"The History of British Prisons (from the days of the hulks to the present day) "

July 2009 Meeting Report

Speaker - Richard Papworth


The July meeting of the Keyworth & District Local History Society was held in The Centenary Lounge, Keyworth, on Friday 3rd July. A slightly smaller than usual number of persons attended the meeting, perhaps due in part to the very pleasant weather outside or the fact that the funfair for tomorrow’s Keyworth Show was in full swing on the playing fields outside the Centenary Lounge. Unfortunately, once again the meeting suffered some disturbance from a small number of unruly elements outside the building. The guest speaker for the evening was Richard Papworth and the subject was “The History of British Prisons (from the days of the hulks to the Mountbatten Report).

Richard began by introducing himself and explaining how his interest in British prisons had developed. He began by stating that he was born in Great Stukeley in the county of Huntingdonshire, a location steeped in history. Samuel Pepys, no less, was born in the locality and Richard attended the same school as the celebrated diarist. Richard left school at 15 years of age with no academic qualifications whatsoever and enrolled as one of the county’s first police cadets. Shortly afterwards he was called-up for National Service and served in the Royal Military Police. On his demob he joined the county police, a force that he served with until he met his future wife. The lady in question was a city girl and on their marriage Richard transferred from the county to the city police force. This was unfortunate, as Richard hated the job in the city. Matters came to a head one night when Richard was reprimanded for a misdemeanour for something that he did not do. This resulted in Richard leaving the police force and becoming responsible for security at a shopping store. This was only a temporary situation; Richard was soon enrolling to become a prison officer. It was from this employment that Richard developed his interest in the history of British prisons.

Richard went on to explain what hell-holes prisons were hundreds of years ago and how they have changed into the institutions that they are today. Today, if you were unfortunate enough to become a guest in one of Her Majesty’s prisons you would be carefully assessed at the commencement of your sojourn there and your particular needs and requirements considered. Education needs, both cerebral and physical, would be assessed. Religious beliefs are considered and any particular requirements tried to be accommodated. All this is a very far cry from the situation in 1166 when King Henry II ordered that cages be constructed to hold prisoners awaiting trial, execution or transportation to France. There was no State prison system, those at the top of the feudal tree had their own prisons and ran them as they deemed fit. Likewise, punishments under the penal code could be very harsh. A huge range of crimes carried the death penalty. Imprisonment was not usually used as a form of punishment. Branding, amputation, blinding and corporal punishment were more the order of the day. Locking people up for lengthy periods could, potentially, be an expensive solution to punishment; that is unless you were rich. Then you could purchase virtually anything provided that your gaoler was an accommodating man who had an eye to making a few coins for himself as well. For the poor prison was horrendous, poor diet, damp and unsanitary conditions ensured that many died very soon after being incarcerated. This situation continued for hundreds of years.

A situation occurred in Oxford jail in 1577, which has had repercussions to this day. A number of prisoners were brought to the Assizes at Oxford, many of these prisoners carried with them 'Jail Fever'. The result of this was devastating, over 300 persons died including prisoners, judiciary, court spectators and townspeople. To this day judges entering the court are presented with a nosegay to ward off the effects of 'Jail Fever', whilst prisoner officers have to be vaccinated on a regular basis against a host of diseases. The situation generally in prisons continued to be deplorable, mainly because the control of them was so unregulated. The government built a few prisons, the first of which was Millbank, in London, in 1779. The Tate Gallery now stands upon the site that the prison occupied.

Keeping convicts locked up in prison could be expensive, it was much cheaper to put them on a boat and dump them somewhere thousands of miles away. During the 18th Century it became commonplace to transport convicts to the New World. Firstly to America, though that ceased with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. After that date Australia became a favourite dumping ground for England's 'undesirables'. For the most part though prisons continued to be run by private individuals as commercial enterprises. This ended in 1877 when prisons became a state-run service. The first commissioner of prisons was Sir Edmund Du Cane. Du Cane was a strict man and a great believer in regimes of bread and water, solitary confinement, hard labour and religious instruction. Cells were purposefully built without integral sanitation, and those that were built in Pentonville with sink and toilet had the facilities removed. A cell call system was installed for emergency purposes (which exists today although usually as an electronic alarm), so that staff could be contacted by prisoners should an emergency arise.

One of the more infamous prison regimes was that known as ‘The Separate & Silent System’. Under his rule, prisoners were banned from contact with other prisoners and had to maintain a strict silence. Prisoners were not allowed to talk to each other, the breaking of this rule invoked severe punishments including solitary confinement. They had to wear hoods and walk with heads facing the wall when outside cells. The silent, separate system was soon phased out, the effect it had on many of the prisoners was devastating. The idea behind the system was that the prisoner's brain needed to be 'cleansed' of all unsavoury material. With the mind cleared the prisoner should then be receptive to 're-education' and made fit to go back into society as a reformed character. What often happened was that prisoners had serious psychological problems, often ending with mental breakdowns and actually finished up far worse after the treatment than they were before it.

However new forms of treatment were devised for the convicts; this usually involved the prisoners doing tedious and pointless tasks. The tread wheel and the hand-crank were two such examples. Both devices could be adjusted to make them physically more or less demanding. This was done by means of a screw, which tightened the mechanism of the equipment; the more the screw was turned the harder it was to operate the equipment. The warders were responsible for operating the equipment and they acquired the nickname of screws, an epithet that they still retain to this day, (long after both systems had been abolished). Picking oakum was another of the tasks that were monotonous in the extreme. Oakum picking, the unravelling and cleaning of rope or "junk", was introduced into prisons as a punishment for men in 1840: Prisoners had to wear clothing that had large, printed arrows sewn onto it. They also had to have the convict 'crop', a haircut that left the head almost completely shorn of hair. The prisoners were allowed very few visits of friends and relatives; similarly they were only allowed to write to persons outside prison on a very limited basis. They enjoyed very few personal privileges or rights. Even those that they were allowed officially were often denied to them by prison governors who believed that prisoners were in prison to be punished and made prison life as unpleasant as possible. Corporal punishment was commonplace; devices such as the cat o'nine tails or the birch were used. Prisoners had very few rights or privileges. Bread and water were used as a punishment, though the basic fare in prisons was very basic anyway. The food provided was similar to that found in the workhouse and was barely at a subsistence level. It was generally accepted that no prisoner should be better off inside prison compared to the workhouse.

One strand of official thinking was that if convicts had such a hard life inside prison then they may be deterred from returning to crime once they were released knowing what was waiting for them if they were unfortunate enough to be jailed yet again. Sadly this wasn't the case. For many prisoners a life of crime was all that they could hope for and re-offending rates were high. The concept of prisoners being rehabilitated into society by providing them with an education and job skills only found very limited support from the authorities. Every now and again prisoners would rebel against the harsh regime that they were subjected to and this often took the form of prison riots. However, gradually relaxations in the harsh prison regime began to be introduced. Simple things such as prisoners being allowed one bath a week were allowed. The convict ‘crop' was abolished, as was the wearing of clothing with arrows on it. With the outbreak of war in 1939 a large number of prisoners had their sentences reduced and were released early. Many of these prisoners then became available for National Conscription into the armed forces. This in turn led to some bizarre situations. Prison officers who joined the armed forces might well find themselves being commanded by men who had been in their charge in prison!

During the second half of the 20th Century there was a huge increase in the prison population. In 1939 the prison population was 10,300 (and this figure was considered high at the time). Penal servitude was also abolished at this time, as was hard labour. By 1945 the prison population had increased to 14,500, though some of the prisoners were now housed in the new Borstal and Detention Centres that had been introduced. Also the ‘Hostel’ scheme was introduced into prisons whereby the inmates were allowed the run of the prison during the day and only locked up at night. Open prison also began to be introduced. These schemes needed far fewer prison officers to run them. As an example Gartree prison needed 145 staff to lock up the prisoners each night whilst only 5 staff were needed at the open prison of Sudbury to deal with similar amounts of inmates. Still the prison population rose though. By 1952 23,600 were being kept behind bars. Another new innovation at this time was the Young Offenders Centres. Here young criminals were given short sentences but were subjected to a very harsh prison regime, known as ‘the short, sharp shock’.

In 1966 George Blake, the infamous spy, escaped from Wormwood Scrubs. When it was discovered how easily he had escaped and how inefficient the systems in place were to recapture escaped convicts there was a furore and a general cry to have a serious look at how things could be improved. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Queen’s relative, was charged with looking into the problem and the outcome was The Mountbatten Report. This made 52 major recommendations; most of which were implemented and the prison system was improved immeasurably. Still the prison population rose though. By 1968 it had reached 31,694; by 1970 39,000 and by 1976 42,000. In 1996 the prison population had risen to the staggering total of 60,000 but by 2004 the figure had passed the 80,000 and still continues to climb. One recent innovation has been the ‘privatisation’ of some prisons. Companies such as Group run prisons under licence from the Government on a profit-making basis. Richard ended his talk at this stage with a disparaging comment on the shambles that this has led to in certain instances.