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Daily Life

An Overview of Cells and Bedding

A hammock in a cell
A hammock in a cell

At the start of the 19th century, prisoners were usually held together in overcrowded cells. The sanitation and ventilation was terrible. Throughout the 19th century, things gradually improved but conditions were still harsh and often unhealthy. The size of the cells and the amount of time prisoners spent in them depended on the type of prison and sentence.

By the mid 19th century, most sentences included a period of solitary confinement. In some institutions, such as the convict gaols of Millbank and Pentonville, prisoners would spend most of their day within the cells. In these prisons, as with the cells for solitary confinement in other gaols, furniture was sparse.

At Bedford gaol, inmates were provided with soap, towels, hair flock or straw mattress and two blankets. They could also have a sheet if the surgeon allowed. Clean linen was provided once a week. However, the cells at Bedford Prison in 1839 were grim. They were 6ft 2in by 3ft 9 inch just 7ft 10 ins high, with one small aperture allowing light and air. There was little ventilation and no access to a privy.

There was no heating in most cells. In 1847, for example, at the Bedford New House of Correction, it was reported that a rare disease, petticia, was prevalent. This was blamed on the poor ventilation as well as poor diet. It was reported that there was no place more painfully cold in winter and distressingly hot in summer than the prison cells. They were small with only soils pots to wash in, which were rinsed out with water.

In most cells there was a bed or a hammock that was packed away during the day and a small table or a shelf attached to the wall. In Pentonville, one of the first gaols especially designed around the idea of separation and isolation (built in the 1840's), the cells were 13 feet long by 7 feet wide and 9 feet high.

The partitions between cells were 18 inches thick, and were worked with close joints, to prevent the transmission of sound. Light was admitted by a small window filled with strong glass, and crossed by a wrought-iron bar. The cells were built to prevent transmission of sound and ensure separation.

Sanitation was better than in older prisons. There was a water-closet pan and a metal basin, supplied with water. However, 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.

In the last part of the 19th century, after the 1865 Prisons Act and under Assistant Director of Prisons Sir Edmund du Cane, the concept of hard bed, hard board and hard labour was introduced and prisons were made even tougher. Hammocks and other prison beds were replaced in many institutions with three wooden planks.