Inside an early Victorian Prison

Underground cells at Yarmouth Gaol

Underground cells at Yarmouth Gaol

Sunday 29 December 1839

Last night Robert Harrod (15), William Hickling (14) and Walter Tunmore (12) spent the first night of their 30 day sentence in the House of Correction. Today they will spend much of the morning in the prison chapel, listening to Sarah Martin deliver one of her interminable sermons and, in the afternoon, to the Reverend Pellew of St Nicholas Church and chaplain to the Corporation. They will also receive their first lesson in religious instruction but Sarah Martin will make no record of their responses. We will hear from the boys for the first time tomorrow but for now, we will explore the subterranean world into which they have been ‘sent down’.

An isometric drawing of Pentonville prison, from an 1844 report by Joshua Jebb, Royal Engineers, Wikipedia

An isometric drawing of Pentonville prison, from an 1844 report by Joshua Jebb, Royal Engineers. Wikipedia

Our conception of the Victorian prison is dominated by the new model penitientiaries like Pentonville, opened in 1842 to house 520 prisoners in separate confinement. We are familiar with images of isolated inmates turning the crank machine in individual cells or tramping silently round the exercise yard, their faces concealed by brown masks so they cannot acknowledge each other. But when the boys enter the Tolhouse prison work has yet to begin on Pentonville. Well into the mid-nineteenth century, the majority of offenders will continue to be imprisoned in small to medium-sized gaols administered by local corporations.[i] Most local authorities will be slow and reluctant to respond to the edicts of the Prison Inspectorate, established in 1835 to reform and standardise the prison system, as is Great Yarmouth Corporation.

The ancient Tolhouse building, dating back to the Medieval period, contains the Old Gaol for offenders indicted at trial, the House of Correction for those, like the three boys, convicted by summary justice for misdemeanours, the debtors wards and the Sessions court where the magistrates sit. It typifies the small, unreformed, local gaols condemned by the penal reformer John Neild in his 1809 State of the Prisons.[ii] The Yarmouth authorities ignored Neild’s urgent recommendations for the provision of instruction and useful work and only in 1824 did they extend the prison to allow the classification of inmates, so that tried and untried, men and women, criminals and debtors could be kept apart. Despite the gaol’s expansion, little had changed by 1835 when the Prison Inspector Captain William John Williams made his first visit. His findings, published in the First, Fourth and Fifth Reports of the Prison Inspectors (1836, 1839 and 1840), provide vivid portraits of life inside an old-fashioned gaol.[iii]

The Tolhouse, Gaol Street. Courtesy Old Great Yarmouth

The Tolhouse, Gaol Street. Courtesy Old Great Yarmouth

Situated on Gaol Street, ‘the most densely peopled quarter of the town’, concluded the Inspector in 1836, ‘a more inconvenient site could scarcely have been chosen’. The House of Correction was overlooked by neighboring houses and its ‘airing’ or exercise yard was ‘away from any inspection’ so communication with those outside the gaol was carried out with ease. Tobacco, notes, newspapers and other items were frequently thrown over its walls. Sometimes they landed in the grounds of an adjoining house whose owner complained to the Inspector about the noise.[iv]

The front of the building was 49 feet 6 inches and extended back 163 feet. Accommodation inside was dark, cramped and badly ventilated. Much of the old gaol was below ground. Some inmates slept in separate cells (7ft by 4ft 6 in the gaol; 9 ft by 6ft in the House of Correction) but there were not enough to sleep the thirty-or-so inmates who resided in the prison at any time, so others shared dormitories. The partition walls between the cells being only 9 inches, conversation was ‘carried on almost interruptedly’, and also between the dayrooms and exercise yards occupied by the different sexes. Male and female prisoners were often punished for calling to each other or climbing the walls that separated them.[v]

Accommodation was stifling in summer, cold in winter. Each prisoner had two blankets, a rug and a mattress but could also bring in their own. Consequently the cells were filled with ‘feather beds, mattresses and coverings of almost every description, and of no very clean appearance.’ Though the prison was ‘tolerably clean’, inmates and their clothing were ‘filthy’ since neither soap nor towels were provided. They wore their own clothes, some little more than rags. John Bowles, serving twelve months, was one of seven prisoners without shoes and stockings. He had complained of a bad leg for over a fortnight but received no medical attention and instead cleaned his wounds by scrubbing them with a bit of chalk. Though the surgeon reported cases of syphilis and sore throats, there were no records of his visits and inmates complain of his absence.[vi]

Out of sight of the Gaoler’s quarters, inmates were left to their own devices much of the time. Thomas King, Gaoler for nearly thirty years ran the prison as a private business, as did other old-style governors. Though most inmates were sentenced to Hard Labour, none was provided. Prisoners could bring their tools into gaol, however, and shoemakers and tailors were supplied by tradesmen to continue their work inside. Some earned between 8 and 10 shillings a week though, following a recent change in statute and much to their disgruntlement, the keeper now held back their wages until discharge. Prisoners were occasionally employed whitewashing the prison walls for which they received 3d (pence) a day, extra food and half a pint of beer, while others were paid to do domestic chores for the Keeper’s family.[vii]

Logic in a debtors' prison being visited by Tom and Jerry, from 'Life in London' by Pierce Egan, 1821-22 (coloured aquatint) by Cruikshank, Isaac Robert (1789-1856); London Metropolitan Archives, City of London

Logic in a debtors’ prison being visited by Tom and Jerry, from ‘Life in London’ by Pierce Egan, 1821-22 (coloured aquatint) by Cruikshank, Isaac Robert (1789-1856); London Metropolitan Archives, City of London

While the Gaoler and Turnkey slept in the Old Gaol, the House of Correction was left in charge of a prisoner, paid 4d a week as ‘wardsman’ to report any misconduct. Unsurprisingly, discipline was ‘of a very lax order’. The walls of the House of Correction were ‘decorated with a variety of low drawings, prints, and songs’. Some perhaps had been thrown in over the walls; others may have been penned by inmates for ‘The prisoners are allowed pens, ink, and paper, without restriction.’ Though tobacco was prohibited, the air was thick with smoke when the Inspector visited at 8 o’clock in the evening. He could barely disguise his contempt for the Gaoler, reproducing in his Report a notice displayed in one of the dayrooms, complete with the Keeper’s mangled spelling:

‘The Rules of this Room for every Man that come in this to pay 3d. for Cols [coals] Sticks and Candels. When you furst com in Tow [two] Men To Clen this Room and the youngest Priosener to do any thing that is arsk . . . Any one that is cort polan [caught pulling] this down will have 3 donson [dozen lashes].’[viii]

When the Inspector returned in 1838 he was pleased to see some improvements. Thomas King along with his wife and son who worked as Matron and Turnkey had been replaced and the new Gaoler, William Shuckford, seemed committed to running an orderly prison. The paperwork was in order, inmates were clean and the surgeon now attended regularly. But the Inspector still made trenchant criticisms and would repeat them again in his 1840 Report about the absence of hard labour, the ease of communication between inmates, and the payment of prisoners.[ix]

So, we know that when the boys entered the House of Correction, they will be allowed to remain in their day-room until 8 o’clock at night rather than retiring to their cells at dusk, as the Inspector thinks ‘proper’.[x] They will wear their own clothes and their only employment and instruction will be provided by the voluntary service of ‘the most estimable’ Sarah Martin.[xi] They will cook and eat their food together in their dayrooms, where for the most part they will pass away their days in ‘idleness and vicious intercourse’, as the Inspector put it. And they will be supervised in the House of Correction by the wardsman John Bevington, who we have already met, relishing his Christmas dinner. Last night, no doubt he was jolly again, having received his half-pint of beer after finishing his Saturday cleaning. Tomorrow we will find out how the boys begin to make themselves at home.


[i] Seán McConville, A History of English Prison Administration. Volume 1. 1750-1877 (London, 1981).

[ii] John Neild, State of the Prisons in England, Scotland and Wales (London: John Nicholls, 1812), pp. 602-5.

[iii] 1836 [117-II] Inspectors of Prisons of Great Britain II, Northern and Eastern District, First Report, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online (2005), 67-72; 1839 [199], Inspectors of Prisons, Fourth Report, 171-4; 1840 [258] Inspectors of Prisons… Fifth Report, 124-32.

[iv] 1836 Inspectors of Prisons, 67, 70.

[v] 1836 Inspectors of Prisons, 70.

[vi] 1836 Inspectors of Prisons, 70-1.

[vii] 1836 Inspectors of Prisons, 68.

[viii] 1836 Inspectors of Prisons, 70.

[ix] 1839 Inspectors of Prisons,174; 1840 Inspectors of Prisons, 132

[x] 1839 Inspectors of Prisons, 174.

[xi] 1840 Inspectors of Prisons, 124.

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