The Reformers

Oh Mrs Fry! Why go to Newgate? Why Preach to poor rogues; and wherefore not begin with Carlton, or with other houses? Try Your hand at hardened and imperial sin

(Byron, Don Juan, Canto X verse 85)

The chaplain can then make the brawny navvy cry like a child; he can work his feelings in any way he pleases.

(A prison chaplain’s comments on the ‘separate system’ of imprisonment)

I have seen Elizabeth Fry in Newgate and I have witnessed there miraculous effects of true Christianity upon the most depraved of human beings.

(John Randolph, American ambassador, 1819)


As the eighteenth century approached the nineteenth two factors began to focus attention on the state of Britain’s prisons. First, it came to be accepted that imprisonment should be used as a punishment in itself rather than as a means of temporarily housing those awaiting trial or other forms of punishment. Furthermore, some citizens were beginning to view the penal system, with its diet of transportation, execution and flogging, as inappropriate in a period associated with ‘the enlightenment’. The name most associated with early developments in this sphere is that of John Howard (1726–90). The conditions that Howard began to confront were described by Heinrich Meister, a German-speaking citizen of Switzerland, in a vivid account of his visit to Newgate in 1792:1

I was conducted the other day to see Newgate: what a horrid sight! As we crossed the courtyard I was attacked by a swarm of harpies and had no means of escaping but to throw a handful of halfpence among them for which they scrambled with all the fury of wild beasts. Others, who were shut up, stretched forth their hands through the iron bars, venting the most horrible cries.

John Howard was born in Hackney, London, in 1726, and orphaned at the age of 16, thereby inheriting from his father a substantial estate at Cardington, Bedfordshire, which relieved him of the necessity of earning his living and enabled him to spend much of his time travelling in Europe. His first experience of prison conditions was as a prisoner of the French. In 1756 he set out by sea with the intention of viewing the effects of the great earthquake that had destroyed Lisbon the previous year, imprudently overlooking the fact that Britain and France had just embarked on the Seven Years War. His ship was captured by the French and he was imprisoned for two months before an exchange of prisoners secured his release. His grim ordeal in a French dungeon aroused his interest in prison conditions in Britain. Upon his return he married his landlady and settled into a routine of happy domesticity during which much of his energy was devoted to improving the dwellings of his tenants while extolling to them the virtues of a vegetarian diet in general and the value of potatoes in particular. Howard’s wife died in 1765 giving birth to their son, an event which left Howard distraught. His earlier experience of a French gaol did nothing to diminish his taste for foreign travel, or earthquakes, since in 1770 he visited Naples, another city noted for its vulnerability to movements in the earth’s crust. While in Naples he underwent a conversion experience as a result of which he became a devout Congregationalist.

As a member of a dissenting sect Howard was precluded from holding paid civil or military offices, but this did not prevent him, in 1773, from accepting the honorary post of High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, a task which, among other duties, required him to inspect prisons within the county. He was appalled by the conditions that he witnessed, not least by the fact that some prisoners who had been found innocent of the charges against them were held in prison because they were unable to pay the release fee required by the gaoler. He suggested to the Justices of the Peace for Bedford that gaolers should be paid a salary in order to put an end to the need for such fees but they rejected the idea because of the cost that it would have entailed.

Following this setback, Howard spent three years, travelling 10,000 miles, visiting prisons in Britain and more than a dozen foreign countries, including France, Germany, Russia and Turkey. In March 1774 he presented some of the evidence he had gathered to a committee of the House of Commons which resulted in the passing of the Gaol Act of that year. This Act abolished gaolers’ fees and proposed ways of improving the state of prisons. Howard, at his own expense, had copies of the Act printed and sent to prisons in England, but while he was on the Continent pursuing further research the Act was largely ignored both by Justices and gaolers. Upon his return he commended a prison known as Maison de Force in Ghent (later Belgium) as a model prison and published his famous account The State of Prisons in England and Wales, with an Account of some Foreign Prisons,2 whose contents were so shocking that in some countries, including France, its publication was forbidden. The first entry in his famous book was Newgate itself where he recorded the continued use of entry, garnish and discharge fees together with the fact that the principal item of diet was one penny loaf per prisoner per day.3

Howard explained in his book that he travelled on horseback, because after visiting a prison the smell which hung about his clothing made the air in a post-chaise intolerable, while his notebook had to be sprinkled with vinegar and laid out before the fire to moderate the smell borne by its pages. He drew attention to the fact that prison food was so poor that criminals upon release were half starved and incapable of work. No bedding was provided to those who could not pay for it and the continued practice of ‘ironing’ (restrained by shackles, see Chapter One) prisoners caused injuries as well as making it difficult for prisoners to walk or even lie down to sleep. In some prisons insane inmates were confined with criminals to the detriment of both. Justices of the Peace were supposed to visit prisons to ensure that gaolers were not abusing their positions, but they were easily diverted from their responsibilities by gaolers who warned them that gaol fever (typhus) was rife. Howard advocated clean accommodation and clothing; adequate health care; segregation of prisoners according to sex and the seriousness of the offence; and a chaplaincy service. He also emphasised the need for useful, productive work to keep prisoners occupied and to prepare them for earning an honest living: an aim that is still to be adequately met in the twenty-first century.

In 1779 John Howard died while visiting prisons in the Crimea. Paradoxically his death was caused by typhus, the gaol fever against which he had so long campaigned. His legacy was the first systematic compilation of evidence on imprisonment, together with some ineffective legislation and some ideas which would influence later reformers. He also influenced the Penitentiary Houses Act of 1779 whose promoter in Parliament was William Blackstone4. This Act advocated a model for penitentiaries, which was later adopted and modified by reformers such as Jeremy Bentham whose ideas for the design of prisons acknowledged a debt to John Howard. The Act may also, paradoxically, have helped to promote the idea of prison labour of the most servile kind, including the use of the crank and the treadwheel, though it is not clear that this was Howard’s intention.5


A decade or more after Howard’s death some reforms began to make themselves felt at Newgate and elsewhere. There was certainly plenty of room for improvement at Britain’s most notorious gaol. The Ordinaries themselves were sometimes seduced by the lavish hospitality at the keeper’s table so that one Ordinary ‘was sometimes called upon to eat three consecutive dinners without rising from the table’.6 The Reverend Brownlow Forde, who was Ordinary from 1799 to 1814, was a humane man who was an early opponent of the death penalty, but was frequently to be found holding court in a public house in nearby Hatton Garden, smoking a pipe and seated in a fine Masonic chair.7 In 1817 a new keeper named Newman improved the diet, ensuring that meat was served more than once a week and that it was cooked rather than raw. He also discontinued the Medieval practice of ironing, though the humane effects of this measure were partly allayed by insisting that, henceforth, inmates would be separated from their visitors by a grille. Presumably he feared that unfettered prisoners would try to escape. By this time, also, some rudimentary instruction had been introduced to some prisons. These developments were not universally welcomed. The writer and wit Sydney Smith disapproved of the pampering that he feared was creeping into the penal system, writing in the Edinburgh Review:8

Sydney Smith (1771–1845): born in Woodford, Essex, Smith was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford. While at Winchester his fellow pupils threatened to boycott competitions for college prizes unless Sydney and his younger brother were excluded from them. His wish to become a barrister was frustrated by his father’s refusal to support him in this venture, so in 1796 he was ordained as a priest and became a curate at Nether Avon, near Amesbury in Wiltshire. There he so impressed the local squire that he was engaged as tutor to the squire’s son and journeyed with him to Edinburgh. In that city he began to gain his formidable reputation as a preacher and was a founder of the Edinburgh Review, the Whig journal through which he supported such progressive causes as Catholic emancipation and Parliamentary reform. He compared opposition to the Reform Bill with an attempt to stop the incoming Atlantic tide with a mop and bucket. His preaching later drew large congregations to the fashionable Berkeley Chapel, Mayfair, and the Foundling Hospital, Holborn. His opposition to prison reform was thus out of character. His support for the Whig cause did little to advance his career. For many of his most productive years the Whigs were out of office and his sharp wit sometimes antagonised politicians who would have been better as allies. His highest office was as a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral and late in life he became rector of Combe Florey, near Taunton in Somerset. The adjacent manor house, Combe Florey House, later became the residence of writers with even sharper pens: Evelyn Waugh (1903–66) and his son Auberon Waugh (1939–2001).

A poor man who is lucky enough to have his son committed for a felony educates him under such a system for nothing, while the virtuous simpleton who is on the other side of the wall is paying for these attainments.

Smith advocated a regime of ‘beating hemp and pulling oakum’ and suggested that prisoners, once freed, should be ‘heartily wearied of their residence; and taught by sad experience to consider it the greatest misfortune of their lives to attend [i.e. return] to it’.

Others were more encouraging than Sydney Smith. As early as 1811 a Frenchman named Simon found prisoners playing a form of fives at Newgate, their movements only slightly impeded by an iron from knee to ankle on one leg only, the discomfort alleviated by a cushion.9 A German visitor, Hermann Pückler-Muskau, visited Newgate in the 1820s. He saw six youths, under sentence of death, smoking and playing games, three others playing cards and another studying a French grammar, adding ‘the treatment [of prisoners] is very mild and a most exemplary cleanliness reigns throughout’.10 Nevertheless, in 1840 the Report of the Inspectors of Prisons wrote of the prison that, ‘We most seriously protest against Newgate as a great school for crime … prisoners must quit this prison worse than when they first entered it’.


It was not until the late eighteenth century that some reformers began to give serious consideration to the causes of criminal behaviour, the effects of imprisonment and the implications of these matters for the future design and management of prisons. William Cobbett (1763–1835) believed that poor wages were the principal cause of crime. Henry Mayhew (1812–87) in his seminal study London Labour and the London Poor distinguished between settlers, criminals who resided in a locality and earned their living through crime such as theft, and wanderers, or opportunist criminals who moved from place to place. He commented that an assault on a policeman was ‘the bravest act by which a costermonger [barrow boy] can distinguish himself’.11 Many other commentators argued that the chief cause of crime was strong liquor. Thus Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s collaborator, wrote of the English working classes that ‘while burdening them with numerous hardships the middle classes have left them only the pleasures of drink and sexual intercourse’.12 A learned paper presented to the Statistical Society would no doubt have pleased Engels and comforted the growing temperance movement since it purported to trace a clear link between alehouses and criminality.13

Others of equal eminence tried to define the physical and mental characteristics of criminality. One of these was the distinguished eugenicist Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), a cousin of Charles Darwin, who assembled a large collection of photographs of criminals with the assistance of the Prison Commissioners. His work was inconclusive, though a by-product of his research was the development of the fingerprint system of identifi-cation. His contemporary, the Italian Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), claimed to be able to recognise ‘the criminal man’ and developed an atavistic theory of criminality which suggested that there was a strong hereditary element in criminal behaviour which could be observed in physical characteristics. However, an English physician, Charles Goring, compared the features of thousands of convicts with those of a group of law-abiding soldiers from the Royal Engineers and published the results in a book entitled The English Convict in 1913. It demonstrated that Lombroso’s theories were fallacious, but a belief in the ‘science’ of phrenology persisted well into the twentieth century.


In the meantime, crime continued to increase and the reaction of the authorities was to build more prisons. Whereas in previous centuries most prisons, notably Newgate, were regarded generally as temporary holding points for criminals on their way to trial, flogging, transportation, or execution, they were now increasingly used as a punishment in themselves and as a means of protecting citizens from criminal behaviour. The initial response was to cram ever more prisoners into increasingly restricted and insanitary conditions, a situation which alarmed the early reformers. In 1818 Thomas Fowell Buxton published the results of An Inquiry Whether Crime and Misery are Produced or Prevented by our Present System of Prison Discipline, which resulted from visits he made to prisons in Britain, the Low Countries and Philadelphia. He was particularly critical of the corrupting effects of Newgate upon untried prisoners, with mock trials being held before a prisoner arrayed in a towel serving as a wig as ‘judge’ and a ‘pillory chair’ for the accused. He commented that the purpose of imprisonment was that the inmate should be ‘amerced of his freedom, not that he should be subjected to any useless severities’ (his italics) and added that the prison staff themselves were ‘of all the persons with whom I have conversed, the most sensible of the evils of our present system’. There was no consistency in the treatment of prisoners between different gaols. The practice of ironing prisoners had been discontinued in some establishments, but not in others, while dietary and medical regimes varied wildly from the comparatively benevolent to the barbaric.14

Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786–1845): born at Castle Hedingham in Essex, Buxton married Hannah Gurney of the wealthy Quaker family, sister of Elizabeth Fry. He became a partner in the Truman brewery and, in 1818, Member of Parliament for Weymouth. He was inspired by the Quaker ideals of public service and was a campaigner for social reform. In 1816, during the recession which followed the Napoleonic Wars, he campaigned for the relief of the starving silk workers of Spitalfields and his interest in prison reform was aroused when in 1817 he visited Tothill Fields prison (close to the present site of the Home Office in Westminster) and met a destitute sailor who had fought at Trafalgar. He was particularly interested in the reform of juvenile criminals. He worked with William Wilberforce for the complete abolition of slavery in all British possessions, assuming the leadership of the campaign after Wilberforce retired. He made many speeches in the House of Commons describing the horrors of slavery and saw the Abolition Act through Parliament in 1833. At the same time, he campaigned for prison reform and, unsuccessfully, for the ending of capital punishment, though he was instrumental in securing the reduction in the number of capital crimes from over 200 to 8 by the time of his death.


To accommodate the increasing number of long-stay prisoners the nineteenth century witnessed a huge increase in the number and capacity of prisons, over ninety being built or extended between 1842 and 1877. The prison-building programme was accompanied by fierce debates about prison design, prison regimes and the purpose of imprisonment – debates which continue into the twenty-first century. One of the most influential commentators was the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832). Bentham argued that, since punishment involved the infliction of suffering, ‘all punishment is mischief: all punishment in itself is evil’.15 For this reason punishment should be limited to the level required to reform and deter offenders and from this followed Bentham’s belief that executions should take place in public because of their supposed deterrent effect. One of his many contributions to proposals for social reform included a plan for a model prison, The Panopticon, which may be translated as ‘all-seeing’. Bentham was born in Houndsditch, London and educated at Queen’s College, Oxford, and Lincoln’s Inn, though he never practised law, preferring to write at length about legal reform. He visited Russia with his brother Samuel in 1785 and his idea for a model prison appears to have been devised with a view to its adoption by Tsarina Catherine the Great. He adopted from the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76) the idea of ‘utility’, which he developed to mean that every action (or law) should be judged according to ‘the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question’. In many fields his activities were entirely benevolent. He founded University College London to provide university education to Catholics, Jews, Dissenters and others whose beliefs excluded them from Oxford and Cambridge. He was a strong advocate of Parliamentary reform, which was finally achieved through the Reform Bill passed in the year of his death, and of the adoption of the secret ballot for voting. He was not always the most sympathetic of reformers. In 1780 John Franks was hanged for stealing two silver spoons from Bentham.

Bentham divided prisons into three categories. The House of Safe Custody was to house debtors and those awaiting trial. The Penitentiary was to house those who had been sentenced to relatively short sentences, while the Black House would hold prisoners serving long sentences. The Panopticon design was to be applied to the last two, though the Black House would have additional features designed to intimidate prisoners, including skeletons arrayed by the entrance doors.

The idea of the Panopticon was developed in a very lengthy correspondence whose prolix title gives a clear idea of its purpose:


The Inspection House: containing the
Idea of a new Principle of Construction applicable to
Any sort of establishment, in which persons of
Any description are to be kept under inspection:

And in particular to Penitentiary-houses, prisons, houses
of industry, work-houses,

Poor-houses, Manufactories, Hospitals, Mad-houses and

The design incorporated a central tower from which radiated cells around the circular walls of the building. The cells were thus lit from the outside wall by daylight and from the inside through windows which opened towards the central tower. The tower itself, which was thus removed from direct daylight, was comparatively dark within and this characteristic, combined with the use of blinds, ensured that the occupants of the tower could see clearly into the cells whereas the occupants of the cells could not see into the tower and could not be sure whether or not they were being watched from the observation ports. It was anticipated that the feeling of insecurity engendered when inmates did not know whether or not they were being observed (‘each person should actually be in that predicament during every instant of time’) would cause prisoners to modify their behaviour. Moreover, magistrates and others inspecting the prison can ‘quickly inspect large numbers of prisoners without having to come near to such disgusting and repugnant objects as the prisoners themselves’.16 Each cell was separated from the next by a thick wall which made communication between prisoners impossible, so the principle of isolation was combined with that of surveillance. Bentham believed that such a design would enable effective surveillance to be exercised over prisoners whose conduct could thus be controlled and manipulated so that they would not only behave themselves while in prison but would be reformed characters upon release. Bentham’s claims for his design, in the early pages of his correspondence, were not understated and reflect his belief that it would help to reduce the burden of the Poor Laws as reflected in workhouses as well as in the penal system:

Morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burdens lightened, economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the Gordian knot of the Poor laws not cut but untied, all by the simple idea in Architecture.

Bentham applauded the humanitarian sentiments which had informed the earlier work of John Howard while deploring the fact that his work contained no underlying principles to govern the penal system. His work might ‘afford a rich fund of materials but a quarry is not a house: no leading principles; no order; no connection’.17

Bentham’s ‘leading principles’ included three important rules. The Rule of Lenity (leniency) prescribed that imprisonment ‘ought not to be accompanied by bodily suffering’, which ruled out such features of the system as ironing, starvation and disease. On the other hand, the Rule of Severity stated that prison conditions should not be better than those endured by innocent victims of the same class which, at a time of great social deprivation, ensured that prisons would be unpleasant places, thereby promoting the Rule of Economy, which should merit ‘first rate consideration in everything which concerns the administration of a prison’ provided that it was consistent with the other rules. A Benthamite prison would be a grim place with more than a touch of Big Brother surveillance, but would not be a place of wanton cruelty. His leading principles were eventually to be adopted by the prison authorities, while his last secretary, Edwin Chadwick, applied them ruthlessly to workhouses through the Poor Law.


The Panopticon was well suited to the application of the Silent System of imprisonment, though the system was also used in other prisons which did not follow all the principles of Bentham’s design. The system became widespread in the 1830s, after Bentham’s death, inspired by the earlier advocacy of Jonas Hanway (1712–86). Hanway, a victualler to the navy, adopted a number of eccentric causes. He advocated the use of umbrellas, opposed the practice of tipping and the granting of citizenship to Jews, launched fierce onslaughts on the practice of drinking tea and argued that prisoners should be isolated from one another. The object of the system was to prevent prisoners from communicating with and, in the process, ‘contaminating’ one another with evil ideas and thoughts. At this time the ‘miasmatic’ theory of disease propagation was held by many eminent citizens (notably Edwin Chadwick himself). It proposed that diseases such as cholera and typhoid were propagated by airborne organisms rather than polluted water (the true cause) and some authorities maintained that criminal behaviour was contagious through a similar mechanism. Under the Silent System prisoners would be protected from such contagion and would, instead, be obliged to commune with themselves, reflect upon the error of their ways and, in the process, become law-abiding citizens. A separate process, sometimes associated with the Silent System, required that prisoners be kept occupied with hard, unremitting and sometimes pointless toil. This was designed to make the prison experience so unpleasant that no one would want to repeat it once he was released.

Sir Edwin Chadwick (1800–90): Chadwick’s zeal as a campaigner for praiseworthy philanthropic causes was matched only by his capacity for antagonising others who shared his aims and could have been allies. He campaigned for the reform of the Poor Law and became Secretary to the Poor Law Commission, a position he used with ruthless ingenuity to whip into line local Poor Law Guardians who did not approach their tasks with sufficient zeal. He insisted that food, accommodation and employment, while supporting existence, should be no more ‘eligible’ (attractive) than conditions outside the workhouses in order to discourage the idle from seeking admission: a principle applied by Bentham to prisons. The Commission was dissolved as a result of the antagonism his activities aroused. He then turned his attention to the cause of sanitary reform and in 1848 he became a member of the General Board of Health and the Metropolitan Sewers Commission. The following year he (and his principal antagonist) were removed by the Home Secretary from the Metropolitan Sewers Commission in order to bring peace to that body. This left more time for Chadwick to use his position on the General Board of Health to interfere with the work of local boards and this was one of the factors that led first to Chadwick’s removal from the Board and then to its abolition. Chadwick never held public office again. He was knighted in 1889, the year before his death.

The words of Sir Edmund du Cane, chairman of the Prison Commission in the latter half of the century, sum up this philosophy: ‘Hard labour, hard fare and hard board’. Under this regime the new prisoner would often be required to sleep on a hard, plank bed and work alone in his cell picking oakum (separating strands of old, tarred rope). Oscar Wilde was subjected to this punishment in the final years of the century. In May 1895, following his disastrous decision to prosecute the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, Wilde was found guilty of committing indecent (i.e. homosexual) acts and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour. After a brief sojourn in Newgate, Wilde was taken to Pentonville where he was subjected to the full rigours of the Silent System as adopted by that prison: six hours daily on the treadmill; sleeping on a plank board; oakum picking; and one day’s exercise in Indian file with other prisoners with whom he was not allowed to converse. He suffered from cold, insomnia and disease, his attacks of diarrhoea being so frequent and severe that on three occasions warders were sick when they entered his cell. He lost a stone and a half in weight during the weeks he spent in Pentonville before his transfer to Reading.18

A detailed account of the pointless and degrading process of oakum picking as executed in Newgate was given by a writer called James Greenwood in 1874:19

My day’s work was brought to me, consisting of a pound and a quarter of oakum. Along with the oakum was an iron hook, with a strap attached to it and this was to fasten to the knee to help tear the tarred rope, which is as tough almost as catgut. A pound and a quarter does not sound much, and it doesn’t look much, but a pound and a quarter to a man whose fingers are as soft as a woman’s and who hasn’t the least idea how to go about it, is a tremendous day’s work. I know that for the first four or five days I was at work on it from morning till night, with my nails broken and my fingers bleeding.

At other times the prisoner might be required to walk on a 6ft-diameter treadwheel, holding a bar as he did so, for 8 hours, with 5 minute rests every 10 minutes, climbing the equivalent of 8,000ft. Talking was strictly forbidden during this process and failure to observe this rule was punished by such measures as withdrawal of meat from the diet. An alternative labour was the crank, which required the prisoner to turn a handle a prescribed number of times, the mechanism lifting a heavy weight. Hard labour was not finally abolished until 1948. James Greenwood left an account of the techniques developed by prisoners to frustrate the Silent System. While in Pentonville, which adopted the Silent System, he described the methods used by prisoners to converse during chapel services, despite the attentions of warders:

The prisoners sit in gangs all in a row of a dozen or so, every prisoner having a space of about six feet between himself and his neighbour, a warder being attached to each gang to see that order is kept. Some of the old hands, however, are too knowing for him. Long practice has taught them how to talk without moving their lips, and it is not uncommon to see the warder in command staring his hardest along the row and scrutinising the face of every man with a most perplexed face of his own. He is certain that talking in an undertone is going on. He can hear the mysterious sounds but every face is to the right and every eye fixed devoutly on the parson.

Oscar Wilde failed to master this system and his overwhelming need to converse with his fellow inmates, many of whom were sympathetic to him, earned him the customary punishments of a bread and water diet and solitary confinement. The hardest labour that Greenwood encountered during his journey through the prison system was at Portland gaol where prisoners were to required to work in the quarry blasting, breaking and moving huge lumps of Portland stone by hand or by barrow, the materials being borne to London by rail for use in the city’s great construction projects.


A harsher variation of the Silent System was the Separate System in which prisoners had no contact at all with their fellow inmates. In 1834 William Crawford, on behalf of the Quaker-inspired Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline, visited Philadelphia and reported favourably on the adoption of the Silent and Separate Systems in the city’s gaol, echoing Bentham by commenting that it used ‘the passive weight of architecture to secure its ends’. As a result of such encouraging words a House of Lords Committee in 1835 recommended the more widespread adoption of the system, but others were not so sure. The sanity of some prisoners was tested to breaking point by the process. At Pentonville, whose first governor, Sir Joshua Jebb (1793–1863) was an enthusiastic advocate of the Separate System, the regime was particularly severe. The prison was designed on Panopticon principles and opened in 1842. All 520 identical cells were observable from a central point. The rule of silence would have made a Trappist monastery seem disorderly. The warders wore padded shoes and when prisoners left their cells they wore hoods to prevent them communicating with or clearly seeing other inmates. Even the prison chapel was designed so that panels prevented prisoners from seeing the person sitting in the adjacent seat. The routine included hard labour, which involved such arduous tasks as breaking stones for road-making. A report of 1845 on Pentonville prison referred to several cases of insanity resulting from the Separate System while a comment by the chaplain of Preston gaol carried a sinister note. The Revd John Clay claimed that ‘a few months in the separate cell render a prisoner strangely impressible. The chaplain can then make the brawny navvy cry like a child; he can work his feelings in any way he pleases’.20


Bentham, a skilled and persistent lobbyist, succeeded in persuading the Prime Minister, William Pitt, of the merits of his Panopticon, but the Younger Pitt had more important matters on his mind during the Napoleonic Wars than Bentham’s ingenious schemes. It was not until 1816 that Bentham’s ideas took concrete shape in the form of the first prison to be built under the authority of the Home Office. This was the huge penitentiary at Millbank. It opened in 1821 with a capacity of over 1,000 prisoners, many of whom would previously have been sentenced to transportation or death. It was built on a site now occupied by the Tate Gallery (Tate Britain). Its architect was Sir Robert Smirke (1781–1867) in his capacity as architect to the Office of Works (in effect the government’s chief architect), though Smirke is better remembered as a leader of the neo-classical revival in the nineteenth century and architect of the British Museum. Millbank penitentiary was built on such swampy ground that it partially collapsed while being built. The unhealthy site was soon to take its toll. The prison’s design consisted of a hexagonal core with a pentagon radiating from each of the six sides like petals. Each pentagon was designed on panoptic principles to enable constant surveillance of prisoners along the lines recommended by Bentham. A system of reflecting mirrors enabled the officer at the central point of each pentagon to see into the cells while a speaking tube enabled him to admonish the prisoners. It was used as a holding depot for prisoners awaiting transportation or dispersal to local prisons and also for some long-stay prisoners. Millbank was easily adapted to the Silent and Separate Systems when these were widely adopted from the 1830s, after which a similar routine was followed for all prisoners.

Upon admission prisoners were bathed, had their hair cut and were issued with a uniform. Those sentenced to penal servitude had their heads shaved and they were issued with the notorious uniform decorated with arrows as additional marks of humiliation. For the first six months the Separate System applied in what was designated the first class. Prisoners were kept isolated from one another in separate cells and exercised for one hour each day, during which time they were not allowed to converse with other prisoners. Thereafter they were transferred to the second class or Silent System, working in concert with other prisoners, but not allowed to converse with them on pain of penalties. Misbehaviour could lead to the culprit being back-squadded to the first-class regime. The great scientist Michael Faraday was consulted as to the best materials to ensure ‘acoustic silence’ in the building.

In some ways the Millbank regime was an enlightened one. Male and female prisoners were separated and females were supervised by officers of their own sex. Some attempt was made to find useful employment for the inmates, tailoring and shoemaking being the principal occupations. The prisoners made uniforms for the prison officers and boots for the Royal Naval dockyard at Chatham. The governor strongly supported these activities, informing inspectors that ‘the grand secret was employment: when work ended his troubles began’. The prison, however, quickly became mired in controversy.

The damp, marshy site was always unhealthy and in 1823 an outbreak of dysentery among the prisoners led to several deaths. After that date female prisoners were accommodated elsewhere and the diet was improved. Breakfast consisted of cocoa, molasses, milk and bread; dinner included meat, potatoes and bread; supper was a pint of gruel made with oatmeal or wheat flour, molasses and bread. The punishment diet allowed only 1lb of bread per day with water to drink. The prison then became known among the local populace as ‘the fattening house’ because the food (notably the meat) was better than that which could be afforded by many honest but impoverished citizens. It was closed temporarily in 1832 following an outbreak of severe diarrhoea and it was also plagued by riots among the long-term prisoners. In the 1850s each prisoner passing through Millbank was ill, on average, more than four times each year. At Brixton, by comparison, one in four prisoners was ill each year. In 1843 it ceased to be a model prison for long-term inmates and became a convict assembly depot from which convicts were transferred to prison hulks before being transported to Australia or South Africa, a function which became redundant when transportation ended in the 1850s. Millbank penitentiary was closed in 1890 and the building was demolished to make way for the Tate Gallery, which incorporated many of the prison’s bricks in its own structure.

The hulks consisted of old warships, no longer required by the exigencies of the Napoleonic Wars, which were moored in the Thames and the Medway for the accommodation of prisoners for whom there was no space in conventional prisons. Many of Nelson’s Trafalgar fleet ended their days in this ignoble way, including the Bellerophon on which Napoleon had been taken prisoner and which had taken the defeated emperor to his final exile in St Helena. The use of the hulks had been enacted in 1776 as a temporary measure when the American War of Independence prevented the transportation of prisoners to the American colonies, but the practice survived for eighty years, ending only when transportation itself ceased. A degrading consequence of the use of the hulks was the spectacle of prisoners being taken to them from Newgate in readiness for transportation. Jeering crowds would gather as the prisoners were conveyed, chained, in carts from the prison to the riverbank where they began their long and often fatal journey to the penal colonies.

An even larger prison than Millbank was the one at Cold Bath Fields, close to the present site of the Royal Mail’s Mount Pleasant sorting office. It had existed since the sixteenth century, but was rebuilt in 1794 and enlarged in the following century to the point that it could accommodate more than 1,000 prisoners, male and female, most of them serving short sentences imposed by magistrates. It had more than 300 cells and more spacious quarters could be provided on payment of half a guinea (52½p) per week. In mid-century almost 10,000 prisoners passed through Cold Bath Fields, with as many as 1,200 men and women being held there at any one time.


From the 1820s onwards, under the enlightened rule of Sir Robert Peel as Home Secretary, a series of Acts introduced improvements to the prison system. Uniform codes of discipline, punishment and dietary regimes were introduced and applied both to prisons like Millbank, which were the responsibility of the Home Office, and to local prisons which were governed by county magistrates until the Home Office assumed responsibility for all prisons in 1877. In this way the Separate and Silent Systems were gradually extended to local prisons. Tobacco was to be prohibited, but, on the other hand, the prison authorities were made responsible for providing adequate food for inmates.

Nevertheless, the first report of the prison inspectors (who had been appointed in 1835)21 on Newgate itself indicated that extra food was still being brought into the gaol for some prisoners to supplement their meagre diets and that other features of the eighteenth-century regime had survived unscathed. The prison was less under the control of the keeper than the wardsmen, the prisoners who supervised each ward and charged their fellows for legal advice. Wrestling, boxing, shove-halfpenny and associated gaming were among the more popular occupations of prisoners, though it was noted that The Times and the Morning Chronicle were regularly available in the wards to keep prisoners informed of events outside the prison walls. Some prisoners in Newgate occupied themselves in making lead tokens with sentimental inscriptions such as ‘True for Ever’ or ‘Love for Life’, which were either pressed on female companions or worn by the prisoners themselves upon discharge. A more sinister note added that a ‘young, rosy-cheeked girl’ had been spared transportation so that she could act as the keeper’s servant girl. Since by this time Newgate was only being used for prisoners awaiting trial and others expecting ‘the final penalty’ it was possible to close much of the prison and convert the wards to cells, thus enabling some aspects of the Separate System to be introduced to Newgate. This conversion did not take place until the 1850s.


The appearance of the portrait of Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845) on the £5 note in 2002 was a recognition of the critical role she had assumed in reforming Britain’s gaols in the nineteenth century. She is most often associated with her work in Newgate itself, but her influence extended to every part of the prison system as a result of her persuasive testimony before Parliamentary Committees. Elizabeth Fry was born in Norwich in 1780 and lived as a child at Earlham Hall, two miles from the centre of the city. Her father was John Gurney, a successful Quaker businessman and her mother, Catherine, was descended from the Barclays who founded the bank of that name. When Elizabeth was 12 years old her mother Catherine died soon after giving birth to her twelfth child and much of the responsibility for bringing up the young family fell upon Elizabeth. They included her brother Joseph, who was to be associated with her in her prison work, and her sister Hannah, the future wife of the prison reformer and anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Fowell Buxton.22

The Quakers, or Society of Friends, had themselves suffered greatly at the hands of the prison system during the time of their persecution in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. George Foxe (1624–91), the founder of the movement, recorded his own sufferings at the hands of brutal gaolers and many Quaker preachers fell foul of the Five Mile Act of 1665, which forbade dissenting preachers from coming to preach within five miles of towns. Many were arrested at the City Meeting House in Gracechurch Street and, like William Penn, were sent to Newgate, where some of them died.23 The Quaker connection was a great influence in Elizabeth Fry’s life. Apart from the strong moral influence exercised by the Society, it also gave her valuable contacts since the family was connected with other leading figures in business and politics such as the Lloyds, founders of Lloyds Bank, and the Wilberforces. The extraordinary success of Quakers in founding businesses such as Barclays and Lloyds Bank and Cadbury’s, Rowntree’s and Fry’s confectioners, owed much to the fact that their faith debarred them from many professions.

At the age of 18 Elizabeth heard the American Quaker William Savery preach in Norwich and was so moved by him that she asked her father to invite him to dinner. Following her meeting with Savery she became very active in ministering to the poor of Norwich. In January 1799 she recorded in her diary, ‘Most of this morning I spent in Norwich seeing after the poor; I do little for them and I do not like it should appear I do much.’24 In August 1800 she married the son of another distinguished Quaker family, Joseph Fry. The couple lived in the premises of the family business at Saint Mildred’s Court, close to the site of the Bank of England and, after his father’s death, at Joseph’s family home at Plashet, near East Ham.25 There she settled to a domestic routine of childbearing (the Frys eventually had eleven children), though she also found time to start a school and soup kitchen for the poor close to her home.


Elizabeth Fry’s interest in Newgate was aroused by a family friend named Stephen Grellet (1773–1855). Born a French nobleman, Etienne de Grellet, he had fled the French Revolution, settled in America and joined the Society of Friends through which he met the Gurneys and the Frys. He visited Newgate prison in 1813 and was deeply shocked by the conditions he witnessed, especially in the women’s section which he had entered against advice of the keeper who feared that in that unruly place harm would befall the distinguished American visitor. His account of his experiences at the gaol prompted a visit from Elizabeth, which she briefly recorded in her journal of 16 February 1813: ‘Yesterday we were some hours at Newgate.’26 The previous year Elizabeth had noted in her journal, ‘I fear that my life is slipping away to little purpose,’ a surprising statement from the mother of a large family. Grellet’s account of Newgate gave her the sense of purpose that she had previously lacked.

As with Grellet, the gaolers were reluctant to admit Elizabeth to the women’s section of the prison through concerns for her own safety, but, once admitted, she was deeply shocked at what she saw. The prison at that time contained fourteen children as prisoners, aged 9 to 13, as well as the children and babies of convicted adults.27 She was dismayed by the filth, depravity and squalor that she found in the gaol, and noted disapprovingly that many of the women wore men’s clothing, presumably because they had no other. She was appalled to witness two women stripping clothes from a dead baby to give them to another child. She expressed her feelings in a letter written to her children at about the same time:

I have lately been twice to Newgate to see after the poor prisoners who had poor little infants without clothing, or with very little and I think if you saw how small a piece of bread they are allowed each day you would be very sorry.

She gave a more censorious account to her brother-in-law, Thomas Buxton, at the same time:

All I tell thee is a faint picture of reality; the filth, the closeness of the rooms, the furious manner and expressions of the women towards each other and the abandoned wickedness, which everything bespoke, are quite indescribable.28

Family concerns, including the bearing of more children, fully occupied her for the next four years, but she returned to the gaol shortly before Christmas in 1816 where she was confronted by the spectacle of women fighting. She later gave an account to a Parliamentary committee of one of these visits when ‘we were witnesses to the dreadful proceedings that went forward on the female side of the prison; the begging, swearing, gaming, fighting, singing, dancing, dressing up in men’s clothes’ and observed that some of the women had spoons on long sticks which they thrust through the gratings of their cells in order to beg from visitors, who naturally kept their distance from the noisome multitude.29 Any money received through this demeaning process was likely to be spent on drink from the prison ‘tap’. Elizabeth, despite the further entreaties of the governor, entered the women’s section, picked up a small child and proposed to establish a school in the prison. An inmate named Mary Connor, a thief, was proposed by other prisoners as the teacher and by February 1817 Elizabeth was writing in her diary, ‘I have lately been much occupied in forming a school in Newgate for the children of the poor prisoners as well as the young criminals but my mind has also been deeply affected in attending a poor woman who was executed this morning … the poor creature murdered her baby; and how inexpressibly awful now to have her life taken away.’ Elizabeth Fry’s opposition to capital punishment and campaigns for more humane practices in prisons led the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, to criticise her for trying to remove ‘the dread of punishment in the criminal classes’.

Elizabeth was unable to save the condemned mother, but the school, for children and young women, flourished with the assistance of the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate, which was run by a committee of Quaker women. The objects of the association were expressed in terms which showed their Quaker origins:

To provide for the clothing, instruction and employment of the women; to introduce them to knowledge of the Holy Scriptures; and to form in them, as much as possible, those habits of order, sobriety and industry, which may render them docile and peaceable while in prison, and respectable when they leave it.

With the at first hesitant support of the keeper, who had previously regarded his female charges as beyond hope, they appointed a matron to supervise the female prisoners and the matron was herself assisted by monitors, elected by the prisoners themselves, who were responsible for maintaining cleanliness and order in the women’s quarters. The female inmates reacted very positively to this unaccustomed rule of kindness, and needlework classes for the women were soon added to the work of the school itself. Elizabeth then conceived the idea of selling the garments the women made to the convict settlement in Botany Bay and, to this end, she approached Richard Dixon and Co., in Fenchurch Street, who held the contract for the penal colony. In the words of her brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Buxton, she ‘candidly told them that she was desirous of depriving them of this branch of their trade’.30 Richard Dixon was only too happy to cooperate with Elizabeth and, in effect, appointed her Newgate venture as a sub-contractor, thus ensuring a steady if modest stream of income to her enterprise, which was used for ‘small extra indulgences’ for the prisoners.

At the end of February 1817 Elizabeth recorded, ‘Newgate prison and myself are becoming quite a show, which is a very serious thing. I believe that it certainly does much good to the cause in spreading amongst all ranks of society a considerable interest in the subject.’ Among those whose interest was thus aroused was the Lord Mayor, who visited the gaol and was confronted by an unexpected spectacle, ‘instead of being peopled with beings scarcely human, blaspheming, fighting, tearing each other’s hair … a scene where stillness and propriety reigned’.31 So impressed was he by what he saw that he agreed, on behalf of the City Corporation, to pay some of the expenses of the matron and the school. Other equally eminent visitors followed, including John Randolph, American ambassador to England, who wrote in February 1819, ‘I have seen Elizabeth Fry in Newgate and I have witnessed there miraculous effects of true Christianity upon the most depraved of human beings.’ The attention of the industrial philanthropist Robert Owen was also drawn to Elizabeth’s work and he wrote to newspapers commending her methods as ‘proof of the effects of kindness and regular habits’ and suggesting that they should be followed elsewhere.32 Not all her contemporaries showed unqualified enthusiasm. In his poem ‘Don Juan’, Lord Byron (1788–1824), who died while Elizabeth’s work was gathering pace, encouraged her to turn from the reprobates of Newgate towards the real sinners who were to be found at a much more elevated point in society. At the time he wrote, Carlton House was the home of the dissolute George IV:

Oh Mrs Fry! Why go to Newgate? Why
Preach to poor rogues; and wherefore not begin with
Carlton, or with other houses? Try

Your hand at hardened and imperial sin


By this time Elizabeth Fry was a celebrity and, as Owen had suggested, she began to turn her attention to wider issues of reform. In 1821 she formed The British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, which campaigned for the supervision of female prisoners by female officers. She was wise enough to add, for the benefit of those who wished to support her, that, ‘Those who engage in the interesting task of visiting criminals must not be impatient if they find the work of reformation a very slow one’.33 She argued that a more humane regime should be extended also to inmates of workhouses and lunatic asylums. She also campaigned for better training for nurses and founded the first nurse training school at Guy’s Hospital. Florence Nightingale acknowledged the influence of Elizabeth Fry’s example and took some of her trained nurses with her to the Crimea after Elizabeth’s death.

Robert Owen (1771–1858): born in Wales, Owen was sent at the age of 10 to work as a draper, a trade he quickly mastered. At the age of 19 he set up in partnership as a manufacturer of spinning machinery and in 1799 he raised enough money to be able to buy textile factories in New Lanark, near Glasgow, from his father-in-law. Here he discontinued the practice of employing children under 10 years of age and built a school for them to attend. He appeared before Parliamentary committees to argue the case for a more humane management of industry, but antagonised other advocates of change, such as William Wilberforce and William Cobbett, by criticising the attitudes of the Church of England. When his ideas were not as well received as he had hoped in England he moved to the USA and bought some land in Indiana where he created the community of New Harmony based upon his socialist principles, which were extended to agriculture. The inhabitants proved to be more disputatious than he had hoped so he returned to England and made a further unsuccessful attempt to found such a community in Hampshire. He continued to campaign for these and other causes in what he called his ‘new moral order’, including prison reform, until his death and formed the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union (1834) and the Association of all Classes and all Nations (1835).

In 1818 Elizabeth Fry began to visit prisons elsewhere in the company of her brother Joseph Gurney who recorded the experience in his book Notes of a Visit Made to Some of the Prisons in Scotland and the North of England in Company with Elizabeth Fry, published in London in 1819.34 They visited thirty-three gaols and some, such as the one at York Castle, received a relatively favourable verdict, though most were criticised. In 1825 Elizabeth published Observations on the Siting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners, in which she advocated a regime of ‘hard labour, which properly pertains to a reforming discipline and forms an important part of the system of punishment’, along with education and religious instruction based, of course, upon Bible readings.35 She also proposed regular inspections of visiting committees of magistrates and others and supported the regime of surveillance earlier advocated by Bentham and others. However, she opposed the Separate System as being cruel and as rendering its victims ill-equipped to return to civil society upon their release. In the words of her daughters: ‘No delusion did she consider greater than that man can be treated as a machine and remodelled through having his conduct bent to obedience through strong coercion and dread of punishment.’ She was also opposed to capital punishment because it was ‘evil and produced evil results’. Her work was only briefly interrupted by the failure of her husband’s bank in 1828 and his own bankruptcy, which prompted a move from Plashet to more modest premises in nearby Upton Lane. The family’s financial problems were mitigated by the generosity of her wealthy brother Joseph, who arranged for her to receive an annual allowance of over £1,000.

Debtors’ prisons: Joseph was fortunate. He could have been sent to prison as a debtor, a fate which befell many of his contemporaries. By the time of his bankruptcy there were five debtors’ prisons in London: King’s Bench, Marshalsea, Fleet; White Cross Street and Horsemonger Lane. In the 1730s James Oglethorpe (1696–1785) had founded the colony of Georgia in the present United States as a settlement for debtors after one of his friends had died of smallpox in the Fleet prison. Nevertheless, it remained possible for creditors to pursue their debtors and have them sent to prison until their debts were discharged, though their incarceration prevented them from earning anything with which to discharge such debts. In 1821 Marc Brunel (father of Isambard) was sent to the King’s Bench prison as a debtor, a misfortune he attributed to the Admiralty which had failed to pay him for an invention which facilitated the production of pulley blocks for the Royal Navy. The Admiralty paid up when Marc threatened to sell his invention to the Tsar of Russia and Marc was released. Three years later Charles Dickens’s father suffered the same fate in Marshalsea, an episode that haunted the author for the rest of his life. The remnants of Marshalsea may still be seen north of St George’s Church off Borough High Street, Southwark, where a wall plaque commemorates the brief residence of John Dickens. The practice of gaoling debtors largely ended in 1869 with the passing of the Debtors’ Act.

By this time Elizabeth’s celebrity had caught the attention of the highest circles of aristocratic as well as intellectual society. She met Louis Philippe, then King of France, when visiting that country to inspect the prison at Saint Lazare and the King of Prussia visited Newgate to hear Elizabeth reading to the prisoners from the Bible, later dining with her at her home. Elizabeth herself visited Prussia in 1839 with her husband, where they heard about the work of the Rhenish Westphalian Prison Association, founded by a pastor who had been influenced by Elizabeth’s example. In 1831 she had met the Duchess of Kent with her young daughter, the future Queen Victoria, and Queen Adelaide, wife of William IV. In 1839 she held a fund-raising sale at Crosby Hall, in Bishopsgate (formerly the City home of Sir Thomas More),36 which raised over £1,000. Victoria herself, by now Queen, contributed £50 to Elizabeth’s fund-raising, which led to a meeting between those two formidable ladies in 1840. Two years later she was a guest at the Lord Mayor’s banquet at the Mansion House (a most unusual honour for a woman at that time), where she met Prince Albert. She also drew the approbation of Hannah More (1745–1833) and particularly valued a copy of the writer’s Practical Piety: The Influence of the Religion of the Heart on the Conduct of Life, a pietistic work of great significance to the devout Quaker which Hannah More dedicated in glowing terms:

To Mrs Fry,

Presented by Hannah More
As a token of veneration

Of her heroic zeal,

Christian charity,

And persevering kindness
To the most forlorn

Of humans beings

Elizabeth was also called upon to give evidence to Parliamentary Committees. Her evidence influenced Sir Robert Peel’s Gaols Act of 1823, which prescribed that female prisoners should be governed by female officers and that gaolers should be paid so that they did not need to exact charges from their inmates. The Act also provided for the inspection of gaols by Justices of the Peace. In 1835 she gave evidence to the House of Lords Committee on The State of Gaols and Houses of Correction in England and Wales, before whom she advocated the complete separation of male and female prisoners and further argued that even preaching to females would be better undertaken by women, though she acknowledged that the lack of suitably qualified females might necessitate the occasional employment of men in this important role. She opposed the use of the treadwheel by women (while approving it for men), but allowed the use of the crank for women prisoners. She also proposed to divide the female prisoners into four classes according to their previous records and the nature of their crimes, ranging from those afflicted by ‘no deep moral dye’ to the worst offenders who should ‘undergo peculiar privations and hardships’. The last group should also have their hair cut short to promote ‘humiliation of spirit which, for persons so circumstanced, is an indispensable step to improvement and reformation’.37 The four groups should be separately accommodated and in Newgate she marked their distinction with different uniforms and badges. Many of her ideas were accepted by the committee, including the provision of adequate food for inmates, but their Lordships were not persuaded by her arguments against the Separate and Silent Systems which were more widely adopted as a result of their report. They did, however, give the Home Secretary powers to appoint prison inspectors to ensure that certain minimum standards were observed within the system.

Hannah More (1745–1833): was the most active female member of the movement dedicated to the abolition of slavery. She was born near Bristol, the daughter of a headmaster, and educated in that city which owed much of its prosperity to the slave trade. She worked in a school for young ladies, which had been started by her older sisters, and started to write plays while in her 20s, an activity which brought her the acquaintance of figures such as Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Through an early friendship with William Wilberforce she was drawn into the Clapham Sect, a group of evangelical Christians and reformers based in that village, then on the outskirts of London, who campaigned for such causes as the establishment of Sunday schools and the abolition of slavery. The Clapham Sect included such figures as the abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and John Newton. She was a philanthropist rather than a revolutionary who, though sympathetic to the poor, believed that the practice of religion would teach them that deprivation in this life was a price paid for joy in heaven and that they could be taught to make the best use of what little they had. She died in the year that slavery was abolished and may be regarded as one of the first of the female philanthropists of the period, of whom Elizabeth Fry is a later example.

By the time of her death in 1845 Elizabeth had acquired an almost mythical status. Queen Victoria described her in her journal as ‘a very superior person’ and the Bishop of Norwich, where she had been born, stated that it would be unsuitable to bury her among the ‘emblems of heathen mythology’ in Westminster Abbey though that stern Anglican may have been influenced in this judgement by her Quaker faith. Instead, her memorial took the form of the Elizabeth Fry Refuge in Hackney, for the ‘temporary reception of repentant females on their release from the Metropolitan gaols’, as described in The Times.38 More than 1,000 people attended her burial in the Quaker graveyard in Barking near her home.


At the time of her death the prison system was no longer merely a place of squalor and disease for incarcerating, at minimum cost, people who were awaiting execution or transportation or who were not deemed fit to be at large. Bentham and others had begun to think, in rather mechanical terms, about how those in the prison system could be prepared to live peaceful lives outside its walls and Elizabeth Fry and her collaborators had introduced a note of humanity to this process. She had also ended the humiliating spectacle of crowds jeering at prisoners and throwing missiles as they were taken from Newgate to the hulks for transportation, insisting that they be conveyed in covered carriages instead of open wagons and accompanying them herself when necessary to avoid the riots among the prisoners that had frequently accompanied this ritual. She also regularly visited the prisoners on the hulks and campaigned for improvements in their living conditions. Other reforms followed her death. In 1857 remission of up to a third of the sentence was made available to prisoners whose conduct had merited it and in 1859 Newgate’s open wards were converted to cells. At about the same time the practice of transportation also ceased.

Further improvements to the system resulted from the report of the Gladstone Committee, which sat in 1895, fifty years after Elizabeth’s death, and many of whose recommendations were reflected in the Prison Act of 1898. The chairman of the Prison Commission, Sir Edmund Du Cane (‘hard labour, hard fare and hard board’)39 resigned and some humane reforms were introduced.40 The committee recommended that ‘unproductive labour should be abolished wherever possible’ and that ‘the number of skilled teachers of industries in the prison service should be increased’ thereby preparing prisoners to pursue useful occupations upon release. ‘Habitual criminals should be kept as a class apart from other criminals’, though the committee cast doubt on the values of the Separate System, as Elizabeth Fry had done. Nevertheless, the system survived in some places until 1922 and oakum picking until well into the twentieth century – its abolition coming too late to spare Oscar Wilde this humiliation. As previously observed, hard labour survived until 1948. The 1898 Act was followed in 1902 by the introduction of Borstals for young offenders believed to be capable of reform. The institutions were named after the village of Borstal, near Rochester in Kent, where the first one was established. Shortly afterwards the ‘convict crop’ haircut and arrow uniform were abolished.

Today, 160 years after Elizabeth Fry’s death, habitual criminals still turn prisons into universities of crime for less experienced and more naive inmates and the authorities continue to wrestle with the problem of introducing purposeful education and training into gaols whose inmates are too often on the move because of overcrowding. Many of Elizabeth Fry’s ideas, based upon her experiences among the prisoners in Newgate, remain aspirations rather than achievements within the prison system of the twenty-first century.

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