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Q: the prison system of victorian britain ( Answered,   5 Comments )
Subject: the prison system of victorian britain
Category: Miscellaneous
Asked by: face69-ga
List Price: $100.00
Posted: 20 Jun 2006 03:47 PDT
Expires: 20 Jul 2006 03:47 PDT
Question ID: 739585
how did the prison system of victorian britain reflect changes in the
crime rate of that time?
Subject: Re: the prison system of victorian britain
Answered By: politicalguru-ga on 20 Jun 2006 06:53 PDT
Dear Face, 

Thank you for a very interesting question. 

It is true that during the Victorian Era, the number of convicted
criminals raised sharply, and that therefore there were changes in the
British prison system: "offences went up from about 5,000 per year in
1800 to about 20,000 per year in 1840. " (SOURCE: The National
Archives, "A Victorian Prison",

Before the Victorian Period, jails were used for holding inmates
before sentencing (or before trail), because the sentencing was
usually corporal punishment and not imprisonment. In addition, local
jail were a place for debtors. Later, some were sent to Australia.

As mentioned before, the number of convicted criminals grew sharply
during the Victorian Era, alongside Australian refusal to continue to
receieve the prisoners; and social processes such as rapid
urbanisation and the industrial revolution, which brought up the need
for prison system, and the Prison Act of 1835.

"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 anyway 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: 90
prisons were built or added to between 1842 and 1877. It was a massive
building programme, costing millions of pounds. "
(SOURCE: National Archives, ibid).

However, we must also remember that the definition of "crime" was
different and today, many of those imprisoned during the Victorian Era
wouldn't even stand to trail: "In the 1860's of the 74,000 people
sentenced by magistrates to imprisonment, 52,000 were for terms of one
month or less. The population of England and Wales in 1861 was
20,066,224. Of the 12,000 sentenced by higher courts nearly 7,000 were
for sentences of 6 months or less. Only 2,100 were sentenced to the
harshest punishment - penal servitude. in contrast during the same
period 9,000 debtors had been sent to jail. (The Oxford History of the
Prison - Norval Morris and David J Rothman, Oxford University Press,
1995.) In 2003 there are nearly 73,000 prisoners in England and Wales
out of a total population of around 52,041,916." (SOURCE: "The
Development of the Prison System",

All in all, writes Trevor May in his book "Victorian and Edwardian
Prisons", "More than fifteen million receptions into prison were made
between 1837 and 1901, the vast majority into small, local prisons. ".

And debotors were often incarcerated with their families: "Some
children helped their parents pay off debts, as did the youthful
Dickens. Debt was a crime in Victorian England, and debtors were sent
to prison until they could pay off their creditors. Such prisons were
filthy, rat-infested places where inmates usually lived with their
entire families during the period of incarceration. Family members
were free to come and go as they pleased. The 12-year-old Dickens ate
with his family at Marshalsea Debtor's Prison, and slept in a squalid
rooming house near his job at the Warren Blacking Polish factory. "
(SOURCE: PBS, "Oliver Twist",

By 1860 there were separate prison systems: "The Victorian prison had
two types of prisons beginning in the 1860s. There was the local
prison and the convict prison. The local prison was divided up into
two parts, jail and house of correction. McConville explains that ?the
jail was primarily used for detention and much less often for
punishment.? He continues to explain that ?jails were also used to
detain witnesses whose appearances at trial was in doubt or,
occasionally, to protect them or prevent their subornation?
(McConville 132-33). This shows that the prison system wasn?t all bad,
and that there was protection for some prisoners; however, once trials
were over and sentencing was done, these people were moved from the
jails to a more severe place. This was not the house of correction
because ?the house of correction was used more to underpin social than
criminal policy and was intended especially to suppress idleness and
vagrancy? (McConville 133). This shows that these were once viewed as
methods of punishment, but they were not as severe as should be, so by
1865, the jail and house of corrections were joined together to form
the term prison. This became a place where punishments were
administered for those criminals sentenced for terms of up to two
years (McConville 133). Because of this, more severe punishments could
be administered because there were people who were actually doing

The convict prison was a place where severe punishments were
administered more often, but there still was leverage for the
prisoners. This was a prison that was ?an asylum for criminal
lunatics, and a refuge (a prerelease prison) for female convicts?
(McConville 133). This shows that there were no major offenses that
these people were charged with; however, they still had to serve time
because they were viewed as criminals. These prisons, unlike the local
prison, was operated more single handedly by a private contractor, ?so
these prisons provided their own kinds of security but were also prone
to corruption and abuse of all kinds? (McConville134). Because of the
prison being looked over by one person, there was not enough security
to promise the safety of a prisoner, so before actual sentencing a
prisoner could be harmed. Unlike the local prison, where the
government presided over. No matter what though, prisoners of all
types received punishment, whether it be for a minor offense or a
major one.

Children even had to endure imprisonment, and as early as age seven.
The New Encyclopedia Britannica states, ?Provided that the child was
over the minimum age for criminal responsibility--originally
seven--and had mischievous discretion--the ability to tell right from
wrong--the child was fully liable as an adult to the penalties
provided by the law? (809). This shows how strict the prison system
was, that even a child could be sentenced and treated as an adult
through imprisonment." (SOURCE: "Punishment in the Nineteenth
Century", <>).

What was the nature of the punishment/correction in these prisons? The
Victorian believed, that harsh conditions will correct the ill ways of
those convicted:

"Prison Rules - The Separate System

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.

The Silent System

By the 1860s opinion had changed. It was now believed 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 1865 Prisons Act 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".

    * Hard labour [...].
    * 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.

Change took place again in 1902, when the treadwheel was banned." 
(SOURCE: National Archives, ibid). 

Further Reading: 
The Prison System In the Victorian Age

Serra Ansay, "The Cornhill, Great Expectations , and The Convict
System in Nineteenth-Century England",

Books about prisons in Victorian Britain

Treatment of Prisoners in Victorian Times

Michael Ignatieff, "State, Civil Society, and Total Institutions: A
Critique of Recent Social Histories of Punishment ", Crime and
Justice, Vol. 3, 1981 (1981) , pp. 153-192

Miles Ogborn, "Discipline, Government and Law: Separate Confinement in
the Prisons of England and Wales, 1830-1877 ", Transactions of the
Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 20, No. 3 (1995) ,
pp. 295-311

F. M. L. Thompson, "Social Control in Victorian Britain ". Economic
History Review, New Series, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May, 1981) , pp. 189-208

Peter King, "Punishing Assault: The Transformation of Attitudes in the
English Courts " Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 27, No. 1
(Summer, 1996) , pp. 43-74

I hope this answers your question. Please contact me if you need any
clariication on this answer before you rate it.
Subject: Re: the prison system of victorian britain
From: probonopublico-ga on 20 Jun 2006 07:23 PDT
And, of course, lots of folk were hung, for all kinds of offences.
Subject: Re: the prison system of victorian britain
From: kemlo-ga on 20 Jun 2006 09:36 PDT
HANGED  PB  they were HANGED
Subject: Re: the prison system of victorian britain
From: fateslady-ga on 20 Jun 2006 10:31 PDT
He didn't ask about hangings, he asked about prison.
Subject: Re: the prison system of victorian britain
From: myoarin-ga on 20 Jun 2006 10:35 PDT
Tut,tut PB.

Hung by their thumbs, or hanged by the neck, but I guess this finer
point of English usage went out with the practice.
When the jury is hung, the accused is not hanged.
Subject: Re: the prison system of victorian britain
From: probonopublico-ga on 20 Jun 2006 11:30 PDT
One judicial sentence in ancient times was for a guilty person to be
'hung, drawn and quartered'.

Hung or hanged, they usually finished up dead.

But then don't we all?

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