About 19th Century Prisons

How many prisons were there in the nineteenth century? Where were they located? How did they relate to each other?

The penal system in nineteenth-century England was incredibly complicated. It comprised two types of prisons, convict prisons and local prisons. While convict prisons were under the direct control of the Home Office, local prisons were, until the 1877 Prisons Act, managed by a whole host of different local authorities, from counties and boroughs to liberties and even cathedrals. Moreover, included among convict prisons were penitentiaries, public works prisons and prison hulks (aka floating prisons!). And among local prisons were gaols, bridewells and lock-ups.

This complexity has meant that penal historians have confined their work to studies of either convict prisons or local prisons, and even more typically, to case studies of individual institutions. There remain big gaps in our knowledge. Simply put, we don’t even know how many prisons existed in nineteenth-century England.

19th Century Prisons marks the first stage in recovering that lost landscape. It was borne out of an Arts and Humanities Research Council project, ‘Educating Criminals in Nineteenth-Century England’ (2015-18), the core aim of which was to chart the spread of basic literacy and numeracy programmes in English prisons during the eighty years that followed the 1823 Gaols Act, legislation which directed penal officials to teach those incarcerated to read and write. Not only was it necessary to know what prisons existed in nineteenth-century England, but also what was happening within these institutions.

Lists of penal institutions created by reformers and government officials, supplemented by a range of other local sources, such as county directories, were used to construct an as-near-as-possible definitive map of prisons that existed in nineteenth-century England. At the same time, lists of surviving institutional records were gathered from public archives up and down the country in the hope of uncovering accounts of prison schools. This activity led to the development of a dataset with a wide range of possible uses beyond the original project.

Thus, in 2018, funding was provided by the AHRC and The Open University to transform this dataset into an online resource. At the same time, a book version of the database, in the form of a more traditional finding aid, was created. The Guide to the Criminal Prisons of Nineteenth-Century England was published by London Publishing Partnership in September 2018. An e-book version is also available to download on this site. More information on the Guide, together with a link to the e-book edition, can be found here.

19th Century Prisons contains critical information (operational dates, location, jurisdiction, population statistics, and appearances in primary and secondary sources) on, and lists of surviving archives for, 846 English local prisons (421), convict prisons (17), prison hulks (30) and lock-ups (378) used to confine those accused and convicted of crime in the period 1800-1899. The lists of local prisons and convict prisons are probably about as exhaustive as we can ever get. But we know there were many more lock-ups, and potentially more prison hulks, too. And there were debtors’ prisons, military prisons, and hulks used for prisoners of war in this period, not to mention related institutions such as reformatories and criminal asylums which formed part of the penal landscape.

There is still much to do. We have already made a start on developing a more comprehensive dataset on historic lock-ups – you can find out more about that project here. For future initiatives, on other custodial institutions, on prisons based in the other nations which comprise the British Isles or even the former British Empire, or on prisons operational in other centuries, we need to demonstrate interest to attract funding. For more information, to suggest improvements, or to tell us how you’re using the data, please get in touch.