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Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Victorian Prison: Instruction and Probabtion Rather Than Oppressive Discipline

In the 19th century, prisons were genuinely repellent places where prisoners were treated the way criminals should be, or were they? Whilst the thought of the Victorian prison often conjures up images of shivering convicts picking oakum, this wasn’t the case in the latter part of the century.

For my writing, I’ve done a bit of research on two prisons in particular, one in London (Pentonville) and one in Dorset (Portland). These prisons were very different establishments. Pentonville was far more modern, and regarded as a prison of the future due to Joshua Jebb’s radical design (see below), where as Portland, despite being six years newer than Pentonville, was a far more traditional style “hard labour” prison. So, I thought I’d share a little, if there’s appetite, I’ll post a bit more.

Pentonville prison, or “The Model Prison” as it was known, was designed by Jebb, the former military engineer who went on to become the surveyor general of convict prisons because transportation had ended, and so prisoners had to be dealt with at home. With Millbank being the only ‘large’ prison in London, Jebb set about designing a prison that could utilize prisoners to the advantage of society.

His prison, “Pentonville” was opened in 1842, and the home secretary at the time, Sir James Graham said that it was to be a prison of:

Instruction and probation, rather than oppressive discipline”.

To a certain extent, it was. Whilst incarcerated at Pentonville, a convict could learn trades such as shoe-making or tailoring, or if he was well behaved enough, work in the kitchen making food for other inmates. The idea was that the man could go into the prison as a criminal and come out as a tradesman, or at least with some degree of education ready to serve society and pay his taxes rather than turn to crime.

Clearly, they weren’t making Saville Row suits, they made uniforms for other prisoners, but the kernel of a trade was there for them to develop once they were released. By all accounts, the surroundings were less than oppressive too.
When Henry Mayhew visited Pentonville in 1862, one gets the feeling from his first impression that he was expecting some kind of Newgate-style Gaol, but he was quite surprised:

“The first thing that strikes the mind on entering the prison passage, is the wondrous and perfectly Dutch-like cleanliness pervading the place. The floor, which is of asphalte, has been polished, by continual sweeping, so bright that we can hardly believe it has not been black-leaded, and so utterly free from dust are all the mouldings of the trim stucco walls, that we would defy the sharpest housewife to get as much off upon her fingers as she could brush even from a butterfly's wing. In no private house is it possible to see the like of this dainty cleanliness, and as we walk along the passage we cannot help wondering why it is that we should find the perfection of the domestic virtue in such an abiding-place.”

The building was light and airy and – as Mayhew said – very clean. The inmates cleaned the prison as a strict morning ritual that was carried out “with military precision” and there was a chapel and even a schoolroom.                      
However, there was some controversy over one aspect of “The Model Prison” Whilst the “Instruction and Probation” element was there to be seen with the teaching of trades, the contentious feature of Pentonville was its use of “The Separate System”.

“The separate system is defined by the Surveyor-General of Prisons as that mode of penal discipline ‘in which each individual prisoner is confined in a cell, which becomes his workshop by day and his bed-room by night, so as to be effectually prevented from holding communication with, or even being seen sufficiently to be recognized by a fellow-prisoner.’
The object of this discipline is stated to be twofold. It is enforced, not only to prevent the prisoner having intercourse with his fellow-prisoners, but to compel him to hold communion with himself. He is excluded from the society of the other criminal inmates of the prison, because experience has shown that such society is injurious, and he is urged to make his conduct the subject of his own reflections, because it is almost universally found that such self-communion is the precursor of moral amendment.”

So the prisoners were kept in their cell, in which they slept, worked and ate, kept away from other prisoners who may be a bad influence on them and cause them to commit further crimes upon their release. A good idea?
The prisoners neither spoke, nor saw anyone else whilst they were in their cell. Remember: Instruction and probation, rather than oppressive discipline”.

There were some objections to the separate system. A lot of people found the discipline was too severe, and that the separate system was:

abandoning its victim to despair, by consigning a vacant or guilty mind to all the terrible depression of unbroken solitude. Indeed, it is often condemned as being another form of solitary confinement, the idea of which is so closely connected in the public mind with the dark dungeons and oppressive cruelty of the Middle Ages, as to be sufficient to excite the strongest emotions of abhorrence in every English bosom.”

Other critics claimed that the physical health of a prisoner would deteriorate through sitting alone in a cell all day, and that solitude would make him feel like he has been cast out of society completely for his crimes, some even said it could turn the solitary man “mad”.

(The separate system should not be confused with solitary confinement, in which, due to bad behaviour or refusal to work, a prisoner is taken to a separate wing, or often, a cellar of some sorts within the prison, and chained in a tiny, windowless cell and fed nothing but bread and water as a punishment.)

The only exercise the prisoners got was in the yard, in which they walked in circles, roughly two feet apart at all times. This distance was regulated by a length of rope with knots tied in it at two-foot intervals. The prisoners would each hold a knot, thus guaranteeing that they were all the requisite distance apart. Everything at Pentonville was done with exact timing to the minute, and each task was signalled to start by the prison bell, and timed by warders.
If today’s media is to be believed with regards to 21st century prisons, Victorian prison life seems a world away from what today’s inmates would recognise.

Interlude: Arriving at a Victorian Prison:-
A few months ago I was lucky to get hold of an excellent old book from 1878 entitled “Five Years Penal Servitude” by an anonymous author calling himself “One-Who-Has Endured-It” Essentially, the book is the journal, or memoir, of someone who has spent five years in various prisons. The prisons in which the author was held are Newgate, Millbank and Dartmoor. In it, you get a great description of being admitted to prison. I’ve had to put it into my own words for my notes, taken from several pages of the book, so sorry for the lack of descriptive language and the “note form” but the description of the basic admittance routine is as follows:

Upon arrival at prison, the convicts sit in the cold reception room in silence, a yard apart from each other and watched by a warder to ensure no communication took place.
One by one they are called to a desk to surrender personal property. As the items are laid out a warder enters their description into the property book. No personal items are allowed into the prison at all.
Prisoners are made to step on, and crush items such as combs or toothbrushes before removing their clothes and being searched before bathing.

The baths were filthy, prisoners would enter together and be separated by corrugated iron partitions covered with slime. The water was not clear, but a kind of grey. Skin conditions and disease flowed and they all bathed in the same water, then dried on the same large towel.

After bathing, they were led to another desk where they were shown their clothing. “Do you identify these as your clothes?” they were asked, before watching their clothing get cast aside and set upon a pile of other clothes and rags.
Next came the medical examination in which they were weighed, measured and looked at by a doctor before being pronounced either fit or unfit for labour.

Lastly, the hair is cut as close to the scalp as the scissors will go, cut and pulled off in great lumps and with great haste until the officer is satisfied he can feel the scalp.
The beard also comes off in this process.

A cloth disc bore the prisoner’s number, which was his cell number and his new name. this disc was to be hung on the top button of his jacket.
The rules were then read to the new prisoners by the principal warder, this took 30 – 60mins but most prisoners would probably be too shocked or scared to remember them all.

The day would drag and seem endless due to the constant waiting around at each process. After being read the rules, they were shown to their cells.

Portland Prison, as I hinted earlier, was a different proposition to Pentonville altogether. The Pentonville cells were, in prison cell terms anyway, light and airy and just a bit bigger than the interior of an omnibus. They contained gas lighting, a copper basin, a water tap, a hammock and the eating utensils the prisoner required. At Portland, however, the cells were gloomy and dark, with cold corrugated iron walls and stone or asphalt floor which probably got extremely cold on winter nights with the sea breeze battering the prison, and very hot in the summer.

No trades were taught at Portland, neither was there a schoolroom, but there was work; Portland stone was quarried by the prisoners around a mile from the prison. They used hammers, picks and cranes to break the stone away from the ground, and then took it back to the prison to be broken by hammers in the yard if required for things such as railway tracks, or the stone was shipped away as large blocks used for building.
Stone Dressing at Portland Prison
In London, The Bank of England, Mansion House and the National Gallery are made of Portland stone, as well as the cenotaph in Whitehall and of course, St Paul’s cathedral.

The Nottingham Council House, is built with Portland Stone, and the public buildings in Cardiff's civic centre.

In Liverpool, both the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building, are clad with Portland stone. 

The journey to Portland in the late 1800s would have been an arduous one for convicts, wherever they were from in the UK. They would start at a short-term prison, such as Pentonville, mentioned above, and be loaded into omnibuses, chained to each other by the ankle and accompanied by armed warders. This omnibus would take them to the train station where they would board the train to Portland. In the days when the top speed of trains’ was around 50-60mph, this was a long journey.
At the other end, in Portland, after a long journey on the train. They would be put in another omnibus and taken to the prison, where the previously mentioned greeting routine would take place.

Victorian Prisons are fascinating, the governors, and government, seemed to have so many ideas about the best way to treat the prisoners, be it through rehabilitation or punishment. Some prisons were, obviously better than others and there is plenty of journalism to be found that was written during the Victorian period on all kinds of aspects on prisons.

Both of the prisons mentioned here still stand today. Portland held convicts until 1921, when it became a Borstal (a prison for youths) and then in 1988 it became a Young Offenders Institute, taking prisoners between 18 and 21 years of age.

So not all Victorian prisons were like Newgate. It could be said that today’s “softly softly” approach to prisoners that the newspapers and radio stations talk about is not attributed to Tony Blair and New Labour at all, but to a seed planted 168 years ago at Pentonville Prison.


  1. An exoneration of Tony Blair - you don't hear one of those very often! I wonder what the re-offending rate was for Pentonville prisoners though. As you demonstrated, it might've developed trades but it also determined to keep prisoners separate from each other. The notion of stopping a criminal fraternity growing is a good one but you have to wonder whether that made integration back into society more of a trial.

  2. Well, there's an excellent piece of journalism by my favourite Victorian writer, James Greenwood from the 1870's which would make an excellent follow up post to this.

    The overall piece of work is called "Low Life Deeps" which you may be able to pick up from Dodo press, I'm not sure (better to get an antique copy)

    In one of the chapters he interviews a young convict just released from prison to whom he offers help finding honest work, only to be turned down in favour of the easier "wages" to be found from crime.

    I suspect the re-offending rate was higher then than it is now for that very reason.