e2bn E2BN
Victorian Crime and Punishment
HomePrisoner case studiesPrisoners19th Century JusticeTeachers Area

19th Century Justice homepage

Sentences and Punishments

Types of Punishment - Imprisonment

Prison Cell and Bed
Prison Cell and Bed

The removal of a person's freedom has been used since ancient times as a punishment. However, until the late eighteenth century in England, it was unusual to imprison guilty people for long terms. Hanging and transportation were the main punishments for serious offences. Prisons served as lock-ups for debtors and places where the accused were kept before their trial. However, by the Victorian era, prison had become an acceptable punishment for serious offenders and it was also seen as a means to prevent crime. It had become the main form of punishment for a wide range of offences.

How did this change come about?

As towns grew and crime levels increased, people became more and more worried about how criminals could be kept under control. However, there was also public unease at the number of people being hung. By the 1830s, many areas in Australia were refusing to be the 'dumping-ground' for Britain's criminals. There were more criminals than could be transported. The answer was to reform the police and to build more prisons: 90 prisons were built or added to between 1842 and 1877. This was a massive building programme, costing millions of pounds.

Types of Prison

By the mid Victorian Period, there were two distinct prison systems in England. There were the county and shires gaols, administered by Justices of the Peace. These ranged from small lock ups to large 'County Gaols' or 'Houses of Correction'.

The second system was the 'Convict Gaols' run by central government in London. Gradually, the use of convict gaols came to include holding prisoners as part of the process of transportation to other countries. Newgate was the main prison in this system. There were also three convict prisons at Millbank, Pentonville and Brixton. Decommissioned naval vessels called 'hulks' were used to house prisoners and became part of the convict gaol system. Other convict gaols were situated at ports.

What were conditions in the prisons like?

The Prison hulks
The hulks were old sailing ships at south coast harbours or on the Thames at Woolwich. They were originally used as holding prisons for people waiting to be transported. The rise in crime at the end of the French Wars caused a shortage of prisons, and so the hulks were more and more used to house ordinary prisoners.

At one point, over two thirds of all prisoners were on the hulks. Conditions in them were terrible. During outbreaks of disease such as cholera, large numbers of prisoners died because of the insanitary conditions on board and because water taken from the polluted Thames was used for all purposes. Prisoners were chained to their bunks at night to prevent them from slipping ashore. During the day most of them worked ashore, usually on hard labour.

The last of the hulks was burnt in 1857, but they had been less and less used in the ten years before then. This, along with the end of transportation, caused problems in some prisons. For example, the Bedford authorities thought that transportation and prison hulks would always be there to take surplus prisoners, and so they built the gaol too small for the number of local criminals.

You will see references to specific hulks in the "disposal" field of the data file - e.g. the Justicia and Retribution.

Houses of Correction, Gaols and Penitentiaries
At the start of the century, prisons were mostly small, old and badly-run. They were squalid, overcrowded, unsanitary places. Men, women and children were kept together in degrading surroundings and corruption was rife. They were unruly places. Prisoners had to provide their own food, and had little access to fresh water. They had to pay the gaoler for every service, even for putting them in irons as a punishment.

Those who had no money were forced to beg from local people passing the prison. There was no protection against other prisoners. Those who caused most trouble were shackled in irons or whipped. Prisoners could be released early if they behaved well, as long as they were not in debt.

In 1777, the prison reformer John Howard published a controversial report on the conditions, after visiting all the prisons in England and Wales. His report was very critical of what he found. The result was the design and building of new model prisons.

Sir George Onesiphorus Paul built a model new prison at Gloucester in 1780. It was secure, well-built and separated men, women and children. The rules ensured that prisoners wore uniform, were taught to read and write and were reasonably fed and cared for if ill. Other towns soon followed.

In Bedford, for example, a new house of correction was built in 1819-21 and the County gaol extended in 1848-9

One major result of the Howard report was the change of emphasis from simple punishment to the idea of punishment and rehabilitation. However, there was much debate about how this could be achieved.

People wanted to reform prison for different reasons. Christian reformers felt that prisoners were God's creatures and deserved to be treated decently. Rational reformers believed that the purpose of prison was to punish and reform, not to kill prisoners with disease or teach them how to be better criminals.

Several models were suggested including segregation and holding prisoners in isolation so they had time to reflect on their actions. A criminal, it was felt, must also be shown the value of working for a living. This resulted in the concept of hard labour.

Many felt, if prison was to be a punishment, then it must offer a deterrent, so people would want to avoid being sent there. Therefore, the food was poor and conditions uncomfortable. Many of the activities on which prisoners spent their time, had no purpose other than the effort of carrying out the task itself. Prisoners were set such demoralising tasks as turning 'The Crank; or 'The Treadmill'.

However, other reformers, such as Elizabeth Fry, who worked with the women prisoners at Newgate Prison in London from 1816, argued that being in prison itself was the punishment, so conditions did not have to be so bad.

By the end of the nineteenth century, conditions had improved and were less brutal. The prisons were still very much geared towards providing as much discomfort for the prisoners as possible, with hard wooden beds, monotonous food and few activities to relieve the boredom. A true rehabilitating regime was still a long way off, although in some prisons, libraries and communal rest areas were being introduced for the less serious offenders.

For more detail on prison conditions and reform see the gaol section.

Who was sent to prison?

At the beginning of the 19th century, it was mainly those awaiting trial, sentence of death or transportation, along with debtors and some minor offenders. By the Victorian period, prisons held a wide range of offenders serving long sentences as well as petty criminals. They were classified into different groups. For more details see the gaol section.

Picture Gallery