Isaac Shaw’s imprisonment in Birmingham Prison 1852-1853

As part of my ongoing research into the early history of Birmingham prison I am using the evidence given to the 1853 Royal Commission on abuses at the prison. This extract focuses on the evidence given by 15-year-old Isaac Shaw on his experience of  the prison. 

The picture is an illustration by Paul Hardy drawn for Charles Reade’s novel It is Never too Late to Mend, which draws extensively on the evidence given to the Royal Commission.

Isaac Shaw, a fifteen-year-old boy had been in the prison since November 1852 when he had been remanded to stand trial at the January sessions. He received his first punishment on 6th December 1852 for ‘going to bed before time. … About seven o’clock.’ His punishment was having his ‘bed taken away from me and my gas [for his cell’s light], for fourteen nights, till 10 o’clock at night’. His next punishment was on the following day when he was sentenced to ‘Three days’ bread and water for breaking a window’. Two or three days later, for communicating with other boys, he had his bed taken away for a further seven nights and lost his right to visits and letters. Still in December, and before his trial, Isaac was then caught with his dinner knife in his cell (he had, he claimed, ‘kept it to cut my toe nails’) and being seen looking out of his cell window at prisoners exercising, offences for which he received a further three days on bread and water. Following his trial, at which he was sentenced to eleven months for ‘passing bad money’, Isaac continued to attract punishments, on the 15th February he received two days bread and water for talking with another boy. He was then put to work alone in his cell ‘tailoring’ but was caught retaining a needle and thread, which he had used to alter his ill-fitting waistcoat. His punishment was to be ‘put upon the crank’ and his bed was removed for a further month’. On his second day on the crank he failed to meet his lunchtime target (6,000 rotations) he was given no food and had the straitjacket put on him for an hour. When he subsequently failed to meet the day’s overall target (10, 000 rotations) he was again put in the jacket and strapped to the wall for four hours. When this was removed, at ten o’clock at night, he was given bread and water. The following day he again failed to meet his 10,000-turn-quota telling the commission that this was ‘(b)ecause my crank was so hard’; he was again put in the jacket and strapped to the wall from six to ten o’clock. The straitjacket, Isaac reported, was very painful, the ‘straps made deep marks on the wrist’ and the pain extended to his back and neck. The next day Isaac was transferred to another crank which he reported was easier to operate and he was able to complete the work. Sadly, his troubles were not over as at this stage it was noticed he had altered his waistcoat and he was sentenced to a further three days bread and water.

Was Isaac (and other children’s) complaints that they could not complete their task legitimate, or where they, as the prison authorities claimed, just being lazy or resisting authority? To answer the question the commission took evidence from Frederick Underhay, an engineer with Charles Botten & Son, the London firm that had manufactured the cranks. He explained that the cranks were not the standard one used in other prisons but manufactured ‘to Lieutenant Austin’s [the prison’s governor] express order, different to any that we ever made before or since, and very much against our wish’. The cranks were ‘very unfit labour for a boy’ and their design made them ‘all against the prisoner’. The children’s complaints, despite not being believed by the prison authorities, were entirely justified. Time spent in the straitjacket and on a bread and water diet would have made the impossible task even more difficult.

Unsurprisingly, Isaac reported himself sick. Dr Blount [the prison’s surgeon] was not convinced and told him ‘that it did not matter whether I was well or whether I was ill, but whether I was well enough to work. He said that he thought I was quite well enough to work.’ Despite vomiting he was ordered to stand up, but Isaac told the doctor he could not because he ‘was so weak and bad’. In response he had three buckets of cold water thrown over him, one of them by the governor. When this did not get him to his feet, he was left lying in the water.


There is more from Isaac which I will post when I write it (will teaching on the horizon, this may be some time.


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