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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.

Prison History marks the first stage in recovering that lost landscape. The idea came from a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) between 2015 and 2018 on ‘Educating Criminals in Nineteenth-Century England’. The core aim of that project was to chart the extent of instruction in the elementary skills, reading, writing, and arithmetic, in the eighty years following the 1823 Gaols Act. In order to do that, it was first necessary to know, as far as possible, what prisons existed in nineteenth-century England. Hence the map, featured on this website, was created.

The second aim of the project was to look at how prisoners were taught their 3Rs. Lists of surviving institutional records were gathered together from public archives up and down the country in order to find accounts of prison schools. Linking individual documents to prisons on the map proved irresistible. So too did the prospect of creating a resource to share with everyone interested in penal history.

In early 2018, funding was provided by both the AHRC and The Open University to transform the database of prisons and their records 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 download the e-book edition, can be found here.

Prison History contains critical information (operational dates, location, jurisdiction, population statistics, and appearances in primary and secondary sources) on, and lists of surviving archives for, 843 English local prisons (418), 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 hope that by making this data available now, we can attract interest and funding for its expansion in the near future, in terms of its institutions, its geography and its time-span. For more information, to suggest improvements, or to tell us how you’re using the data, please get in touch.