Victorians were worried about the rising crime rate: offences went up from about 5,000 per year in 1800 to about 20,000 per year in 1840. They were firm believers in punishment for criminals, but faced a problem: what should the punishment be?
There were prisons, but they were mostly small, old and badly-run. Common punishments included transportation – sending the offender to America, Australia or Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), or execution – hundreds of offences carried the death penalty.
By the 1830s people were having doubts about both these punishments. The answer was prison: lots of new prisons were built and old ones extended.
The Victorians also had clear ideas about what these prisons should be like. They should be unpleasant places, to deter people from committing crimes. Once inside, prisoners had to be made to face up to their own faults, by keeping them in silence and making them do hard, boring work. Walking a treadwheel or picking oakum (separating strands of rope) were the most common forms of hard labour.
Prisons at this time were often in old buildings, such as castles. They tended to be damp, unhealthy, insanitary and over-crowded. All kinds of prisoners were mixed in together, as at Coldbath Fields: men, women, children; the insane; serious criminals and petty criminals; people awaiting trial; and debtors. Each prison was run by the gaoler in his own way. He made up the rules. If you could pay, you could buy extra privileges, such as private rooms, better food, more visitors, keeping pets, letters going in and out, and books to read. If you could not, the basic fare was grim. You even had to pay the gaoler to be let out when your sentence was finished.
Law and order was a major issue in Victorian Britain. Victorians were worried about the huge new cities that had grown up following the Industrial Revolution – how were the masses to be kept under control? They were worried about rising crime. They could see that transporting convicts to Australia was not the answer and by the 1830s Australia was complaining that they did not want to be the dumping-ground for Britain’s criminals.
The answer was to reform the police and to build more prisons. Between 1842 and 1877, 90 prisons were built or added to. It was a massive building programme, costing millions of pounds. You can see the big extension to Coldbath Fields prison in Source 1. Many Victorian prisons are still in use today.
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.
There was more to Victorian plans than just bigger and better buildings. In the 1840s a system of rules called ‘The Separate System’ was tried. This was based on the belief that convicted criminals had to face up to themselves. Accordingly, they were kept on their own in their cells most of the time. When they were let out, to go to chapel or for exercise, they sat in special seats or wore special masks so that they couldn’t even see, let alone talk to, another prisoner. Not surprisingly, many went mad under this system.
By the 1860s opinion had changed, believing that many criminals were habitual criminals and nothing would change them. They just had to be scared enough by prison never to offend again. The purpose of the silent system was to break convicts’ wills by being kept in total silence and by long, pointless hard labour. The Silent System is associated with the Prisons Act 1865 and the Assistant Director of Prisons, Sir Edmund du Cane, who promised the public that prisoners would get ‘Hard Labour, Hard Fare and Hard Board’.
You can see hard labour in Sources 2a and 2b.
Hard fare: a deliberately monotonous diet, with exactly the same food on the same day each week
Hard board: wooden board beds replaced the hammocks that prisoners had slept on before
There was further change in 1902, when the treadwheel was banned.
This lesson could form part of a study of crime and punishment through time. Victorian prison policy is an important topic in this story.
Alternatively, the lesson could be seen as an aspect of Victorian Britain, showing as it does, the prevailing attitudes to crime and human nature. It also reveals the Victorians’ determination, once faced with a problem, to work with energy and resources to solve it.
Further, the clarity and detail of the prison plan, the accompanying detailed pictures of that very prison in action, make it a good starting-point for discussion of issues of crime policy today. The arguments of punishment versus rehabilitation and retribution versus a new start are well-illustrated in these documents.
Illustration: Photograph, courtyard of Wormwood Scrubs Prison, groups of prisoners pulling carts COPY 1/420 f180
Source 1: Ground plan of HM Prison Cold Bath Fields WORK 30/5978
Source 2a: Prisoners on a treadwheel at Pentonville Prison 1895 COPY 1/420
Source 2b: Photograph of prisoner at hard labor in his cell at Wormwood Scrubs Prison COPY 1/420 f171
Source 3: Mary McDonald prisoner number 2424 PCOM 2/291 1873
Source 4: Colonial Office: Tasmania convict discipline, 1873 CO 280/83
This site gives information about the history of transportation, as well as giving an overview of the type of people transported.