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What was it like to be a prisoner in a Victorian gaol?


This page provides activities suitable for KS2 pupils.

Objectives:

  • To learn some of the experience of being a prisoner under the separate system.
  • To bring to life the 19th century text of the prison regulations and the dietaries.
  • This can be linked to the attitude to education in 19th century schools - what it shows about Victorian ideas of social control.

Children will find the greatest contrast between the life of a 19th century prisoner and their own lives today in the treatment of prisoners, in particular:

  • The Separate System
  • Hard Labour.
  • Prison diet

All of these can be experienced through role-play and reconstruction as follows:

The Separate System (see background materials)
No communication allowed: read the section of the Prison Regulations that specifies this.

Children can carry out one or more of the following and then describe their reactions to the experience:-

  1. Select a task that does not need the children to write or draw, such as folding paper into cubes or other shapes, or stitching two pieces of material together. For true realism, ask them to separate strands of rope as finely as possible and make a heap of separate strands in the middle of the table. Ask the children to perform the task individually but sitting in their groups, without speaking or gesturing to each other for a timed period, e.g. 10 minutes. Challenge them to see if they can manage this, and which group can best complete the task. Ask 4 children to role-play the prison keepers, keeping watch to ensure that no communication takes place. Assess quality of work and of silence!
  2. Provide length of string with tagged knots at 4 metre intervals, and have the children walk round the playground with each child holding a tag, and the string held taut between them so that they are 4 metres apart. They are to keep their eyes straight in front of them. Ask them to think of ways in which they could communicate without the keepers hearing or seeing them do so.
  3. Make masks to simulate those worn by Pentonville prisoners exercising or going to chapel (caps well down on head with eye-holes in the peak that otherwise covers the face, to prevent looking up, left or right), and ask selected children to demonstrate wearing them while walking round the classroom, then to describe the experience to the others.


Hard Labour (see information on hard labour in prison conditions and punishments)

The Treadwheel
Children should be made aware that the treadwheel went round while prisoners climbed the treads, but that there was a considerable distance between the treads so that it was hard work to pull themselves up. The nearest to the experience is to stand a row of children along the side of a bench in the gym or hall, then ask them to step up with both feet, stand, then step down, and repeat with the other foot first. Make the pace fairly fast (but not dangerously so!) by clapping a rhythm to be followed. Ask children to count their paces as they step. When they have managed a round number, compare with the number of treads that the prisoners had to complete each day. (A good mathematical link!)

Diet (see information on diet in prison life section )

  1. Ask children to keep a record of what they eat in one week, and to compare with the food given to the prisoners in prison for less than 3 months in the 1824 dietary (4 Geo IV)
  2. Make some gruel with the children for volunteers to taste if they dare!

    Recipe:
    • 1 small onion
    • 1 dessert spoon porridge oats
    • 1 large spoon lard or suet
    • 1 litre water
    • salt and pepper
    • Place the lard or suet in a saucepan to melt using a medium heat.
    • Chop the onion and place in the saucepan to brown.
    • Add porridge and stir in. Gradually add water, stirring constantly, then bring to the boil, still stirring the mixture.
    • Add salt and pepper.
    • Simmer until thickened, then allow to cool before tasting.


  3. To make:


    You could use the extract from Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" quoted below, to see the diet from the viewpoint of a prisoner who had previously been well off.

    "The brackish water that we drink
    Creeps with a loathsome slime,
    And the bitter bread they weigh in scales
    Is full of chalk and lime?."

This resource is also available as a word document - see below.

Additional resources for this page