Skip to main content area


Cookie settings
Main Content Area


The development of the prison system

By the 1860s there were two distinct types of prison in Victorian England, the local and the convict prisons. The older type, which dated from as far back as Saxon times, was called the local prison. This itself was made up of two equally distinct parts: the jail (or gaol) and the house of correction.

The jail

In medieval and early post-medieval times the jail had been primarily used for the detention of criminals and not for the punishment of those who had done wrong. It was used to hold people awaiting trial and those found guilty and awaiting punishment. These sentences were usually corporal (whipping, flogging, etc.) or capital (the death penalty) and so the detention period was short.

The jail was also used to hold those who had been sentenced to transportation to the Americas or Australia and who were awaiting their departure day. The jail could also be used to hold people who had been called as witnesses in a trial but whose attendance was doubtful. They would be held until the day of the trial and escorted to court to ensure that they testified.

After the 14th century these jails held debtors in private disputes until they had paid their debts; often the debtor's entire family would have to enter the jail with him. In the 18th century the largest proportion of those in jail was the debtors. In his tour of prisons in the 1770s, John Howard (a penal reformer) counted 2,437 debtors out of 4,084 prisoners, which was almost 60%. Imprisonment was not meant to punish the debtor, merely to hold him until he had paid his dues. In some counties the debtor was expected to pay rent for his room to the jailer, and he could make money by selling his things to other prisoners. In Hereford Record Office there is a series of letters written by one J. Warwick, who was imprisoned at Hereford Gaol for non-payment of debts. In one letter to his solicitor at Ross he lists his weekly expenses as:

Bed, bedlinen 6s 0d
Cooking apparatus 3s 0d
Beer 3s 6d
Bread 0s 2d
Meat 3s 6d
Tea, sugar 1s 4d
Candles 0s 6d
Coals 1s 9d
Washing 0s 10d

Warwick then goes on to say that he is considering taking out a loan at a high rate of interest to pay off his debts so that he could be free of the prison, whose conditions he found disagreeable. (Hereford Record Office, BD11/35-8)

The house of correction

The house of correction was used as a solution to the inefficiency of the punishment methods that were used to prevent begging, petty thieving and moral slackness. The first house of correction in England was located in the former palace at Bridewell in the City of London, which opened in December 1556. A couple of years later Elizabethan legislation encouraged the provision of a house of correction in every county in England. A law passed in 1609 made this compulsory. Many of these houses of correction were known locally as the Bridewell, after the original one in London. In Hereford the Bridewell was situated on the Castle Green, just off the centre of the city. The building had originally been the water gate for the castle and in 1677 it was still classified as a dwelling, but on Taylor's Map of 1757 it is labelled "Bridewell".

The house of correction was where thieves, beggars and other petty criminals would be put to hard labour in an attempt to reform their criminal tendencies. Most of the inmates would not be in for a period any longer than two years. The aim was to reform the criminal as well as punish them for the wrong that they had done.

In the beginning the keeper of the house of correction was not paid a salary; he made his living by charging the inmates for bed and board and for furnishings for their rooms, and by taking some of the profits of items made and sold by the prisoners. Later it was decided that this system was unfair. Thereafter the jailer was paid a salary and magistrates were made responsible for overseeing the institution.

Local prisons

The Prison Act of 1865 formally amalgamated the jail and the house of correction. Because there were other prisons in existence at this time, i.e. those run by central government, the new amalgamation was known as the local prison and those run by central government as convict prisons. The local prisons were now not just holding facilities but were also places of punishment for people sentenced for up to two years.

Local Prisons were owned and administrated by county and borough magistrates and largely financed by local taxes. Some local prisons had contracts with the army and navy to hold soldiers and sailors awaiting sentence by courts-martial; the prisons were paid for this service. In 1867 there were 145,184 committals to 126 local prisons in England and Wales (see Norval Morris and David J. Rothman, The Oxford History of the Prison, Oxford University Press, 1995).

The convict prisons are unlikely to date back any earlier than 1786 when American independence stopped the system of transportation, which had been a useful way to "dispose" of convicts. Central government was then forced to rethink prison administration, and arrange facilities for people to be held in secure establishments for longer periods of time.

Until the end of the 19th century, the local and convict prisons continued to operate as separate institutions, and transportation was still occurring with convicts being sent to Australia instead of America. Later the convict prisons replaced the transportation system altogether. In many areas this caused panic as people were afraid that criminals who had once been bound for the colonies were now remaining in the country and had more chance to escape.

The 18th century prison

During the 18th century English justice still employed a wide variety of measures intended to both punish crime and act as a deterrent. Many of these punishments were public displays designed to build a moral conscience within the community. These public punishments included branding, whipping, flogging, the stocks and the pillory.

The worst punishment of all, and the one that was often carried out in the most public setting possible, was hanging on the gallows. This punishment was often associated with the divine justice of God and the King and it was inflicted to avenge their honour, which the convict was said to have despoiled when they committed their crime.

This type of punishment in the public eye was designed to act not only as a display that justice was being done but also as a deterrent against further crimes. The only punishment that was considered on an equal footing to the death penalty was transportation from which, like death, there was no return.

Disorder and neglect appear to have been the primary features of an English 18th century prison, especially after the end of transportation to America in 1786. Debtors were still held in prison and it was often difficult to distinguish them from the proper felons. There was often little evidence of authority and the inmates were free to gamble and drink. In Hereford there is evidence that the gaol in St Peter's Square had a problem with alcohol being smuggled in through open windows that adjoined the pub yard next door (this pub is now known as the Golden Fleece).

It was not until John Howard undertook his tour of the prisons in 1777 and wrote a report their condition (The State of the Prison in England and Wales) that any sort of penal reform took place. After his report reform still only tended to be carried out at local level and it was not until 1810, and a national campaign led by the Quakers, that attention shifted to Parliamentary administration and legislation.

By the beginning of the 19th century critics of reform were arguing that confinement in British prisons had become too lenient and there was less emphasis on deterrence.

The Victorian prison

In the 1860s, of the 74,000 people sentenced by magistrates to imprisonment, 52,000 were for terms of one month or less. The population of England and Wales in 1861 was 20,066,224. Of the 12,000 sentenced by higher courts, nearly 7,000 received sentences of six months or less. Only 2,100 were sentenced to the harshest punishment - penal servitude. In contrast, during the same period 9,000 debtors had been sent to jail (Norval Morris and David J. Rothman,The Oxford History of the Prison, Oxford University Press, 1995). In 2003 there were nearly 73,000 prisoners in England and Wales, out of a total population of around 52,041,916.

The Victorian prison had by now developed a distinctive character. They were smelly, cold and oppressive places and hygiene levels were poor, with convicts often being allowed no more than a few minutes in the bathroom.

It had been hoped that prison could overcome the immorality that produced criminal behaviour by suppressing it with hard labour, routine and religion. The prison regime also tried to disconnect prisoners with their old criminal identities by giving them new haircuts, a bath, a uniform and a number instead of a name when they entered the prison for the first time. Prisoners slept on simple plank beds and their diet was very basic and monotonous, although it is interesting to note that it has often been described as being of a higher standard than that given to the paupers in the workhouses.

Those prisoners with sentences of less than three weeks were fed on bread and gruel, those in for longer had potatoes and soup and those in for the long term, or on hard labour, were provided with a little meat.

John Howard's report into the state of prisons in the 1770s led to the Penitentiary Act of 1779. This proposal combined the ideas of solitary confinement, religious instruction and hard labour as ways to combat the criminal spirit. After this date all prisoners were to wear a uniform and have a stricter diet. Prison officials were also to be paid a salary from the profits of the prisoners' labour, and prisoners could earn a cut in their sentence in return for good behaviour. There was also to be separate penitentiaries for men and women.

From 1780 to 1865 the majority of prisons remained under local control. As explained above, the Prison Act of 1865 formally amalgamated the jail and the house of correction, resulting in an institution known as the "Prison".

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]