19th Century Prisons: FAQs

What is in the database?

At present, the 19th Century Prisons database contains key information on nearly 850 local prisons, lock ups, convict prisons and convict hulks that were operational in the period 1800 to 1899 within the geographical borders of England. It does not, at this stage, include Welsh, Scottish or Irish prisons, or penal institutions located in the British colonies. Nor does it include other types of custodial institutions such as debtors’ prisons, military prisons, criminal and other asylums, and reformatories (though it is important to remember that debtors, soldiers, those suffering from mental illness and children were confined in many of the prisons featured in this database throughout the nineteenth century).

For each institution, key information is given on its: operational dates, location, jurisdiction, type, population (annual and daily), footprint in the printed primary sources, and any archival material which survives in repositories across England.

For further information on the method used to recover the penal institutions featured in the database, and on the types and jurisdictions of nineteenth-century prisons, see our User Guide

How do I search the database?

You can search the database in three ways: by using the search box in the header of the Home page, by using the search box and limiting fields next to the map on the Prison Search page, or by using the Advanced Search, which is accessible either from the header on the Home Page or in the tab options on the Prison Search page.

The search boxes, which look for keywords across certain fields of the database, can be used to find specific prisons or prisons located in a particular town or village.

Fields on the Prison Search page and in the Advanced Search can be used either to limit results when searching by keyword or as search terms. For example, by selecting ‘Local Prison’ under Prison Types, the search will return all local prisons which were operational between 1800 and 1899 and recoverable today. By using the ‘Active Years’ criteria, you can also find out which prisons were open in any given year of the nineteenth century (for example, in 1850). Furthermore, the ‘Helpful Shortcuts’ at the bottom of all the pages on the site allow you to search for prisons open in each decade of the nineteenth century.

In the Advanced Search, it is also possible to limit results to prisons which have surviving archives – most but not all the prisons in this database have archives!

Finally, ‘Sources’ in the Advanced Search allows you to create lists of all prisons mentioned in the principal primary sources used to recover nearly all the institutions which feature in the database. For more information on these sources, and the methodology used, as well as the other search criteria, see our User Guide.

Search results can be viewed on a map (Map View) or as a list (List View). Click on the map pins to discover the name of an institution. From here, you can click to see the full record for that institution. Similarly, the List View will take you to the full records of each institution which meets your search criteria.

I have selected a prison from the list of search results. How do I see all the information for that institution?

Once you have clicked through from the search results to an individual institution, you are first presented with an overview of the critical information about the prison together with a map showing the location of the prison or, where available, an image of the prison. You can then use the options to reveal further information.

Using the tabs, clicking on ‘Details’ will also give you population statistics at five year intervals between 1818 and 1898, as well as all the primary sources in which the institution appears, together with any significant secondary sources. Clicking on ‘Records’ will show all the surviving archives which have been found for that institution. Please be aware that not all institutions have surviving documents.

For more detailed information on exactly what information is provided for each institution, including what each field means, see our User Guide.

Why are there two entries for the same prison?

Some prisons appear to be listed twice. Location and jurisdiction were used to define unique entities (or institutions) in the database. Whenever a prison was transferred to a new site, a new institution was said to have been created, even if its function and jurisdiction remained the same. However, prisons substantially modified or rebuilt on the same site were not defined as new institutions. When prison buildings formerly used by one jurisdiction were purchased or leased by another jurisdiction to accommodate a different set of prisoners, a new institution was also said to have been created. For example, some local prisons were purchased by the Home Office for use as convict prisons, and vice versa; and some county prisons were taken over by the borough authorities, and vice versa.

If you think a mistake has been made, and an institution should not be appearing twice in the search results, please do let us know

The prison I want information on is not included.

The method used to recover institutions for the 19th Century Prisons database was robust, but not perfect! There will be institutions that are missing from this database. For example, we are well aware that there may be several hulks, and many hundreds of lock ups, which have been missed.

But we want to know about them! If you cannot find a prison or hulk that you know existed in the period 1800-1899, please do get in touch and tell us about it. Any primary source or secondary source reference you can provide which mentions or describes the institution would be of immense value and help to us.

However, please note that at this stage, we are not collecting information on penal institutions located outside the geographical borders of England, nor on those custodial institutions which did not hold criminal prisoners. We hope that very soon we can secure further funding to expand in these important directions.

For more information on the method used to recover the institutions in the database, see our User Guide.

I have more information, or pictures, of a prison included in the database.

We would be very grateful if you could send it to us! We are able and keen to update information on the prisons in the database. We are also anxious to correct any mistakes. We are especially interested in pictures, old or new, of prison buildings or of the sites on which they once stood. By collecting visual material on nineteenth-century prisons, we hope to launch, in the near future, a specific heritage project on the archaeology of the nineteenth-century prison. We would love your help with it! Please get in touch.

I am interested in prison archives, not in any specific institution. Can I search for particular documents or types of documents?

Yes, you can. Go to Prison Records. This page provides a paginated list of all the documents (pieces, files, collections) uncovered for this resource. This list gives you the essential details about each record or document, including a description, the prison it relates to, the repository in which it was found, and the catalogue reference number or shelfmark.

You can use the ‘Categories’ field at the top of the list to narrow it to those records which relate to staffing, prisoners, daily business, management, etc. Or you can use the ‘Description search’ to look for specific types of documents, such as chaplains’ journals or prison registers. Finally, you can order the list by ‘Archive’ using the active heading in that column of the table.

Finally, clicking on individual records in the list will take you to a description of the prison to which the record relates. This allows you to see the record in the context of other material which survives for that institution.

For more information on the categories used to order the archival material, and on the fields used to describe a record, see our User Guide.

Why are there two entries for the same archival document?

You may see the same archival document appearing more than once in the Prison Records list. This is because some documents refer to multiple institutions, and therefore are attached to several prisons in the database. If you do see a document appearing more than once, check the ‘Prison’ column to see if it has been attached to several different institutions. If the name of the prison is the same, or if you think we have made a mistake, please do get in touch so we can put it right.

Some archival material can also be said to belong to several of the categories used to describe records. To avoid unnecessarily long lists in the display of prison information, all records have been assigned to just one category. This means that no archival document should appear twice in the entry for a specific prison. However, please be aware of the potential overlap between categories when using the Prison Records browse function.

How can I access the surviving archives of an institution?

To access the surviving archives of an institution listed in the database you will need to make contact with the repository which holds the material. Every piece, file and collection listed in the database has information linked to it to help you find it, including the name of the repository (or Archive) where it is located, and the Catalogue Reference (or Ref) number (also known as a shelfmark) which has been allocated to it by the repositories. Web links to every repository listed in the 19th Century Prisons database is provided in the User Guide. By using these links, you will be able to find contact information. We recommend that you take a note of the Catalogue Ref number, the Collection, the covering Dates and the Description of the particular document you are interested in. You will need to give this information to the archivists so they can help you to locate the document.

It might be handy to note too that a small number of the collections and documents listed in the 19th Century Prisons database have been digitised, either by individual repositories or by companies such as Find My Past and Ancestry. Sometimes access to this material is free, though often there is a paywall. The catalogues of the repositories often contain this information, so it might be a good idea to try searching for the record you are interested in first. Otherwise, archivists will most likely advise you if there is a digital copy of the document or collection you are interested in seeing.

I know about a body of archival material on prisons which seems to be missing from this database.

Please tell us about it! We know that we have not uncovered every single archival document and we are very keen to include anything we have missed. Please do get in touch, we would be very grateful.

However, please note that there are some collections that we have deliberately excluded from this database for the time being. Because the database focuses on institutions, we have decided not to include collections of archival material which do not relate to specific institutions. For reasons to do with cataloguing at repositories, we have decided for now to exclude criminal calendars, though we hope to revisit that decision in the near future. For a more detailed account of what we haven’t included, and the reasons why, as well as descriptions of collections which contain further material which is of relevance, please see our User Guide.

How do I cite the database?

For information on copyright and guidance on how to cite both the database and the information on individual institutions within it, see our Copyright and Citation page.