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Buildings and Purpose

Separation - Pentonville

Pentonville Design
Pentonville Design

Pentonville was built in 1842 in North London. Its design was influenced by the 'separate system'. Following the perceived 'success' of Millbrook a programme of prison building commenced to deal with the rapid increase in prisoner numbers caused by the ending of capital punishment for many crimes and the reduction in transportation.

The most severe and feared of the new prisons was Pentonville, to which many Bedford convicts were sent to wait for transportation. Pentonville was completed in 1842 at a cost of £84,186 12s 2d. The intention of the design was to keep prisoners isolated from each other. It consisted of a central hall, with five radiating wings, all of which were visible to staff positioned at the centre.

However, guards could not see into individual cells from their central position. The design was was more about prisoner isolation than prisoner surveillance (it was not designed as a panopticon). It could accommodate 520 prisoners under the separate system, each having their own cell. The cells were built to prevent transmission of sound and ensure separation.

Pentonville Cells
Pentonville Cells

The Cells were 13 feet long, by 7 feet broad, and 9 feet high. The partitions between cells were 18 inches thick, and were worked with close joints, so as to prevent the transmission of sound. Light was admitted by a window filled with strong glass, in the hack wall, and crossed by a wrought-iron bar.

There was a water-closet pan and a metal basin, supplied with water, even the service pipe was designed to prevent any transmission of sound. Bedding consisted of a hammock, mattress and a blanket, which was folded up and placed on a shelf during the daytime.

The prison was built for prisoners awaiting transportation and did not house condemned prisoners until the closure of Newgate in 1902. Prisoners were made to undertake work, such as picking tarred rope and weaving. Pentonville became the model for British prisons; a further 54 were built to the same basic design over the next six years.

The new Bedford County Gaol finished in 1849 as an extension to the house of correction, followed the pattern set by Pentonville.