The Victorian Prison 

A version of this paper was published in History Today in 2019 under the title “Behind Victorian Bars’ and can be accessed online here  

When Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 executions were still public events, transportation to Australia was at its peak and prisons, managed by local government, were largely unreformed. By Victoria’s death in 1901 transportation had ended, the death penalty, carried out away from public view, was now an exceptional punishment inflicted only on some murderers, and England and Wales had a uniform prison system directly managed by central government. During the Victorian period the prison underwent radical change that saw the replacement of the chaotic but sociable Hanoverian gaol by the modern prison with its ordered and disciplinary regimes. In broad terms this transformation took place in three stages, the first up to 1853, the second from 1853 until 1878 and the third from 1878.

When John Howard undertook his tour of the country’s prisons in 1776 he highlighted how prisoners spent ‘their time in sloth, profaneness and debauchery’ and how prison regimes encouraged the ‘spread of wickedness’. He calculated a national population of 4,084 prisoners, the majority, 2,437, of whom were debtors. Criminals, convicted and awaiting trial, were a minority. Many prisoners ran businesses from the prison, there was no segregation between men and women, tradespeople could freely enter prisons to sell their goods, families often lived with their imprisoned husband or father, and the gaolers most secure source of income often came from the prison’s tab or bar. Commenting on a visit to the Fleet prison in London Howard reported that on ‘Monday night there is a Wine-club: on Thursday night a Beer-Club: each lasting usually till one or two in the morning.’ Prisons were sociably places, but for individual prisoners their experience reflected their personal social status. The wealthy could precure the best chambers, serviced by their own personal servants and from which they could entertain their friends. For the poor person without friends, imprisonment, like life outside the gaol, could be harsh. 

Despite the reforming efforts of Howard, Jeremy Bentham, Elizabeth Fry and other moral entrepreneurs by the 1830s their impact had largely been on public opinion rather than on practices inside prisons. Parliament had established one national penitentiary at Millbank, but this experiment had largely been deemed a failure. To exert some central control Home Office Inspectors of Prison were established in 1835 and their first report, published in the same year as Victoria was crowned, showed that the prison population had expanded to 13,147, the overwhelming majority, 11,296, of whom were criminal prisoners. In addition, the Home Office was holding 2,304 prisoners on Hulks (old ships) awaiting transportation to Australia. Transportation remained the normal punishment for felony. In the period 1816 to 1840 on average over 3,700 convicts were transported each year to the Australian colonies. Prison was used as a punishment almost exclusively for those summarily convicted. Prison sentences were remarkably short by modern standards. The Inspectors’ 1837 report identified that 46% of prison sentences were for a month or less whilst less than 2% were for periods of a year or more. Prisons continued to be managed locally, often in buildings hundreds of years old, with regimes that had largely escaped the attempts by reformers to impose order.

Between 1837 and 1853 new regulations passed by parliament, the new Inspectors monitoring of their implementation, local initiatives and the example set by the government in building the model prison at Pentonville resulted in steady, if uneven, progress in reform. Despite the new Inspectors commitment to the principle of solitary confinement many prisons proved unsuitable for such a regime and local magistrates often instead implemented the silent system, where although prisoners were held together they were forbidden to speak, or various systems of categorisation, for example, separating men from women and adults from children. Although the number sentenced to local imprisonment increased, over 100,000 in 1851, sentences remained short, 48 percent for less than a month, 82 percent for periods of less than 3 months and just over two percent for a year or more. 

Whilst the national government had begun acquiring its own penal estate in England this was developed to support transportation, principally to the Australia colonies. Whilst Pentonville, which had opened in 1842, was often referred to as the ‘Model Prison’ it had been built to provide a period of reformative solitary confinement for men sentenced to transportation. Pentonville’s records show that of the 1,663 men who left Pentonville between 1842 and 1848, 1,490 of them were transported to Australia. Similarly, by 1850 Millbank had failed as a penitentiary and was operating as a depot for convicts awaiting transportation; Parkhurst prepared boys for transportation; and Portland, Dartmoor and the Hulks used convicts awaiting transportation on public works. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century transportation remained the preferred punishment for serious crime. For an 1847 House of Lords Select Committee, ‘no Hope exists in Imprisonment being so far rendered more formidable as to supply in all respects the Place of Transportation’.

Pentonville’s major significance was that it provided a central government endorsed architectural blueprint. Some local authorities saw its replication as an opportunity to demonstrate their municipal progressiveness and in the six years following Pentonville opening work was commenced on building 54 new local prisons. For the Borough of Birmingham, established by Royal Charter in 1839, building the prison at Winson Green was to be its first capital project. The council’s pride was demonstrated by their holding open days for local people to inspect the inside of the prison before it received its first prisoners. The Pictorial Guide to Birmingham described the new prison as having a ‘Gothic and imposing’ façade, with its layout being modelled on ‘the Model Prison at Pentonville, of which this gaol may be considered one of the most perfect exemplifications’.

As destinations for transportation became more difficult to find, the convict service increasingly had to hold prisoners in England. A Convict Service was established by the Home Office in 1850 and the 1853 Penal Servitude Act introduced penal servitude, to be served in English convict prisons, as a sentencing option in place of transportation. It effectively introduced prison sentences of over two years into the English penal system. Whilst those summarily convicted continued to serve short sentences in local administered prisons, those who would have previously been transported for terms of under 14 years now were sentenced to penal servitude in English convict prisons. The last convicts transported to Australia arrived in Perth in January 1869 and transportation from the British Isles ended with the closure of the convict station in Gibraltar in 1875. Transportation had been replaced by imprisonment and long-term imprisonment had established itself at the heart of the English penal system.

However, conditions in local prisons continued to frustrate central government reform efforts. Local government often regarded the expense as burdensome and, without the active involvement of committed magistrates, regimes were liable to become either too slack or too abusive. In response the 1877 Prison Act effectively nationalised the whole prison estate under a newly established Prison Commission. They firstly rationalised the estate, closing small prisons and those in poor repair. Regimes were no longer determined locally but imposed from the centre. The experience of imprisonment was no longer determined by the particular location where you were incarcerated and far more by the penal philosophy of Edmund du Cane who chaired the commission from its establishment until 1895. Although du Cane did adopt some of the ideas of reformers he was committed to the ideology of deterrence. Prison regimes, he believed, should be severe enough to both deter prisoners from returning and the wider public from committing crime. This required conditions inside prison to be significantly worse than those prisoners would have experienced outside. This concept of less eligibility determined all aspects of the prison regime from the work prisoners were required to do – often hard, of little value and repetitive – to the food they ate – unrefined, and barely enough to maintain health. 

From the 1880s du Cane’s regime of deterrence became subject to increased criticism which eventually led to a policy change set out by a Committee chaired by the junior Home Office minister Herbert Gladstone. Its 1895 report effectively sought to strike a balance between deterrence and reformation. By Victoria’s death in 1901, prison despite emerging as the principal form of state punishment, was increasingly suffering a crisis of legitimacy. It was largely seen to have failed in its stated aims of deterrence and reformation and, despite the secrecy that increasingly surrounded it, the poverty of regimes and the continued violence and abuse experienced by prisoners was increasingly exposed.

This failure of the prison had been most vividly highlighted at Birmingham prison, currently in the news when the company running it, G4S, had it contract suspended. As mentioned above Birmingham had opened in 1849, as a source of great municipal pride. The Recorder of Birmingham, Matthew Davenport Hill had declared his aspiration for the new prison to become ‘a moral hospital’ in which ‘the reformation of the offender be made the object to be attained’. However, less than four years after the prison opened, it was caught up in scandal following the death of a 15 year-old-prisoner, Edward Andrews. The Home Secretary, Lord Palmerston, ordered a Royal Commission investigation that revealed that life in the prison was far from being the ‘moral hospital’ Hill aspired to. Children as young as nine were being kept in solitary confinement. Boys were forced to earn the food by working on hand cranks, from 6am in the morning till 10pm at night. Those who failed the task were given a bread and water diet and placed in a straitjacket in which they were hung from the walls of their cell, often in agonising pain. Although the prison governor, William Austin, was convinced their failure was due to their lack of effort the commission discovered the cranks had been altered in a way that made achieving the task virtually impossible. Medical treatment was withheld from prisoners, including those suffering from gonorrhoea, who were considered as being of ‘bad character’. The prison’s infirmary was rarely used with ill prisoners left in their solitary cells. As well as the self-inflicted deaths many other prisoners died, often alone in their cells. One mentally ill prisoner who protested about being put in the straitjacket had salt pushed into his mouth by the prison doctor to silence him.  Another prisoner who lay on the floor claiming to be too exhausted to work had four buckets of cold water thrown over him by the governor, Austin. He was left lying soaked in his wet clothes for some hours. The prison doctor justified this treatment as he believed the man was suffering from ‘mere sulkiness’ and that ‘if the man was really fainting, it would bring him round; and if shamming, it would also bring him round’. 

The prison’s first governor, the leading reformer Alexander Maconochie, had introduced floggings by instalments. He recorded in his journal with respect to fourteen-year-old Joseph Newman that ‘I have taken the liberty of acting on my own judgement in regard to him, and having given him six lashes (of the cat o’ nine tails) at once, shall continue this at intervals until he is entirely subdued.’ Other boys received the same treatment and when challenged at the commission’s hearing Maconochie declared that it ‘was a proper way to employ the cat’ and that he would have continued the beating for as long as necessary to obtain the child’s ‘submission’. Maconochie also regularly used both handcuffs and the straitjacket on women. Despite Maconochie failing to record these punishments the commission discovered them through entries in the prison matron’s journal. Maconochie conceded that he used the straitjacket on women as a punishment ‘twenty or thirty times’. He also admitted hanging women in straitjackets from the railings in the common areas of the female wing.   

One of the characteristics of the modern prison identified by Michael Ignatieff was that the ‘rule of custom’ was replaced by the ‘rule of rules’. In the unreformed Hanoverian prisons power was shared between the prisoners and their keepers. By isolating prisoners from each other they ceased to be a community and were dependent on the protection of rules and regulation. What the Birmingham Royal Commission demonstrated was how the prison rules meant little in the daily life of the prison. Indeed, Maconochie was dismissive of the legal regulations he was supposed to operate within stating that ‘I certainly did not attach so very much importance to the letter of them.’ Punishments were unrecorded, both the governor and the doctor were unaware of their legal duties and many prisoners were subjected to illegal treatment. Prisoners were powerless to enforce the rules, and guards who sought to challenge the abuses were themselves victimised. One, William Lawson, refused to work following the self-inflicted death of a prisoner until he could meet with the magistrates ultimately responsible for the prison’s management. Lawson wanted to tell them about the ‘system of tyranny and cruelty carried out in the gaol’. The magistrates did meet Lawson but concluded ‘that the charge of misconduct against the warders was not substantiated, and that it had been made from improper motives’ and Lawson was summarily dismissed. 

The commission reached a different conclusion deciding that under Austin ‘the penal discipline of the gaol became almost a uniform system of the application of pain and terror’ and in respect of Edward Andrews that, ‘by the order and with the knowledge of the governor, he was punished illegally and cruelly, and was driven thereby to the commission of suicide’. Detailed findings on other cases were equally damning, with the both governors, the doctor and several other prison employees held responsible for individual cases of abuse.  The doctor received the most severe criticism, not only was he involved ‘in the commission of illegal assaults upon prisoners’ but he was also grossly negligent in carrying out his professional duties as a doctor. The commission’s hearings were held in public and widely reported in the press. Charles Reade, the novelist, further disseminating the testimony by reproducing large passages of The Times reports in his widely read 1856 novel It Is Never Too Late to Mend

Despite the continued efforts of the Inspectors, the nationalisation of the prisons and attempts to impose a uniform regime through the prison estate the issues raised by the Royal Commission into abuses at Birmingham continued to resurface. The modern prison, which was born in the Victorian period, had already within that period increasingly been recognised as a failure. The Edwardian period was to see a series of attempts to reduce the use of imprisonment England and Wales’ average daily prison population was reduced by over half from 22,029 to 9,196 between 1908 and 1918, many prisons were closed and the reformer Fenner Brockway declared that if ‘reform is to become the principal object’ of state punishment, then ‘the prison system must be scrapped altogether.’ 

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