The following is taken from the memoirs of a prison guard, working in West Denton Prison Newcastle, during 1873 where a local prisoner was being held. A Newcastle Brown Ale brewery was built on the site of the prison years after, and there is still the rural saying that one is “pissed as Jackie-Wilson” when they have consumed a large amount of this particular beverage.
Newcastle, 1873, Andrew Walker, Memoirs Of A Prison Guard:
He was in his cell. I moved close so I could hold some small conversation with him. He was due to be hung the next day. I was just a prison guard at West Denton, it was late in 1873 and tomorrow Jackie Wilson was to be hung. He was Jackie Wilson; they called him the last of the beggar poets, mostly in mockery. He sat looking at the bars of steel without any real grimace. And I wondered how this man still held so much that most didn’t.
I peered at him, and asked him to come to the door.
“So you’re Jackie Wilson eh?”
“Aye… that’s what me lass says like… he he”
His arms were hanging through the bars. He looked like some joke constantly amused him and his conversation gave you pieces of it. His stature was taller than my medium height and his nature hung relaxed through bars with free arms. He looked at me directly and asked about a smoke and Ale. We talked. His rags were not rags as most people would think of them.
I fetched a pint of gin from my jacket pocket that normally poured into me half-way through my shift. We shared what was left of a packet of tobacco. He had been convicted of murder. His hands had choked the life out of a man that very same morning. It happened in the quarters where his lass slept, in the house where she worked by the quayside as a maid. Jackie had heard screams through the below-street-level gutter entrance he normally came to her by. It was around 4am. Inside, he saw a half beaten woman still holding her own against the man she worked for. He described to me the way he had looked at her, with one of his solid half-smiles. But I could see the rage he had felt from the way he smoked.
“It’s alright lass, divent fret anymore pet, ya’ll be alreet”.
Without even really taking his eyes of her until required, he had walked towards the bull sized man who smiled also. The landlord was a face of rotten teeth. He was red and breathing beer soaked fumes into the room. He had torn up countless men and had grown accustom to its ease. No fists were thrown by either man at this point, as the landlord had expected. Jackie’s left hand shot, and had the man by his throat. Jackie-snatched-that-breath knowing his frame was too slight to handle the man before him in any other way. The poet’s fingers dug into the bristles of the land-lords neck and drove him back with his other hand. Direct to the wall. No stops.
“NEY-BREATH, NEY-BANTA-MATE” Jackie howled.
And he had been standing there holding his lass when they came for him. They needed little or no reason to give him the heaviest penalty. And the people would know that poetry and passion had no place within the civility of men.
I don’t know the specifics of what else we talked about. But it was like drinking with a fool who knew everything you didn’t, and all you remember is the laughter and the dance for which there is no words. Our gin was gone and it was 5am.
I heard the guards walking down the cobbled stairs. If you were found sober it was likely there would be more questions than if you were not, and they didn’t care what condition Jackie was in. I asked Jackie for a poem while the hanging guards readied his shackles, as we had spoke of none during the night.
He laughed and said he would have one for me when he was hanging, and that he’d only remember it once the hang man was coming, at these last words he laughed to himself and took a few steps back as the guards entered his cell. Perched at either sides of Jackie were the hangman and a local priest. The sun was obediently beginning to rise. And before they put the hood over the poets head, he gave us his last words, his last ideas.
She was there to see him at the end.
Ah! bonny lass…
Ya ra swan of women pet!
an ya divent wahk
ya just swim
al the time
ney matter where yeh gan
ney matter where yeh are
An wiv both swam thru al the madness
a depth that mayks us more
witha current that drags us home
an inta tha shore
An ahve felt this rope
all me life
ahnd ahve had ney sleep fur years
buht ah did with you
Ahl me blood
Ahl me money
Ahl me sweat
Has meant nowt
Until ah became a begga
in tha streets of Newcastle
lyke the rats who rise
as if to prae inside the rain
as if to move the moon with small hands
across the yard and sky
I live in that playce lass
with ya quiet weiyht
upon me own
of ya li’l voice
that taeks it away
Ya-renuf ta bring all me Gods back
an pin ‘em te tha walls
enough ta mayke al’ me angels breathe
for even an ounce
of ya grace
Ave begged at tha hands of jesus Christ
for that tayste of yeh
me sweet bonny lass
an You’re the only lass ‘ahve evva met
That mayde us feel like ah cuhd heal
without bein less
An I’m lookin at ya with al me luv
an ah divent need ney where to ruhn
as am ah freed dog
and in ya charms
An ‘av ney-where left to luk
but I’ll kip alreet the neet pet
cos ya by me side
an in me arms.