A Lesson on Victorian Prison Reform

Bexhill Crouch Prison

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 Diemens 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.

One of the areas often looked at when states and local governments attempt to balance their budgets is the cost of maintaining prisons and jails. Recently, a national news source told of how one jail had prisoners clipping coupons for Swanson dinners. The jail would place an order with the local supermarket and use the coupons to reduce the cost of feeding the prisoners.

Such reforms can find their roots in great Victorian obsession to economize public expenditures. The idea of one prisoner per cell was actually an American innovation – the belief being that the prisoner, if kept in isolation, would know remorse for his crimes. In 1842, such a prison was built in Pentonville, Pennsylvania. Within six years, 54 prisons followed suit.

In Bath, England, a new Bath City Gaol was built at Twerton. The estimated cost of the gaol was £18,650, with the funds to build the gaol supported by local investors. The gaol was designed to hold 20 male debtors, 12 female debtors, 10 prisoners in the Infirmary, and 80 prisoners in separate cells.

Photograph, court yard of Wormwood Scrubs Prison, groups of prisoners pulling carts. (COPY 1/420 f.180)

The cells were 13 feet x 7 feet x 9 feet, and each contained a W.C. Besides separate cells, there were separate yards and separate sheds for working, as well as separate stalls in the chapel so the prisoner could only look upon the chaplain and not other prisoners.

Mr. Pike, the Turnkey of the Old Gaol on Grove Street, was given the position of Governor of the New Gaol at a salary of £100 per annum, plus £20 for his wife acting as Matron.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Perry, the Inspector of Prisons, set upon an inquiry into the running of the Bath City Gaol. The Pikes were charged with using prisoners as laborers about their home: tending the farm animals, working in the garden, doing housework, etc. Mrs. Pike allowed a prisoner named Amelia Hall to meet with her family and friends in the Governor’s house.

A breach of contract between Her Majesty’s Government and the Bath Town Council occurred over the supply of leather required for the manufacture of shoes by the convicts. Accounts were altered in the Governor’s favor. Some 12-18 pairs of shoes were made for Pike’s family members rather than for the prisoners over a two year period.

Needless to say, Pike was relieved of his duties. The management of the gaol was placed under the control of the Visiting Justices. The experiment of prison reform in Bath (financed by private capital; contracts for materials by competitive tender; subject to minimal accountability) does not lend itself well to the idea of the privatization of prisons.

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