Pentonville Prison History
Published: Wed, 19 Jul 2017
This dissertation will identify the history of prisons and how Pentonville prison came about in 1842. It will bring in Millbank as an example to Pentonville, as it was also a convict prison. It will also identify how the crimes committed and the punishment placed on criminals in London changed when Pentonville prison was built. It will also show how the prison reform changed the prison and how it affected Pentonville prison. Law and order in London will also be identified. Information and research will be obtained from The National Archives in Kew and also the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham. It will also include primary sources such as the Times Newspaper, The Guardian and also Parliamentary papers. Secondary information will be found at the University library and also Liverpool library.
During the nineteenth century, the state of prisons changed dramatically. The government and officials began to notice that crime rates were not being reduced and the prison system needed to be improved as it was out of date. Many victims of crime in the Eighteenth Century were choosing not to prosecute the criminals due to receiving community disapproval if the criminal was a local person who was liked or had a big family in the surrounding towns and villages, it was expensive for the rate payer, travelling to the trial was time consuming and a waste of time for many matters as the criminal would often be let off with a light penalty. Many offenders never even ended up in prison and many were never even recorded.
Pentonville Prison was built in 1842, and was an original structure within society in this time period. It soon became a model for prison architecture and discipline throughout the majority of Europe.
General Prison Information
John Howard wrote a book in 1777 called ‘The State of the Prisons in England and Wales’ this particular book captured widespread public attention. The consequence of this book was that it exposed the English to other countries. It also suggested that the book was severely trailing behind all the other countries when it came to prisons and punishment. His main concern was to establish a new and better organisation of the prison. He believed that a prison should not be like the actual world but tougher and place that people did not want to go to, a place in which they feared. The Penitentiary Act was written up by William Blackstone and William Eden but was influenced by John Howard. It was this act that put the harsh prison conditions into place such as; uniforms, coarse diets and hard labour.
Mug shots were created in the 1850s and 1860s by a Select Committee of the House of Lords photographing the prisoners in 1863. By the 1870s, mug shots were common and the Home Office saw the advantages of them. By the end of the century fingerprinting had been introduced.
Not everyone who was convicted of a criminal offence was known as a convict. Anyone who had committed a minor offence would be known as a prisoner. A minor offence could receive a sentence of anything from a few days to a maximum of two years with or without hard labour. A minimum offence for penal servitude was three years which increased to five years in 1864 for a first offence but seven years for any subsequent offences.
The silent system allowed for prisoners to undertake work tasks in a workroom in complete silence. The silent system however proved to be very difficult to obtain and led to it being ineffective. More staff was required to monitor and observe the prisoners.
The separate system was to prevent any association with the other prisoners and as a result would become excited about the visits that the chaplain was required to do. The separate system was put in place to prevent any contamination and corruption of the vulnerable prisoners. However, a fenian convict serving fifteen years by the name of Michael Davitt spent 9 months in solitary confinement in Millbank. His health suffered leaving the medical officer with no other option but to order him to half an hour exercise.
If the prisoner or convict was a family breadwinner then there family often asked the parish for help but if in the worse situation and the parish were unable to help or they refused then the family would have to enter the workhouse.
The cells had tiny paned windows which were so high that it was necessary to stand on them to look out, but this was a punishable offence. Cells often became hot and stuffy in the summer and cold in the winter. The cells were often poorly lit, but when gas was introduced the cells had gas jets placed in the cells but they were soon placed behind thick, fixed glass windows due to the prisoners committing suicide by self asphyxiation or hanging. There was rarely a mattress for the prisoners that were in their first of their sentence, this changed to a hard plank bed in 1865. Oscar Wilde describes the Victorian prison cells darkness stating that ‘it is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always midnight in one’s heart’. This statement identifies that the cells were very depressing for the person within it especially when the lighting was also minimal.
If the convict was under the age of 50 then he was issued with a plank bed that had no mattress for one month. The surgeon was the only person that could have changed this uncomfortable fate for the prisoner if he had deemed that the convict or prisoner was unfit to sleep without a mattress. Oscar Wilde recalled that the plank bed ‘caused him to shiver all night long and that, as a consequence of its rigors, he had become an insomniac.'
A report that was made to the Royal Commission on the Penal Servitude Acts in 1879 claimed that the bed clothes could sometimes be covered with faeces.
Complaints were made about Pentonville cells being unbearably cold. This is somewhat arguably ironic due to the efforts that were put in place to create the ideal model cells. The first commissioners’ report in 1843 was no more than two pages long. It commented on the temperature of the cells ‘the ventilation of the cells, and the means of maintain an equable and proper temperature.
Pentonville was originally designed to hold 520 prisoners whilst under the ‘separate system’. Individual cells were 13 feet long, 7 feet wide and 9 feet high. They were placed in cells that contained a table, chair, a cobbler’s bench, hammock, broom, bucket and a corner shelf which held a pewter mug and dish, a bar of soap, a towel and a bible. When the cells were inspected by the inspectors the prisoners were required to have these items in specific places.
Millbank prison held up to 1000 cells, making it the largest prison in London during the 19th century.
The Times Newspaper from 1850-1900 shows a few extracts which describe both the criminals within Millbank and also the state of the prison. An extract on the 23rd January 1850 shows how a warder was attacked by a prisoner. The opening sentence went as follows, ‘Saturday morning last the interior of the Millbank Penitentiary was again the scene of a most desperate outrage’. The word ‘again’ identifies the lack of control that the warders had on the prisoners within the prison. The incident on the 23rd January resulted in a warder by the name of ‘Balls ‘ending up in hospital after a violent attack from one of the prisoners. Balls let a prisoner out of his chamber to allow him to clean out his chamber pot, the prisoner then followed Balls back to his cell and hit him over the head. The prisoner was able to cause several severe injuries to the head, face and arms before several other warders were able to secure the prisoner in a ‘strong cell’.
The separate system was to ensure that the prisoners would not interact with other criminals in whom they would be able to become friendly with and join forces with when they got out of prison. This was an attempt to stop convicts from becoming repetitive criminals and to stop the revolving door theory. When the convicts were moved around the building they were made to wear a mask with a beak on to prevent other convicts seeing their faces but Colonel Jebb argued in his discipline and management of convict prisons report that ‘the mask or peak does not prevent prisoners from recognising each other in the prison' They were also stripped of their identities when they entered the prison. The prisoners would also become overly bored sitting in their cells on their own that they would eventually beg for work to overcome their boredom and prevent them from going mad. The Times Newspaper described the separate system in 1842 as the ‘maniac making system’ indicating that people believed that the system was not a good idea and it would just send men and women insane but still the Home office agreed with the separate system. Two thirds of English prisons had adopted the separate system in 1856.
The fourth commissioners identifies that the prisoners were strictly separated from fellow prisoners. They were supplied with books which were usually the bible and books that provided information and instruction on a particular trade. They were allowed to attend school twice a week and also according the report the prisoners were also provided with sufficient diets, clothing and also bedding but this can be argued due to the plank beds and also the poor diets which resulted in many prisoners falling ill.
The prisoners were required to endure 18 months in complete solitude in 1842, but after many prisoners became mentally insane the prison authorities felt that the time period should be decreased to 12 months in 1848 then decreased again to 9 months in 1853. Even though they were in their cells on their own, the man in the next cell was only two feet away. The major problem for the separatists at this time was the belief held by many that the long periods of isolation for prisoners created insanity. Pentonville reduced periods of separation at Pentonville which was much to the Chaplains displeasure. When Pentonville separation time period was decreased to 9 months it was the same amount of time that the prisoners at Parkhurst had to endure.
Millbank Prison did not allow criminals to have visitors without an order from the Home secretary of state, this was part of the separate system as the government believed that if the prisoner saw anyone from the outside then they would go back to their ‘old ways’. When Henry Mayhew visited Pentonville he found from interviews with the prisoners that they disliked the separate system with a passion.
Even though prisoners were not allowed to talk or communicate to fellow inmates, it is evident that many tended to disobey this rule. The 6th Commissioners report states that 220 prisoners committed offences whilst being within Pentonville, and that 110 out of the 220 were for attempts to communicate with other prisoners either by writing, signs or verbally. The total number of prisoners placed within Pentonville during the year 1847 was 701, so only 220 prisoners committing offences within the prison walls shows that many prisoners were afraid and obeyed the system. 341 of these prisoners were existing prisoners from the previous year whilst 360 prisoners were received to Pentonville in the course of the year.
However, a new system known as the ‘stage system’ was put in place in 1853 to enforce discipline and also to reward good behaviour. Penal servitude was divided into three stages, the first being 9 months in solitary confinement, the second being where the convict was required to work in close association with other prisoners and the last stage was where the convict or prisoner was kept under supervision by the police when they were released. Convicts were divided into classes and could be promoted to the next class by earning ‘mark’ for hard work. A maximum of 8 hours could be earned in one day. The first and second class were allowed tea instead of gruel before they were sent to bed.
Du Cane states that the main elements of prison were ‘hard labour, hard fare and hard board’ Hard labour was both hard and pointless, it included labour such as Oakum picking, the crank, the treadmill and also the shot drill.
The treadmill involved walking up revolving stairs for ten minutes then having a five minute break. This happened for several hours. It was invented by William Cubitt in 1818 and the prison discipline society advised that every male should participate in 12,000 feet. The treadmill could be very dangerous for those who were new to it and also for those who were exhausted. The Shot drill were heavy cannon balls weighing 32lb were passed from one to another down a long line of prisoners. It was not adopted by many prisons.
The conditions at Pentonville were incredibly better than those at Newgate. The prisoners at Pentonville were also healthier than prisoners at another prison. Like Millbank, prisoners were made to work and participate in jobs such as picking tarred rope and weaving. The jobs in which they made to do were pointless jobs which served no purpose. The Times Newspaper states that the hours of work in the summer were 6am till 9pm and 7am till 8pm in the winter.
The prisoners were separated into classes when they entered the prison which resulted in the same atmosphere that people endured outside the prison. They were also made to work; it was believed that if prisoners worked whilst in prison then they would not have time to think of committing more crimes. They were forced to do work such as shoemaking, tailoring, painting, cleaning, whitewashing the prison, washing and sewing prison clothes.
In 1864, Oakum picking was introduced as part of the hard labour programme. This involved separating the fibres of old ship ropes so they could be re used. In 1870 two cranks were introduced to a local prison, Nottingham Gaol, this was a box with a handle on the side in which the prisoner was made to turn round in a circle. The prisoner was required to make 10,000 revolutions per day before breakfast. The task of the crank was one task that was completely pointless, it served no meaning but to irritate the prisoner and increase their upper body strength so they were able to complete more heavy duty work whilst in prison and also when they leave prison and get a job. Henry Mayhew states that ‘it is impossible to imagine anything more ingeniously useless'. Labour was both long and without any intentions of ceasing.
The 1865 Prison Act accepted that the treadmill, crank, capstan, shot drill and stone breaking were all types of first class hard labour and that if a prisoner or convict was not sentenced to hard labour then they were still required to participate in light labour during their sentence.
Prisoners were made to work an hour and a half before breakfast, 3 hours before lunch and a further 4 hours in the afternoon totalling 8 and a half hours hard labour a day. The prisoners returned to their cells at 6pm and were allowed to have two hours after their dinner to sit on their own and reflect or read the bible. When the prisoner or convict was serving a long sentence, these two hours would become incredibly boring.
When public hangings were abolished in 1868, Pentonville had trapdoors installed over a 12 feet deep brick lined pit within the exercise yard. Albert Pierrepoint described the trap in 1931 as ‘having two leaves each some 8 feet 6 inches long, 2 feet 6 inches wide.' The prison was also a school to teach hangmen, there was a one week course at Pentonville in which men got involved in to become a hangman. They were taught how to calculate and set the drop of the gallows and also how to carry out an execution efficiently including the speed of pulling the trapdoor open and also how long a human takes to die from strangulation if the neck did not break from the drop. Albert Pierrepoint states that the hangman trainees used a dummy called ‘Old Bill’ whilst training. The last training course held at Pentonville was the week beginning 25th April 1960 for two men called Samuel Plant and John Underhill.
Whipping was also a major punishment in the nineteenth century. The Home office in 1878 took responsibility for prisons and created three categories for the birch which was used for whipping. A thin strip of birch was used for juveniles up to the age of ten, a medium for ten to 16 years and thick for individuals over the age of 16 years. The birch was applied to naked buttocks whilst feet were kept together and shirts lifted. The effects of whipping were a little bleeding but mainly severe bruising. Once the pain of the whipping was over and the aching of the bruising had gone down, criminals could carry on committing crimes within a matter of weeks. The birch and cat was also used on prisoners all over the country for punishing prisoners who assaulted or swore at warders.
Both male and female criminals sentenced to transportation were sent to Millbank before they were transported although Pentonville has been viewed as being the first stage of transportation as Forsythe states ‘the portal to the penal colony'. Transportation was a sentence in which could have held a life sentence or for a set amount of time. It was seen as a humane version of execution. At one point, returning from a transportation sentence was a hanging offence. Both major and petty crimes could result in the transportation punishment during the 17th to 19th centuries. Until 1868, convicts could be transported to a penal colony on the other side of the world. Transportation criminals were originally sent to the colonies in North America until the American War of Independence in 1775.Britain was then forced to send their criminals to Australia.
The 4th commissioner’s report on the 10th March 1846 identifies that 382 prisoners had completed their period and had been removed from Pentonville to Van Diemen’s land which was an Island of Tasmania but it is now part of Australia. They were placed into classes which were as follows, the ticket of leave class was the first which contained 288 prisoners, Probationary pass holders was the second which contained a further 78 prisoners and then the penal gangs class was the third which contained the last 16 prisoners. Ticket of leave was where the prisoner had the advantage of freedom within the colony, the probationary pass holders were able to work for themselves with restrictions and the penal gangs were where the convict was required to serve a certain period after they arrived in their allocated location. There was also a journey in July 1845 in which a total of 100 prisoners were transported on the Royal George Seymour ship. The commissioner’s report states that they received a satisfactory account of the prisoners conduct for the journey and the arrival.
Prisoners who were sentenced to transportation were perceived as being the ‘pick of the criminal crop' identifying that the criminals who were sent abroad to serve their sentence were the worst kind of people and criminals.
Prisons were run like machines and all the prisoners within Pentonville prison could have their breakfasts delivered to them in ten minutes. The prisons were instructed to make the prisoners food as monotonous as possible as part of the hard fare factor and the prisoners had hard beds instead of hammocks as part of the hard board factor.
A letter written to the Times editor by a Mr Robert Hosking, who was Pentonville’s governor, identifies the costs of convicts at the Pentonville Prison. He states that ‘convicts in Pentonville prison are actually rioting in gluttony' due to lack of food. He identifies what the prisons have in relation to meals. The extract also identifies that if a prisoner is on surveillance for bad behaviour then they would receive less bread than the rest of the prisoners. The convict’s diet consisted mainly of bread in which they receive a 10oz at breakfast, 5 oz at lunch and a further 5oz for their supper. Their diet included both carbohydrates and protein but very little else.
The prisoners were given water gruel and a small loaf of brown bread. The cooks put a lot of salt in their food to add seasoning, but the salt made the prisoners thirsty which made swallowing the food incredibly hard and painful. The potatoes that were given to the prisoners were inedible and were rotten, whilst the suet pudding was both dry and tasteless with bit of suet visible to the naked eye.
The 1864 report on the dietaries of convict prisoners claims that there were two separate diets within the prison, the first being the penal class diet and the second being the punishment diet. The penal diet consisted of the standard food allowance that the prisoners were entitled to such as porridge potatoes and bread but the punishment diet consisted of bread and water and every fourth day then they were allowed the penal class diet. Dartmoor was the only convict prison within the country that allowed its prisoners cocoa for supper three times a week.
The committee recommended that the dietary needs for male convicts within separate confinement and also industrial employment consisted of 284oz per week of solid food which contained 148 oz of bread, 96oz of potatoes, 16oz of meat, 4oz of cheese and also 4oz of meat that was in soup.
One prisoner commented on the suet pudding to the Gladstone Committee and stated that ‘mo matter how hungry a man might be, his stomach would naturally turn from it’. This identifies the extent of the ghastliness of the food in which convicts and prisoners were required to eat especially when some prisoners and convicts would eat candle ends and boot grease to control their hunger. Oscar Wilde told friends after leaving prison that the food was both revolting and also insufficient.
The total cost of each prisoner’s diet was 3s 11/2d per week or 8l 3s 41/2 for the year. In the 4th commissioners report it mentions an increase in the diet expenses and the reason being due to the rise in the price of the flour and the potatoes.
A Convict Prison
Pentonville prison began to be constructed on the 10th April 1840 and was completed in 1842. The total cost of the building of the prison was £84, 186 12s 12d and the total upkeep of each prisoner was 15s a week in the 1840s which is the equivalent of 75p in today’s money. Two acts had to be passed to allow the building of the prison. The convict service was established in 1850 when Millbank, Pentonville and the hulks became under the governments control.
Like Millbank prison which was the first convict prison in London, Pentonville was built on the ideas and plans of Jeremy Bentham. The Pentonville Prison followed Bentham’s Panopticon idea; the panopticon idea was the criminals were under constant surveillance.
The Prison had a central hall which was surrounded by five wings, which all members of staff were able to survey from the central hall.
Pentonville soon became the model prison for all British prisons during the Victorian era and over the next six years a further 54 other prisons were built throughout Britain with the same design as Pentonville.
Even though Pentonville was known as the model prison, prisoners still managed to escape from it. An extract in the Times in December 1850 identifies George Hackett, a professional criminal who mastered in bus muggings and had a criminal history with the Thames police and Mansion House. Hackett as stated by the Times made an ‘extraordinary escape from the Pentonville (model) prison.’ When investigation went into place, it was found that Hackett escaped the police court with another man, and a turnkey had received a large amount of money. Hackett was serving a sentence for a crime that he committed on the 29th May 1850 in which he nearly murdered a police constable. He was sentenced to 15 years of transportation. The investigation resulted in authorities believing that the turnkeys had been tampered with. The next day on the 4th December, the Times commented on this speculation once again by stating that the government inspectors of prisons launched an inquiry into a private investigation into the escape of Hackett. They believed that the turnkeys and the officers had helped Hackett escape from the prison which identifies that the officials at the prison were easily influenced and like Millbank held little control of the convicts.
There was six main convict prisons throughout Britain- Millbank was used as a transportation dept, Pentonville as a model separation, Portsmouth and Portland for associated labour, Parkhurst for juvenile delinquencies, Brixton was a woman’s prison and Dartmoor was for invalids that were unable to participate in labour.
Local prisons were vastly different from a convict prison due to the difference in skills. There was such a high turnover of prisoners within a local prison whilst prisoners within a convict prison served longer periods of time. A prisoner within the convict prison would have more than likely done time in a local prison before being transferred to the convict so the officers within the convict prisons were well informed of each prisoner as the paper work and inspection had already been done for convict officers.
There were also distinct differences within the prisoner’s accommodation, discipline, work tasks and the general treatment of the prisoners. If a convict was well behaved during his sentence then he could be entitled to their sentences being shortened but a local prisoner who was sentenced to a maximum of two years did not have the option of having the sentence shortened whether they were well behaved or not until 1898.
In 1877 these differences became minimal as the government took over all prisons in Britain including the local prisons. Each prison throughout the country was required to have school staff ‘at an additional expense of £2,230.'The convict prison has school staff on site from 1870 onwards and the local from 1879 onwards.
The 4th Commissioners’ report in 1846 identifies that the state of Pentonville prison was in a perfect state of repair and only several important additions had been made to the prison during the years 1845-1846 one of these being the erection of a ‘complete apparatus for the manufacture of gas for the use of the establishment'.
In the 6th Commissioners report in 1847-48 it claims that an additional six sittings had been made within the chapel and also a fire main was laid down in order to supply the engine with water from a large tank in the roof.
It also claimed that the ventilating, warming and cooking apparatus were in good order but complaints from the prisoners perceives a different story as they constantly complained of the cold cells.
When a convicted prisoner was sent to prison they travelled in a hearse like omnibus which was nicknamed the Black Maria when they went from the courts to the prison.
They would then begin their prison journey in the reception ward where they were made to strip naked and had their clothes and possessions confiscated of him. They were then placed into a bath of waist high water which tended to smell like carbolic acid, this bath was not to clean them but to erase their original selves and replace it with their new prison lives. Their heads were shaved and the prisoners were not allowed to grow their hair till 3 months before the end of their sentence. Uniforms were issued which were different colours or markings depending on the prison sentence that the person is serving. Old or repaired boots were also issued to each prisoner but underwear was not issued till late nineteenth century. His name was changed to a number which he would be known as for the time he spent within the prison. If the prisoner was a repetitive convict then the number would be different each time.
Each prisoner was allowed one visit every 6 months and one letter every 6 months, which made prisoners feel very lonely but with their I.Ds stripped they were made to feel like completely different men to what they were when they entered the prison. The warder also listened in on the conversations and watched to make sure that nothing was being passed between the prisoner and the visitor. The warder also timed the meeting by using a sandglass which allowed the meeting to be no longer than fifteen minutes. The longer the prisoner was in prison the shorter the time period for visits became. Prisoners serving within the second year were allowed visits every 4 months and prisoners within the third year or more were allowed visits every three months. The letters that the prisoners wrote to family and friends were censored and read by the governor and the chaplain before they were sent off. They were forbidden to write about the prison or other prisoners that were within it.
The convicts at Pentonville Prison were made to wear dark grey outfits with ‘P.P embroided in red into the collar’. The P.P stood for Pentonville Prison.
The first ever mention of a prisoner having a structured daily routine was in 1865, the daily routine of a prisoner from this date was as follows: they were woken at 5.45am by the sound of a bell and returned to their beds at 8pm. They were allowed an hour or half an hour of exercise which was required to be done in silence within the special yards. After, they were made to work for a further 8 hours. The prisoner’s day would include waking up, working, eating meals, visiting the chapel, exercising, and an inspection ending with the lights being put out. The routine differed on a Sunday with the bell ringing slightly later and the day containing church services and exercise. Prisoners were made to endure 3 chapel services every Sunday, Christmas day and also Good Friday. The chapel was only able to accommodate half the prisoners so each prisoner was required to attend two services on a Sunday and then one upon the following. Daily prayers were read within the chapel every morning and evening. Each prisoner would attend one of these daily services.
This was to cleanse the prisoner’s soul and make them a better person when they were released back into society. It was attempts into making the prisoner go back into work rather than result to crime.
In the morning they were allowed out of their cells to have a wash with which a bucket of water was provided, this water would then be used to clean their cells and tin ware. This was also the time in which they were required to clean out their slop buckets and roll up their bedding, which had to be done correctly.
Not all prisoners were guilty when they were sent to prison, an example of this is a man named Valentine Bambrick who was a recipient of the Victorian Cross. He was sent to prison for protecting a woman against a man named Henry Russell, whilst protecting her in a fight broke out and Russell later accused Bambrick and a woman named Charlotte Johnson of stealing his medals and violent assault. Bambrick had his Victorian Cross revoked by the Royal Warrant in December 1863. He fell into a deep depression and after writing a letter protesting his innocence he committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell in Pentonville Prison.
The 6th Commissioners report shows that half the prisoners in Pentonville in 1847-48 were between the ages of 20-25 years old and two thirds were unmarried. One third of 701 prisoners had been imprisoned in other places of confinement beforehand, 74 had been imprisoned twice before and 27 had been imprisoned three times before. Even with the harsh prison regulations and conditions, people still chose to continually break the law and find themselves back in Pentonville; five men during 1847-48 were serving their tenth time within Pentonville.
Prisoners were often observed and it was found that due to the separate system many prisoners would leave prison suffering from crying outbursts and hysteria, some had to cover their ears due to the noise being too much for them to cope with. Others often found themselves daydrea
Cite This Work
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below: