Richard Frith Quinton.

Crime and criminals, 1876-1910 online

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ject, and it must have been some satisfac-
tion to Lord Gladstone before he left
the Home Office to know that the re-
commendations of his Committee had,
after an interval of fourteen years, at last


become law. The passing of this Act
and of the Children's Act during his
administration has eifected very bene-
ficent mitigations in the criminal law
with which his name will always be


Evolution of the prison system — Prisons in the time of
John Howard — Gaol fever — Legislation on prisons —
Building of Pentonville in 1840 — Act of 1865 —
Separate system — Hard labour— Progress in Reform
after 1865 — Act of 1877 — Public begin to tiike
an interest in prisons — Departmental Committee
appointed in 1894 to inquire into the whole subject.

Our English prison system has been for
the most part very slowly and gradually
evolved from our own experience in prison
administration. It cannot be said that
other countries, except perhaps America,
have contributed any material features
to the system as it exists to-day. Inter-
national congresses on prison affairs meet
periodically, and the representatives of
different countries interchange views from
time to time, but each country appears
to adopt only those reforms which can
be fitted into its own national system,
or are suited to its own national char-


acter. Looking back on the progress of
events, we must admit that in our own
case the process of evolution has been
so slow as to be a disgrace to our
civihsation. In the latter half of the
eighteenth century John Howard had
already pointed out the deplorable state
of our prisons, and denounced the moral
and sanitary conditions under which our
prisoners lived. He spent his life, and
eventually lost it, in investigating these
evils, and yet it was not till fifty years
after his death that the first real step
was taken to end the horrors, of which
he had preached for many years, by the
building of Pentonville model prison
in 1840. In Howard's time it was diffi-
cult to arouse any public feeling on behalf
of the inmates of gaols. Any treatment
was supposed to be good enough for
them. The public seemed to have neither
interest nor sympathy to spare for such
a class, nor did the authorities apparently
know how to begin to stem the torrent
of misery which they had allowed to swell


to such proportions. The course of events,
however, forced their hands, and the in-
terests of the community, rather than
those of the suffering prisoners, eventually
compelled them to adopt sweeping re-
forms. The state of the prisons in
Howard's time was almost beyond belief.
We read that prisoners were packed and
huddled together in noisome dungeons,
into which very little air, and still less
light, was allowed to enter. Their food
was of the coarsest description and scanty
in amount, and their supply of water
most inadequate. He tells of one prison
where the daily supply for all purposes
was only three pints per head, and even
this was doled out at the caprice of
the keeper. In respect of food, debtors
especially fared very badly. For ordi-
nary convicted criminals a grant in
money or kind was given— a pennyworth
of bread a day, or a shillingsworth a
week, but debtors had to subsist mainly
on charity, and so were well-nigh starved
to death.


Deprived of the very essentials of life
— air, water, and food — the physical con-
dition of prisoners was wretched in the
extreme. But the moral atmosphere in
which they lived was still worse. No
attempt was made to classify or separate
them. Untried prisoners and debtors,
who formed the bulk of the permanent
prison population, were herded with
thieves, highwaymen, and murderers, and
all alike lived in enforced idleness, which
was a leading feature of the prison ad-
ministration. In the day rooms men
and women, sick and healthy, sane and
insane, veterans in crime, and youthful
offenders gambled, drank, swore, con-
cocted burglaries, and even manufactured
counterfeit coin.

By night the air space in the sleeping
chambers was often less than 150 cubic
feet for each prisoner, and this air was
never changed. The main cause of all
this overcrowding was the infrequency
of gaol deliveries. We read of one in-
stance at Hull where there had been


no gaol delivery for seven years. Other
causes were found in defective plannings
of buildings and parsimony of prison
authorities, who thought anything good
enough for the inmates. Innocent and
guilty suffered alike. Large numbers
of accused persons pined away in prison
for months and years, exposed to all the
risks of disease before they were ever
brought up for trial.

Gaols were built like fortresses with
enormously thick walls, so as to ensure
safe custody, and no attention was given
to the question of supervision, which
secures the same object so much more
effectually in modern prisons.

It is not surprising that under these
conditions the germs of disease were
constantly present in the gaols through-
out the country, and that they should
have become extensive laboratories for
the cultivation and dissemination of fever.
This actually occurred, and that particu-
lar fever which originates in overcrowding,
filth, and poverty, was so constantly break-


ing out, that it came to be called " gaol
fever." It was endemic in many prisons.

The ravages of the disease, however,
were far greater outside than inside. The
clothing and bodies of prisoners seemed
to be saturated with the poison. They
carried it with them into Court, into
their homes, into towns and villages, and
even into our fleets, spreading infection
everywhere. Whole regiments were in-
fected by soldiers who brought the disease
with them from gaol, and the first Eng-
lish fleet sent to America lost by it over
two thousand men.

At the INIay Sessions of the Old
Bailey in 1750 there was a very heavy
calendar, and the Court, which was
small, was excessively crowded. As it
was in direct communication with the
prison, infection was carried to the
Bench. Four judges and one alderman
were seized with the distemper and
died. Forty otliers in Court also suc-
cumbed, including Under-SherifFs and
members of the Bar and Jury.


Newgate, the chief prison of the
kingdom, was the most insanitary of
all the others. It held this pernicious
lead long afterwards, although an era
of somewhat more enlightened manage-
ment had set in at several country gaols
early in the nineteenth century. Even
after Newgate had been burned and
gutted by the Gordon rioters, and
partially rebuilt, gaol fever was again
very prevalent. In 1793 Lord George
Gordon himself died of the disease in

A Committee was appointed by the
Corporation of London to inquire into
the cause of the disease, and to suggest
means for its prevention. Dr. Pringle
traced the disease to overcrowding, and
suggested that a windmill structure
should be added to the roof of the
prison to extract foul air. Several
workmen lost their lives in fixing this
idiotic contrivance, which was a truly
significant monument of the hygiene of
the period.


It is a source of special satisfaction
to me personally that during my recent
term of office as Governor of HoUoway
Prison, which carried with it also the
Governorship of Newgate, this latter
prison, which had been for so many
years the hotbed of so much pestilence
and preventible disease, was finally closed
and demolished to make way for the
handsome Central Criminal Court which
has now been erected on its historic

Up till the beginning of the reign of
Queen Victoria, very little was done in
tlie way of legislation to alleviate the
wrongs of prisoners, or rectify abuses of
administration. Various attempts had
been made at separation and classifica-
tion, but the laws then in force were
either wholly or partially ignored — the
prison authorities in most places being
unable to carry them out in the cum-
brous and ill-constructed buildings that
were in existence.

The building of a model prison at


Pentonville for convicts was at last
undertaken by Government in 1840,
and Sir Joshua Jebb spared no pains
to make it as perfect as possible, and
up to the highest standards of hygiene.
The great principles he aimed at were
separate cells for each prisoner, to be
well warmed and ventilated, proper
hospital accommodation for the isolation
and treatment of the sick, and ample
space within the walls for exercise
grounds, workshops, and offices. Massive
walls and dungeons were ruled out, and
the building was designed with a special
view to facihty of supervision. The
model prison was opened in 1842, and
was at once found to be a great archi-
tectural and sanitary success, and it
continues to be a healthy and useful
prison up to the present day. Several
other prisons on the same lines were built
throughout the country in quick suc-
cession, so that prison authorities were
soon in a better position for carrying
out the laws.


The building of Pentonville was the
death-blow of gaol fever, for since then
typhus has rarely originated in any
gaols except very old ones, and a case
arising in a modern prison would be
looked upon as a phenomenal occurrence.
I have myself seen, as late as 1882 and
1883, several cases of typhus, or the
old gaol fever, introduced into prisons
from the overcrowded slums of Man-
chester and Liverpool, but under the
conditions of modern sanitation they
were soon stamped out.

From the short sketch I have given
of the state of affairs during the time
of Howard's activity and down to 1840,
as bearing on the development of our
prison system, it will be gathered that
the evolutionary process worked very
slowly, despite the terrible havoc disease
was causing inside and outside prisons.
The disastrous epidemic at the Old
Bailey Sessions occurred in 1750, and
the model prison was not begun till
1840. Meantime the apathy of the


public and of the authorities was in-
credible. Nothing seemed to rouse
them to a sense of danger. The fate
of prisoners and the safety of the pubHc
were ignored, and a kind of Oriental
fatalism appears to have settled on the
authorities. Gaol fever was the most
deadly indication of the insanitary state
of the prisons, but smallpox, typhoid,
erysipelas, and scarlet fever also claimed
many victims, so that the mortality was
considerably in excess of that of the
outside population. Suicides also were
of constant occurrence — convicted and
unconvicted alike preferring to die by
their own hands rather than to be ex-
posed to the risks of gaol fever. Sanitary
science was, of course, still in its infancy,
if indeed it were yet born, but the
necessities of life — light, air, water, food
— were quite well understood at this
period. Further, it was well known
to the authorities that overcrowding,
filth, and starvation were the causes of
gaol fever, and yet no rational steps


were taken for relieving the frightful
congestion that prevailed in the prisons
till 1840.

The real basis, then, of all progress
that has since been made in prison ad-
ministration and treatment is to be found
in the improved sanitation then started.
Whatever mitigation of his lot, or
whatever privilege the prisoner may have
obtained then or afterwards, it is certain
that nothing can be compared to the
benefit he derives from the improved
sanitary conditions under which he now
lives, and which were inaugurated at
the time when Pentonville Was built.
Experience of the model prison soon
proved that a properly constructed build-
ing was the first essential for a humane
system of treatment, as well as for a
proper classification of the inmates, and
for the maintenance of their health.
The stern lessons of former epidemics
spreading from neglected unwholesome
gaols at length began to impress the
minds of the public. Many of the local



authorities accordingly set to work to
provide themselves with improved Pen-
tonvilles, so that some of the best prisons
in the country were constructed at this
period. New construction and improved
sanitation advanced hand in hand. The
moral and physical condition of prisoners
began to claim that attention for which
Howard had so long pleaded, and at last
the bitter teachings of experience, which
had taken such an unconscionable time
to sink in, were embodied in an Act of
Parliament in 1865.

This Act, which is a monument of
Parliamentary industry if judged by
present-day standards, dealt in a most
comprehensive manner with the existing
defects of the entire system. The Act
contains eighty-two clauses, and one
hundred and four regulations for the
government of prisons. By it ten pre-
vious Acts were wholly, and eight
partially, repealed, while fourteen de-
fective prisons were at once discontinued.
In every prison separate cells were

THE ACT OF 1865 179

ordered to be provided for the average
of the greatest number who had been
confined in such prison at any time
during each of the preceding five years.
These cells were to be duly certified
before occupation by one of H.M. In-
spectors to be of such a size, and to be
lighted, warmed, ventilated, and fitted
up in such a manner as may be requisite
for health, and furnished with the means
of enabling the prisoner to communicate
at any time with an officer of the prison.
Criminal prisoners were to be prevented
from holding communication with each
other by being kept in separate cells
day and night, except when they went
to chapel or exercise, or by being super-
intended during the day, if not working
in their cells, so as to prevent their hold-
ing such communication. Debtors were
to be kept entirely separate from criminal
prisoners. Cells for punishment were
to be provided of such a kind as not
to be detrimental to health, and the
inspector's certificate was to state how


long such a cell could be used. Work
was to be provided for all criminal
prisoners, and a proper supply of plain
wholesome food. Extensive powers were
given to prison authorities to alter, en-
large, rebuild, or build prisons under
conditions to be approved by a Secretary
of State. Penalties were imposed on
local authorities for inadequate prisons if
they did not comply with the require-
ments of the Act in respect of separa-
tion, or of the enforcement of hard
labour, or of providing a chapel for
worship, and power was also given to
close inadequate prisons if they persisted
in not complying with the Act. The
Secretary of State was empowered to
appoint a Surveyor-General of Prisons
for the purpose of advising prison
authorities on the construction of prisons,
and reporting to the Secretary of State
on the plans sent to him for approval.
Prisoners became removable from one
prison to another in case of a con-
tagious or infectious disease breaking

THE ACT OF 1865 181

out in any prison. I^astly, prisoners
convicted of misdemeanour were divided
into two classes.

Under the general regulations many
sanitary precautions were laid down, and
an infirmary for the sick had to be pro-
vided in every prison. These general
regulations cover nearly the whole field
of the internal administration, and they
are the basis on which the existing J^ocal
Prison Rules are founded.

The first and most important principle
laid down in the Act was the strict
separation of all criminal prisoners — the
direct object of this provision being,
according to the terms of the Act, " to
prevent such prisoners from communi-
cating with each other." Contamination
both in a physical and in a moral sense
was to be extirpated by the adoption
of the Separate System. Prisoners were
to be protected from all the evils of
indiscriminate association, and housed
under conditions calculated to lead to
their moral and physical well - being.


All these good results followed in due
course, and for many years the Separate
System was held in high repute, but of
late it has been modified to some extent,
and prisoners have been allowed to work
in company under strict superintendence,
so as to give them better opportunities
for learning skilled trades and handicrafts
under their instructing officers.

Critics have from time to time found
fault with the system, and imported some
prejudice into the consideration of the
subject by calling it " Solitary Confine-
ment," and stating that it leads to morbid
introspection, and to all kinds of mental
and moral ills, but there is no reason to
think that separation, as carried out under
the prison rules, or that the loss of a
companionship, which was evil at the best
of times, has had any such pernicious
effects. " Separate Confinement " is by
no means tantamount to " Solitary Con-
finement," nor did prisoners themselves
think so. In my recollection many, if
not most, convicts who had to pass full


nine months separate confinement in
Millbank or Pentonville prison, before
going to outdoor associated labour at
the pubUc works prisons, used to prefer
the time spent in the close prisons.
Whether this may have been partly due
to their dislike of the hard outdoor
work is uncertain, but at all events tliey
liked doing what they called their " Sepa-
rates " — a process they would certainly
have detested if it had been solitary

The type of criminal has, however,
changed considerably since those days.
He is much less stolid, and at the same
time more civilised and (if I may say
so), more neurotic, and probably there-
fore more susceptible to the mental and
moral effects of any prolonged period
of seclusion. For these reasons the term
of separate confinement has been re-
duced for convicts, and the same ideas
have helped to modify the separate system
for local prisoners.

The Act of 18(55, then, has safeguarded


the health and morals of prisoners ; it
has provided them with employment
and elementary instruction, but it has
nevertheless firmly adhered to the prin-
ciple that punishment is the primary
object of a sentence of imprisonment.
Those who were sentenced to hard
labour had to pass at least the first
three months of their time at laborious,
and, for the most part, useless work,
which was supposed to be of a penal
and disagreeable character ; and further
they were liable to pass their whole
sentence at the same kind of work unless
the Visiting Justices found them eligible
for industrial employment. These were
assuredly penalties with a vengeance.
The Act of 1877 subsequently toned
them down considerably by reducing the
period to be spent on this drastic pro-
gramme of work from three months to
one, and later still, under the auspices
of the Prison Commissioners, a bene-
ficent change in the quality of the work
was brought about by the abolition of

THE ACT OF 1877 185

cranks and tread - wheels. Since the
adoption of government control of the
prisons in 1877 there has been a general
tendency to make the work portion of
a prisoner's sentence much less penal
and vindictive in character, so that the
tasks exacted at the present time are
well within the powers of an able-bodied
man or woman, and are indeed of so
reasonable a kind that they could hardly
be taken exception to by even a com-
mittee of tramps. Confirmation of this
statement is found in the fact, to which
allusion has been already made, that
these capable experts prefer the prison
to the casual ward, and that they pat-
ronise the former institutions in such
embarrassing numbers at the present
time. Industry, and the cultivation of
the work habit, are now aimed at by
the prison authorities as higher ideals
than the infliction of penalties.

Progress in the reform of the Prison
System can hardly be said to have begun
till 1865. If we take the three stages —


marked respectively by " Indiscriminate
Association," "' Separation," and " Modi-
fied Separation " — we see that the pro-
gress from the first stage to the second
was, in practice, so leisurely as to occupy
over a century in its accomplishment,
while more has been achieved in the
last forty years than in the two hundred
which preceded them. So long as the
prison authorities were still separate
bodies, with widely divergent views as
to their responsibilities and methods of
administration, external influences, mainly
in the form of legislation, were relied on
to bring about any necessary changes
in the amelioration of the treatment of
prisoners. The community in general
were, as we have seen, blindly indifferent
even when gaol fever was decimating
their own ranks. AVhere Howard failed,
even Dickens, the popular idol, met with
scanty success at a later period. When,
however, the control of the prisons passed
from the local authorities in Quarter
Sessions assembled, and became vested


in a Secretary of State — a possible tyrant
— the public, with their instinctive in-
terest in the rights and liberties of the
subject (even though a captive) newly
aAvakened, became at once jealous guar-
dians of the rights of prisoners, and
vigilant critics of the new administration.
All this tended to hasten reform. Mean-
time the experience gained by the Prison
Commissioners in dealing with prisons and
prisoners on a large scale enabled them
to suggest many reforms from within.
At once they took steps to abolish all
the demoralising or brutalising features
which were said to characterise the
system of management. Excessive bread
and water punishments were stopped,
and a diet for idle and ill - conducted
prisoners was devised that was less likely
to cause physical injury. Bullying and
irritating tactics on the part of officers
were sternly forbidden under the threat
of heavy penalties. The practice of
assembling the general body of prisoners
to witness corporal punishment, which


had been prevalent in many prisons, was
abolished. Suggestions for administrative
improvements received careful investiga-
tion, and doubtful points of new policy
were referred to expert committees to
determine, and submit to the Secretary
of State.

One manifestation of the popular in-
terest which was taken in prison affairs
after the transfer, and which was com-
monly seen at the inquests held in
accordance with law on the death of
every prisoner, was frequently embar-
rassing, if not annoying, to the prison
witnesses, especially medical officers. A
fixed idea seemed to possess the minds
of jurymen that prisoners were either
starved, or done to death under the
new management. The examination of
witnesses often assumed an aggressive or
offensive tone on matters relating to
hospital and general treatment, the suffi-
ciency of diets, the use of stimulants, and
so on — questions which had not aroused
any similar attention when prisons were


being maintained out of the rates. As a
matter of fact the medical arrangements
at the time were on far less parsimonious,
and far stricter, lines than they had ever
been before. The staff had been liberally
increased ; stringent regulations had been
made for the medical examination and
treatment of all prisoners ; moreover the
death-rate was falling rapidly, the general
health of the prisoners was good, and the
sanitary state of the prisons was con-
stantly improving. Nevertheless popular
distrust of the system, judging from press
comments, the attitude of jurors and other
sources of information, seemed to exist in
no uncertain degree. So captious and un-
reasonable were some juries that an intel-
ligent onlooker remarked that " medical
officers were practically tried for man-
slaughter at every prison inquest."

On one occasion I gave evidence as to
the death of a prisoner who had been
well cared for in liospital for several
weeks, and had died from purely natural
causes. A juror, after viewing the body.


took me in hand, and questioned me
closely on the treatment, diet, &c. He
then asked me what was the meaning of
a large " cut " he noticed on the face of
the deceased — suggesting apparently foul
play. I said I was not aware of any
such injury, nor did I know of the

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Online LibraryRichard Frith QuintonCrime and criminals, 1876-1910 → online text (page 8 of 11)