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Crime and PunishmentVictorian Prisons Return to the main page
Case Study 3 - Were Victorian prisons cruel? Task Glossary

Governments in Victorian Britain took a great interest in crime and in prison as a solution to crime. Prison was the means by which 90% of serious offenders were punished. There was considerable debate about how they were to be run and several systems were tried.

The Separate system. Under this system, based on Cherry Hill Prison in Pennsylvania, USA, prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, in order to think about their life and crimes. It was believed that they would then come face to face with the error of their ways. The Chaplain played an important part in this, encouraging them to turn to religion. Even when taking exercise, or in chapel, prisoners could not see, or talk to, each other. At Pentonville, a new prison opened in 1842 under the separate system, several prisoners went mad and three committed suicide.

The Silent system. Under this system, based on Auburn Prison, New York, USA, prisoners could work, but monotonous and pointless work, in total silence. The work was:

  • Picking oakum (separating the strands of old ropes so that they could be used again - hence the saying "money for old rope")
  • The treadmill, a large wheel on which prisoners walked, sometimes to drive a mill, sometimes just to create work.
  • The crank. This was a large handle in each cell, with a counter. The prisoner had to do so many thousand turns a day. (Warders could tighten up the crank, making it harder to turn: hence their nickname "screws")
  • Shot drill (passing cannon-balls one to another along a line).

The point was to make the work hard and deliberately degrading: to break the prisoner's will and self-respect.

  • Hard bed, hard board, hard labour. In the last part of the 19th century, after the 1865 Prisons Act and under Assistant Director of Prisons Sir Edmund du Cane, prisons were made even tougher. Hard plank beds replaced hammocks, food was deliberately boring and inmates had to work hard on the monotonous, even pointless tasks described above.

To further bring prisons into line, they were all taken out of local control and put under the government, through the Home Office, in 1877. Old, small prisons were shut down. By this time the normal sentence was one year in solitary confinement, followed by three years hard labour. Even time off for good behaviour was stopped. Corporal punishment, whipping, continued. By the turn of the century, however, some people were saying that this kind of regime was inhumane.

Hangings, no longer held in public after 1868, were carried out in prison.

Case Study 1 Sources Source 9 Source 8 Source 7 Source 1 Source 3 Source 2 Source 4 Source 5 Source 6