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Tell-tale Clocks: Keeping warders honest

Tell-tale clocks
Type box open (upper left), Tell-tale clock (upper middle), Type box closed (upper right), Front view of dial (lower left), Reverse side of dial with impression (lower right).

At night time, at least every half hour, a warder wearing cloth slippers passed down the corridor between the cells. Another marched inside the yards from one end of the building to another. A third walked sentry around the interior of the stockade fence.

Their job, of course, was to see that no attempt was made by prisoners to get out of the cells or wards in the hours of darkness.

To ensure that these patrolling warders kept alert, their movements were checked by ‘tell-tale clocks’. The use of this device was described as follows in 1901:

“Although a warder watches the prisoners, he is himself watched by something that can never be bribed or placated—and it never makes a mistake.

On going on duty, a warder is given a small clock-like arrangement with two holes in its glass face. Every half hour, a figure—7, 8, 9 etc— appears in one of these holes. Thereupon the warder must hurry to the end of the corridor to press the clock into a ‘type’ box. The latter prints a letter on the figure showing on the face of the­ clock. Having made sure that the imprint is all right, the clock-bearer has to make his way down to the other end of the corridor to repeat the performance, the only difference being that, whereas the first letter was, say, A, the second letter is B.

The object of this arrangement is to force the warder to traverse the whole row of cells at least twice an hour. Should the clock be unmarked, the culprit has a very lively time of it at the end of his period of duty.”

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