This is a brief guide to finding records of prison administration and policy (for advice on finding records of individuals see our guide to Prisoners or prison staff).
Many prison records are in local record offices. For records after 1839 you can generally search by the name of the prison, but before 1839 most prison records held at The National Archives are among the correspondence of various government departments.
What do I need to know before I start?
Until the 19th century most prisons were administered locally and were not the property or responsibility of central government. Exceptions were the King’s Bench, Marshalsea and Fleet prisons, which were Crown prisons attached to the central courts.
From the mid-19th century local and national prisons began to be built to house long-term prisoners as an alternative to execution, transportation or the hulks.
The Prisons Act 1877 established the Prison Commission, which brought local gaols under government management. Its duties included the maintenance of all prisons, inspection of prison buildings and the condition of prisoners.
In April 1963 the Prison Commission was transferred to the Home Office as its new Prison Department.
Parliamentary Papers (1801-2006)
Search Parliamentary Papers (institutional subscription required). These are an important source of information about prison policy, covering issues such as the efficacy of transportation and the diet of convicts.
Records available only at The National Archives in Kew
To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).
Records of the Home Office, Prison Commission, King’s Bench, Fleet and Marshalsea prisons, and Treasury (1628-2006)
Search Discovery, our catalogue, in HO, PCOM, PRIS and T by name of prison, and by date range.
Search for ‘name of prison AND prison OR gaol’. For example ‘Brixton AND prison OR gaol.’
Not all the records in this series are fully catalogued. If you don’t find what you are looking for with this online search, browse our catalogue to find out what other records we hold.
Records in other archives and organisations
Records held locally
The National Archives’ catalogue has details of collections held by over 2,500 archives across the UK. Search our catalogue and refine your results using the filters.