Tuesday, 10 June 2008


Imprisonment was less widely used as a punishment than whipping, branding or even hanging before the mid-eighteenth century. However, many more offenders than before, some 60 per cent of those convicted, received a custodial’ sentence, i.e. they were locked up. Prisoners were also held in prisons before their trials.  Three major advantages of imprisonment became more and more clear during the eighteenth century.

  1. Previously, there had been no real alternative to sentencing offenders to death or transportation or releasing them back into the community. Many criminals who committed small crimes got off without any punishment because juries were unwilling to convict when the only available punishment was death.
  2. Imprisonment could be used to make the rehabilitation of the offender part of the punishment. Some people saw Houses of Correction as the means for reforming convicted criminals through making them work.
  3. Prisons certainly keep criminals out of society. It is also true that prison sentences can deter others from committing offences.

By the end of the eighteenth century, imprisonment had become the punishment most commonly used for convicted criminals. Lee cites evidence from Surrey and Sussex where respectively 60 per cent and 43 per cent of criminals were sentenced to prison.

There were different types of prisons in the eighteenth century.  Most communities, even villages, had a small ‘lock-up’ or bridewell to hold serious prisoners until they were sent to larger gaols or to keep drunks in overnight.  Houses of Correction had started during the Tudor period to deal with vagrants and the able bodied poor. In 1706 an Act of Parliament allowed judges to send criminals who had successfully claimed benefit of clergy to a house of correction for up to two years.  Finally there were county gaols.

All of these prisons were locally run. The state played no part in the development or supervision of prisons and there was no national penal policy. Prisons in the eighteenth century were very unpleasant places.

  1. All kinds of prisoners were thrown in together: convicts, those awaiting trial, lunatics, debtors, women and children.
  2. They were very unhealthy, damp, overcrowded and insanitary, with no toilets, running water or sewage system. Many old castles were still used as gaols. ‘Gaol-fever’ – probably dysentery or typhus, killed many of the inmates. In 1577, at the Oxford Assizes, several jurymen and two of the judges caught gaol-fever and died.
  3. Gaolers ran prisons as businesses. This meant that you could have a reasonable time if you had the money. You could buy your own room, good food and drink and your friends and family could visit. Poor prisoners depended on local charities paying their fees.

Historians have studied the ways in which Newgate Gaol operated in the eighteenth century in detail. Other gaols were similar. A room on the ‘Master Side’ cost £3.33p a week. The charity wards were grossly overcrowded, built for 150 prisoners but containing 275. The day began at 7 a.m. when the bell clanged, prisoners’ leg-irons were unlocked and they saw to their own washing and breakfast. They were largely left alone by the warders until 9 p.m. when they were locked up again. Inmates elected their own ‘Steward’ and ‘Wardsmen’ to run the place.

Anything was allowed, if you tipped the gaoler. Some prisoners kept pets; ale and tobacco could be bought. The gaoler estimated that he made £400 a year brewing his own ale. There was a chapel but ministers complained of poor behaviour during the services. The last sermon preached to a prisoner who was going to be hanged was a special occasions. The gaolers would sell tickets, at £20 each, to the public to hear it.

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