The Penal Excess of an Enlightened Reformer: Alexander Maconochie’s regimes for boys and women in Birmingham Prison, 1849-1851.

This paper was delivered at the European Group Working Group on Punishment Prison and Detention States of Confinement II Conference held at Liverpool John Moores University in 2014. It is based on my paper “Reformative Rhetoric and the Exercise of Corporal Power: Alexander Maconochie’s regime at Birmingham Prison, 1849-1851” published in Historical Research Volume 89, Issue 245,  August 2016 Pages 510-530.


Both Alexander Maconochie and Birmingham prison feature prominently in the historiography of mid nineteenth-century punishment. Maconochie is portrayed as a benevolent reformer who invented the ‘mark system’; an innovative contribution to penal theory which sought to establish the primacy of reformation within state punishment. Birmingham prison was brought to national prominence less than two years after Maconochie’s departure with the death of a fifteen-year-old prisoner, Edward Andrews, and the subsequent Royal Commission investigation into his death and other abuses. Through newspaper reports and the subsequent fictionalised retelling by Charles Reade, the scandal and the Royal Commission report ‘made a deep and lasting impression on public opinion’ which, according to Sidney and Beatrice Webb, ‘contributed not a little’ to the nationalisation of local prisons in 1877. 

This paper’s focus is on the regimes for boys under 16 and for female prisoners during Maconochie’s two year tenure. These are reconstructed from both Maconochie’s own writings and the extensive testimony of a range of witnesses who gave evidence to the 1853 Royal Commission. 

The boys’ regime

Under Maconochie boys arriving at the prison were initially subjected to forty-eight hours in solitary confinement with no work and a diet of bread and water. After the first forty-eight hours the boys, still in solitary confinement, were required to work. Their labours were rewarded in marks. Misconduct could earn them a mark fine, as well as other punishments. Marks could be used to improve their diet and to enable them, when they had acquired a balance of a hundred marks, to progress to the next stage. The boys were allowed ‘to choose their own scale of diet’ from among the various available in the prison: the better the diet, the more marks it would cost, and the longer it would take them to progress to the next stage. Those who refused to work had no entitlement to food. 

Whilst in solitary the only labour Maconochie was able to give them was the hand crank. Maconochie determined that the boys were required to make 10,000 revolutions a day: 2,000 before breakfast, 4,000 before lunch, and a further 4,000 before supper. Those who did not earn their food by meeting this target were issued with bread and water at the end of the day. In 1853, when challenged at the Royal Commission about a case where ‘a boy remained thirty hours without food’ Maconochie responded that he felt it was appropriate for the child prisoner to get ‘nothing better than bread and water for ever and a day, unless he chose to work for it’.

In subsequent stages the boys were allowed to labour in each other’s company and as they progressed through the various stages, the amount of time they could spend in association and the range of activities they could partake in increased. The principal work provided for the boys permitted to labour in association was the shot drill. This involved the boys moving a pile of cannon balls from one side of the exercise yard to the other. When this was completed, they would be required to return the cannon balls to their original location. In the more advanced stages of the regime, the boys were taught in classes by the prison’s school master and were able to socialise in small groups.  

In December 1850, while the modified mark system had been operational for just over eight months, there is evidence that, at least for one child prisoner, it was not having its desired effect. A boy called Collins was brought before the Visiting Justices by Maconochie, who accused him of ‘repeated acts of … disobedience’. Rather than determine a punishment for his past offences, the magistrates, at Maconochie’s request, agreed ‘that the governor be authorized, in every case of insubordination by him to inflict the punishment of flogging, under the superintendence of the surgeon, and in the manner now described by the governor’. Maconochie had requested and been granted the power to routinely deploy the cat-o’-nine-tails to overcome the disobedience of the boy. Although one of the magistrates subsequently claimed that ‘the magistrates granted that authority almost against their judgement’ and that he had understood their authority to extend to the birch, which was to be used ‘something like a school punishment’, it was understood by Maconochie to refer to the cat-o’-nine-tails, and it was this implement that was used. 

An entry in Maconochie’s journal illustrated the central role played by the cat-o’-nine-tails in enforcing labour discipline:

Henry alias Edwin Turner; having refused work yesterday afternoon, four cuts on the breech with the cat, and to make up lost work at the rate of 1000 rounds extra per day. 

This was consistent with Maconochie’s account of his treatment of a boy called Bedford, whom he claimed was

a remarkably contumacious boy; I never saw a boy so obstinate, and so self willed, and he took the flogging … with excessive obstinacy. I requested … the visiting justices to authorise me to flog him by instalments. He stood the first flogging without being in the least overcome by it … I gave him, I think, only four or six cuts the second day, and the third he would not stand, he gave way, and he worked very well afterwards.

This was not the motivated voluntary labour so passionately advocated in Maconochie’s theoretical writings. His claims to the Commissioners that this ‘was a proper way to employ the cat’; one that effectively motivated the children subjected to work, was not supported by his entries into the Governor’s Journal. Here, it was recorded that Bedford, whom Maconochie described as ‘a small boy for his age’ of ‘about 14’, soon became insubordinate again. Maconochie responded again with the cat-o’-nine–tails, giving the child ‘twelve cuts across the posterior’ when he persisted in his resistance. The beating was repeated in the evening of the same day; with Maconochie reporting that he had told the boy ‘that he should have the same night and morning till he became submissive’. Maconochie recorded in his journal that the boy was then quiet throughout the night and that he returned to his work the following morning. Whereas in his theory Maconochie had been confident that human nature was such that under his supervision ‘the most indolent would soon be roused to exertion – the most sensual to self-command’, he was forced in Birmingham to adopt a far more pessimistic perspective. In assessing the future prospects of Bedford, he recorded in his journal that ‘it is only, I fear, by such treatment [regular whippings] … that his caution not to offend can be kept permanently active’. 

After nine months of operation, Maconochie’s modified mark system experiment with the boys ended. At a meeting on the 3rd January 1851, the Visiting Justices passed a resolution that ‘the strict discipline of separation’ should be enforced throughout the prison. This decision, which effectively ended his experiment, was taken without consulting Maconochie. The boys’ education classes, as well as all other social activities, were stopped, as they contravened the policy of strict separation and they were confined alone in their own cells. 

The regime for females

The Royal Commission discovered that Maconochie was regularly sentencing women to significant periods of being handcuffed. These punishments, like the sentencing of a woman called McCormack to being put in handcuffs for twenty-four hours on the 16th August 1850, were often not recorded in the punishment book, but were uncovered by the Commissioners from entries in the journal of Martha Corfield, the prison matron. The normal process of applying this particular punishment was for the prisoner to be removed to the refractory cell and for the handcuffs to be applied there and kept on for the period specified by the governor. The matron’s entries in her journal showed that some prisoners were regularly subjected to this method of punishment. Maria Cox, for example, was sentenced to ‘three days bread and water and handcuffs for 30 hours’ on the 13thMay 1851 for ‘insubordination and bad language’ and on the 27th May 1851 Corfield’s journal recorded that Cox had been again sentenced to the ‘refractory cell and handcuffs’ for ‘disobedience and bad language’. These punishments had also not been recorded in the prison’s punishment book despite this being required by law. Indeed, Howard Luckcock claimed that Maconochie’s use of handcuffs as punishment for women had neither been known nor authorised by the Visiting Justices.

Luckcock’s claim is undermined by his admission that, on a visit to the prison, he had seen a prisoner restrained by a straightjacket and attached to the railings in the hall of the female wing. Although he was accompanied by Maconochie he neither challenged the governor at the time nor subsequently raised the punishment with his fellow Visiting Justices. The very public nature of this particular punishment was emphasised when Ann Jenks, the Assistant Matron, who, although a very nervous witness reluctant to directly answer the Royal Commission’s questions, responded to a question about this incident by declaring, ‘Yes, I saw it. I could not help seeing it’. Maconochie conceded that he routinely used the straitjacket, recollecting in 1853 that ‘it was used twenty or thirty times altogether’. The length of time for which women were punished by being placed in the straitjacket varied, but it could be as long as three days at a time. In most cases the straightjacket was applied either in the refractory cell or the prisoner’s own cell. However, the use of it as part of the public humiliation of a woman, as was witnessed by Luckcock and Jenks, seems to have occurred on a number of occasions. Indeed, it is possible that Luckcock and Jenks were referring to separate incidents. Maconochie himself recalled that ‘[o]n one occasion I think, and perhaps it might be two, I strapped a woman up to the railing in the centre hall of her own side’. His justification was that the prisoner had been ‘so very violent’ and had repeatedly broken the furniture in her cell. He visited her regularly during the day and on each occasion, he claimed, told her ‘Now Scott, when you are quiet I will release you, but not till you are quiet’.

Maconochie routinely deployed corporal punishments to seek to maintain his control of the female wing. The size of the female population of the prison, and his inability to confine all the women and girls in separate cells clearly made this task more difficult and there is evidence that a number of the women resisted the authority of the prison and it’s Governor. As was the case with the boys, Maconochie increasingly retreated from his own theories of reformation and instead resorted to physical punishments as his preferred practical method of attempting to subjugate the women. 

The last months

Conflict between Maconochie and the Visiting Justices resulted in Maconochie tenure being terminated in the summer of 1851. Whilst working out his notice, Maconochie’s regime continued to rely on corporal punishments to subjugate the prisoners. The punishment book on 29th July 1851 recorded in Maconochie’s own hand that two women, Mary McCormack and Maria Hill, were sentenced to ‘two days bread and water each and one day in handcuffs’ for the offences of ‘making noise in cell and shouting’. On the 2nd August 1851, Maconochie reported two boys, James Wilkinson and Joseph Newman, to the Visiting Justices requesting that they be whipped. He again asked for a general authority, advising the Justices that ‘I strongly recommend that instead of one such severe punishment, I be authorized to give six lashes morning and evening, till they become quite obedient’. The Justices refused and instead punished the boys through a crank task. Four days later Maconochie recorded in his journal that James Wilkinson was co-operating, but that Joseph Newman wasn’t

he gives just as many turns as from time to time earn him a meal on which he supports nature, besides which he this morning broke the glass in front of the index of his crank in order that he might falsify this. As he goes out on Saturday next, and may thus, if not immediately punished, escape punishment altogether, I have taken the liberty of acting on my own judgement in regard to him, and having given him six lashes at once, shall continue this at intervals till he is thoroughly subdued. This cannot injure him, a growing boy, so much as continuing longer without food, and it will much more effectively subdue him (emphasis added).

A month later on the 9th September 1851, Maconochie recorded that nineteen-year-old Maria Helms was guilty of ‘wilfully breaking cell window’, an offence he believed she had ‘very wantonly committed’, and he sentenced her to ‘ten hours in handcuffs, without mattress at night till further order, and three days bread and water’. However much Maconochie proclaimed the ‘superior efficacy of moral influence’ the reality of his regime, to its very end, was one that generated significant resistance from prisoners. Maconochie responded to this resistance to his authority by deploying his power to inflict physical punishments.


In evidence to the 1853 Royal Commission Maconochie conceded that he ‘did not attach so very much importance to the letter’ of the prison’s regulations which ‘appeared to me, with deference, exceedingly difficult to be complied with; it is scarcely possible to adhere to them in all their parts’. His compliance with other requirements, particularly concerning record-keeping was also, on occasions, only partial. The Visiting Justices, for example, had to pass a resolution on the 6th February 1850 urging Maconochie to record punishments he had ordered in the misconduct book. This clearly did not have the desired effect, as a further resolution to the same effect needed to be passed at their meeting on the 15th May 1850. It was also established at the Royal Commission that, quite illegally, Maconochie delayed the release of prisoners to the afternoon of the day they were to be discharged.

Maconochie ‘s disregard for law, justified as providing space for innovations based on the reformative principles set out in his penal theory, facilitated his engagement in penal abuses. Although Maconochie is represented in the literature as a benevolent reformer in contrast to his sadistic successor, William Austin, the reality was very different. In his two years in charge of the prison Maconochie recorded administering 1,312 punishments, some fifty-five a month on average, his successor Austin authorised 947 punishments in his first twenty months in post, an average of forty-seven a month. Furthermore, it was Maconochie who was twice censured by the Justices for failing to record punishments and whose unrecorded punishments the Royal Commission repeatedly uncovered from the journals of other prison staff. To claim, as Maconochie did immediately after his dismissal that his regime at Birmingham was ‘a manly, rational, philosophical, Christian-like, prospective, provident kindness’ is highly disingenuous and does not accord with the reality of life in the prison. The reality within Birmingham prison was an institution where the arbitrary and illegal exercise of power increased the pain experienced by prisoners. The roots of the scandal that was to occur in 1853 when fifteen-year-old Edward Andrews was driven to take his own life after being subjected to illegal punishments lie firmly in Maconochie’s ‘reformative’ regime between 1849-1851.

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