More About The English Prisons--Memoir Of Eli Bickford--Captain Fanning

As found in the book, "American Prisoners of The Revolution", By Danske Dandridge.

Eli Bickford, who was born on the 29th of September, 1754, in the town of Durham, N. H., and enlisted on a privateer, was taken prisoner by the British, confined at first on the Old Jersey, and afterwards sent to England with many others, in a vessel commanded by Captain Smallcorn, whom he called "a sample of the smallest corn he had ever met." While on board this vessel he was taken down with the smallpox. No beds or bedding were provided for the prisoners and a plank on deck was his only pillow. He and his fellow sufferers were treated with great severity, and insulted at every turn. When they reached England they were sent to prison, where he remained in close confinement for four years and six months.

Finding a piece of a door hinge, he and some of the others endeavored to make their escape by digging a passage under the walls. A report of their proceedings reached the jailer, but, secure in the strength of the walls he did not believe it. This jailor would frequently jest with Bickford on the subject, asking him when he intended to make his escape. His answers were so truthful and accurate that they served to blind the jailor still further. One morning as this official entered the prison he said: "Well, Bickford, how soon will you be ready to go out?"

"Tomorrow night!" answered Bickford.

"O, that's only some of your nonsense," he replied.

However, it was true.

After digging a passage for some days underground, the prisoners found themselves under an adjoining house. They proceeded to take up the brick floor, unlocked the door and passed out, without disturbing the inmates, who were all asleep. Unable to escape they concealed themselves for awhile, and then tamely gave themselves up. Such a vigilant watch was kept upon the house after they were missed from the prison, that they had no other choice. So they made a contract with a man who was to return them to the prison, and then give them half of the reward of forty shillings which was offered for their re-capture. So successful was this expedient that it was often put into operation when they needed money.

As a punishment for endeavoring to escape they were confined in the Black Hole for a week on bread and water.

Bickford describes the prison regulations for preserving order which were made and carried out by the prisoners themselves. If a difficulty arose between two of them it was settled in the following manner. The prisoners formed a circle in the centre of which the disputants took their stand, and exchanged a few rounds of well-directed blows, after which they shook hands, and were better friends than before.

Bickford was not released until peace was declared. He then returned to his family, who had long thought him dead. It was on Sunday morning that he reached his native town. As he passed the meeting house he was recognized, and the whole congregation ran out to see and greet him.

He had but seven dollars as his whole capital when he married. He moved to Vermont, where he farmed a small place, and succeeded in making a comfortable livelihood. He attained the great age of 101, and was one of the last surviving prisoners of the Revolution.


In the year 1806 a little book with this title was published in New York, by Captain Nathaniel Fanning. It was dedicated to John Jackson, Esquire, the man who did so much to interest the public in the preservation and interment of the remains of the martyrs of the prisonships in the Wallabout.

Fanning was born in Connecticut, in the year 1755. On the 26th of May, 1778, he went on board the brig Angelica, commanded by Captain William Dennis, which was about to sail on a six months cruise. There were 98 men and boys in the crew, and Fanning was prize-master on board the privateer. She was captured by the Andromeda, a frigate of 28 guns, five days from Philadelphia, with General Howe on board on his way back to England.

All the prisoners were paraded on deck and asked if they were willing to engage in his British Majesty's service. Nearly all answered in the negative. They were then told that they were "a set of rebels," and that it was more than probable that they would all be hung at Portsmouth.

Their baggage was then taken away, and they were confined in the hold of the ship. Their clothes were stolen by the sailors, and a frock and cheap trousers dealt out to each man in their place.

The heat was intolerable in the hold, although they went naked. In this condition they plotted to seize the vessel, and procured some weapons through the agency of their surgeon. Spencer, the captain's clerk, betrayed them to the captain of the Andromeda, and, after that, the hatches were barred down, and they began to think that they would all die of suffocation. The sentence pronounced upon them was that they should be allowed only half a pint of water a day for each man, and barely food enough to sustain life.

Their condition would have been terrible, but, fortunately for them, they were lodged upon the water casks, over which was constructed a temporary deck. By boring holes in the planks they managed, by means of a proof glass, to obtain all the water they needed.

Between them and the general's store room was nothing but a partition of plank. They went to work to make an aperture through which a man could pass into this store room. A young man named Howard from Rhode Island was their instigator in all these operations. They discovered that one of the shifting boards abaft the pump room was loose, and that they could ship and unship it as they pleased. When it was unshipped there was just room for a man to crawl into the store room. "Howard first went in," writes Captain Fanning, "and presently desired me to hand him a mug or can with a proof glass. A few minutes after he handed me back the same full, saying 'My friends, as good Madeira wine as ever was drank at the table of an Emperor!'

"I took it from his hands and drank about half a pint.

"Thus we lived like hearty fellows, taking care every night to secure provisions, dried fruit, and wines for the day following * * * and all without our enemies' knowledge."

Scurvy broke out among the crew, and some of the British sailors died, but the Americans were all "brave and hearty."

"The Captain would say, 'What! are none of them damned Yankees sick? Damn them, there's nothing but thunder and lightning will kill 'em.'" On the thirtieth of June the vessel arrived at Portsmouth. The prisoners were sent to Hazel hospital, to be examined by the Commissioners of the Admiralty, and then marched to Forton prison, where they were committed under the charges of piracy and high treason. This prison was about two miles from Portsmouth harbor, and consisted of two commodious buildings, with a yard between them large enough to parade a guard of 100 men, which was the number required to maintain law and order at the station.

They also had a spacious lot of about three quarters of an acre in extent, adjoining the houses, in which they took their daily exercise. In the middle of this lot was a shed with seats. It was open on all sides. The lot was surrounded by a wall of iron pickets, eight feet in height. The agent for American prisoners was nicknamed by them "the old crab." He was very old and ugly.

Only three-fourths of the usual allowance to prisoners of war was dealt out to them, and they seem to have fared much worse than the inmates of the Old Mill Prison at Plymouth.

Captain Fanning declares that they were half starved, and would sometimes beg bones from the people who came to look at them. When they obtained bones they would dig out the marrow, and devour it. The guard was cruel and spiteful. One day they heated some pokers red hot and began to burn the prisoners' shirts that were hung up to dry. These men begged the guard, in a very civil manner, not to burn all their shirts, as they had only one apiece. This remonstrance producing no effect they then ran to the pickets and snatched away their shirts. At this the officer on command ordered a sentinel to fire on them. This he did, killing one prisoner, and wounding several. There were three hundred American prisoners in the yard at this time.

These prisons appear to have been very imperfectly guarded, and the regular occupation of the captives, whenever their guards were asleep or absent, was to make excavations for the purpose of escaping. A great many regained their freedom in this manner, though some were occasionally brought back and punished by being shut up for forty days in the Black Hole on bread and water. Some, less fortunate, remained three or four years in the prison.

There was always digging going on in some part of the prison and as soon as one hole was discovered and plastered up, another would be begun. For a long time they concealed the dirt that they took out of these excavations in an old stack of disused chimneys. The hours for performing the work were between eleven and three o'clock at night. Early in the morning they ceased from their labors, concealing the hole they had made by pasting white paper over it.

There was a school kept constantly in the prison, where many of them had the first opportunity that had ever been granted them of receiving an education. Many learned to read and write, and became proficient in French.

At one time there were 367 officers confined in this place. In the course of twelve months 138 of them escaped and got safely to France. While some of the men were digging at night, others would be dancing to drown the noise. They had several violins, and seem to have been a reckless and jovial set.

The officers bunked on the second floor over the guard room of the English officers. At times they would make so much noise that the guard would rush up the stairs, only to find all lights out and every man asleep and snoring in his hammock. They would relieve their feelings by a volley of abusive language and go down stairs again, when instantly the whole company would be on their feet, the violins would strike up, and the fun be more fast and furious than ever. These rushes of the guard would sometimes be repeated several times a night, when they would always find the prisoners in their hammocks. Each hammock had what was called a "king's rug," a straw bed, and pillow.

At one time several men were suddenly taken sick, with strong symptoms of poison. They were removed to the hospital, and for a time, there was great alarm. The prisoners feared that "the same game was playing here as had been done on the Old Jersey, where we had heard that thousands of our countrymen had died." The poison employed in this instance was glass pounded fine and cooked with their bread.

An English clergyman named Wren sympathized strongly with the prisoners and assisted them to escape. He lived at Gosport, and if any of the captives were so fortunate as to dig themselves out and succeed in reaching his house, they were safe. This good man begged money and food for "his children," as he called them.

On the second of June, 1779, 120 of them were exchanged. There were then 600 confined in that prison. On the 6th of June they sailed for Nantes in France. The French treated them with great kindness, made up a purse for them, and gave them decent clothing.

Fanning next went to L'Orient, and there met John Paul Jones, who invited him to go on board the Bon Homme Richard as a midshipman. They sailed on the 14th of August on the memorable expedition to the British Channel.

After being with Jones for some time Fanning, on the 23rd of March, 1781, sailed for home in a privateer from Morlaix, France. This privateer was captured by the English frigate, Aurora.

"Captain Anthon and myself and crew," writes Mr. Fanning, "were all ordered to a prison at about two miles from Falmouth. The very dirtiest and most loathsome building I ever saw. Swarms of lice, remarkably fat and full grown; bed bugs, and fleas. I believe the former were of Dutch extraction, as there were confined here a number of Dutch prisoners of war, and such a company of dirty fellows I never saw before or since."

Yet these same poor fellows ceded to Captain Anthon and Mr. Fanning a corner of the prison for their private use. This they managed to get thoroughly cleansed, screened themselves off with some sheets, provided themselves with large swinging cots, and were tolerably comfortable. They were paroled and allowed full liberty within bounds, which were a mile and a half from the prison. In about six weeks Fanning was again exchanged, and went to Cherbourg in France, where he met Captain Manly, who had just escaped from the Mill prison after three years confinment.

[ American Prisoners of The Revolution ]