The first comprehensive account of the prison system in England and Wales was John Howard’s “The State of the Prisons”, published in 1777. It went through four editions over fifteen years, each based on his own visits to the gaols, and expanded to take in Scottish and Irish institutions, as well as some across Europe. Predating the first governmental surveys, he has been credited with starting the movement for prison reform, indeed even re-envisaging the role of prisons, how they should be designed, built and managed, and what rights and restrictions the prisoners whould have. As such, it is both a unique source on eighteenth century prisons, and an important artifact in its own right.
Debtors feature throughout; by his counts, in 1779 47.½% of the prison population were debtors (2078 men and women), and in 1782, 49.½%, 2197 people. (Source: 4th ed.) From prison to prison, he describes the debtors, their conditions, the charity due to them, and sometimes their cases. Although he does not seem to have ever criticised the principle of imprisonment for debt – his proposed improvements include separate wards for male and female debtors, and segregation from the criminal cells – he exposed their mistreatment and defended their particular rights as civil prisoners.
Each edition published during Howard’s life was different, and sometimes published in other formats. Various reports were serialized in the newspapers and magazines of the time; the third edition was published by the Proclamation Society as a series of pamphlets, one per Assize circuit. A fourth volume was published posthumously, in 1792, two years after Howard contracted typhus in a Russian prison; it is identical to the third. There was also an appendix published in 1780 and republished in 1784, seemingly revised to go by the page counts in the ESTC entry, but as yet undigitized. Howard also wrote ‘An Account of the Principla Lazarettos in Europe’, which included British gaols, and went to two editions, the second being augmented by an appendix, which was also published separately.
Because of this multitude of formats, it is worth cataloguing each of his works. Unfortunately, some of the freely available copies are in poor condition; for this reason I’ve included links to the copies held by JISC Historic Texts. (The copy of the fourth edition was digitized by the Wellcome Institute, and is accessible to all.)
The State of the Prisons in England and Wales:
* Google’s copy of the 1784 edition is bound in with a pamphlet on the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford.