How to look for records of... Prisons

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

View online

How many are online?

  • None
  • Some
  • All

Order copies

We can either copy our records onto paper or deliver them to you digitally

Pay for research

Use our paid search service or find an independent researcher

Visit us

Visit us in Kew to see original documents or view online records for free



This is a brief guide to help you find records of prison administration and policy. Before 1839 prison records are among the correspondence of various government departments held at The National Archives. These records are not yet catalogued and can be difficult to search.

Many records after 1839 can be searched by the name of the prison. Many prison records are in local record offices. For individuals see Looking for records of a prisoner.

What records can I see online?

Parliamentary Papers (1801-2006)

Search Parliamentary Papers (institutional subscription required). These are an important source of information about prison policy, covering issues such as the efficacy of transportation and the diet of convicts.

What records can I find at The National Archives at Kew?

Records of the Home Office, Prison Commission, King’s Bench, Fleet and Marshalsea prisons, and Treasury (1628-2006)

Search Discovery, our catalogue, in HO, PCOM, PRIS and T by name of prison, and by date range.

Search for ‘name of prison AND prison OR gaol’. For example ‘Brixton AND prison OR gaol.’

Not all the records in this series are fully catalogued. If you don’t find what you are looking for with this online search, browse our catalogue to find out what other records we hold.

Date range (yyyy):

Date range (yyyy)

To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).

What records can I find in other archives and organisations?

Records held locally

The National Archives’ catalogue has details of collections held by over 2500 archives across the UK. Search our catalogue and refine your results using the filters.

What other resources will help me find information?

Books

Search The National Archives’ bookshop to see whether any of the publications below may be available to buy. Alternatively, look in The National Archives’ Library to see what is available to consult at Kew.

Prison by Edward Marston (The National Archives, 2009)

Did you know?

Until the 19th century most prisons were administered locally and were not the property or responsibility of central government.  Exceptions were the King’s Bench, Marshalsea and Fleet prisons, which were Crown prisons attached to the central courts.

From the mid-19th century local and national prisons began to be built to house long-term prisoners as an alternative to execution, transportation or the hulks.

The Prisons Act 1877 established the Prison Commission, which brought the local gaols under government management. Its duties included the maintenance of all prisons, inspection of prison buildings and the condition of prisoners.

In April 1963 the Prison Commission was transferred to the Home Office as its new Prison Department.