Friday, 25 March 2011

Developing a national prison system 1780-1835

The involvement of the Home Office in the administration of prisons evolved gradually during the nineteenth century until, by 1878, the Home Secretary became completely responsible for the administration of all prisons. The outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775 ended transportation to the American colonies and created a major logistical problem for central government. The solution was the use of old sailing ships or ‘hulks’ as a ‘temporary expedient’ while government considered what to do with convicted prisoners. In 1779, legislation introduced a new concept of hard labour for prisoners in the hulks commencing with dredging the River Thames and made provision for the building of two penitentiaries. There was considerable delay in building these institutions and because transportation to Australia became possible in 1787 relieving the pressure on the hulks, it was not until 1813 that construction of convict prisons commenced under the direct responsibility of the Home Office with the penitentiary on Millbank.[1]

Millbank was designed according to principles laid down by Jeremy Bentham and he secured a contract to build it but was unable to obtaining funding. In 1813, the Home Office took over the contract and built a modified version of the prison that was completed in 1821. Initially, Millbank contained male and female convicts but legislation in 1823 limited its use to men. In the prison’s early years, sentences of five to ten years were offered as an alternative to transportation to those thought most likely to reform. Millbank was severely criticised by contemporaries especially for its dietary regime and the health of inmates.[2]

Crime 21

Source: Shepherd, Thomas H., and Elmes, James, Metropolitan Improvements, (Jones and Co.), 1828

Reduction in prisoners’ diets in 1822 led to an outbreak of scurvy and cholera was a problem in the early 1850s.[3] In 1843, Millbank ceased to have a penitentiary function and, until it closed fifty years later, became an ordinary prison and holding centre for men and women awaiting transportation or in the case of sick prisoners, removal to one of the ‘hulks’. Every person sentenced to transportation was sent to Millbank first, where they were held for three months before it was decided where to send them.[4] Millbank was generally regarded as a failure as a penitentiary.[5]

Home Office involvement in the building of Millbank marked a shift in penal policy and resulted in a dual system of Home Office prisons and local prisons until the two were finally amalgamated in 1878. From Peel onwards, Home Secretaries were interventionist and every government had to develop some sort of policy on the punishment of criminal offenders.[6] A prison for juveniles opened in 1839 at Parkhurst followed by Pentonville prison in 1842 that was intended as a model on which local authorities could base their own schemes. Between 1842 and 1877, 90 new prisons were built in Britain. The District Courts and Prisons Act of 1842 laid down further regulations for building and running gaols. Plans for building a new gaol, by agreement between two or more authorities, were to be submitted to the Home Secretary. If he approved them an Order in Council would be issued constituting the prison a common gaol. The Act of 1844 authorised the appointment of a Surveyor General of Prisons to advise justices on the building or rebuilding of gaols and introduced controls over the building of new prisons. This was particularly significant for the future: in the six years after the building of Pentonville fifty-four new prisons were built providing 11,000 separate cells. Most of these new prisons were modelled on the Pentonville design. The Convict Prisons Act 1850 gave the Home Secretary authority to appoint a board called the Directors of Convict Prisons that was formed to replace various boards of commssioners that had previously managed the different convict prisons, to be responsible for the Convict Prison Service.

Parallel to the development of new prisons were attempts, largely unsuccessful, to impose some standards and uniformity in the running of local prisons. After 1815, there was an increase of parliamentary interest and activity in prisons. Legislation in 1815 required returns to be made of all persons committed and of their crimes. In 1819, the Report of the Select Committee on the State and Description of Gaols and an Account Respecting Gaols, Penitentiaries etc. as to the Number of Prisoners Confined and the Management of them were published. In 1820, the Commons received Returns from Gaols of Persons Committed and a Select Committee was set up to inquire into the laws relating to prisons and its Report appeared in 1822. Following a Select Committee report, Sir Robert Peel introduced the Gaol Act in 1823 and the Prison Discipline Act the following year that laid down rules for local prisons. Earlier legislation had been mainly permissive, but the 1823 Act made central control firmer. It dealt with only 130 prisons; county gaols and those in London, Westminster and in 17 other towns. It was hoped that the authorities in charge of other gaols would either improve them voluntarily or join with county authorities to build new ones. As a result of the Act, between 30 and 40 small towns either closed their gaols or let them fall into disuse. The legislation was informed by the idea of the penitentiary and spelled out health and religious regulations, required the categorisation of prisoners and directed magistrates to inspect prisons three times a year and demanded that annual reports be sent from each gaol to the Home Office. The reports appeared from 1826 listing gaols by counties, and for each entry contain information about the number and employment of prisoners and state of the buildings. They were declared to be no longer necessary in 1858 but had ceased to appear a decade earlier. Many local gaols ignored at least some of these regulations and Peel, reluctant to antagonise local sensibilities about independence, made no attempt to impose sanctions or a national system of inspection.


[1] Hulks continued to be used until 1859 and during the French Wars contained 70,000 prisoners, many prisoners of war. They were brought under the control of the Home Office in 1850.

[2] See, for example, the comments in Report on the discipline and management of the convict prisons, and disposal of convicts, 1852, (George R. Eyre and William Spottiswoode), 1853, pp. 58-97, ibid, Henry Mayhew and Binny, John, The criminal prisons of London, and scenes of prison life, pp. 232-273 and Reports of the Directors of Convict Prisons...For the Year 1862, (George R. Eyre and William Spottiswoode), 1863, pp. 43-94.

[3] ‘Cholera in its Relations to Sanitary Measures’, British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review, Vol. 7, (1851), pp. 9-11.

[4] Holford, G.P., An account of the general penitentiary at Millbank ; containing a statement of the circumstances which led to its erection, a description of the building, etc., to which is added an appendix, on the form and construction of prisons, (C. & J. Rivington), 1828, Griffith, Arthur, Memorials of Millbank, and Chapters in Prison History, 2 Vols. (H.S. King), 1875, Vol. 1, pp. 27-70 and Wilson, David, ‘Millbank, The Panopticon and Their Victorian Audiences’, Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 41, (2002), pp. 364-381.

[5] Ibid, Griffith, Arthur, Memorials of Millbank, and Chapters in Prison History, Vol. 1, pp. 289-310 puts the case against the penitentiary.

[6] Forsythe, B., ‘Centralisation and Local Autonomy: The Experience of British Prisons 1820-1877’, Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol. 4, (1991), pp. 317-345.

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