once the injuries to George Turner were better understood and had been treated at St. Mary’s Hospital.

Joseph was ultimately tried at the Old Bailey on 22nd October 1877 for “Feloniously cutting and wounding George Turner, with intent to disfigure him, also to do him some grievous bodily harm”.
It was an open and shut case for the prosecution and defendants who had no means were denied legal representation anyway. In the official transcript, the prisoner’s defence was solely: “I did not know what I was doing.”

He was duly found guilty and sentenced to five years’ Penal Servitude, prison with hard labour in layman’s terms, which he served in Pentonville Prison in Islington.

So what would a sentence of penal servitude in Pentonville have entailed?

Pentonville operated the “separate” system, designed to keep prisoners apart and in isolation as much as possible. The idea was to prevent “contamination” of more vulnerable prisoners by the hardened criminals in an attempt to reduce likelihood of re-offending – the actual result however was an increase in mental health issues.

The cells were 13” long by 7” wide by 9” high with a small window set high on the end wall which was not possible to look out of without standing on something (which was a punishable offense). The cells were reportedly intensely cold in winter. Prisoners under the age of 50 were not allowed a mattress for their bed but instead had bare planks. Oscar Wilde recalled that the plank bed “caused him to shiver all night long and that, as a consequence of its rigors, he had become an insomniac.”

The prisoners’ day began at 6.30am when they rose and for most of the day those sentenced to hard labour could look forward to seven and a half hours walking the dreaded treadmill.

The picture here is of the treadmill at Pentonville in 1895. Each treadmill had twenty-four steps, set 8ins apart. You did ten minutes on and five off, for eight hours, climbing the equivalent of over 8,000 feet in the process – that’s the equivalent of walking up the steps to the top of the Eiffel Tower three times one after the other.

Prison food was kept deliberately poor, consisting mainly of a potato-based gruel and bread. After work and dinner, all prisoners were returned to their cells when they had two hours of solitary “contemplation” time to sit and reflect on their situation or to read the Bible… not much use to Joseph as he seems not to have been much of a scholar.

Each prisoner was allowed a single visitor every six months.

And it was this regime that Joseph would have endured for his stupid, drunken crime.

When he was released in 1882 there is no evidence that he re-offended but returned to working on the narrow boats up and down the Grand Union Canal. On the year of his release he married the daughter of another boatman, Charlotte Bullock, with whom he went on to have four children.

By 1891 he was master of the barge “Thrifty and George” and continued working on the canal until his death in 1918.

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