19th Century Prisons: User Guide

For a detailed account of the methodology used to recover the prisons featured in this database and their institutional records, together with some observations on the penal landscape that have emerged from this project, see the introduction to the book version of this resource: Guide to the Criminal Prisons of Nineteenth-Century England.

This User Guide is intended to help you navigate the 19th Century Prisons database. Further advice on searching and browsing can be found in the FAQs. Information on copyright and on how to cite any material from the database can be found here. Details of additional project outputs, a list of further reading on the history of prisons in England, and links to other relevant projects and resources in British criminal justice history can be found under ‘Resources’ in the site menu.

Prison Search

There are two points of entry into the 19th Century Prisons database: searching (Prison Search) and browsing (Prison Records). For information on the latter, please see the section below (Prison Records).

Prison Search enables you to search for 19th century prisons. Using the keyword search, you can look for a specific prison (for example, Bedford Gaol) or prisons located in a particular place (such as Oxford). You can narrow the results of the keyword search by using the criteria in Prison Search or in the Advanced Search options. Or you can use these criteria to drive the search.

These criteria include options regarding geography (namely, English counties), time period (you can specify the exact year, or find prisons open in a specific decade), and category (or type) of prison.

There are four different categories or types of prisons in the database: convict prisons, convict hulks, local prisons and lock ups. There is some crossover between the final two categories, as a substantial number of local prisons became lock ups during the first two-thirds of the 19th century. There are also some differences in the information collected and presented for each category of prison which are explained below (see Individual Prisons).

To make matters more complicated, there were several different types of Local Prison in the 19th century, and you can narrow results using this criteria, or generate lists of these types, using the Advanced Search. The 19th century witnessed the continuing convergence of Common Gaols and Houses of Correction (or Bridewells), as well as the conversion of many local prisons into lock ups. In 1865, the distinction between Gaols and Houses of Correction was abolished, and new local prisons after this date were ‘prisons’. These developments are further explained in the Guide to the Criminal Prisons of 19th Century England.

There are many search possibilities under ‘Local Prison Types’. For example, you can generate a list of those prisons which remained solely ‘Common Gaols’ or ‘Houses of Correction’ in the 19th century, or you could generate a list of those which incorporated both functions. You can narrow down to those of any type which subsequently became lock ups. ‘Lock Up’ under ‘Local Prison Types’ will return all prisons which were only ever lock ups in the 19th century, the same result as selecting ‘Local Lock-up’ under ‘Prison Types’. However, by including ‘Lock Up’ under ‘Local Prison Types’, this makes it very easy to generate a list of all lock ups in 19th century England, including those prisons which became lock ups, by joining together the relevant criteria under ‘Local Prison Types’.

Until 1877, local prisons fell under the jurisdiction of many local authorities. There is an option in the Advanced Search to narrow lists of Local Prisons by their jurisdiction. For example, you can choose to see only prisons under the management of counties or those under the management of municipalities (or boroughs). Some prisons were jointly managed by franchises and municipalities. It is also possible to find prisons under a specific jurisdiction by combining the Local Prison Jurisdiction options with the keyword search boxes. For example, a search for ‘Bedfordshire’ under County together with ‘county’ under Local Prison Jurisdictions will return all prisons in Bedfordshire under the authority of the County Quarter Sessions. Alternatively, a search for ‘Cambridge’ in the Search Term box together with ‘Municipality’ under Local Prison Jurisdictions will return all prisons managed by the Cambridge borough authorities. But note, it will not include the ‘Spinning House’ which was jointly operated by the Municipality and the University – that would require a different or additional option (‘municipality & university’) to be selected under ‘Local Prison Jurisdictions’.

Prisons in the 19th Century Prisons database were recovered using a specific method, namely, extracting data from a set of Principal Primary Sources. The method is described at length in the Guide to the Criminal Prisons of 19th Century England. The Advanced Search allows you to bring up the lists of prisons provided by the different Principal Primary Sources. Many of these are Parliamentary Papers – Returns requested by Parliament or systems of annual reporting on individual prisons – but two are publications by 19th century penal reformers: James Neild and the members of the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline. Please note, by selecting two (or more) different Sources in the list provided, the Search will return all prisons which featured in either source, and not just those common to both sources.

Finally, you can narrow the results of your search to those prisons which have Surviving Archives.

Prison Search Results

Prison Search results are displayed on a map of England (Map View), or, if you prefer, as a textual list (List View). Basic information (category, place and operational dates) is provided about each prison found in the search to help you identify those most relevant to your inquiry. (In Map View, this information is revealed by clicking on the pins).

If you are using ‘Map View’, please note that because the default map is set to show the whole of England, pins representing multiple prisons may be stacked on top of each other. You can zoom in to scatter the pins by using the ‘+’ and ‘-‘ buttons in the bottom right-hand corner of the map. You can also use the person icon above the zoom buttons to access Google Street View, which in many cases will allow you to look at the current site on which the 19th century prison was located (or in some cases, still is!). You can also access these map functions when you click in to see all the details of a specific prison.

If you are using ‘List View’, you may find that some prisons are accompanied by an image rather than a map location. We hope, over time, to replace the map locations with images of prisons in the ‘List View’. If you have any images of the prisons which feature in the database, please do get in touch. Details about the provenance of these images can be found in the detailed information accompanying each prison (see Individual Prisons below).

In the Prison Search Results, you may also notice that some prisons appear to be listed twice. Location, category 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. 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 said to have been created. For example, some local prisons were purchased by the Home Office for use as convict prisons (such as Brixton House of Correction), and vice versa (for instance, Pentonville and Wormwood Scrubs); and some county prisons were taken over by the borough authorities (for example, in 1828, Derby County Gaol became Derby Borough Gaol and House of Correction), and vice versa .

Using the ‘Learn More’ button in Map View, or the ‘View’ button in List View, you can click through to see all the information associated with an individual prison.

Individual Prisons

From Prison Search Results, you can access profiles of all the individual prisons in the 19th Century Prisons database. To do this, click on the ‘Learn More’ button in ‘Map View’, or the ‘View’ button in ‘List View’.

The header of the page gives the name most commonly used for the prison. Different types of information and different levels of detail about the prison are revealed through using the various menu and collapse/contract options on the page.

The tab option, ‘Overview’, is set as the default landing page. The following details about each prison are provided in the grey box:

  • Alternative names: other names by which the institution was known.
  • Prison Type: The category of prison (for instance, local prison, convict prison, local lock up, or convict hulk) and, in the case of local prisons, the type (such as common gaol, house of correction or prison). At the start of the 19th century, there were several different types of local prison: common gaols, bridewells (also known as houses of correction) and penitentiaries (of which there was only one). In an increasing number of institutions, these types were merged into one, for example, common gaol and house of correction. The 1865 Prison Act finally removed the distinction between gaols and houses of correction. Institutions established after this date have thus been described as prisons. Finally, a large number of local prisons were recategorised as lock ups during the first two-thirds of the 19th century which is also noted in this field. (For an explanation as to why conversion to lock up was not regarded as the creation of a new institution, see the full Guide.)
  • Jurisdiction: For local prisons only. Until 1877, local prisons were typically run by either the county (e.g. Quarter Sessions magistrates) or municipal (e.g. special sessions magistrates, mayor and sheriff) authorities. There were a small number that continued to be run by franchises – sokes or liberties, for example – as well as universities and even cathedrals. In a number of instances, prisons were run jointly by, for example, franchise and municipal authorities. After 1877, all local prisons came under the authority of the Prison Commission, a sub-department of the Home Office. Prisons established after this date have ‘local’ as their jurisdiction, but all prisons after 1877 were of the same jurisdiction. Thus, apart from local, all values in this field only apply to the jurisdiction of prisons before 1877.
  • Date Opened: The year in which the prison opened and received its first prisoners. Most years are exact. However, there are a number for which an exact year could not be identified. In a small number of cases, ‘unknown’ appears in this field, but for most, approximate years have been given, and these are indicated by the use of ‘circa’ or square brackets. Sometimes square brackets have also been used to enclose a year which refers to a rebuilding date when it has not been possible to recover the original foundation date. There are also a very small number of cases where multiple dates have been given, to signify important rebuilding or other events. Cursive brackets have been used to show where the opening year has been derived from that prison’s first appearance in the primary sources when exact dates could not be found. As a general rule, information in this field should always be read alongside that in the critical remarks.
  • Date Closed: The year in which the prison closed. As for ‘Opened’, most closure years are precise. But there remain a few ‘unknown’ closure years, and a number where an approximate year is given. The latter is indicated through the use of square brackets, which have also been used, in the case of local prisons, to indicate a prison’s last appearance in the penal statistics or the very latest date possible before conversion into a lock up, where exact years of closure or change of use are unknown. Where two dates appear in ‘Closed’ this generally signals the date at which a prison was converted into a lock up (unenclosed) and the year in which the lock up closed (enclosed in square brackets). Cursive brackets have been used to show when the closing year provided has been derived from that prison’s last appearance in the primary sources. As for ‘Opened’, information in the ‘Closed’ field should always be read alongside that in the critical remarks.
  • Location: Details about where the prison was located, as far as possible to a precise address. For Convict Hulks, this field is labelled ‘Ports’, and can contain multiple locations (as some hulks were stationed in multiple ports).
  • Map Location: Every prison has been given geographical coordinates (X,Y) in order to display on a map. In many cases, the exact or near exact position of the prison has been identified (‘exact or closely approximate’). In other cases, location details only allowed a pin to be placed ‘in the vicinity’ of where the prison would have been located. With regard to convict hulks, the port at which the hulk spent the most time is used as the map location.
  • County: The historic county in which the prison was located. This is geographical, and there may be some surprises in this field. For example, Newcastle and Bristol were both technically ‘counties’, but they have been placed under Northumberland and Somerset respectively. The decision to place Bristol in Somerset rather than Gloucestershire followed the geographical categorisation of that city in the principle primary sources used to recover the prisons.

Situated below the grey box are two additional fields of information:

  • Critical Remarks: These have been largely confined to notes which are helpful for the purposes of disambiguation only.
  • Related Prisons: These are prisons which have a close relationship with this particular institution. For example, prisons which directly preceded or followed the institution in question (as authorities gave up old, inconvenient sites and buildings for new ones), or prisons which were temporarily used to accommodate prisoners who should have been confined at this institution, for example, during periods of building work or outbreaks of disease.

Using the tab option ‘Details’ reveals much more detailed information about the prison For example, in the grey box are the following additional fields:

  • Lat/ Long: The map coordinates used for the location of the prison.

Where the database contains an image of the prison, this will appear to the right of the grey box. Below it, or, where there is no image, instead of it, are navigation options to assist you in retrieving categories of detailed information. These include:

  1. Prisoner Statistics. These have been collected at five year intervals between 1818 and 1898 for every prison for which data was available. This does not, unfortunately, include lock ups for which population information is often scattered and difficult to come by. The following are important notes on the statistical data collected for the other categories of prison:
    • Local Prisons: The majority of local prisons have information on the number of prisoners confined in them. Annual and daily populations for each prison were collected, where available, for every five year interval between 1818 and 1898. For annual populations, where possible the total number of prisoners confined in the institution over the course of the year has been specified (that is, the number of prisoners in the prison at the start of the year together with the number committed over the course of the year). This is marked with the term, ‘confined’. However, in a number of cases it was only possible to provide the number committed. Three types of daily population were given in the sources. Preference has been given to daily averages, followed by the population present on a given day (census), and finally the greatest number confined at any point in that year. Furthermore, data from 1824 and 1832 was used to fill some of the gaps in data from 1823 and 1833 respectively. Where necessary, notes are provided to explain the numbers given. For more information on the sources used to extract population information, see the full Guide.
    • Convict Prisons: Information on the number of prisoners confined in convict prisons has been collected at each five year interval between 1818 and 1898. Two sets of population data are given: the number of prisoners who passed through the prison in that year (that is, the number of prisoners present on the first day of the year together with the number committed over the course of the year, labelled as ‘confined’ in the table); and the number of prisoners confined on a single day (that is, on a specific date, and so described as ‘census’ in the table). Please note that 1898 forms an exception: for this year, no annual populations were given in the Judicial Statistics or institutional annual reports, and, instead of giving the number of prisoners in each institution on a census date, the number average number of prisoners confined on a daily basis was given (labelled as ‘daily average’ in the table).
    • Convict Hulks: Daily populations, specifically, the average number of prisoners on each hulk (or present in each hulk establishment) on a given day (‘daily average’) at five year intervals between 1818 and 1853. There is no data post-1853 because hulks stationed in England were decommissioned following a fire on the last remaining hulk, the Defence at Portsmouth, in 1857.
  2. The Primary and Secondary Sources used to recover the prisons and their essential operational details appear in three headed sections. These are:
    • Principal Primary Sources: For each category of prisons, a set of sources was identified from which to extract lists of prisons in operation. This field identifies the exact sources from that set which contained references to this specific institution. For an account of the method used, please see the full Guide.
    • Additional Primary Sources: In order to complete key fields of information (such as operational years and location) about each prison in the database, additional primary sources were often consulted. These are listed here. Some primary sources contained a rich corpus of information on prisons generally. For an account of these, please see the full Guide.
    • Secondary Sources: When disambiguation or the collection of key information about individual prisons was not possible through the use of primary sources, sometimes secondary sources were consulted. These are listed here. Some contained information on many prisons and an account of these is given in the full Guide. Also listed in this field are any publications (such as books, articles and pamphlets) specifically on the prison in question.

Finally, lists of all the surviving archives (i.e. Prison Records) which could be found for each prison in the database can be generated by clicking on the ‘Records’ tab in the top navigation or by using the ‘See Prison Records’ option at the bottom of the prison ‘Details’ page.

Prison Records

As part of the development of the 19th Century Prisons database, repositories across England, including The National Archives, local record offices (county and borough) and museums (primarily prison museums) were searched and contacted for archival material relating to 19th century prisons. A detailed account of this process, together with a description of common sources, an explanation about the exclusion of particular types of documents and lists of further sources which likely contain additional material, is given in the Guide to the Criminal Prisons of Nineteenth-Century England. A list of the repositories that were searched and/ or contacted is provided below (Repositories).

Each prison record (i.e. archival document) in the database has been attached to a parent institution (prison). Because of this process, there were many records about prisons which were uncovered during this project but because they did not relate to a specific institution they are not included in this resource (see the Guide for full details).

Prison Records can be accessed in two different ways: through the profiles of individual prisons returned via Prison Search (as described above – Individual Prisons), or through the Prison Records browse function.

The former (prison profiles) provide lists of all the documents linked to that particular institution. For ease of navigation, these have been arranged into a concertinaed list using the following headings:

  • Management: All material relating to the management or administration of the prison. Primarily, records of those institutions with authority over the prison, including the Home Office, Prison Commission, Quarter Sessions, and Corporations or Town Councils. Here are included the minutes of any special Gaol Committees established by Quarter Sessions, as well as reports, journals or minute books of visiting justices (or other visiting committees charged with oversight and representatives of the prison authority). Also documents relating to the interface between prison officials and those authorities that managed them (for example, reports of governors, chaplains and surgeons to the Quarter Sessions or to the Home Office) as well as, for local prisons before 1877, documents describing the relationship between the Home Office and the local magistrates. Contracts for the supply of provisions, work materials, etc, made between tradesmen and the magistrates (typically not prison officials) are also included here. Please note: there is some crossover between this category and nearly all that follow.
  • Finance: The financial records for the prison, including, for example, account books and, with regard to local prisons, documents relating to the collection of ‘gaol rates’ from parishes (where these relate to a specific prison). Also included here are financial records relating to the construction or renovation of prison buildings.
  • Rules and Regulations: Sets of rules and regulations compiled for that particular prison.
  • Daily Business: In this category are records which describe the day to day business of the prison, typically journals, ledgers and character books, maintained by prison staff, especially governors, matrons, chaplains and surgeons (but also some by schoolmasters, senior warders and gate keepers). Misconduct and punishment books have been included here, as well as medical records.
  • Staff: Records created by or relating to prison staff, including registers of staff, documents about appointments, salaries, duties, dismissals and pensions, and ‘ego’ documents from personal letters to wills.
  • Prisoners: This category includes two types of records. First, lists of prisoners contained in prison registers and other official documents. Second, records about individual prisoners, from official documents (such as correspondence between officials about specific individuals) to ‘ego’ documents (for example, letters written by prisoners).
  • Land & Buildings: These are records which relate to the ‘physicality’ of the prison, including the land on which the prison was built (deeds, documents relating to sale, questions about boundaries and rights of way), prison buildings (construction, renovation and maintenance), and physical artefacts within prisons (from plans for treadmills and other instruments of hard labour to inventories of furniture).
  • Images: Sketches, paintings, drawings and photographs of the prison, or aspects of the prison, are included in this category.
  • Other: This category is not often used but includes material which does not comfortably fit within the other categories.

For each document in the lists of prison Records, the following information is provided:

  • Catalogue Reference (or Ref): The shelfmark or catalogue number assigned to the piece, file or collection by the repository. You’ll need this if you want to see the original.
  • Collection: The name of the collection to which the piece or file belongs (where available and appropriate).
  • Archive: The name of the repository where the record is located. For a full list of all the repositories searched to create this resource, see Records and Repositories below.
  • Dates: The dates covered by the record.
  • Description: A description of the piece or file, such as ‘Governors’ Journals’, or ‘Prison Register’.

The archival material in the 19th Century Prisons database can also be accessed via ‘Prison Records’ which essentially works on the concept of browsing. Prison Records provides a list of every document, file or collection in the 19th Century Prisons Database. This list can be narrowed by ‘Category’ – the same headings used to organise the records in the prison profiles. Thus it is possible to create, for example, a list of all records that relate to the daily business or staff of prisons in 19th century England.

It is also possible to search for terms in the ‘Description’ field of each record. In this way, it is possible to find, for example, all the surviving prison chaplains’ journals from the 19th century, or to look for specific types of record keeping such as registers or description books.

Headings in the table provide the key information on each record (catalogue ref, archives, dates, etc). It is possible to use the heading ‘Archive’ to sort the material in the list by the repository in which it appears. This also allows the possibility of generating a list of all archival material relating to prisons that exists at a particular archive.

Clicking on a Prison name in the left-hand column will direct you to the entry on that prison in the database (see Individual Prisons above), and from that page it is possible to see all the records associated with a specific institution.

Please note that the primary organisation of the 19th Century Prisons Database by institutions rather than records means that some archival documents which relate to multiple prisons will appear twice in the list of Prison Records. Please bear this in mind if you are interested in the relationship of a document to a particular institution (see the ‘Prison’ column in the table to distinguish). However, documents which relate to more than one category (such as management, daily business, staff, etc) do not appear twice within the record for an institution, and thus not in the browse list either.


The catalogues and collections of the following repositories were searched in detail to create the lists of surviving archival material in the 19th Century Prisons database. In addition, staff at the majority of these repositories were contacted and invited to suggest additional material not yet visible on any electronic catalogues.

Some repositories contained no relevant material but have been included in this list for the sake of comprehensiveness. Similarly, material from other repositories may also appear in the 19th Century Prisons database, having been suggested for inclusion by archivists and researchers, but because these repositories were not systematically searched, they have not been included in the list below.


Repositories searched and/ or contacted for the 19th Century Prisons database

Jump to… A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z