A Victorian prison

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Victorians 1850-1901

Suggested inquiry questions: What do the sources tell us about life in a Victorian prison?

Potential activities: Investigate the sources using the questions provided. Compare and contrast with the British prison system today.

Download: Lesson pack

Why were Victorian Prisons so tough?

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. Use this lesson to use original sources to find about the Victorian attitude to crime and treatment of prisoners.


1. Look at Source 1.

Coldbath Fields Prison was named after a well nearby. It was an old prison, re-built in 1794, holding men, women and children. In 1850 it was changed to take men only and extended again. It was known as a tough prison, used for local London criminals on short sentences.

  • What was the purpose of each of the rooms/buildings/spaces you have found in the prison plan?
  • What do these areas reveal about prison life?
  • Can you explain why the Fever Hospital, the new prison, the Treadwheel house and flourmill, the Governor’s House are situated where they are?
  • How many prison cells can you see from the Rotunda, the circular building at the centre of the prison?

2. Look at Source 2a and 2b.

The work on the treadwheel was to hold on to a bar and walk up the wheel. You did ten minutes on and five off, for eight hours, climbing the equivalent of over 8,000 feet in the process.

The prisoner in source 2b is doing hard labour in his cell. He would have to turn the crank in his cell a set number of times to earn his food. Unlike the treadmill, which was used to power machinery in the prison, the crank simply turned paddles in a box of sand.

You were not allowed to talk during these jobs. This was strictly enforced; the punishment book at Coldbath Fields records 11,624 offences against this rule in one year.

  • Use Source 1 to explain what machinery the treadwheel might have been used to drive
  • Which of these two jobs do you think was the most exhausting?
  • Which was the most boring?
  • What was the purpose of making convicts do these jobs?
  • What was the point of the ‘No talking’ rule?
  • These photographs show how hard labour was enforced at two different prisons. Why do you think they did not all use the same method?
  • What do you think was the purpose behind these punishments?
  • Do you think they might have prevented people from re-offending? Give your reasons.

3. Look at Source 3. This is the prison record for Mary McDonald who was convicted of theft in 1873.

  • Look at Mary’s prison record, what can you find out from it that shows she has been in trouble before?
  • What was Mary’s occupation before she was arrested?
  • Look at the items that Mary has been accused of stealing. How do you think she got these items?
  • Why do you think she would have stolen and pawned them?
  • What was Mary’s sentence for this crime?
  • How do you think she would have been treated today for the same crime?


4. Look at Source 4.
This is an extract from the discipline records for convicts transported to Hobart in Van Diemens Land (now Tasmania). Transportation meant that convicted criminals were sent away, often to a colony, for a set term. Few returned having served their sentences as they could not afford the cost of a passage home.

  • Read through the list. What kind of offences have the people been disciplined for?
  • Look for the record of Frederick Edwards. Can you find how long he was sentenced for transportation? (HINT: look under his prisoner number)
  • Look at Ann Mackenna’s record. She has more than one sentencing term. Why do you think this is?
  • Do you think the people on this list are adults, children or a mixture or both? Why?
  • Do you think these punishments were fair or unfair?
  • People who were transported were usually sentenced for a fixed time, such as seven years. Do you think they were allowed to go back to Britain after this time had passed?

Download transcript (PDF, 45.1 KB)


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.

Teachers' notes

The first source used in this lesson is the 1884 ground plan of Cold Bath Fields prison. The original prison was built to hold men, women and children although from 1850 it only took men and was extended. Students can use the plan to explore how the prison was organised and the purpose behind it. They go onto examine two photographs which provide insight into the ‘silent system’ of punishment and consider the ideas behind it. The next source is a Prison Commission source providing details of a female convict and her sentence. Students are asked to consider the severity of her punishment, the probable reasons behind her crime and how such cases would be regarded today. The final source provides a window into treatment of those who were transported in the 19th century.

All documents are provided with transcripts. Students can work through the questions individually or in pairs and report back to the class. It is worth considering with students what other sources could help us understand how the criminal justice system worked and the thinking behind the Victorian prison system.

The Old Bailey website is an excellent resource for students to access details of criminal trials at the Old Bailey, 1674-1913 and the Digital Panopticon website to find out more about tracing London Convicts in Britain & Australia, 1780-1925.


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

External links

Victorian prisons

National Library of Australia

Why were convicts transported to Australia?

Connections to curriculum

Key stage 4

Edexcel GCSE History: Crime and punishment in Britain, c1000 to present

OCR GCSE Schools History Project: Crime and Punishment c1250 to present

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Victorians 1850-1901

Suggested inquiry questions: What do the sources tell us about life in a Victorian prison?

Potential activities: Investigate the sources using the questions provided. Compare and contrast with the British prison system today.

Download: Lesson pack

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