Why were Victorian Prisons so tough?
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.
The Victorians also had clear ideas about what these prisons should be like. They should be unpleasant places, so as to deter people from committing crimes. Once inside, prisoners had to be made to face up to their own faults, by keeping them in silence and making them do hard, boring work. Walking a treadwheel or picking oakum (separating strands of rope) were the most common forms of hard labour.
- the old prison
- the new prison
- the Treadwheel House
- the Flour Mill
- the Bakery
- the Kitchen
- the two Laundries
- the Oakum Shed
- the Chief Warder's House
- the Governor's House
- the Governor's greenhouse
- coachhouse and stable
- the Fever Hospital
- the exercise yards
- the Cocoa Shed
- Imagine you have just been appointed as the new prison governor. Take a tour around your new prison, visiting all of the places on the list above. Add one sentence of your own comment, as governor, on each.
- There is a logical purpose behind many aspects of the design of this prison. Explain the design or placing of: the Fever Hospital, the new prison, the Treadwheel house and flourmill, the Governor's House.
- Imagine you are a warder standing at the centre of the Rotunda of the new prison. How many cells can you see from your position?
1. Look at Source 1.
Coldbath Fields Prison was named after a well nearby. It was an old prison, re-built in 1794, holding men, women and children. In 1850 it was changed to take men only and extended again. It was known as a tough prison, used for local London criminals on short sentences.
- Use Source 1 to explain what machinery the treadwheel might have been used to drive.
- Which of these two jobs do you think was the most exhausting?
- Which was the most boring?
- What was the purpose of making convicts do these jobs?
- What was the point of the 'No talking' rule?
- These photographs show how hard labour was enforced at two different prisons. Why do you think they did not all use the same method?
- Do you think this kind of prison life would make people change their ways when they came out?
2. Look at Source 2 a and b.The work on the treadwheel was to hold on to a bar and walk up the wheel. You did ten minutes on and five off, for eight hours, climbing the equivalent of over 8,000 feet in the process.
The prisoner in source 2b is doing hard labour in his cell. He would have to turn the crank in his cell a set number of times to earn his food. Unlike the treadmill, which was used to power machinery in the prison, the crank simply turned paddles in a box of sand.
You were not allowed to talk during these jobs. This was strictly enforced: the punishment book at Coldbath Fields records 11,624 offences against this rule in one year.
- Look at Mary's prison record, what can you find out from it that shows she has been in trouble before?
- What was Mary's occupation before she was arrested?
- Look at the items that Mary has been accused of stealing. How do you think she got these items?
- Why do you think she would have stolen and pawned them?
- In Victorian times, criminals were usually punished with hard labour, transportation to a penal colony or execution. If you were the Judge at Mary's trial, what sentence would you have given her?
3. Look at Source 3. This is the prison record for Mary McDonald who was convicted of theft in 1873.
- Read through the list. What kind of offences have the people been disciplined for?
- Look for the record of Frederick Edwards. Can you find how long he was sentenced for transportation? (HINT: look under his prisoner number).
- Look at Ann Mackenna's record. She has more than one sentencing term. Why do you think this is?
- Do you think the people on this list are adults, children or a mixture or both? Why?
- Do you think these punishments were fair or unfair?
- People who were transported were usually sentenced for a fixed time, such as seven years. Do you think they were allowed to go back to Britain after this time had passed?