Category Archives: prisons

Resource: John Howard’s The State of the Prisons

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 then republished in 1784, seemingly revised to go by the page counts in the ESTC entry, but that second version is as yet undigitized. Howard also wrote ‘An Account of the Principal 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:

First edition, 1777: Google. Internet Archive. JISC Historic Texts.

Second edition, 1780: Google. JISC Historic Texts.

Third edition, 1784: Google.* JISC Historic Texts.

Fourth edition, 1792: Google. Internet Archive. JISC Historic Texts (free).

Appendix to The state of the prisons, 1780: Internet Archive. JISC Historic Texts.

* Google’s copy of the 1784 edition is bound in with a pamphlet on the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford.

An Account of the Principal Lazarettos:

First edition, 1789: Google. Internet Archive. Jisc Historic Texts.

Second edition, 1791: Google. JISC Historic Texts.

Appendix, 1791: Internet Archive. JISC Historic Texts.

The Distribution of Debtors’ Prisons, 1712

Debtor prisons in England & Wales, 1712

Using the lists of debtor prisoners applying for release under the 1712 act, as published in the London Gazette, here’s a map of the places in which they were incarcerated. For the most part it’s places, not actual prisons, that are mapped, due to difficulties with the data. Sometimes it’s unclear how many places had multiple prisons; sometimes the same building seemed to have housed more than one gaol; a single prison may be referred to by numerous names.

So there’s all sorts of problems with the data. Hence this simplification to places that had one or more gaols, save for London where each prison is noted. In total, there are 164 markers. I estimate that there are about 200 prisons holding debtors in all, including some that, for whatever reason, didn’t have debtors apply under this act.

What this map indicates is the national comprehensiveness of the carceral system. Whilst it is unsurprising that every county had a lock up, similarly every major city, there are seven in Cornwall alone. The London urban area has ten*, four of which are in Southwark. At the time, prison sentences for crime were rare, and the main role of imprisonment was to hold the condemned until execution or transportation. This map shows an infrastructure directed primarily at debtors.

This is a work in progress. The next step will be to add the prisons from the amnesties of the 1720s, to locate each one, and give an indication of the number of prisoners they held. Meanwhile, with usual caveats and warnings of unstable data, if you want the data – which is just place names with co-ordinates, here’s the data as CSV.

* For some reason the Fleet prison isn’t showing up on this map. Debugging in progress.