This paper was delivered at the United Family and Friends Conference in London in October 2018. This draws on a longer (and referenced) paper – “Reformation, Terror and Scandal: The 1853 Royal Commission into Abuses at Birmingham Prison” published by Midland History in 2020.
The picture I have used in this post is from the 1856 novel It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade which is based (and plagiarises) reports of the Royal Commission in The Times newspaper.
At 10 o’clock on the night of Wednesday 27th April 1853 in Birmingham Borough Gaol night watchman Thomas Brooks entered the cell of Edward Andrews, a 15-year-old prisoner serving two months’ hard labour for stealing 4lbs of beef. Edward was hanging, dead, from the iron bars of his cell. Edward was typical of the prisoners in Birmingham; aged fifteen he was serving his third hard labour prison sentence. His previous sentences had been, firstly, a month for stealing garden fruit, when he was thirteen; and secondly, fourteen days for throwing stones in the street, when he was fourteen. Edward was clearly frustrating the attempt by the governor and others to extract the submission from him they demanded. Despite a period of sustained punishment, including being regularly placed in a straitjacket, which had been adapted by the addition of a stiff leather collar and straps allowing the prisoner to be attached to a hook on the wall, Edward was unwilling or unable to comply.
John Wood, the prison school master, recorded in his journal seeing Edward, three days before his death, being punished by being hung up in a straitjacket which
… made shrivelled marks on his arm and body. … He looked very deathly and reeled with weakness when liberated and previous to liberation. Water had been used the previous day to restore from exhaustion consequent on the punishment from the jacket; … (he) had had the jacket on for many previous and consecutive days; had been sent regularly to the crank, except when confined in the jacket. Food, usually bread and water. Punishment with bread and water for seven prospective Sundays. Too weak and jaded to be taught; could only be talked to; always appeared mild.
The day before his death, not for the first time, Edward sabotaged his crank and damaged the bar on his cell window. The crank was used for both ‘hard-labour’ and as a punishment. Prisoners were required to complete 10,000 turns of the crank, 2,000 between 6am and breakfast, a further 4,000 before dinner and another 4,000 prior to supper. Each target had to be met if the prisoner was to earn the respective meal and those who failed were given bread and water. The governor determined on this occasion not to punish him, but instead to refer him to the magistrates. Edward’s bed was removed from his cell and he was left alone, his bed not being returned to him until ten at night. The next day, Wednesday, April 27, Edward again broke his crank machine and was caught declaring, to another boy, ‘his determination, in coarse language, not to do the work’. Again, the governor returned Edward to his cell, removed his bed and informed him he would be reporting him to the magistrates. At ten o’clock Brooks discovered Edward dead.
Two days later John Davis, the Birmingham Coroner, held an inquest into Edward’s death. The inquest was reported in the Birmingham Journal under the headline – ‘Another Suicide at the Borough Gaol – Extraordinary Revelations’. The inquest had heard evidence from Austin; two warders, Thomas Brock and Edwin Cotterill; the surgeon, John Blount; and the chaplain, Ambrose Sherwin. Austin portrayed Edward as healthy and fit, but a troublesome prisoner reluctant to work, who habitually sabotaged his crank machine. Although he had punished Edward repeatedly, the child had never complained about his treatment. He offered no explanation for Edward hanging himself. Blount, the surgeon, reported that the boy was in ‘very good health’. He had seen the boy less than seven hours before his death and inquired as to his health, and Blount assured the inquest, Edward had told him that he had no complaints. After the boy’s death, Blount had, with another surgeon, performed an autopsy on his body which, Blount claimed, had shown him to be in good health and that his body ‘did not bear the slightest mark of any violence, except the mark on the neck’.
Like so many inquests, a death in prison was being explained away. However, the chaplain departed from the agreed script. Having, according to the Birmingham Journal ‘voluntarily offered to put the coroner and jury in possession of the circumstances within his knowledge, as to the state of deceased’s mind’ he advised that on the 19th April (8 days before Edward’s death) he had heard, whilst passing his cell, ‘groans’. On entering the cell, he had found Edward ‘strapped to the wall of his cell in a straitjacket’. The jacket, Sherwin reported, was not only ‘drawn very tight (impeding) the circulation of his arms’ but had a ‘stiff and deep leathern collar’ attached to it which caused Edward considerable pain. He painted a very different picture from the one presented by the governor and the surgeon. Edward had ‘been driven to despair at being punished’, not only through the application of the straitjacket but also through repeated periods on a bread and water diet and hard labour on the crank. In short, the disciplinary regime of the prison had driven him to suicide. The jury returned a verdict of ‘Suicide in a state of insanity’ and Edward’s body was released to his family for burial. Edward was buried in St. Marys, Birmingham, on May 5, 1853.
Such a death, both then and now, is sadly far too common. What made Edward’s death particularly significant was the response to it. A combination of local municipal politics and an interventionist Home Secretary meant the death became the focus of local public meeting, investigation by a Home Officer Inspector and the local magistrates and finally a Royal Commission.
The Royal Commission remains, some 165 years later, the most extensive public inquiry into a death in a British prison. It heard evidence in public for 13 days and published a 531-page report. By focusing on the overall management of the prison over the four years from its opening in 1849 the commission’s evidence shows that abuses were endemic and operated with the collusion of the magistrates, the governor, the surgeon and many of the guards. The evidence, much of it given by prisoners and ex-prisoners, highlighted the role played by arbitrary power and discretion, an intrinsic part of all prison regimes. It exposed endemic abuse, widespread illegal punishments and a culture where, hidden from public view, power could routinely exploit the vulnerability of prisoners.
Although it did investigate Edward Andrews death and concluded 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’, its inquires extended far beyond. The evidence, particularly that given by the incarcerated, provides a detailed account of life and death within Birmingham prison. Any objective reading of the evidence can only conclude that Edward’s death was no isolated incident but was one of a number of premature deaths, some self-inflicted, others through neglect and abuse that were the inevitable consequent of the institution’s management.
Although at the time of Edward’s death, the prison had been open for less than four years it had experienced in this short period two very different regimes. Hailed as a ‘moral hospital’ when it opened in 1849 its first governor had been the leading penal reformer, Alexander Maconochie. A leading proponent of ‘reformative’ punishment, Maconochie had believed his humanitarian aspirations justified a cavalier attitude to rules and regulations. In 1851 Maconochie was dismissed and replaced by his deputy William Austin by the local magistrates who were responsible for the governance of the prison. Austin, was more in tune with the magistrate’s belief that punishment’s primary function was deterrence. It should represent a ‘terror’ to wrongdoers.
Although Edward died under Austin’s regime, both Austin and the magistrates attempted to shift blame onto Maconochie and his reformative regime. The Royal Commission therefore explored both regimes. The evidence heard is clear. Abuse, illegal punishments and cruelty characterised both regimes. To give one of many possible examples from Maconochie’s regimes. A boy, Bedford (I am sorry I don’t know his first name), who Maconochie described as ‘a small boy for his age’ of ‘about 14’, Maconochie, with the authority of the magistrates, punished by flogging by instalments. He described the purpose as being to:
give him a certain moderate flogging one day, and then, when he was brought up to do his work, if he again refused, to give him a few cuts more; the same the third day or fourth or fifth. I would do it myself to any extent, but as it was, the third day I think he gave way. 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.
It was a policy that he defended at the commission arguing that it ‘was a proper way to employ the cat’ and confirming he would have continued the beating for as long as necessary to obtain the child’s ‘submission’. It was not an isolated case. Fourteen-year-old Joseph Newman was due to leave the prison before Maconochie could bring him before the magistrates. He had been sentenced to a stint on the hard-labour crank and had responded by breaking the glass protecting the crank’s index (presumably to move it forward). In response, Maconochie recorded in his journal 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.
Maconochie had no authority to order a whipping – it required authorising by the magistrates – and so this ‘punishment’ was legally an assault. It is worth noting that Maconochie’s abuses seem to be primarily directed at women and boys, the two groups he focused his reformatory aspirations on. The ending of Maconochie’s reformative regime did not end the abuses or illegal punishments. The penal philosophy of deterrence perused by Austin was equally able to justify it. Take the experience of Samuel Hunt, a man who was in the general opinion of the officers of the prison considered ‘mad’, despite the doctor reported that he ‘was undecided whether he was insane or not’. He was known to strip off his clothes ‘and beat his body’ and on one occasion ‘he took a Bible and ran on the top of the landing and began reading very loud there, and commenting on what he was reading’. Three guards gave evidence that Austin ordered Hunt to be placed in a straitjacket and strapped to his cell wall. Hunt resisted and when secured continued to struggle and protest. The surgeon sent for salt. When it arrived, Blount pushed the salt into Hunt’s mouth to silence him.
Time limits me, but I assure you the abuse uncovered by the commission would take days to fully recount. The important thing to stress is that the abuse was endemic and occurred equally in a regime committed to reformation as one committed to making punishment terrorising. The evidence given to the commission demonstrated was how little the prison rules meant in the daily life of the prison. Maconochie was dismissive of the legal regulations 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 claim the protection from rules and regulations they were legally entitled to, and guards who sought to challenge the abuses were themselves victimised. One, William Lawson, responded to the self-inflicted death of a prisoner, John Thomas, by refusing to work until he could meet with the magistrates to expose the ‘system of tyranny and cruelty carried out in the gaol’. The magistrates did meet Lawson but concluded that his ‘charge of misconduct against the warders was not substantiated, and that it had been made from improper motives’. Lawson was summarily dismissed.
It was not deviant guards or even deviant governors; or particular regimes; or old buildings, understaffing or a shortage of resources; or an absence of adequate rules and regulations; or any shortage of local or national inspection that were ultimately responsible for the pain, abuse and deaths at Birmingham. The evidence, for those that want to see it, is that the fundamental cause was the institution of the prison. Not some aspect that could be reformed but something intrinsic to the institution itself.
How was this subjugated knowledge, the voices of those with lived experience of life in prison, allowed to be heard. The answer revealed in Home Office files is that the Royal Commission was established – not as most official enquiries are constituted to explain away failure and re-establish the legitimacy of criminal justice institutions – but to collect evidence to prosecute the governor. In trawling for this, and through Austin and the magistrates attempts to deflect blame on Maconochie, a remarkable insight was given into just how inherently abusive the prison institution is. But the bulk of the evidence was ignored by the government, the governor was prosecuted, found guilty of assaulting Edward and imprisoned. But blaming him and indeed punishing him provided an alibi for the prison, both in Birmingham and more generally, which has continued to operate, outside of public view and as an inherently lawless place, as a perpetual killing machine.