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 Research Guide > Imprisonment > Next: Prison Hulks

Research Guide

The Prison System in England in the 18th and 19th Centuries

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In 1873 there were two distinct prison systems in England. The first involved the counties and shires and had been in operation since the 12th century. It was administered by Justices of the Peace and their prisons ranged from primitive lock ups and pens to "Elizabethan" houses of correction. They were initially intended for the discipline of unemployed and wandering labourers and were said to be exceptionally dirty and disorderly.

The second was a somewhat smaller prison system run by the central government in London and it had gradually come to include the process of transportation of more serious offenders to other countries. Newgate was the main prison in England and by the 1800's it had been in existence for nearly 700 years. It had survived goal fever and riots and was the place from which many left to be hanged at Tyburn.

In 1786, with transportation to America at a standstill, Newgate Prison held 558 prisoners and as more and more transportation sentences were handed down, thousands more were crowded into decommissioned naval vessels called hulks. At the time there were said to be 100,000 people under sentence of transportation, but that was thought to be an exaggeration. Conditions on the hulks were cramped and often worse than places like Newgate.

Several hundred convicts were sent to Africa only to have the experiment fail. A new plan was announced in January 1787 when it was decided to transport convicts to New South Wales 'in order to remove the inconvenience which arose from the crowded state of the jails in different parts of the Kingdom'.

Even after convicts began leaving for Australia, England still tried to rid itself of more convicts and in one instance in 1789, it sent 80 Irish convicts to Newfoundland, only to have them turned away. A similar thing happened much later in the late 1840s when free colonists in South Australia, the Port Phillip District of New South Wales and South Africa turned convict vessels away.

Lobbying over the conditions on convict hulks continued long after transportation to Australia began, and as a result, Millbank prison was eventually built in 1816 to the west of the Houses of Parliament and adjacent to the Thames River in London. Unfortunately, due to its management regime and architectural design, it proved to be unsuccessful.

Reformist pressure and colonial objections continued and led to the development of model penitentiaries. They were to include those at Portland (1848), Dartmoor (1850), Pentonville (1853), and Chatham (1856). They adopted a form of the colonial labour regimes and the transportation system was changed to incorporate the exile system. From then on, prisoners would serve a probationary period in England and then be pardoned on condition of being deported. Convicts sent to Port Phillip, New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia from the 1840s onwards were products of the exile system.

By 1862, London had State Prisons in the Tower of London, the House of Commons, and three debtors or civil prisons. One of the latter was for the Queen's bench, another was in Horsemonger Lane and run by the Surrey county justices, while the third was in Whitecross Street and run by the justices of London and Middlesex.

There were also three convict prisons at Millbank, Pentonville and Brixton and hulks were still used at Woolwich. The Middlesex magistrates had facilities at Coldbath Fields and Tothill and a remand prison called the House of Detention at Clerkenwell.

From 1835 the Home office had been empowered to inspect local prisons and from then on began a process that took over a century to nationalize the prison system.
Next: Prison Hulks

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