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Duration 53:51

Prison: five hundred years behind bars

Edward Marston looks at the changing nature of imprisonment over the centuries and the experiences of those who endured it, charting the growth of the national prison system in England and Wales from castle dungeons to purpose-built concrete gaols.

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Edward Marston is the author of Prison: Five Hundred Years of Life Behind Bars


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Welcome to prison, ladies and gentleman! It’s always nice to have a captive audience! I’m going to talk about prison over four, five, six, seven hundred years, specifically in this country and the piece of paper you have in front of you gives a rough idea of the structure both of the book [] and of the talk I’ll give this afternoon.

Imprisonment of various kinds goes back to the dawn of time and all civilisations used it in various ways. The first recorded mention of it in England is in fact in the law code of Alfred the Great, which is the ninth century. As you know, he was the king of Wessex, which is the sort of south and west of Britain and spent a great deal of time fighting with the Danes and eventually came to composition with them and allowed them to have Danelaw, which was north and east, while he had the south and west. And he introduced a particular clause in his law code, which went as follows:

‘if anyone pledges what is right for him to carry out and leaves it unfulfilled, he is with humility to hand over his weapons and his possessions to his friends for keeping and to be 40 days at a prison of the king’s estate’

I mentioned the Danes – he actually then, having beaten the Danes in a battle, built a number of fortresses around there. And within those fortresses would be the prison, as it were, which wouldn’t be a custom-built prison, it would simply be a dungeon or a holding centre.

The next person we come across is King Cnut – C-N-U-T – correct spelling, you all know about him standing in front of the waves. King Cnut had a very elaborate law code and when he took control of this country, and of course he controlled the whole of this country, not just Wessex, he decided that he would introduce for the native people here what he called, ‘gentle punishment’.

Let me give you some examples of ‘gentle punishments’: mutilation, castration, whipping in public where you were tied to a cart and whipped around town until you were bleeding, and the stocks and the pillory were in all of the town. Now, stocks are fine because you put your legs in and you’re stuck there for maybe a day or two, but at least you can defend yourself. The pillory doesn’t have that. And pillories were made by one carpenter who didn’t work for Clark’s shoes and gave you a particular fitting. It was a one size fits all! And once you were locked into it, you couldn’t move for however long your sentence was, which meant [that] people could throw things at you: bricks, sticks, stones, dung was very favourite, cats was another favourite, and you might find that being put in the pillory was another word for a death sentence. A few weeks ago, we were in Malta and I went in to a pillory just to amuse the passers-by and it was built 400 years ago, so it was for a much shorter human being. So I had been standing there like this [poses] for a long time; somebody who was even shorter would have been doing this [poses] for maybe a day and a half. So just being in there, being immobilised was, as I was saying, a most appalling thing and you were just a target for everybody.

Women suffered even worse. They were stocked and pilloried, but they had all kinds of other unpleasant things, including if they were scolds, being paraded about the town in what was called a cathadis decoris – technically, a ‘shitting chair’, an early form of commode. So it was highly embarrassing to be sort of taken around and laughed at by everyone in there.

Men and women also both suffered ordeal by fire, which meant that you had to either plunge your hand into a fire, or carry some iron bars, which were red hot. And then at the end of it, if your hands recovered after a certain length of time, you were deemed to be innocent; if they didn’t, and of course 99% of them didn’t, then you were guilty and you would have one of these ‘gentle punishments’, which was possibly having your hand cut off or branding of some kind, or another favourite was nose-slitting. Sodomy, incidentally, was punished by burning. And if it was bestiality, both you and the animal were also burnt, which I think was a little unfair on a chap who might have been grazing quietly in a field!

When you come to William the Conqueror, he moved in and wanted to establish a much stronger law code and the two ways he did this were through castles and churches. And the first castle he built of any significance [was] of course, the Tower of London. He was never happy in London, because it was a place that didn’t welcome him, so he had this huge citadel built there to kind of keep everyone in awe. And it was built by successive Norman kings and enlarged. But the most significant appointment he made, I think, was putting Archbishop Lanfranc in Canterbury Cathedral. Lanfranc was not a Norman, by the way, he was an Italian, brought over, put in charge of Canterbury Cathedral. He was horrified to arrive and find the monks were under strength – they were only about a third of the requisite number. But most of them drank every night and most of them had wives or concubines or both! So the first thing he did was to have the celibate rule put back in and he brought in his constitutions, and in there was a most interesting bit, because he said, ‘let us have prisons which can be controlled by the monasteries or by bishops’. So in other words, you have an ecclesiastical wing of the prison system, as well as…a royal wing.

The person who really systematised the whole thing was Henry II. We’re talking about the twelfth century – 1154- 1189. When he came in, he had a famous meeting with his barons at… the Assize of Clarendon and he decided (if you want to look this up, it’s Clause 7) and ‘in several counties where there are no gaols, let such be made in a burgh or castle of the king at the king’s expense’. That was a wonderful phrase, ‘at the king’s expense’, so every county had to have one place which was a sort of royal prison. Now, this was fine if you lived in, say Gloucestershire, where you had a county town, with a castle, which could be used. But if you were in Berkshire, or Wiltshire, or Somerset- counties which even today don’t have a really big central thing, then you have to come to an imaginative arrangement with the local sheriffs, as to where you put your various people.

The features of medieval imprisonment- and when I say ‘medieval’, we’re talking about 1066 up until the arrival of the Tudors in the late-fifteenth century – are as follows.

Prison was not the punishment. Prison was a holding centre; you were put in there until your case came up and the real punishment was what happened afterwards, which could be far worse than being in prison, frankly!

Second, alongside royal prisons, there was a whole clutch around the country of municipal prisons. Now these were privately owned by lay barons or by ecclesiastics and they had no income at all from the Royal Exchequer. So they had to pay for them themselves. Now all they were enjoined to do was to keep the people in custody; they had no money and no obligation to provide food, clothing, or anything else. So what did they do? The simple solution was to charge the people being put in there for everything; so you were charged for your clothing, your food and whatever.

Which brings us to the third point: there was social gradation. Wealthy people did quite well; they could be kept in honourable confinement, maybe in a room of their own, maybe even allowed to see their wife or their mistress or whatever. But most people were flung into a common ward and, worst thing of all, they were all fettered. Because these prisons just were run by two, three, four people, you had to immobilise the prisoners and the heaviest ones went on the common people, obviously – you paid to have them on and you paid to have them taken off. So you had cases of people who went…away to trial, came out from the trial, were acquitted, but couldn’t pay the money that they owed to thegaolor, so they went back in again. It was an awful situation.

Torture was used on spies, political prisoners and those who defied the established religion. The worst of all was called strong and heavy punishment. Edward I – Longshanks – dreamt this one up and the rule was as follows: ‘the prisoner shall be kept in an airless damp dungeon, naked except for a loin cloth stretched out on his back and iron weights placed upon his chest, increased each day. First day: three morsels of rotten course bread. The second day: a draught of water from the stagnant pool next to the prison door – no spring or fountain water allowed. The third day: three morsels of bread. And then alternate days of the same diet until death supervenes’. Once you have decided that you’re not going to answer the accusation and went mute, it was started; if halfway through, you decided, ‘ooh actually, it wasn’t me at all, I have an alibi’, too late. Once it was started, it could not be stopped. So pressing to death was one of the most dreadful punishments.

Fifth thing about medieval prisons: women were treated with especial harshness, you won’t be surprised to learn. If a man killed his wife, that was homicide. If the wife killed a husband, that was called ‘petty treason’. And the sentence for that was to be burned alive. Many women…suffered that. Indiscriminately, they were hanged as with the men and scolds, or shrews as we call them, have this thing called the ‘branks’, which was almost like a helmet coming over with an awful mouthpiece that went in it held the tongue down, so it was impossible for the women to speak. And that would be worn for a certain length of time. Now, we all know the play, The Taming of the Shrew and in that, Petruchio starves Katherina into submission. It’s not a play that’s popular with audiences today, for obvious reasons. There is a ballad contemporaneous with the writing of that play, called The Taming of a Shrew, in which the husband does rather more than starve his wife to death. What he does is take her teeth out one by one with a pair of pinches. That was [a] fairly standard thing in the late medieval period.

The other thing about medieval prisons, just to finish, is that they were visible- they were bang in the middle of a town, they were the biggest structure of all, so you were standing cheek by jowl, you always had something as a deterrent there, because you knew that if you didn’t behave yourself, then in you would go and sometimes you wouldn’t come out. But I used to live in Canterbury and would always go in through the west gate because the west gate was used as the prison and they’ve still got the old barred windows, through which people would put their hand, because they weren’t fed. The only food they could get, the only money they could get, was by sticking out their hand to passers-by. You can now go in and actually look around that. (I’m sure Jim and Amy who live near Canterbury have both been there.)

When we come to the greatgaols of London, the first place to start was a wonderful poem by a man called John Taylor. John Taylor was a water poet; that meant he was a waterman, he rode from one side of the river to the other and wrote this appalling doggerel, [as] you’ll see in a moment. But he was also a great rater – they used to have a rating contest, where people stood up, literally two of them, instead of fighting, they were swearing at each other. And he was reckoned to be one of the best.

Watermen of London were famous for their foul language. If you didn’t tip them, you got an earful, which would last for a long time. And what he said of the greatgaols of London was, ‘in London and within a mile I wean, there are of gaols and prisons full sixteen and sixty whipping posts and cages where sin with shame and sorrow hathen do wages, for though the Tower be a castle royal, yet there’s a prison in it, for men disloyal’. And the Tower built by the Conqueror to act as a stronghold, was also many other things. It was a menagerie there, there was the Royal Mint, it was the home of the crown jewels and it became the place of execution. And it’s really under the Tudors that it comes into its own.

Henry VIII, as you know, decided that he’d rather be the Head of the Anglican Church, rather than be bound to the pope and so the Act of Succession was passed in 1534. His subjects were required to acknowledge the act and to acknowledge his supremacy. Thomas More, who had been his Lord Chancellor, one of the greatest jurists in the whole of Europe, had refused to do so. And as you know, if you’ve seen the play, A Man for All Seasons, he finished up in the condemned cell and, not far away from him, was the Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, again a man of tremendous loyalty, who’d given wonderful service over the years, but he could not acknowledge an act which from his point of view attacked the supremacy of papal power. And so he too finished up being executed. In fact, he was supposed to be hang, drawn and quartered, quite the normal thing for traitors, which literally was being hanged, taken down while still alive, your intestines were drawn out while you were still alive and then you would die at some stage in that process and then cut into four halves and the quarters sent to four parts of the kingdom. Fisher’s sentence was commuted in the fact that he was beheaded, so he came off lightly.

Anne Askew was an interesting person. She was an extreme Protestant, married by force to a man she hated, went round the street giving out banned books and so on. So in 1545, she was put into the Tower. And [she was] one of the few women we know of who was tortured there. There was a very gentle and kind constable of the Tower of time and he just could not stand the idea of a woman being tortured, so the king sent in Henry Wriothesley, who was his Lord Chancellor, and Richard Rich, who was the Attorney General. And this is what she said of what actually happened:

‘Then did they put me on the rack because I confessed no ladies or gentlewomen to be of my opinion and thereon they kept me a long time, and because I lay still and did not cry out, my Lord Chancellor and Master Rich, did take pains to rack me with their own hands ‘til I was nigh dead. Then the Lieutenant caused me to be loosed from the rack. Incontinently, I swooned, and then they recovered me, again.’ She was burned at the stake in 1546; she was twenty-five years of age.

The brief and inglorious reign of Edward VI, 1547- 1553, of course had another through-put of Catholics. But when Bloody Mary came in, we really had full time work at the Tower, because she seized on Protestant extremists and destroyed so many of them that they became Protestant martyrs. And a man called John Foxe (F-O-X-E), published his famous Acts and Monuments, known as his Book of Martyrs, and they all featured. Anne Askew, for instance, is in there. And when Queen Elizabeth came to power in 1558, she made sure that a copy of Acts and Monuments was placed in every church in the country. So they could all see what would happen if you went back to Roman Catholicism, which of course had been espoused by Mary Tudor.

In Elizabeth’s reign, there was a man called Richard Topcliffe, who proves a point I made many years [ago] that Sadism was not invented by the Marquis de Sade. He was a most appalling man, who refined the arts of torture to such an extent that he dismissed the rack of the Tower and went home and…designed his own, and the really dangerous business, the Jesuits in particular, would be taken to his house, first of all to be shown the instrument, because you might get the confession before they were even laid out on this, and then he would rack them there. And he used to boast that the one at the Tower was like child’s play compared to his. Just to give you one example, I won’t go into any details, but you could pull a lever and you could break every finger on one hand. That was the sort of man he was. In fact, he became so noted for his cruelty, that he was imprisoned himself. And then [he was] released, given a huge pension and, would you be surprised, became a Member of Parliament [audience laughs].

The Clink is the oldest prison in London, built in 1127 in Southwark, on the left bank of the river, and what’s so interesting about that is that that land was owned largely by the Bishop of Winchester, which meant that all the tenements from which the brothels operated were owned by him, which meant that he had a rent! So prostitutes were called ‘Winchester geese’, and that went on for centuries. And it was only when Henry VII came in and cleared up the brothels because VD was spreading at an alarming rate, that his income went down. So the bishop was doing rather well out of the sins of the flesh. It usually handled prostitutes, but it also dealt with lots of ghettoes. Just along the way, also in Southwark, was the Marshalsea, famous from Dickens’ time of course, which, if you’ve been watching Little Dorrit, most of it takes place in the Marshalsea.

Whenever there was a riot…the first thing to happen was they tore down the prisons, these symbols of authority. So, in 1381 – the Peasants’ Revolt – they tore down the Marshalsea. In 1450, Jack Cade’s rebellion, they tore it down. Immediately, of course, it was rebuilt.

One of the most famous prisons was Newgate: a royal prison, administered by sheriffs, who sold the management to successive keepers, all of whom maintained corrupt regimes. They had no income from doing this, so they got the money from the people inside. One keeper, William Arnold, early in the seventeenth century, was actually caught raping one of his female inmates. Gradually, people convicted of really serious crimes tended to go to Newgate, and that was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and then rebuilt.

Just down the road was the Fleet on the Fleet Prison, by the Fleet River, the stink from which was so overpowering, you could hardly take it. And that, again, took in people from various smaller prisons, who were in for debt. Now, debt is a rather touchy subject at this particular moment in time, I know. We have a thing called credit…it sounds nicer if it’s credit. Most of us in this room, I suspect, would have been in prison in Elizabethan times, because if you have a mortgage which you cant pay instantly, in you would go. Dickens’ father, remember, owed £40. That’s all. And he was put in because he couldn’t pay it. So you have that vicious cycle, where you’re sent in because you cant pay, you rack up costs while you’re in there, addition to the payment outside, and off you go.

People who were sufficiently high socially, of course, didn’t pay any way. Robin Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, who was a great favourite of Queen Elizabeth, when he died, he had debts running to £15,000; we’re talking, in modern terms, we’re going up to millions there. His funeral cost another £4,000, so basically the debts he left were £19,000, or, again, into six figures. Extraordinary things you could get away with if you happened to be the Earl of Leicester; if you were further down the social standing, then you couldn’t.

When you come to look at the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists – this bit is not in my book, incidentally, I put it in because my friend, Bob Hamlin, over there, is a theatre director, and he’ll probably argue with what I’m going to say! There was an immediacy about crime and about imprisonment there; you saw it happening all around.

So, someone like Thomas Kidd, who in 1588, had the most successful play of that whole period, The Spanish Tragedy, which was, if you like, the Slumdog Millionaire of the day. Everybody went. He stayed in prison for forty years, which was very, very rare. Unfortunately, Kidd shared rooms with Christopher Marlowe, who we know, as well as being a playwright, worked as a spy and was also an atheist and had left some of his atheisitcal writings there when the place was raided. Marlowe was away, Kidd was put in prison and he was tortured so badly that he never wrote anything of significance again.

He wasn’t the only playwright to go in. Ben Jonson went in to prison twice, once for killing a man in a duel – duelling was illegal, and obviously homicide was illegal. He was sentenced to death, but there was an easy way out for people like him. If you could recite a part of the Bible in Latin, you escaped the hang, when it was called ‘neck verse’. Now, Ben Jonson went to Westminster School; the Classics Master at Westminster School was Thomas Camden, the greatest classicist in England. So if you’d been taught by him, you’d just look at it, rattle it off and was released. Before he was released, he had the letter, ‘f’ for felon’ imprinted on his thumb and he used to boast about it in the places like the Mermaid Tavern: ‘look boys, I’ve been in and I survived’. The next time he went in was for writing a play, or writing part of a play, called The Isle of Dogs, which is not extant, so we don’t know what was in it. But it attacked certain people of importance in the government.

Now, you have to remember that censorship was very, very strict then. Every play before a performance had to go and be read, and you had to pay £5 (a lot of money) to have it read before [the performance]. So, playwrights, like Shakespeare, who wanted to use political material, realised that it was much easier to move back in to time, to Roman times, to say things about Elizabethan government, or Jacobean government, in terms of what was happening in Rome. And you got away with it. The Isle of Dogs didn’t, it was very direct, it was very personal and Jonson and a few other people involved in that play were popped away.

Thomas Dekker, like most playwrights, he ran short of money, finished up in the Poultry Compter and couldn’t believe the amount of noise that went on. People were fighting all the time, they were yelling for tobacco and they had a couple of people there who were running against tobacco, so you either had the lot saying, ‘don’t smoke’, and this lot over here saying, ‘we need more!’…it really was an appalling thing.

If you look at Shakespeare’s plays, he weaves imprisonment into so many of his plays, not necessarily in terms of a prison. Obviously, in Richard III, we’ve got two visits to the Tower. First of all, we have the Duke of Clarence killed: false, fleeting, perjured Clarence, if you remember, was killed by being dropped into a barrel of malmsey. I know one or two people who might enjoy that kind of end to their lives, frankly, a barrel of malmsey, being sweet canary wine! And at the end of the play, of course, we have the Princes in the Tower killed – if indeed they were. You know the proof of that is not convincing, by any means.

But when you look at a play like Richard II, we finish up in prison again, in a castle and the king is assassinated. Then, we have Midsummer Night’s Dream, when they’re all, all the major characters, are imprisoned in a spell, for comic effect. But, from their point of view, they have no freedom of movement – basically everything is preordained. So, that was another form of imprisonment he used. In The Tempest, we have Prospero and his daughter imprisoned on an island. In As You Like It, they’re exiled, which is another form of imprisonment, stuck in the Forest of Arden, listening to the old duke saying the same thing time and time again…and living in a sort of prison situation.

Twelfth Night, for my money, has the cruellest imprisonment in Shakespeare, because poor old Malvolio, who is a fool and he’s very arrogant and so on, but the punishment is out of sync with the crime, I think, because he’s put into a darkened room and convinced that he’s mad and Feste dressed up and comes along with Sir Topas, the priest, and tries to sort of ‘kill him’, in inverted commas. We know that he’s not going to be sent off, but the worst kind of imprisonment in the period I’ve talked about was imprisonment in a mad house, because once you’re in there, if you weren’t mad when you went in, you very soon were. The conditions were so appalling. And, as comedy, we have to watch Feste really making poor old Malvolio suffer. And he comes back at the end and says he’ll be revenged on the pack of them, but we never get to see that revenge.

The most interesting Shakespeare play from the view of imprisonment is, I think, Measure for Measure: the only one which was specifically about justice. And there’s a speech in that by Angelo, which could be in the Elizabethan equivalent of the Daily Mail! What he says is, ‘we must not make a scarecrow of the law. Setting it up to fear the birds of prey, till it keep one shape, till custom make it their perch and not their terror’. In other words, ‘flog them, hang them, and keep bringing in more laws until whenever they find a way around them, we have to stop that’. It’s set in Vienna, in fact, of course, it’s set in Southwark, and all the diseases and the corruption of Southwark is there in the text. And Vincentio, the Duke, instead of cleaning up the mess, decides to go away and leave it to Angelo, and the name tells you [that] he’s a man of angelic disposition. And he’s described at one point, ‘O, what may man within him hide, though angel on the outward side’. And he’s given the awful job of cleaning this place up while the duke nips off, disguises himself as a friar and comes back to watch things going on. And the main thing he has to get rid of, because it’s the area of brothels, is this endless promiscuity. So anyone who conceives a child, or anyone who fathers a child, outside marriage is popped in. And a gentleman called Claudio, whose girlfriend becomes pregnant even though they’re betrothed – and it was quite normal to sleep with your person beforehand, think of Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway- Claudio is put in prison and is convinced he is going to die. And again, it’s one of the cruellest things in Shakespeare, I think, when the friar, Vincentio, comes in and tries to persuade him that death is a good thing. ‘Don’t worry about’, he says, ‘you know, always think on it as a positive thing’… It’s the best speech in the play, trying to convince him. So that’s a play entirely about imprisonment, the nature of imprisonment. And we see scenes in the prison, where the person running it is the provost, who is the kindest person in the prison there.

Why were people sent to prison for these things? Well, here’s a thing I’ve taken at random from a calendar of assize records in the time of Charles II, 1660 onwards: arson, assault, begging, bigamy, buggery, burglary, illegal burial, falsifying baptismal entries, despoiling churchyards, embezzlement, extortion, forgery, unlicensed selling, highway robbery, homicide, infanticide, larceny, perjury, recusancy, coining, rape, riotous assembly, scandalous or lewd living, smuggling and Sabbath-breaking. For any one of those things, you could be sent to prison. Most of them, of course, are offences against property. And the people who passed the laws were the people who owned the property, which is why 80- 85% of people in prisons tended to be people who have been thieves, or people who attacked and despoiled property.

When we come to the 18th century, we look at Newgate as symbolic of all that was wrong with the prisons: filthy, over-crowded, disease-ridden, run by corrupt men. In 1700, the deputy keeper, William Robinson, actually used to bring prostitutes in at night, and the men could pay either to go into the women’s cells, at six pence a time, or pay for the prostitute to come into their cell. The women who were visited, incidentally, very often encouraged this, because if they could get pregnant while they were in prison, and they’d been sentenced to death, they would have their stay of execution; it was called, ‘pleading the belly’. So you very often tried to get someone to make you pregnant, in order to extend your life. So you had ordinary people competing with the people who were brought in from outside: the prostitutes.

Prison was also a ‘university crime’. If you didn’t know much about crime when you went in, then someone could teach you. And here’s an example, this is a man called John Hall, writing in 1708: Memoires of the Right Villainous John Hall, the Late Famous and Notorious Robber, Pen’ed From His Mouth Sometime Before His Death:

‘In the Boozing-Ken, the students, instead of holding disputes in Philosophy and Mathematicks, run altogether upon Law; for such as are committed for House-breaking swear stoutly they cann’t be cast for Burglary, because the Fact was done in the Day-time; such as are committed for stealing a Horse-cloth, or Coachman’s Cloak, swear they cann’t be cast for Felony and Robbery, because the Coach was standing still, not stopp’d; and such as steal before a Man’s Face swear they value not their Adversary, because they are out of the Reach of the New Act against Private Stealing. Thus with an unparallel’d Impudence every brazen fac’d Malefactor is harden’d in the Sin, because the Law cann’t touch his Life’. In other words, if you talked to one of the old lags, they could tell you exactly how to defend yourself.

The total lack of hygiene and the crude sanitary conditions, you can imagine, made forgaol fever. There was a famous occasion in 1750, when they were taken from Newgate into the…court of the Old Bailey, and the disease was actually on their clothes and on their hair. As a result, 60 people died, including the Lord Mayor of London, the ex-Lord Mayor, two under-sheriffs, several of the jurymen, and many of the other people. And from that point on, I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of this, the judges always took a nosegay of flowers to ward off the stench of things; that’s why you see photographs of some of them carrying a little bouquet as they went. As a result of that, they tried to reduce over-crowding, and they actually put a window in the middle of Newgate, to introduce some kind of ventilation.

But the big event of the eighteenth century was of course the execution. And you were sent to Newgate, which was a sort of holding centre, and then you had the famous procession, all part of it. It was really a big carnival day – you went from Newgate all the way down to Tyburn, down by Marble Arch, as we now know it. It was a long thing, it was lined by huge crowds, who would be cheering or occasionally booing. And these men…they had a spurious glamour, these great gangsters, especially if they were the Jack Shepherds, the Captain Kidds… and Jack Wile, the most famous of them all. And when you got there, you had an enormous crowd – just think of a football match, except it had women and children – it also had people selling pies and various things, and lots of booze there, so it was quite a volatile crowd. And of course, because it had people, it had criminals there – it had pickpockets, it had prostitutes, all sorts of people taking advantage of the crowd. And the hangmen of the day- well, let’s just say it was not a perfectible art. They were usually bunglers, they were usually drunk.

So all sorts of awful things happened; if the drop was too long, you took the head off, if the drop was too short, the personal basically twitched away as he was slowly strangled. And wiser people got their friends to stand underneath the scaffold and the moment the legs came down, they jumped and they pulled and that’s where we get the phrase, ‘hangers on’. Hangers on were people who dispatched you, rather than leave it to the hangmen. But your problem wasn’t over even if you were killed, because over there would always be surgeons from the hospital, who wanted corpses for dissection. So… families very often had to fight off these people. If it was an old person, no problem, but they wanted young, healthy bodies, obviously, which they could dissect. So that was another element in it.

Some of the grotesque scenes which you will find in my book…are really sort of terrifying. When we come to John Howard, we come to the first major champion of penal reform. In 1773, he was made High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, and horrified to learn that the keeper of the local gaol had no income, and was basically squeezing every penny out of the poor people inside. So he went back to the Board of Guardians and said, ‘give this man a wage!’. They said, ‘no, we don’t…do that, there’s no example of someone having a wage in the whole country!’. He said, ‘I’ll find one!’. And if he could find a precedent, which he did…he went all round the country, all round Europe, and produced his famous report on gaols of England and Wales, and little bits later on in appendices about gaols. And the one place he really enjoyed was Holland, where the gaols were clean, better managed, and actually thought about what was going to happen when they came out at the far end. And he tried to introduce that as best practice.
His name lives on in the Howard League for Penal Reform; I worked in a prison in 1962, and the first day after I came out, I joined the Howard League for Penal Reform. So if you go into a prison like that…appalling conditions would be seen there.

It cost him £30,000 of his own money. Again, in terms of modern currency, we’re talking about perhaps £1,000,000, of his own money…as a philanthropic gesture just to do all this on behalf of people for whom he had no particular [knowledge]. I should say that he had a personal interest – when his first wife died, he decided to go on a little voyage. The voyage was interrupted by pirates, and they held him in custody for a certain while until he was released. So he knew what imprisonment was. He knew what it was like to be in chains and have people telling you when and what to eat.

Well that’s John Howard, one of our really great things. We now come to the Hulks, and by a strange coincidence, we have a young lady here, who has come all the way from New Mexico, who is doing her Masters thesis on the Hulks, so I’ll be careful what I say! It seems a strange thing for someone from New Mexico to be interested in, but it was one of the great horrors. Transportation had been used for a long time in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a way of getting rid of troublesome convicts. The best way to do [so] was to send them abroad to Virginia or the West Indies. After a while, they refused to take women, only men. So in fact you had to pay to send the women, whereas the men would go and you would get some money from the people at the other end.

In 1776, of course, Jim Hewer, our American friend, will tell you, the American War of Independence began, so suddenly they didn’t want any more of our rotten convicts. So we had to find somewhere else; and that eventually became Australia. While they were thinking about that, they put people in these old, disused vessels, which were men of war, from maybe forty, fifty, sixty years. [They were} dreadful, rotting away, full of rats and so on, stuck on the Thames, on the Medway, and in other places. And people were put into them, into the most appalling conditions imaginable. Many people died while they were in there of various diseases; they did have a hospital ship, but in order to get there, you had to convince the surgeon on your ship that you were a legitimate case.

They also had schooling; they also had religion, of a kind. They had two remarkable men – and if you’re interested in nineteenth-century prison, you must read a book by John Binny and Henry Mayhew, just called The Criminal Prisons of London, written in the 1850s, which is the most amazingly exhaustive study of the period. And they went on board the Defence, of one the prison ships, and saw the horrors that took place there. Just as an example of what people had to do, I’m going to read you something and this is actually one continuous sentence and the spelling is appalling. This is what one lad wrote home from a vessel called the Euralis, in 1829 [reads in a West Country accent]:

‘Dear mother and father, I have taken the earliest opportunity of writing these few lines to you hoping to find you in good health as it leaves me at present thank God for I have received your kind letter which you sent me and I was very happy to hear from your dear parents my poor brother Solomon is not more he died last Monday week at half past four in the afternoon and the good Captain let me see him on Sunday when he was alive and he also let me go to his funeral’, signed by John Edwards, who was nine years of age, and his brother was eleven; they had stolen a peace of cloth worth five shillings. John Edwards finished up in Australia.

People much younger than John were sent over there and people much older – we had people in their seventies and eighties [who were] sent over. They would be kept in chains in these appalling places. One of the worst places to go in fact was Bermuda, because there you were moored in filthy mud, hot sun – [the] perfect breeding ground for vermin. They first thing that they noticed [was that] wonderful sun limestone rocks, with the sun coming off both the water and the rocks. Most of them were half-blind; in fact several of them were completely blind by the time that they came back. They scurvy, they had all kinds of diseases and a particular disease wiped put 160 of them at one point, so being sent to the hulks was one of the worst possible things that could happen to you.

And the same regime of cruelty, mal-administration, bad food, poor living conditions, corruption, violence, desolation, that existed in the English hulks, carried on there. The Hulks, as our friend here will no doubt agree, was a terrible indictment of prison policy in this country.

Now in the 19th century, even in the pre-Victorian times, there were people who had just won this war against a man called Napoleon and a huge French army, so they felt they could do anything. So when they decided to build a new prison, they first of all had a report and then came up with a prison called Millbank. And Millbank is where Millbank is now, where the Tate Gallery is. It was an enormous prison, and the idea was that it was this huge fortress that would frighten people as they went past. Eventually, it took a thousand people; it was finally open in 1821. But there were problems.

The first problem was size: it was built on a moderation of what was called the Panopticon. Jeremy Benson, the utilitarian, designed a prison which was a huge… cylinder, which meant that if you stood in the middle, you could see every one of the single cells from one position. The modification here was that they had a central hexagon with the six wings going out. So standing here, you could see on this radial pattern everything – that’s basically the pattern of all Victorian prisons. I’ve been in three of them and they’ve all been exactly like that. You can stand there and you can just look down the different corridors. The real problem was the size- there were three miles of corridors. The wardens themselves couldn’t find their way around, they actually used to put chalk marks on there to see where they’d been. They possibly used breadcrumbs to find their way back. In those conditions, identical cells, endless circular staircases.

The other problem was [that] the architect had forgotten to look at the land, which was marshland. So immediately, you had a damp problem and within two or three years, you had cracks in the walls and in 1823 and 1824, there were scurvy outbreaks, which killed off various people. So that was not one of the great successes. Mahew and Binny write it off as a complete failure and they blame [it on] the fact that the governor, a rather naïve gentleman, also happened to be a clergyman. But in their manufactory they produced the clothing for all the other prisons…where the people did hard labour.

Pentonville, 1842, is the really typical Victorian prison on the radial pattern. Early discussions about the design were between three people, but if you look at the records, you’ll find that Captain Joshua… Jebb of the Royal Engineers is the sole architect. The other two people complained bitterly, but Jebb was very good at getting himself into the front rank of these things and eventually went on to become one of the titans of the prison system, first of all, he ran all the military prisons and then he was general of the Board of Directors of all the prisons in this country. And his contribution throughout the 19th century is mammoth, if you happen to agree with his ideas!

And his ideas were twofold. First of all, we have isolation, single cells, and secondly, we have silence. So people all go into one cell and they’re not allowed to speak to anybody. They can to reply to a warder, but they’re not allowed to speak to him directly, otherwise they get punished. Punishment: we’re talking about flogging, or [being] put in a strait jacket, or losing your food, or all sorts of unpleasant things. Now this system is perfectly designed to drive people mad and several people did unfortunately go mad as a result and attempt suicide and so on. When you went for exercise, you wore a mask, so you couldn’t see who else was in prison with you. So you would be walking in a circle, with your brother, or your uncle, or your father, without realising they were in the same place. Cunning prisoners did get around this in various ways, obviously particularly in chapel, where again, you were locked in a single cubicle and the only person you could see would be the parson up in his pulpit. But there were ways of drilling holes and things and making contact with the chap next door or passing messages. But, as I say, for most people, it was a dreadful thing. Every prison was built on harsh discipline and the people who ran them were usually ex-army or ex-navy, people who were used to the military ethos, where you had instant obedience, so there was no messing about.

There was a scandal in Birmingham prison, where I used to work. In 1854, there was a young man who was treated so harshly that he killed himself. He was called Edward Arnold and this is what the report said in the Royal Commission, appointed to inquire into the treatment of him:

‘He had the strait jacket last Sunday morning for two hours. It made shrivel marks on his arms and body. A bucket of water stood by him in the case of exhaustion. He stood with cold, red, bare feet on a rock soaked in water. The ground was covered in water. He looked very deathly and real with weakness when liberated, too weak and jaded to be taught, and could only be talked to and when talked to, always appeared wild. His crime: talking and using obscene language. [He] was also threatened with trial before magistrates.’

So this man had sworn at one of the wardens, was straitjacketed, and suffered so much physically he couldn’t actually cope with the pain. Lots of people went mad, as I say…and many of them, having come out, were recidivists, who went straight back in for another [crime].

Religion was an important part of the regime, and if you read the book by Binny and Mahew, you’ll find that they pay particular attention to that. When it comes to women, of course, they had a champion at the start of the 19th century called Elizabeth Fry, who was the John Howard equivalent, who was a Quaker and in 1813, two friends came in and they had been to Newgate and they had been appalled at the state of the conditions there. Women, with children, were living in rooms where some were on bunks, some were sleeping on straw on the floor, which was rank with urine, menstrual blood and even after-birth, because they never cleaned these things out. The kids were unclothed, so Elizabeth Fry got a group of Friends (with a capital ‘F’, all Quakers) and they sewed hour after hour and the next day they went along to the governor and said, ‘let us in’. He said, ‘you’ll be killed if you go in there, these are feral women’. They went in and because of their Quaker dress, they were accepted and they gave the children clothes. It took them three days, in fact, to clothe all of the children there. But they earned respect.

Elizabeth Fry continued to go in and improve circumstances. And then if you read her diary, there’s a very nice passage there where she says, ‘my husband was very tender in the night’. Well nine months later, we get the result of tenderness and she has another child, which means that for eighteen months, she wasn’t going in to Newgate. When she went back in, she started a school, she formed an Association for the Improvement of Women there, and she got them working and actually making things that they could sell, which gave them self-esteem.

And when they had an enquiry into prisons in 1818, she said three things are important: one is religious instruction- and of course, she always prayed with them, or read from the Bible. You must categorise the prisoners and make sure they’re not all put together… the more serious ones over there, the old lags, and the younger ones who may have just had one offence must be given there, and you must have small groups, so that you cant have any kind of ‘moral turpitude’ was the phrase she used. Thirdly, they must have employment give them money.

And one of the people who was writing the postscript of that particular report does say that she was a true heroine and much of the advance that was made must be ascribed to her personal unremitting attention and influence. One should say that she a bit like Mrs Jellyby of Bleak House, that while she was spending all the effort on these people in Newgate, she was neglecting the family at home. (Mrs Jellyby, you may remember, is the lady who sent money off to Africa and her kids are starving.) And there is that element and she knew this, she did…she was her worst critic. She realised that by devoting herself to prison reform, someone would suffer.

When we come to the 20th century, we’ve got the Suffragettes coming along. Now, it seems extraordinary to me that people were quite happy – men throughout the whole of the Victorian period from 1837 onwards, are quite happy to forge a great empire for a Queen and pay obeisance to her, but the moment a woman asks for a vote, ‘oh no, we can’t have that!’. So they opposed it at every turn. And a group called the Women’s Social and Political Union was formed in 1903 by Emily Pankhurst and her three daughters and in 1905, they decided to do something, [take] direct action, if you’d like. And when a gentleman who you may have heard of called Winston Churchill stood in a by-election for the Liberal party (he was a Liberal in those days). One of them stood up and said, ‘would the Liberal party give a vote to women?’. And she was told to sit down. She stood up again and had a go; the policeman came over and said, ‘look, if you wait until question time, he’ll answer the question’. So they waited, they put the question again, Churchill refused to answer it and walked away, so they went outside and started a row and finished up in prison. And they became the first Suffragette martyrs.

Further down the line of course, when they went in to get more attention, they would go on hunger strike. And hunger strike meant forcible feeding, where three or four people would hold you down and the tube would be put either down the nose or down the mouth and the food would be forced in that way. It was excruciating and all the reports – and you can find some in my book – are really kind of unnerving. And these were people of middle-class background, highly-educated women. One of them, Lady Constance Lytton, was taken in, a woman with a very bad heart condition, and because she was a Peer, she was given the light treatment. So next time there was a riot, she dressed up as a mill worker and called herself Jane Warden and went in and was given the worst treatment of all and suffered badly, and her health never recovered.

Towards the end of the period, before the war, it became more and more orchestrated, the violence; one day, they had a spree in the whole of the West End and smashed every window – very much the sort of thing we see in places like yesterday [protests of May 2009]. And then the war came along and there was a truce. The Suffragettes said, ‘no, we will support the war effort’ and as a result of what women in general did; of course we have the vote coming in in 1918, but only for women over 30. [It was] another ten years before over-21 came into play.

During that war, we have a number, for the first time, of conscientious objectors in the Great War. These are people, who for mostly reasons of pacifism or religion – Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on – could not take another life or be involved in that. And they were hated by the prison wardens, most of whom of course were ex-soldiers, who gave them a really bad time. Some of them were beaten to death, but all of them were treated abysmally. Some were sent off with regiments and put into tents on their own, stripped naked and left in a tent in the middle of winter. And in one famous incident in 1916, 50 of them were taken over to France, paraded in front of the entire regiment and the death sentences [were] read out; so these men had all this psychological torture and later on, somebody said, ‘oh by the way, it’s been commuted to sentence in prison back in England’. That was mentioned in the House of Commons and there was a huge hoo-ha in the paper. But the treatment of them was appalling and it didn’t end when they came out of prison, because they were socially ostracised and if you were a teacher, particularly, you could not get a job. So it really was a life sentence you would take.

Similarly, in the Second World War, we had conscientious objectors: far more of them, over 100,000, in fact, of whom 1700 were women, because of course women were conscripted in the Second World War. And again, [they were] treated badly, but this time, the government had learnt its lesson. Conscription came in at the start and it was gradated, as it were, throughout and instead of being put into these awful prisons, they were given a chance to go into what was called ‘public works’. So they might go off to Dartmoor and work in the quarries or go off to some other places and do work that was not related to the war effort.

A lady called Iris Rainford, from Cardiff, eighteen year-old Jehovah’s Witness, refused to work… as a receptionist in a hotel because the Bevin Boys were there. The Bevin Boys were brought in to work in the mines, as you may remember, in the last war. (Jim of Jim’ll Fix It [Jimmy Saville], oddly enough, was a Bevin Boy.) And she was sent to Cardiff Prison for a month and here was a well brought-up girl, from a middle-class girl background, suddenly cast into prison with prostitutes, and she’d never even heard the word, ‘venereal’ disease, until she realised that she was the only person that didn’t actually have it amongst most of the prisoners she dealt with. So once again, when she came out, she suffered awfully.

Clifford Allen, who ran the one in the First World War, was imprisoned in Maidstone prison and found a way around the silence rule. When he went to empty the slops (and of course, your only lavatory was the bucket in your thing [the cell]), you queued up and shoved it into the sink. He and the man next to him exchanged words and they played chess on the walls of their cells. And the man would say, ‘pawn, so and so, move to the right’. They played chess and it became so popular that the entire group of conscientious [objectors] in the prison took part in a prison tournament. So there ways of getting around it, if you were clever enough. It’s the sort of thing that people had to do.

And finally, we come to executions. Well, Samuel Johnson hated the idea that in 1783, Newgate became the place of execution. You’d have this wonderful procession…and he used to say, ‘the prisoners are comforted by it, and the people need excitement’. And from then on, they were still in public and you could still see them in a very narrow area around Newgate Prison.

And we then come to the awful character called William Calcraft, who for 45 years was the main executioner for London, Middlesex and all over the country. And he was just a sort of bungling idiot; he hanged a man called François Courvoisier – who was a Swiss valet, who had killed his master – and forgot to give him a long drop, which meant that he literally twitched away in front of this enormous crowd. In the crowd, was William Makepeace Thackeray, [who] wrote a famous essay on it, being horrified about going to a hanging, and Charles Dickens. And if you read Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, you find a scene very much like that, where somebody is hanged for a very long time.

A bit later, there was a double hanging, when a husband and wife were hanged, again by the same man, Calcraft. And a huge crowd turned up – we’re talking about thousands and thousands, I think 40,000 on that occasion. People would pay vast amounts of money to sit on the roofs and in the windows of places overlooking there. And on this occasion, a letter was sent to The Times by Charles Dickens, which became a sort of focal point of a lot of penal reform.

And this went on and on and on [and he was] replaced by James Berry, who in some ways was a bit more organised. Again, a man who had applied for the job…not having hanged anyone. He’d hanged a slice of meat, but that’s not quite the same thing. So he began to make mistakes and then he published a famous Book of Drops. The idea is to have someone going down and at the moment the thing stops, it should break their neck. And if it’s too long, of course, then they go all the way down. And if it’s too short, then you will cut… their heads off, which is what happened to him.

And a famous occasion was when he tried to hang a man called John Lee, John Babbacombe Lee, in Exeter prison. And he came in, gave him his sermon, put his hat on, pinned in his arm, put him on the trap, pulled the trap door, and nothing happened. So he jumped on it, his assistant jumped on it – [it] didn’t open. Right get the guy off, stand him over there. Get the warden, pull the lever, it goes down. Get someone to have a go at it with a chisel. And then, basically, bring the chap in for the second time, stand him on there, and pull the lever and nothing happens. They all jump on it, so we know exactly what this prisoner’s thinking, you know what the hanged person is going to [think], because he’s going through this experience with [him]. The thing is, he can’t see them [and] his hands are [behind his back]. They then take him out and they have a real go. They get down and they send people below and they chip away at various things, and they tried time and time again. And it works perfectly.

So they get him back in and they stand him there – when he goes out, by the way, they take off the thing [the blindfold], so he can see and he notices that the chaplain is just about to collapse. You can imagine these people have all brought in, the witnesses. He comes back in, stands there again and they pull the lever and once again, it doesn’t open. So John Lee, the man they couldn’t hang, got away, was commuted to a life sentence in Portland prison and…they came out and wrote, well, ghosted, his life-story ghosted and explained the horrors of the person about to be hanged. The mental torture, if you like, that goes with the whole process, because you know you’re going to be hanged for a long time before it happens.

The twentieth century, of course, we come up against the name of Albert Pierrepoint, from a family of executioners. His father was sacked for being drunk on duty and his uncle, Tom, was one of the great executioners of the day and in fact, Albert worked with him. And Albert finished up – he wouldn’t give a number – but over 400 people he hanged, men and women. Many of them were German people who were convicted at Nuremberg and he was doing them two at a time. Women one at a time, men two at a time – literally, pull a lever and they both hang. And when he came back of course, it became public that he was the executioner and he became very famous in his little village. He used to run a pub called Help the Poor Straggler, would you believe? [laughter] And…towards the end of his life, he suddenly found opposition, which he’d never had, because he began to hang people who didn’t actually commit the crime for which they were hanged. He hanged…Timothy Evans, who was hanged for the murder of his wife and his daughter, and in fact, the other lodger, John Christie, had killed them and he was hanged three years later. Ruth Ellis, he also hanged at Holloway and the crowds got bigger and bigger and he was jostled more and more. And eventually, he retired.

By this stage, there was a huge build up of antagonism against the whole idea of capital punishment. And eventually, it was on the stocks to be abolished and the last person to be hanged in this country, or the last two on the same day, were in…1964. And one of the hangmen, the last of our hangmen, Harry Allen, used to say, ‘I would come along, I would do the job, I’d kill them very quickly, I’d have a cup of tea and my way home, I would buy a newspaper to see whom I’d just hanged’.

And on that macabre note, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll finish. Thank you [applause].

Transcribed by Claire Oxlade as part of a volunteer project, March 2015


  1. kieran says:

    i like this

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