About Prison History

Prison History hosts resources created by historians in the Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice at The Open University to further our knowledge of the practice and experience of imprisonment in the British Isles from c.1500 to 1999.

At present, Prison History comprises two datasets. The first, 19th Century Prisons, is a database of institutions used to confine those accused and convicted of crime in England between 1800 and 1899. The second, Local Lock-Ups, is a public engagement project which asks members of the public to contribute details of structures that they know existed in their community which were used to restrain temporarily those accused of crime.

Both datasets derive 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 passage of 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. Next, it was essential to find out what archives survived for each institution.

In early 2018, funding was provided by both the AHRC and The Open University to transform the database of prisons and their records arising from the ‘Educating Criminals’ project into an online resource: 19th Century Prisons. This database 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.

During the creation of 19th Century Prisons, it became apparent that, as far as lock-ups were concerned, we had only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. Moreover, because of the method used for 19th Century Prisons (i.e. official lists) and the time frame (i.e. 1800-99), many of the structures used for temporary confinement in the past which continue to pepper the landscape of twenty-first century Britain were excluded from that initial dataset. Yet these structures, which are often unusual and eye catching, attract the curiosity of locals as well as visitors to communities, and of historians as well as dog walkers. They also present an opportunity to deepen our understanding of criminal justice at the local level.

Thus, in 2019, funding was received from The Open University to develop a new dataset on historic lock-ups in the British Isles. Local Lock-Ups seeks information from members of the public on any surviving or extinct lock-ups in their community that were in use at any time up to the end of the twentieth century. At present, the database contains details – including descriptions and images – of over 500 cells, police stations and stocks (among other structures); with help, we hope to double or triple that number by early 2020. We are also asking for anyone with a particular interest in lock-ups to tell us their stories – about their discovery of their local lock-up; about their use or conversion of an historic lock-up into a heritage site or business; or about how the data collected in Local Lock-Ups has helped to promote a community heritage site or to deepen understanding about the local experience of criminal justice within communities.

19th Century Prisons and Local Lock-Ups are just the starting point for Prison History. Or goal is to continue to develop new datasets which will expand our understanding of the practice and experience of imprisonment in the British Isles. But we can only do that with your help. Please take a look at our resources, make use of our data, let us know how you’re getting on, and suggest improvements – please get in touch.