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Gaol Routine

Photographing Prisoners

Prisoner Photograph
Prisoner Photograph

At some gaols, such as Bedford County Gaol and Bedford House of Correction, prisoners were photographed in an effort to identify habitual offenders and as a deterrent to crime. The following notes are extracts from the quarter sessions records commenting on the success of this imitative.

QGR1/43 Prison Governor's report to the Michaelmas quarter sessions 1860.

The application of photography as an agent in discovering the antecedents of criminals, especially tramps and strangers, is most unquestionably a very useful auxiliary and in my humble opinion should be brought into Prison use generally. I have had recourse to it now for nearly two years, and am daily convinced of its great utility, and what renders its application still more beneficial it is distasteful to prisoners, in as much as they invariably dread exposure, and once their photograph has been taken they are unconscious of the use that is made of it, and therefore it cannot fail to act as a deterrent to crime. As regards its application in this prison, I have succeeded in tracing the previous histories and characters of several of our inmates, without this aid the court would frequently have been in utter ignorance of their antecedents and old offenders would have escaped with much lighter punishment than they received.

There are several prisoners to come before the court at these sessions whose career in crime has been ascertained solely by the aid of photography, and I feel convinced that tramps and vagrants who wander from town to town committing Petty depredations, will, as far as they can, avoid those prisons in which photography is employed, and in this view I am somewhat borne out by the great reduction in the number of vagrants committed to this prison during the past two years 1859 and 60, as compared with previous years.

QSM 41 p88 Epiphany sessions 1861.

'On the motion of Mr Smart Resolved that the visiting justices be empowered to make an arrangement with the governor respecting the use of photography in way they deem most expedient.'

QGR2/2 Report of the visiting justices of the Gaol and House of Correction Easter Sessions 1861.

'have carefully considered the whole matter and recommend as follows viz

  1. that a sum of £20 be paid to Mr Roberts for his expenses in the photographic apparatus and chemicals and working it for the past two years – the apparatus remaining Mr Roberts' property.
  2. That the annual amount to meet the expense of chemicals and hire of the apparatus estimated at £7 be allowed to Mr Roberts yearly from this date.
  3. That the committee considering a room to be necessary for the purpose are of opinion it should be constructed at the County expense and become County property – the cost not to exceed £25.
QGR 2/3 Prison Governor's report to the quarter sessions Michaelmas 1863.

Photography is highly approved of as inexpensive, effective and wholly free from objection as a possible means of identification, numerous discoveries of old offenders through its agency have been made in this prison, without which nothing whatever would have been known against them.