Prison Conditions

Thursday 29 October 1818

You have the care of the apprentices, soldiers, and persons committed for unnatural offences? – I have.
          Are those persons kept constantly locked up? – Always.
          At what hours are the apprentices allowed to take exercise? – I let them out in the morning the first thing, or at least as soon as the bread is served, to empty their pots, and those sort of things; then I put them in again, and they are kept in till dinner time.
          How long are they out in the morning? – I believe about half an hour; and about an hour in the afternoon.
          Are they allowed to walk together? – Sometimes two or three walk together.
          How often are they clothed? – We do not clothe the apprentices.
          The committee mean how often do you change the linen? – If they have no friends to send them linen, we change them once a week.
          Have you any soldiers with you now? – Yes, we have five; three of the foot-guards and two marines.
          Under sentence of a court martial? – Yes; they are sentenced to be kept in solitary confinement, and on bread and water only.
          Do y ou allow them to see the other prisoners? – No.
          To see the apprentices? – No.
          Now with regard to the persons who are shut up for the crime of unnatural offences; what number have you at present? – There are nine at present; but we have had as many as twenty-three at one time.
          Can you explain to the Committee the circumstance, when Mr. Buxton and Mr. Bennet came here some months back they found a lad, seventeen or eighteen years of age, who was committed for an assault, confined in the same room with two of the above class who have been just described? – I recollect the time, but I was not in the gaol at the time.
          What was that owing to? – That room was converted into a sort of fire-room for the prisoners to warm themselves an hour or two in the day, and this young fellow had come down to take off some coffee which was on the fire; he was not an apprentice.
          The rule is, that a person who is committed for that offence shall have no association with any other prisoners? – Certainly.
          Can they not converse together in the gallery after it is shut? – Certainly.
          So that if that part of the prison is filled with persons of this description (and sometimes you have had, you say, as many as twenty-one), the apprentices and they can talk together? – No, not the apprentices; they are in a gallery under them.
          Can any conversation go on between them? – They seldom either speak or answer. – (To be continued.) (Morning Post)

Tuesday 10 November 1818

[Abstract of the Evidence given before the Committee continued]
Have you not at this moment in the gallery a boy accused of that offence? – (an unnatural crime) – Yes.
          What age is he? – He is about eighteen years old.
          He is a small boy of his age? – No, I do not think he is a small boy.
          Is he upon the same gallery with the others? – Yes; with others for that offence.
          Are you, or somebody in your situation, with them when they are out? – There is always somebody with them.
          Have you the power to open the cells yourself, or do you apply to a turnkey? – I am a turnkey.
          You take it upon yourself to answer the Committee that they have no communication with other prisoners in the yard? – Certainly not.
          What is the general conduct of these people? – Very quiet and orderly.
          Do they appear ashamed of their past conduct? – Not generally speaking; I think they do not feel ashamed.
          Do they appear penitent? – They appear very orderly and quiet.
          Does the chaplain ever visit them and exhort them? – He does.
          Does he ever visit the apprentices? – He does.
          How many apprentices have you now? – At present we have only one.
          What does he do? – He does the same work as the rest; he picks oakum.
          What age is he? – He is fourteen years old; he is shut up for disorderly conduct, which he is charged with by his master.
          How often is the straw changed in six months? – We are consinually filling them: we have, in general, five or six spare beds, and we keep continually filling and replacing when wanted.
          Do the apprentices wash themselves every morning before they are let out? – Yes.
          Do they do it in their cells? – No, they wash themselves in the water-closet, at the sink.
          Have they any books given them to read? – Yes, to those that can read.
          Have they any other work besides picking oakum? – None whatever. (Morning Post)

Friday 13 November 1818

[Continuation of the Committee Hearings]
There is a certain class of boys committed to confinement in that prison, viz. – apprentices, who, if kept separately and apart from each other, it is conceived might much benefit by being so kept separately; whereas at present (for want of room) they are confined several together in one cell, in the chapel gallery, and sleep there, where the most abandoned and profligate offenders also sleep, there being 20 cells in that gallery; and being locked up very early, can and do converse with each other as if in one cell, from the situation of the gallery; and the intent and meaning of the committing magistrate, and the boys' masters and friends, are completely frustrated, and the apprentices exposed to the vilest conversaton of some of the most wicked offenders, and most of those apprentices leave that prison more hardened in their offences; and in some instance,s it is presumed, they get instructed in the mode of committing divers felonies, and are never afterwards reclaimed.
         There has been, in the course of one year, 184 boys committed to the house of correction, and continued in the boys' yard only (independent of apprentices), for various periods; all of whom, except about twelve, had friends to call and bring them provisions and money. . . .
          From the depraved conduct of some of those boys, and their frequent conversations, and as mostly two, and very frequently more, usually sleep together, there is very much reason to fear thsat the most abominable actions have been committed with each other, and particularly in one instance, which was so evident that Mr. Webb, the apothecary who attends the house, strictly questioned a boy named Robert Jones as to his illness, and the occasion of it, and who almost constantly slept with a young man named Joseph Bowyer, who was a very depraved youth, and who has been lately transported for a felony, and which act was talked of by several persons in the prison.
          The situation of the boys' yard is such that it is hardly possible to alter the same in any beneficial manner; for if any boy, through misconduct, is locked up in any cell in the upper gallery, they can converse with the other boys if they wish; and consequently their mode of punishment is thought nothing of, except they are locked up in the examination cells in the north front yard, which operates very much upon them, as those cells are more solitary than the boys' yard. . . . (Morning Post)

Saturday 13 February 1819

[Extract from the Memoirs of the First Thirty-Two Years of the Life of James Hardy Vaux, a Swindler and Pickpocket, describing the condition of the prisoners sentenced to be transported for life and on the Retribution Hulk, at Woolwich, to be shipped for New South Wales:] There were confined in this floating dungeon near six hundred men, most of them double-ironed; and the reader may conceive the horrible effects arising from the continued rattling of chains, the filth and vermin naturally produced by such a crowd of miserable inhabitants, the oaths and execrations constantly heard among them; and above all, from the shocking necessity of associating and communicating more or less with so depraved a set of beings. . . . If I were to attempt a full description of the miseries endured in these ships, I could fill a volume; but I shall sum up all by stating, that besides robbery from each other, which is as common as cursing and swearing, I witnessed among the prisoners themselves, during the twelvemonth I remained with them, one deliberate murder, for which the perpetrator was executed at Maidstone, and one suicide; and that unnatural crimes are openly committed. (Westmorland Gazette)

Sunday 7 March 1819

[Speech in Parliament] His Lordship then took a review of the causes of the increase of crime. That increase was certainly very great within the last three or four years. He attributed it however to temporary causes. The country had, within the last 20 years increased very much in population, and particularly in manufacturing population. Between 300 and 400,000 soldiers and sailors had also been disbanded. At the same time, it was to be observed that, although crimes against property had increased, offences against nature were in a small degree decreased. There was a diminution in the number of capital punishments, although the cpaital convictions had increased. In 1805, the cpaital convictions were 350, in one-fifth of which had the law taken its course; but in 1818, 1250 persons were sentenced to death, of whom one-twelfth only had been executed. The growth of crime was to be attributed (among other causes) to the increase of wealth, and the diffusion of a taste for luxury. Good might be done by devising a secondary punishment, which should still be accompanied with salutary terror. . . . (The Examiner)

Saturday 13 March 1819

The SHERIFFSs of the CITY of LONDON presented a petition from the Lord Mayor, Aldermen, and Common Council of London, on the present crowded state of Newgate, arising out of the circumstance of many of the County of Middlesex offenders were sent to the City prison, to be confined and maintained at the expense of the City, and praying that the case might be referred to the Committee on the State of Prisons.
          Mr. Alderman WOOD said, the Petitioners did not complain so much of the expense thrown upon the City of London, as they being compelled to maintain the prisoners of the county of Middlesex, (though that created an annual expense also of 600l.) as of the crowded state of their jails, from the county of Middlesex offenders committed to them. At that moment there were in Newgate 47 prisoners under sentence of death, and there were only fifteen cells to contain them. The sixteen prisoners sent to Newgate, from Clerkenwell, who had been convicted of unnatural offences, were, it was known, confined in one room. It had been in contemplation to put them in their cells, but had this been done, there would have been no place to receive those who were under sentence of death. There was no room for the accommodation of Static Prisoners. Those who might be committed by that House, could not be kept to themselves; they must, of necessity, be permitted to mix with felons. He hoped the prayer of the Petition would be granted, and that it would be referred to the Committee on the State of Jails.
          Mr. WILBERFORCE thought it was impossible for the House to lend a deaf ear to statements like those which they had just heard. Adverting to the fact alluded to by the last speaker, of sixteen persons committed of certain practices being confined in one room he asked if it was to be endured that such persons should be so kept together, while they, suffering all the contact [?] offenders being confined by public wisdom and of justice? Some remedy or other ought to be applied without loss of time. He could wish the Petition referred to a special [?] Committee, in the hope that some immediate remedy could be supplied, if it were only of a temporary nature, before the result of the deliberations of the other Committee could be ascertained.
          Mr. Alderman WOOD said, every effort had been made to prevent that which he had mentioned, but in the present state of Newgate, it had been found impossible to make a better arrangement than that which had been mentioned.
          Mr. BROUGHAM was sorry that such a Petition as that which had just been brought up should have been presented, as he was sure that nothing but the most imperious necessity could urge [?] the City of London in sending it to that House. In the state then, he must take it for granted, that the City of London had not the means of removing the evil themselves. Had it been otherwise, they could never have thought of troubling the House on the subject, but being utterly destitute, they of necessity had been reduced to the most lamentable alternative of attempteing to force the task of removing the evil complained of to the country. That the City had it not in their power, notwithstanding the funds at their command, to alter Newgate so to make it furnish the requisite accommodation, he could not suppose they had ascertained, by inquiry made, for he did not believe that they had recourse to the desperate precedent (such he must call it) of provoking a discussion of opposition, till an inquiry, after the means of doing without it had not been made, and had failed. As the matter was now before them, the course recommended by the Member for [...?] seemed to be that which it would be most proper to follow. Not only was it the most expedient: but it was the only one they could with propriety adopt. Since it had come to them, they must deal with it, and the sooner they did so the better.
          Mr. WILBERFORCE explained.
          Mr. Alderman WOOD, in explanation, repeated part of his former statement, to show that it was impossible to make a better arrangement in Newgate than that which had actually been made. The punishment of the pillory having been discontinued since he had exposed certain offenders some years ago in the Haymarket, they were not sentenced to imprisonment in Newgate.
[He may be referring to the pilloring of the Vere Street Coterie in 1810. But see also the Debate on Abolishing the Pillory in 1815.] The whole fault lay with the Magistrates who sent them to the City prison for the offences they had committed in the County of Middlesex.
          The Petition was ordered to lie on the table. (Morning Post)

SOURCE: Various newspapers, dates as given.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Prison Conditions", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 5 December 2014 <>.

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